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Death Valley '49er Trails & How Artifacts Can Confound Unwary

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     Everyone loves a good story, and—sad to say—the quest for a good story can lead historians astray.

     In a recent exposé of Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki research, Richard Conniff said:

The trouble with a good story is that it has a way of distorting the facts: we see what we want to see and close our eyes to everything else…. [And] a good story can be so compelling that teller and subject become entrapped together in its charms.

     Conniff's article casts serious doubt on Heyerdahl's subsequent findings that evolved from his monumental odyssey aboard the balsa-log raft Kon-Tiki. In 1947, he sailed her from Peru to French Polynesia across 4,300 miles of ocean and then orchestrated data to support his hypothesis that New World Indians populated Polynesia.

     Researchers formulate hypothesis when they attempt to solve a problem. A hypothesis "is a logical supposition, a reasonable guess, an educated conjecture" (Leedy 1980: 5 & 61). Once a historian has formulated a hypothesis he or she must objectively collect data and aggressively try to falsify your hypothesis.

     If you cannot falsify it, possibly you have not found the requisite data—keep looking. After you make repeated attempts to falsify your hypothesis and it still stands, you will feel safe in provisionally believing your "educated conjecture." Rest assure, once you are reasonably convinced your hypothesis is sound and you publish it or present it at a conference, there are scads of other researchers who will aggressively try to falsify your hypothesis.

      During your trail research, always remember this admonishment of Professor Leady (1980: 131):

"One of the marks of the immature researcher is that, bewildered by many data he must handle or dazzled by a newly emerging concept, he makes extravagant claims or reaches enthusiastic conclusions that are not warranted by the data."

     Someone once said: "If you believe; it is true." Truth in historical research must not and cannot be based on the phrase: History is a myth agreed upon. Sadly, Death Valley's history is replete with myths that are too often accepted as facts. This stems from a human desire for a "good story" or a tantalizing myth rather than a true story. The following three examples demonstrate how artifacts were melded into a myth.

In this presentation I follow Webster's definition of artifact:

Artifact is an object made by human work. (In common parlance: Derived from the hand of man.)

     Thus William B. Rood's two rock inscriptions in Death Valley, Wheeler's map of the Death Valley area, and a trunk full of antiques found in Death Valley are artifacts.

     In the introduction of each of these examples, I paraphrased Conniff's quotation about a "good story" to make it relevant to the example at hand. These examples are selected to show how three trail researchers reached "conclusions that are not warranted by the data."  


     Argonauts who arrived in Salt Lake City late in 1849 were fearful of attempting a Sierra Nevada crossing—the horrors of the Donner Party were fresh in their minds. And, some of the Argonauts were short of rations. The new Mormon community of Salt Lake City did not have sufficient vittles to tide these emigrants over the winter so Captain Jefferson Hunt, a Mormon, agreed to lead 107 wagons southwesterly over a trail he helped pioneer that ended in Los Angeles.

     When the Hunt train reached southwestern Utah, it split up. On November 2, one hundred wagons headed directly west (from near today's Enterprise, Utah). All but twenty-seven wagons returned to the Old Spanish Trail and followed Captain Hunt to California. These adventurous—and foolhardy—emigrants were following the mythical "Walker's cut off" to the gold fields that would save them 500 miles and a month of travel. Eventually, after extreme hardships along the mythical trail, they blundered into Death Valley during Christmas week. William B. Rood (also spelled Rude and Roods) was a member of this group that eventually became known as the Death Valley '49ers. The sub-group he belonged to called themselves Jayhawkers.


     In early summer 1936, Tom Wilson (a Panamint Shoshone) led "Rocky" Cochran and "Buddy" Wells into a nameless canyon in the Panamint Range so they could see where Tom obtained water for his horses. At the small spring, one mile from the mouth of the canyon, they found inscribed on a large basalt boulder "1849 W.B.R." The "W.B.R." stood for William B. Rood, a member of the Jayhawker faction of the Death Valley '49ers.

     Carl I. Wheat, in his Trailing the Forty-Niners through Death Valley (1939:18) proclaimed "here, then, was the long-sought proof of the actual route of at least one of the Jayhawkers." Also near the rock Rood inscribed is a gigantic basalt boulder where James Hitchens pecked "J. Hitchens 1860." Hitchens was a member of the Darwin French prospecting party seeking the fabled Lost Gunsight Lead. Soon the canyon and the spring were officially named for the Jayhawkers—Jayhawker Canyon and Jayhawker Spring. Two years after finding the first Rood inscription, two National Park employees discovered a second boulder that Rood inscribed. It is located beside an ancient Indian trail that goes north from Jayhawker Canyon into an unnamed canyon then continues more or less on the contour into Lemoinge Canyon. On this boulder he pecked "W. B. Roods 1849."

