History Friday: Stranded in the Death Valley

When gold was discovered in the foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada in 1848, it didn’t take very long for word to get out. From the eastern United States, California was then a six-month journey by mule trail or covered wagon over land – that or a long sea voyage around South America, or two sea voyages broken by a short but disease-plagued trek across the narrowest part of Central America. The sea voyage was expense, the overland journey a bit less so – and it probably seemed much more direct, anyway.
Two young Gold Rushers who hit the trail in the spring of 1849 were William Manly and John Rogers; young and adventurous single men who had come by separate means as far as Salt Lake City. Manly already had an eventful trip just getting that far. From an account written much later, he seems to have been a broad-minded optimist, good-humored and above all – adventurous. He and some companions had decided to venture down an uncharted river in canoes – and only an encounter with some helpful Indians prevented them from going all the way – down an uncharted river and into a deep and impassible canyon. With one thing and another, they had arrived too late in the season to consider crossing the Sierras by the Truckee River Pass. This was three years after the Donner Party – which served as a Dreadful Warning to all wagon train parties considering a mountain passage late in the trail season.

Instead, Manly and Rogers hired on as drovers or general hands to a lately-arrived party of emigrants and gold seekers who had sensibly decided to follow what was known as the Old Spanish Trail, which led south from Salt Lake City and then west to Los Angeles; the present-day IH-15 roughly follows this trail. The leaders of the so-called Bennett-Arcane party didn’t want to risk any more peril for their families than they had already. The Old Spanish Trail did cross some considerable stretches of desert, but there were regular sources of water all the way along, and it was quite well-traveled.

Unfortunately, the Bennetts and the Arcanes and their friends were tempted into taking a short-cut – the bane of early wagon train pioneers, and one which usually contributed considerable hardship, if not to their doom. They had a map from a fellow in Salt Lake City who was represented as an expert geographer. As it turned out, he wasn’t – and the seven wagons of the Bennett-Arcane party went off the trail and into an endless and trackless stretch of desert, a valley broken here and there by ranges of steep mountains. By the end of November, 1849, they were across the valley – but nearly out of supplies and had butchered most their draft oxen as they failed, one by one. Fortunately, they had found a small freshwater spring. From there they decided to send for help – and William Manly and John Rogers volunteered … to set out on foot, with only what they could carry. Decades later, Manly set down an account of that journey. “… Mr. Arcane killed the ox which had so nearly failed, and all the men went to drying and preparing meat. Others made us some new mocassins out of rawhide, and the women made us each a knapsack. Our meat was closely packed, and one can form an idea how poor our cattle were from the fact that John and I actually packed seven-eighths of all the flesh of an ox into our knapsacks and carried it away. They put in a couple of spoonfuls of rice and about as much tea … the good women said that in case of sickness even that little bit might save our lives. I wore no coat or vest, but took half of a light blanket, while Rogers wore a thin summer coat and took no blanket. We each had a small tin cup and a small camp kettle holding a quart … They collected all the money there was in camp and gave it to us. Mr. Arcane had about $30 and others threw in small amounts from forty cents upward. We received all sorts of advice. Capt. Culverwell was an old sea faring man and was going to tell us how to find our way back …” There was no need for that; Mr. Bennett had utter faith in Manly’s ability to find his way out of the valley and back.

Rogers had a single shotgun, and Manly borrowed a repeating rifle. They set bravely out, not knowing that they would have to walk 250 miles through the desert before reaching aid. They found the occasional spring of sweet water, but others were contaminated with alkali or salt. “ … Our mouths became so dry we had to put a bullet or a small smooth stone in and chew it and turn it around with the tongue to induce a flow of saliva. If we saw a spear of green grass on the north side of a rock, it was quickly pulled and eaten to obtain the little moisture it contained … Our thirst began to be something terrible to endure, and in the warm weather and hard walking we had secured only two drinks since leaving camp… We tried to sleep but could not, but after a little rest we noticed a bright star two hours above the horizon, and from the course of the moon we saw the star must be pretty truly west of us. … The thought of the women and children waiting for our return made us feel more desperate than if we were the only ones concerned. … I can find no words, no way to express it so others can understand. The moon gave us so much light that we decided we would start on our course, and get as far as we could before the hot sun came out, and so we went on slowly and carefully in the partial darkness, the only hope left to us being that our strength would hold out till we could get to the shining snow on the great mountain before us. We reached the foot of the range we were descending about sunrise. There was here a wide wash from the snow mountain, down which some water had sometime run after a big storm, and had divided into little rivulets only reaching out a little way before they had sunk into the sand.”

