The earliest people to be active in the area of Joshua Tree National Park most probably found the region to be quite different form the desert landscape that dominates it nowadays. As glaciers melted at the end of the last ice age, drainage in the Pinto Basin supported grasslands that were home to large animals like mammoths, mastodons and even bison. Hunter-gatherers known as the Pinto Culture hunted these beasts for food, leaving behind large caches of stone spearheads and carving tools.
As time passed, the region began to dry out, the large animals began to die out, and native peoples had to adapt. Instead of hunting large game, they hunted smaller animals and began to rely on a diet of seeds and other wild plants that prevailed in the increasingly arid region. Although there’s scant evidence linking the Pinto Culture to the tribes that came to be associated with the area by the time Euro-American explorers arrived, one thing is certain: the desert people knew how to make the most of their surroundings. Where U.S. surveyors saw only rock and scrubland, American Indians saw food and raw materials that were the foundations of their way of life.
But rough terrain didn’t keep new settlers from trying to eke out their own lifestyle in the western desert. Cowboys drove herds seasonally from one area to the next in search of adequate water and pasture. Miners hunted for gold, and later, homesteaders broke ground in the tough land. From 1863 to 1977, U.S. citizens could claim 160-acre parcels of land in the Mojave Desert by building a cabin and an outhouse on it. After 1936, this practice was forbidden in the Joshua Tree National Monument.
While a few wet years in the early 20th century enticed many homesteaders to come and try their luck in the desert, the rains did not last. Most homesteads failed, but the Keys Ranch met with a degree of success — holding out for 60 years before becoming a historic site administered by the National Parks Service. Joshua Tree was elevated to national park status in 1994.