Apostle of the CactiHow Minerva Hamilton Hoyt Saved the Desert

Minerva Hoyt Mural at the Oasis Visitor Center in Joshua Tree National Park. (Photo credit: Robb Hannawacker/National Park Service)

“I stood and looked. Everything was peaceful, and it rested me.”

So reads the inscribed plaque at Inspiration Point on Quail Mountain, the highest peak in Joshua Tree National Park, California. More than 2.8 million people visit the park every year, and many summit that mountain and read the inscription, but the woman who spoke those words is not widely known. As a country, the United States has canonized the creation of our national parks as a masculine, Gilded Age venture to tame the wild frontier. But it is thanks to the overlooked work of Minerva Hamilton Hoyt that the United States preserved a desert bigger than the state of Rhode Island—a space that is increasingly at risk today.

At nearly 50,000 square miles, the Mojave Desert seems almost indestructible in its vastness, its age-old plant and animal inhabitants inured to the harsh elements. Journalist Harry Carr writes that Joshua trees, a plant species native to the area, “seem to stand there—old and twisted—defying the cruel desert to do its worst.” But though these Seussian trees—named after the Biblical leader by Mormon settlers who noted that the tree’s limbs seemed uplifted in prayer—may be able to withstand their desert environment, they’re no match for human carelessness and cruelty.

On January 25, 2019, the longest government shutdown in U.S. history ended after 35 days. But in Joshua Tree, the ramifications of this funding gap will continue to reverberate for centuries: During the shutdown, visitors vandalized ancient rock formations, chopped down endangered Joshua trees, and destroyed desert foliage while recklessly offroading. With no one to empty them, campsite pit toilets overflowed, and portions of the park were forced to close. The New York Times reports that in just over a month, vandals caused damage that will take hundreds of years to undo.

News of the shutdown’s impact on Joshua Tree infuriated me; as a Southern California native, the park holds a special place in my heart. On biannual camping trips to the park with my dad, I learned how to boulder and spent many balmy afternoons reading in the shade as the wind whistled through the yuccas. I wondered what Minerva Hamilton Hoyt would think about the destruction of the park she helped create. Surely, it would devastate her.

The story of how a Southern belle became a fierce advocate for desert conservation is an unlikely one. In a 1976 article for the Southern California Quarterly, Conner Sorensen describes Hoyt as a large, stately, and cranky woman from a notable Mississippi family, hardly a “weatherbeaten outdoorsman.” When Hoyt and her husband moved to the undeveloped Southern California town of Pasadena in 1896, she assumed the role of society matron: Gloria Harris and Hannah Cohen, the authors of Women Trailblazers of California: Pioneers to the Present, write that Hoyt “developed a talent for organizing charitable events” and embraced civic life. She eventually became president of the Los Angeles Symphony and head of the Boys and Girls Club of Los Angeles; she also “involved herself in gardening clubs,” primarily the Garden Club of America.

“I stood and looked. Everything was peaceful, and it rested me.”

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But as she kept busy building her new community, Hoyt always made time to visit the desert, an alien landscape that fascinated her. After the death of her infant son and her husband in 1918, Joshua Tree was where she found comfort and solace. Hoyt writes in 1931, “During nights in the open, lying in a snug sleeping-bag, I soon learned the charm of a Joshua Forest.” The scent of the California juniper, the primevally eerie night winds, and the site of “bright desert constellations” bewitched her: “This desert…possessed me, and I constantly wished that I might find some way to preserve its natural beauty.”

And she did. Hoyt was alarmed by the rapid growth of the greater Los Angeles area, which brought more and more people—and therefore more automobile traffic—to the Mojave area. Sorensen notes that in the 1920s, collecting “exotic” desert plants became popular; this latest fad in landscaping stripped whole areas bare as collectors transplanted grown palms, barrel cacti, and Joshua trees to their gardens.

The Joshua tree, once deemed “the most repulsive tree in the vegetable kingdom” by John C. Fremont in 1844, was newly appreciated for its austere appearance and referred to as the “Sentinel of the Desert.” But its increasing popularity led to its near-eradication: Sorensen notes that the plant was not only uprooted for its beauty, but also for its pliable wood, which was perfect for splints and Hollywood prop furniture.

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Ephemera from The International Deserts League founded by Minerva Hamilton Holt in March 1930

Ephemera from The International Deserts League founded by Minerva Hamilton Holt in March 1930 (Pasadena Digital History Collaboration)

Hoyt used her wealth and social standing to raise public awareness of these growing threats to the desert. With help from the Garden Club of America, she began staging desert exhibits at flower shows in Boston, New York, and London; and she spoke to women’s clubs and civic organizations to drum up support for desert conservation.

