Joseph Beresford, son of a British Lord, fell in love with the gardener’s daughter. His father, whose lineage went back to James I, gave him an ultimatum: marry beneath your rank and lose your inheritance. Joseph chose love. His father not only disowned him, he gave Joseph a small sum of money and banished him from England forever.
As they sailed to America in the late 1860s, Joseph assured his bride he’d strike gold in California. They would return in such high style that all the Beresfords — including a nephew who became Lord Mayor of London — would embrace them.
By the time they reached Yuma, the Beresfords had two daughters. As they watched rope-pulled ferries cross the muddy Colorado, Joseph heard tales of lost treasure.
Thomas L. “Peg Leg” Smith, a mountain man who died in 1866, allegedly discovered “fabulous wealth” near three small buttes, three days west of the river. Most prospectors assumed that meant around Borrego Springs. But a self-proclaimed insider said no: the buttes, and nuggets the size of oranges, lay near a great mountain northwest of the desert.
The family had become so accustomed to hardship, they eagerly traversed the arid wasteland in 110-degree heat. To avoid human contact, they skirted the Southern Emigrant Trail Camp at Warner’s Ranch, and continued beyond Hot Springs Mountain, the highest peak in San Diego County. They ascended into Lost Valley. A few days later, they headed west, toward Palomar.
One cold evening, somewhere on the eastern slope, Joseph found an abandoned adobe structure near a flowing spring. Except for a fireplace and a tall pile of straw, the single room was empty. While he started a fire, his wife and daughters made straw beds on the dirt floor — and soon fell asleep.
Joseph went out to care for the horses and rustle up firewood. He heard shouts, then sky-piercing shrieks. He raced back inside. Rattlesnakes, which had crawled into the straw for warmth, shook staccato clacks and struck and struck the women like punching fists.
Joseph grabbed a large stick and slashed with swift and terrible fury. But every time he killed one, another twitching tongue emerged from the straw. He pounded their hard, triangular heads, or speared and flung them at the walls.
Joseph was enough of a pioneer to know that, to make sure you don’t step near a sharp fang by accident, you kill a rattlesnake twice. He dragged each one outside and chopped off its head. When he was done, 16 California black rattlers lay just beyond the door.
The screams abated. Bit countless times, his wife and daughters were either dead or dying. The next day, he buried them.
Joseph became known as “the hermit of Smith’s mountain” (Palomar’s early name). In the words of long-time resident Robert Asher, he was one of the region’s “forlornlites.” He’d sometimes wave to passers-by, even let himself be photographed, but kept away from people.
Two legends grew. In the 1870s he raised sheep, he said, “because there was nothing else to do.” When sheepherding declined — cattlemen wanted the bunchgrass-rich valleys for their herds — Joseph had no visible means of support. Yet he remained on the mountain for decades. To this day, many believe he used Palomar as a base, made frequent forays throughout the region, and actually found the lost treasure.
“On the past he does not dwell,” wrote Guy O. Glazier in the early 1920s. “Still I verily believe that Joseph Beresford, reportedly heir to an English name and fortune, is living on gold taken from the mythical Peg Leg mine.”
The second legend is actual fact. Palomar Mountain has surprisingly few rattlesnakes. That’s because for over 50 years, Joseph Beresford hunted down and slaughtered every rattler he could find.
Sisters of Solitude
Maybe they weren’t lonely. Maybe that’s just a flatlander’s citified view of two women who fled from human contact. But long-time residents of the mountain ponder the Frazier sisters’ profound seclusion. Edward Davis, who knew the “modest, retiring ladies,” said, “I often wonder what these women got out of life.”
Jim Frazier came to Palomar with his invalid wife and young daughter. He bought the old Morrison property and planned to raise hogs and cattle. The small, southwest-facing cabin stood on a promontory — today’s Frazier Point — below the snow-line, with an expansive view of San Diego County.
Jim’s wife died shortly after they moved in. He wrote his sisters, Mariah and Lizzie. Come west, he urged them. Help care for the child.
The sisters had a small farm near the Illinois/Missouri border. Mariah was tall and thin, a “handsome young woman,” writes Marion F. Beckler, “with personality and sparkle.” Petite Lizzie was much more withdrawn and “never very robust.” Both were dressmakers, “neat as a pin,” who enjoyed refined living. They sold everything and made the trek in 1895. Not wanting to be left alone, their mother joined them.
Jim drove his two-mule spring wagon to meet them in San Diego. He had awkward news: he’d married a woman with two children. He moved his new family to the east end of Mendenhall Valley (southeast of Palomar Observatory), where he’d built a cabin and barn. The cabin was cramped for five people and way too small for eight. His mother and sisters could return to Illinois or live somewhere nearby.
Mariah and Lizzie decided to stay. They rented the old Wolfe place in Mendenhall. A curse, some said, hung over the abandoned cabin: Wolfe, an ex-stage driver, fell in love with a married, red-headed woman. Her husband, also an ex-driver, shot and killed Wolfe, then left the region.
Shortly after moving in, the Fraziers’ mother died.
The sisters decided to homestead a canyon-like property at the edge of Barker Valley. To make a trail up to Jim’s house, a good 2000 feet higher in elevation, they chopped down swaths of manzanita, thick acacia bushes, and poison oak. They rolled boulders to the side, first making sure no scorpions or rattlesnakes lurked in the shadows. Then, with pick and shovel, they graded the steep path.