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Biological Survey


THE MAKING OF AN EXPEDITION: The Inspiring Story Behind "The Devil's Road"

On a hot summer day in 1891, a black-bearded man driving a buckboard lumbered down a dusty dirt road in the San Joaquin Valley of California. He had just completed a scientific expedition into Death Valley and crossed over the Sierra Nevada near Yosemite. A broken singletree on his wagon forced him to stop at a nearby ranch in search of needed repairs. His name was Edward William Nelson and he was a field naturalist working for the United States Bureau of Biological Survey. Mr. Jacob Goldman, the owner of the ranch, took a keen interest in the work Mr. Nelson was assigned. The two gentleman instantly realized their shared mutual interest in the natural world.

After Nelson mentioned his need for an assistant, Jacob Goldman offered, “Maybe my son, Edward, would do?” By chance, Mr. Goldman’s eldest son, Edward Alphonso Goldman, was just the person Nelson had been looking for. The elder Goldman quickly fetched his eldest son, who was at the time employed as a foreman in a vineyard near Fresno, California. The rest, as they say, is history.

On October 10, 1891, young Edward Alphonso Goldman, then 18 years old, rode off under the employ of Edward William Nelson as his field assistant. Their first assignment was to last three months and would entail a survey of the southern San Joaquin Valley and southern coast of California. Upon completion of that detail, the two men were then dispatched to another assignment. On January 24, 1892 the two naturalists landed in Manzanillo, Mexico, in the state of Colima. Their assignment was again to last three months. Instead, this assignment lasted fourteen years, ultimately resulting in a survey of every state and territory from coast to coast. Their last assignment through Lower California, now known as Baja California, was in 1905 and 1906.

Goldman and Nelson compiled impressive resumes during their field work in Mexico. They traveled by rail, stage, steamer, schooner, wagon, mule, horseback, and by foot, all while camping much of the time. Together they collected 17,400 mammals, 12,400 birds, countless plant specimens, and amassed an enormous fund of information on the natural history of the country. These specimens were sent to the Smithsonian Institution and ultimately included several hundred specimens of plants and animal that were previously unknown to science.

Edward William Nelson (left) and Edward Alphonso Goldman (right)

President Theodore Roosevelt praised Edward William Nelson that he was, “one of the keenest naturalists [he has] ever met and a man of singularly balanced development.” And the work that the two naturalist did in Mexico has been described as “among the most important ever achieved by two workers for any single country.” 

The names and works of pioneers like Nelson and Goldman have been long forgotten by the few and unknown to the many. To most, Baja is an unforgiving wasteland of desert, cactus, and banditos. While some of that may be true, it is also a wildflower-strewn, sandy-beached, high mountain-ranged oasis with remarkable plants and incredible wildlife, some found only in this region. Such is the case with the Sierra San Pedro Martir, where several feet of snow falls each winter, the California Condor soars its skies, and its waters host the only native trout on the Baja peninsula, the Nelson’s trout (Salmo nelsoni, renamed in 1989 to Oncorhynchus mykiss nelsoni) named in honor of Edward W. Nelson. And near the old ruins of the mission Santa Gertrudis, is a 5,000-foot mountain that rises above others, Goldman Peak, Edward A. Goldman’s namesake.

These fascinating facts and incredible historical accounts have enticed a filmmaking team to dig into the Smithsonian Archives, dust off the history books, and set off on an expedition to follow Nelson and Goldman’s historic 1905 and 1906 expedition route. 

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