Everyone has a group of people that they turn to as, their pioneers. To me, that group includes Harry Oliver, Randal Henderson, Death Valley Scotty, Seldom Seen Slim and a host of many other great men and women. But truth be told, even these great early desert people had their own pioneers, and one of the earliest was Carl Eytel. Carl was born near Stuttgart Germany on September 12th 1862 and at a very young age became captivated with the American West. At the age of 23, Carl came to the States working as a ranch hand in Kansas, and he also spent 18 months in a slaughterhouse, to study cattle. However, in 1891 he read an article about California and was on his way. He didn’t stay long though, by 1897 he was back in Germany to study art for about 18 months. Once he returned, he worked as a cowboy in order to make ends meet, and by 1903 he was finally made his way to Palm Springs.
At the time, he wasn’t well known and was looked upon as a starving artist, but today many people would view him as one of the original desert rats. He lived in a small shack that he built himself, but mostly slept outside, and most of his travels into the desert was done on foot, covering some 400 miles. In 1903 Carl and fellow desert rat/author J. Smeaton Chase headed out to Colorado Desert and spent the next four years exploring every nook and cranny they could. When Chase published his two volume ” Wonders of the Colorado Desert “, it was full of Eytel’s paintings and illustrations. Carl’s works covered just about everything that has either worked or lived in the desert, from plants and animals, miners and pioneers, Native Peoples, and desert landscapes of all kinds, Carl was one of the first who shared the unknown desert beauty with the world. He was even one of the founding members of the ” Creative Brotherhood” as Peter wild called it.
This Brotherhood was a collection of early desert lovers that included Eytel and Chase, along with Fred Clastworthy, Stephen H. Willard, James Swinnerton, George Wharton James, and Edmund C. Jaeger. They explored, shared information, and photographs with each other, it was a one of the first independent collectives ever assembled in Southern California. According to Jaeger, who ended up having a 30 year local teaching career, the collective lasted from 1915-1923, and ended with the death of Chase. A couple of years later Jaeger would present the eulogy for Eytel. Though the collective had ended, Carl was always looked at as the “spiritual figurehead,” even after most of the them moved away.
Carl stayed and would become a bit of a recluse, with Swinnerton stopping by to visit and bring painting supplies from time to time. Carl was beloved by anyone who met him, especially Native Peoples. In fact, when he passed away in 1925 from tuberculosis, and out of appreciation for all the he did for the Cahuilla nation, he was allowed to be buried at their cemetery in Palm Springs. On a personal side, one of the first books I ever read about the desert was The Wonders of the Colorado Desert, and immediately fell in love with Carl’s work. If you take a moment and try to place yourself into his world, you quickly come to realize that he traveled the desert in a time when there were virtually no roads, no signs, and very little water sources, his commitment was and still is legendary. He literally traveled blind if you will, each and every trip was to be a very unique experience into a land virtually untouched by human hands.
Because of his commitment, his art and illustrations give the modern explorer a glimpse of just how beautiful the desert was over a hundred years ago, and how that same beauty continues to inspire each and every new generation. I will always be grateful to life long devotion that he had made, and thankful that his work is still here to be seen by anyone who loves the desert.
For more about Carl, here are a few places to go
An INCREDIBLE article written by Edmund C. Jaeger, Carl’s friend http://dezertmagazine.com/mine/1948DM09/index.html?pageNumber=14
My old friend Bill Jennings and his article from Desert magazine http://dezertmagazine.com/mine/1978DM09/index.html?pageNumber=12