With the shotgun and repeating rifle, they were able to hunt for food along the way, but Manly suffered from an injury to one of his legs and could only limp along slowly. He urged Rogers to go ahead alone, Rogers refused, so they went on together. On the last day of December, the two young men finally arrived at Mission San Fernando. With the money they carried, they bought two horses, a mule and sufficient supplies … and returned the way they had come. They had to abandon the horses halfway back, but the mule with the precious supplies was as nimble-footed as a cat on the most treacherous part of their passage. They arrived to find their friends all alive but one; Capt. Culverwell, the seafaring man. The life-saving journey took them twenty-six days, there and back. The Bennetts and Arcanes packed up those valuables left to them on the backs of their surviving oxen and the nimble-footed mule and walked out.
Years later, Manly wrote of the adventure which had tried them all to extreme: “There were peaks of various heights and colors, yellow, blue fiery red and nearly black. It looked as if it might sometime have been the center of a mammoth furnace. I believe this range is known as the Coffin’s Mountains. It would be difficult to find earth enough in the whole of it to cover a coffin. Just as we were ready to leave and return to camp we took off our hats, and then overlooking the scene of so much trial, suffering and death spoke the thought uppermost saying:—”Good bye Death Valley!”

The spring where the party had camped, waiting for the young men’s return is still called Bennett’s Well. It’s at the foot of the Panamint Mountains. Ironically, fifty years later, Death Valley itself would be the focus of the last of the great western gold and silver rushes.

(Manly’s account, Death Valley in 1849 is available as a free eBook from Project Gutenberg, and it is a surprisingly lively read. This entry is cross-posted at my Celia Hayes book blog site.)

12 thoughts on “History Friday: Stranded in the Death Valley”

  1. I wonder how many today (much less 1851) could make that trip with what they had?

    If you go there today you can still see ruts left by wagon wheels.

    Thanks for the story, Sgt

  2. One consequence of the California Gold Rush must have been inflation in the years following 1850. We know prices in the mining camps shot up and also in California towns and cities.

    Inflation is too much money chasing the same amount of goods/services.

    But how fast did the inflation spread east to the Atlantic? Did this gold build the transcontinental railroad?

    And when the gold and silver supply rate of increase topped out in the 1870’s, how much deflation occured and did this deflation help cause social unrest?

    Deflation occurs when there are too many goods/services chasing a static/decreasing supply of money.

    I think the deflation problem was partially handled locally by local banks issuing bank notes as currency (boosting the local money supply).

  3. Thanks as always, Mom. I enjoy your tales of the Old West.
    The wagon wheel ruts of the Oregon Trail are still visible as well. Years ago, I found them in Wyoming, near highway 220 a bit east of the Sweetwater stop, west of Independence Rock. It may be a little easier, now.
    At the Sweetwater, a plaque informs one of the hundreds of unmarked graves scattered underneath the grass one stands on. Fever, wounds and exhaustion brought them there and no further.
    Like Bill, one wonders at the drive, the will to prevail against all that nature and/or man could throw against the pioneers.
    I nurture a theory that civilizations decline when a certain level of relative affluence is reached. The spirit fades, desire wanes and the will softens.
    It is not the sole reason for decline, but it makes the society more vulnerable and less responsive to whatever challenges fate brings.
    If one is not constantly challenging one’s self, eventually everything becomes a challenge.

  4. You’re welcome, guys – Grey E, I have read that the gold and silver mines of California and Nevada definitly helped the North to prosecute the Civil War; that was why the telegraph, the Pony Express and the trans-continental stage lines were pushed through so frantically, just about the time that the war began. And the South seceeding and withdrawing opposition to the all-weather-proof southern route for a trans-continental railway freed the North to pursue the central route, from Omaha, along the Platte, to Salt Lake City and over the Sierras. Which is why construction on the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific (yes, there was a reason it was called that) began when it did.