     The Jayhawkers burned their wagons in Death Valley at McLean Spring, near a place now called Jayhawker Well, six miles southeast of the Sand Dunes. Rood was a member of this party. When they left the well they packed on their backs and the backs of their oxen a few items they would need for a forced march to civilization. Some of the men even left their pistols and rifles, deeming them too heavy to carry. A few of the Jayhawkers thought the range before them—the Panamint Range—was the Coast Mountains pictured on Fremont's map and, if so, the fertile fields of California were just over the mountain. Others thought the Panamint Range was the Sierra Nevada.

     The two rocks Rood inscribed in the Panamint Range overlooking Death Valley are examples of seeing "what we want to see … [and closing] our eyes to everything else." These rocks and Wheeler's map became the foundation for a myth that stood for twenty-three years.

     These two inscriptions are skillfully pecked; therefore, I hypothesize Rood inscribed them with a hammer and chisel. It is highly unlikely—in fact, highly improbable—Rood would have carried heavy tools as part of his personal equipment during his life-saving march out of Death Valley in December 1849.

     Rood returned to Death Valley in 1869, twenty years after his hurried exodus from the valley. He was with a small party of prospectors hunting for the Lost Gunsight Lead. This mythical lead is based on a single float of silver ore one of the '49ers found as he marched out of Death Valley. When he got to civilization, he had it carved into a gun sight to replace the missing one on his rifle. This single float is the foundation of the legendary Lost Gunsight Lead. Rood also tried to find a cache of gold coins he and his traveling companions buried when they left Death Valley. He found neither the lode nor the cache.

     One of Rood's prospecting companions, George Miller, documented this trip in an article that was published fifty years later. Nowhere in this article does Miller mention these inscriptions. Even so, I've made a "logical supposition" that Rood inscribed these rocks in 1869 rather than in 1849. When Rood saw Hitchens' inscription dated 1860, he probably said to himself, "Hey, wait a minute. I was in this area in 1849 and should be given credit for my earlier presence." So he grabbed his prospector's hammer and chisel and pecked out "1849 W.B.R." The second inscription was probably pecked when his party stopped along the trail for lunch.

     Can I falsify this hypothesis? No, I cannot; nor can I prove it. But given the location of the "W. B. Roods 1849" inscription it is extremely unlikely Rood would have gone there during a forced march over the Panamint Range.

     The two Rood rocks have befuddled trail buffs and historians since the 1930s. These two rocks coupled with Wheeler's 1877 map became a classic example of historians closing their "eyes to everything else." 


     A faulty interpretation of the Wheeler's 1877 map is an exquisite example of how a "good story … has a way of distorting the facts: [and how some people] see what … [they] want to see and close … [their] eyes to everything else."

     The first detailed map of the Death Valley region was made by 1st Lieutenant George M. Wheeler and published in 1877. He directed a reconnaissance of the Southwest, and his report and maps contributed immensely to our understanding of the region.

    Wheeler's map is amazingly accurate. By enlarging his map and overlaying it on a modern map, landmarks like Towne Pass, Star of the West Hill, Wildrose Spring, and Telescope Peak are virtually the same points on his 1877 map and on modern maps.

     However, on Wheeler's map, a "Pinto Pk." is labeled north of his "Town's Pass"; whereas, Pinto Peak on today's maps is south of Towne Pass (Johnsons 1987b).

     Pinto Peak becomes a pivotal landmark as I shall explain. Its location in relation to other landmarks, such as Towne Pass is crucial to analyzing the route taken by the Jayhawkers and the Brier family when they crossed the Panamint Range west of Death Valley.

     While the Jayhawkers were burning their wagons at Jayhawker Well, Reverend Brier and his family caught up with them; the Briers had abandoned their wagon in western Nevada. The Jayhawkers reluctantly let the Briers travel with them as they trekked to Rancho San Francisco, near today's Castaic Junction. Also with this group was a man named William B. Robinson (who purportedly left a trunk on the western slope of Pinto Peak, more on him later).

     In 1873 Reverend Brier returned to Death Valley guiding a party searching for the Lost Gunsight Lead. Three years later he wrote a letter and said: "At our old Camp in Town's Pass where we melted snow I found a Butcher Knife" (In: Johnsons 1987a: 177). Juliet Brier (1901) said she and her family "crossed the Telescope Range [Panamint Range] by Towne's Pass." An "educated conjecture" is they were both referring to today's Towne Pass.