Although at the time it was understood that forest lands needed protection, the desert was still seen as either a wasteland to be avoided or a barrier to be crossed. Sorensen recalls that when Roger W. Toll, Superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, inspected the area with Hoyt in 1934, he jokingly asked her when they would arrive at her “park.” Hoyt replied that Toll needed to learn to recognize natural beauty beyond that found in waterfalls, lakes, and forests. Her work not only led to the preservation of specific areas of land, but also helped transform a generation’s entire attitude toward the desert. After hearing Hoyt speak, Sorensen recalls, one woman asserted: “No one who heard her talk could ever again regard the subject of conservation of desert flora with indifference.”

Building on her award-winning exhibitions, and with support from garden clubs and the scientific community, Hoyt founded the International Deserts Conservation League in March 1930. In response, President Pascual Ortiz Rubio of Mexico announced the creation of a 10,000-acre cactus forest near Tehuacán; it was he who dubbed Hoyt “Apostle of the Cacti.” Next, Hoyt set her sights on creating the preserve that would become Joshua Tree National Park; and she aimed higher than establishing it as a state park. California’s protection of the land wasn’t enough; she wanted a national park.

Americans have mythologized the creation of our national parks as an inherently masculine endeavor.

The election of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932 put Hoyt’s dream within reach. In 1933, California Governor James Rolph, Jr. sent a letter of introduction on behalf of Hoyt to Roosevelt, and she flew to Washington, D.C., to meet with him. In National Parks and the Woman’s Voice: A History, Polly Welts Kaufman states that Hoyt “sat on the White House steps until the president would see her.” Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes, with whom she formed a years-long friendship, greeted her and confirmed, “The President is for this, and I am for it.”

On August 10, 1936, Roosevelt signed a proclamation to establish Joshua Tree National Monument. In 1950, Joshua Tree lost one-third of its acreage due to mining interests, and Kaufman notes that it was thanks to other women that those lands were reclaimed and Joshua Tree was upgraded to a National Park. Kathryn Lacey, legislative aide to Senator Alan Cranston, drafted the original Desert Protection Act in 1986, and Senator Dianne Feinstein steered it through Congress in 1994.

Hoyt is not an anomaly; women have been driving forces behind the creation of many of our national parks. But unlike men such as John Muir and Enos Mills, these women haven’t been immortalized as great champions of the outdoors. Joe Zarki, the former Chief of Interpretation at Joshua Tree National Park, notes Hoyt’s omission from history matter-of-factly: When challenged “to name a woman connected with the founding of a national park,” he says, “not many will recall Minerva Hamilton Hoyt.” (It was Zarki who commissioned a mural of Hoyt at the park’s visitor center and lobbied to name the second-highest peak in Joshua Tree after her, which was accomplished in 2012.)

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Hoyt’s erasure is so predictable because Americans have mythologized the creation of our national parks as an inherently masculine endeavor. Sociologist Michael Kimmel speaks to this point in his book Men & Masculinities, noting that the dismissal of early conservationists as impractical, nature-loving dreamers ( “poetical gentlemen”) changed with the election of President Theodore Roosevelt in 1901. As Kimmel writes, Roosevelt “touted rugged outdoors activities and ‘the strenuous life’ of the ‘frontier’ as ways to regain the lost manliness of American frontiersmen.” The “conservation president” promoted environmental legislation to combat “overcivilization, effeminacy, and physical weakness.” Today, we still tend to view the creation of American national parks through this lens.

It should come as no surprise that women were and still are at the forefront of the environmentalist movement: As the World Health Organization outlined in a 2014 report, women are disproportionately impacted by natural disasters and the first to be deprived of opportunities when resources decline. Much of the modern climate-change movement is led by teen girls who stand on the shoulders of unsung women conservationists. In the tradition of women like Hoyt, and unlike the frontiersmen of the late-19th century, these young women view our environment not as something to conquer, but as something to defend.

As climate change and human activity continue to threaten Joshua Tree, I think of Hoyt, the woman who weaponized garden clubs and women’s organizations to save millions of acres of wilderness. The impact of her work can’t be overstated: It is largely thanks to her activism and indomitable perseverance that we recognize deserts as worthy of saving at all.


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by Rebecca Long
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Rebecca Long is a Boston-based writer, editor, and X-Files enthusiast. You can follow her on Twitter at @bex_long or visit her website.