    Chris – I believe humans (or at least, most of them) crave a challenge. If there is not one handy, many men and women too, will go out and find it; extreme sports of any kind, serving in the military, setting up a mini-business of your own, taking up a not-very-easy hobby. If they cannot find the good kind of challenge, they will default to the bad kind.

  5. Driving the backside of the Sierras on 395 during winter is stunningly beautiful at night with a bright moon. It is a bit surreal; kind of like an eclipse. Also for those of you like me who know only a few words of Spanish besides Cerveza, Vegas means meadow. The area around the Vegas Strip has a high water table and will actually flood quite badly during their rainy season. There is water in the area.

  6. Grey Eagle – the people really making the money in the gold rush were the merchants. If you go outside Sacramento, up the Sierras to the gold rush town (and bedroom communinity of Auburn), head towards Forest Hill nearby is the remains of a town called Michigan Bar.

    Today there are a few modern homes there amid a beautiful little creek – and a plaque – but that is where LeLand Stanford started making his fortune. He had a business partner and he wired him to “buy as many shovels as you can” (back east) and send them here.

    Sgt – forgot to mention in Death Valley – for those who think a mere marathon is for sissies – there is some 130 mile run – if you can believe it.

    Oh, and the stability for the currency? That is why Nevada was rushed into the Union – I love the history of Virginia City – at one time the richest town in America and like Manaus on the Amazon, they had world class performers at their opera house (Pipers)

  7. “….or two sea voyages broken by a short but disease-plagued trek across the narrowest part of Central America. ”

    Lieutenant Ulysses S. Grant was re-assigned to the west coast, describes the trip with 8 companies of the 4th infantry: He was quartermaster and they left New York in early July 5, 1852. Grant had wisely sent his wife back west to his parents but some women (and children) accompanied their husbands. Rain, heat, and logistical delays mostly caused by a local contractor (who couldn’t or wouldn’t perform with respect to animal transport) slowed the soldiers and eventually cholera slowed them even more. By mule, trekking, large native poled boats, and a river boat they slowly made their way.

    In the end they arrive at San Fransisco in early September. Grant said that 1 out of 7 (100 soldiers of 700) “….with the 4th infantry lie buried on the Isthmus of Panama….”. At one point he sends the healthy soldiers west in Panama and he stays behind with the “sick and the soldiers that had families”. Of those 1/3 perished. He gives no overall accounting for non-soldiers.

    The trip from New York took 8 days and they embarked for San Fran in “late August” so perhaps 18 days were spent at sea and some 40 days in the steamy jungle.

    From the “Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant” (also downloaded from the Gutenberg Library).

  8. I used to camp in the Panamint Mountains. To get there in 1959, you drove through the Mojave Desert and there were many ghost towns. I remember walking through one and going into an abandoned saloon. The pool tables and bar were still there. Years later, Knott’s Berry Farm dragged the ghost towns into Orange County and built a phony ghost town.

    Panamint Valley was in the midst of the mountains and a spring was located about half way up the valley. We camped near the spring and listened to thousands of frogs peeping as it was Easter Week. There were old buildings there and I have forgotten the name of the area. Finally, we drove up the narrow valley to Panamint City, at the top. From one point you could look down into Death Valley. There were still a few houses in Panamint City that were occupied, mostly by owners of uranium mines.

    Ballarat was one of the ghost towns we passed going up there. The canyon is so narrow that, at that time, a car could barely get through. Jeeps were recommended. When the silver mines were working, and the smelter was going, they would cast the silver into one ton ingots to foil the robbers in the canyon. The wagon would haul the ingot to the coast near Ventura where it would be loaded into a ship and taken to San Francisco. LA and San Diego were pretty small at that time.

    My future father-in-law, who was with us, had a close friend who had a gold mine a canyon or two over from the canyon to Panamint City. He and three other guys owned the claim and worked the mine as a hobby. Private ownership of gold was still illegal at the time and I don’t know how they dealt with that. I wonder who has it now with gold at $1500. ? Panamint City was a silver mine location but there is gold in those hills.

    Silver Stampede is a book that tells the story. I wonder if it has changed much ?

  9. “Grey Eagle – the people really making the money in the gold rush were the merchants. If you go outside Sacramento, up the Sierras to the gold rush town (and bedroom communinity of Auburn), head towards Forest Hill nearby is the remains of a town called Michigan Bar.”

    Found it, looks like from Google maps there is still mining in the area.

    The funny thing is that the silver pulled out of Virginia City is probably just as responsible as anything for the success of the Bay Area. Plus, the Central and Southern Pacific were the only government subsidized railroads not to actually go bankrupt. During the tech bubble, what was the saying? Picks and shovels rather than consumer internet stocks?

  10. “The funny thing is that the silver pulled out of Virginia City is probably just as responsible as anything for the success of the Bay Area.”

    This is part of the history of Mission Viejo where I have lived for 40 years. Richard O’Neill and Jim Flood were Irish immigrants and friends. Flood owned a saloon across from the Pacific Stock Exchange in San Francisco. One day he learned that silver had been discovered in a played out gold mine.

    In 1857 James Flood opened a saloon with partner William S. O’Brien on Washington street in San Francisco. In 1858 they sold the saloon and went into business as stockbrokers. After the discovery of silver in Nevada in 1859, the partners began investing in mining stocks. The following year, Flood and O’Brien formed a partnership with fellow Irishmen James Graham Fair, a mine superintendent, and John William Mackay, a mining engineer. None of the four had impressed themselves on others than their immediate circle of friends and acquaintances until some time in the seventies they joined forces in operating the Consolidated Virginia and the California claims in the Comstock Lode.

    From that time on finance more than mining engaged Flood’s time, and much of his wealth went into real estate. Dissension and an ill-fated attempt to corner the world wheat market in 1887 cost the firm millions.

    Flood’s interest in “finance” led him to a deal with his friend Richard O’Neill.
    Pio Pico was the last Mexican governor of California. His sons were gamblers and wastrels. O’Neill happened upon the chance to buy their land grant for pennies on the dollar. Flood loaned the money and they bought “Rancho Santa Margarita.”

    From Wikipedia

    The Mexican governors carved the area around the mission into three large ranchos: Rancho Trabuco, Rancho Mission Viejo, and Rancho Santa Margarita. James L. Flood and his partner Jerome O’Neill purchased the combined ranchos in 1882. The huge estate was run as a working ranch into the 1920s. In 1940, the ranch was divided, with the Flood family taking the lower portion, in today’s San Diego County, with the upper portion retained by the O’Neill family. In 1942, the Navy annexed the Flood family’s portion of the ranch for use as Camp Joseph H. Pendleton.

    In 1948, the O’Neill family donated 278 acres of canyon bottom land to the County of Orange for park purposes. The O’Neill family donated an additional 120 acres of parkland in 1963, the same year they founded the Mission Viejo Company and drew up plans for a master-planned community of the same name.

    The Flood family sold the southern part of the ranch to the Marine Corps and the old ranch house is the Commanding General’s residence at Pendleton.

    The northern half, extending from El Toro to San Clemente, was later developed by O’Neill’s sister’s sons, Anthony Moiso and his brother. Further north, James Irvine bought another huge land grant ranch and developed that.

  11. Bob – originally, most of Nob Hill had mansions of Virginia City Silver barons. Adolph Sutro – interesting story – during Virginia City’s heyday, Sutro wanted to build a tunnel though the mountain – a huge engineering undertaking, and end up in Dayton. If you ever drive “up the hill” to Virginia City – there are a lot of twists and turns – this tunnel would have saved a tremendous amount of time getting the silver Ore out to the Carson Valley.

    Only trouble was by the time it was finished the silver production was declining (as an aside it is estimated there is still 90% silver there – it is just getting it – and the towns people don’t want strip mines).

    Anyway to make some money off the tunnel Sutro sold it as just transportation

    You would take a mine elevator at Virginia City – go down 5,000′ – and catch a passenger car where it would take you through the mountain.

    Lots of stories about Virginia City.

  12. Sgt. Mom,

    You can also still see ruts along places along the old Butterfield stage route in West Texas. A long deceased uncle told me about them and he actually showed me one place where the ruts were still there near the Pecos River.

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