     So where is Towne Pass? Is the Towne Pass mentioned by the Briers north or south of today's Pinto Peak? If you hypothesize Wheeler's "Pinto Pk." is the same as today's Pinto Peak, then it follows that the Briers and their traveling companions exited the valley south of today's Pinto Peak.

     Two widely published trail buffs have concluded none of the Death Valley '49ers escaped from Death Valley via today's Towne Pass, which is north of today's Pinto Peak. Embodied in their conclusion is the 'Towne Pass Myth.'

     George Koenig (1964: 6-7) was the first to contend the Towne Pass mentioned by the Briers was south of today's Pinto Peak: "Popularly, the emigrants exited [Death Valley] via present day Towne Pass. But this 'ain't necessarily so'; for Lt. Wheeler's … [1877 map shows] Towne Pass as [being] south, not north, of Pinto Peak" (emphasis his).

     Twenty years later Koenig (1984: 124 & 127) reinforced his contention by saying, "Lt. Wheeler's … mapping [of] Towne Pass is shown south of Pinto Peak rather than where it is known today" (emphasis his). He continued by saying "the one [canyon] to the south of … [Pinto] peak would likely offer the best of optional descents. This gains support from Lt. Wheeler's mapping of 'Town [sic] Pass' just south of Pinto Peak."

     Then again, two years later, Koenig (1986: 99) enhances the Towne Pass myth by saying: "Of particular interest …. [is Wheeler's] mapping of Town's Pass south of Pinto Peak, cluing the '49er escape route south of the presently designated [Towne] pass" (emphasis his).

     Fourteen years after Koenig first put forth the argument that Towne Pass of yore was south of today's Pinto Peak, John Southworth parroted Koenig. Southworth (1978: 106) says, "[T]he Wheeler Report of 1877 mapped its [Towne Pass] location south of [today's] Pinto Peak."

     Koenig wrote a review of Southworth's book (1978 & 1986: back cover). In it he said Southworth's "iconoclastic shattering of the Towne Pass myth as the escape route … [of the '49ers is] an excellent addition" to the Death Valley literature (emphasis mine).

     Because Reverend and Juliet Brier said they left Death Valley via Towne Pass, both Koenig and Southworth concluded the Briers crossed the Panamint Range south of today's Pinto Peak-the headwater of Jayhawker Canyon. Thus, the Briers and the Jayhawkers, which included Rood and Robinson, went by Jayhawker Spring where the "1849 W.B.R." inscription is located. Southworth has the Brier family crossing the pass and continuing southward down an unnamed canyon and he has the Jayhawkers going to the summit of Pinto Peak, thence directly west. These conclusions are predicated on the contention that Wheeler's "Town's Pass" is south of today's Pinto Peak.

     How did Wheeler's 1877 map come to show "Town's Pass" south of "Pinto Pk."? The original hand-drawn base map for Wheeler's published map is housed in the National Archives, Washington D.C. There is no Pinto Peak designated on this map. However, north and west of "Town's Pass" is inscribed "Pinto or Calico Mounts."—meaning a range of mountains, not a single mountain. The superscript "s" designating "Mountains" is small, it is possible the cartographer who prepared the map for publication misunderstood the Wheeler's intention and the cartographer designated the nearby peak "Pinto Pk." Thus, Wheeler's published map has "Pinto Pk." north of "Town's Pass."

     Today's Pinto Peak is not the "Pinto Pk." shown on Wheeler's map. This cartographic artifact beckoned Koenig and Southworth up the wrong canyon and became the foundation of a myth that stood for twenty-three years.

     By the way, the name "Pinto Peak" mysteriously moved to its present location in 1908. The latitude and longitude of Wheeler's "Town's Pass" are virtually identical to those of Towne Pass on modern maps. Therefore, Wheeler did not map Towne Pass south of today's Pinto Peak.

     The Brier family and the Jayhawkers exited Death Valley via today's Towne Pass (Johnsons 1987b). 


     The old trunk found in the Panamint Range is a classic example of how a "good story … has a way of distorting the facts: [and how some people saw what they wanted to see and closed their eyes] … to everything else."

     Jerry Freeman had been researching the route the Brier family took into and out of Death Valley. Jerry, his two daughters, and two of his friends were tracing the Brier trail from Enterprise, Utah to Barrel Spring—at the southern edge of the Mohave Desert—four miles southeast of Palmdale, California.

     On November 22, 1998, while on a solo scouting trip on the western flank of Pinto Peak, Death Valley National Park, Jerry discovered a small trunk in a shallow cave (Johnson 1999). Jerry opened the trunk, and based on a letter and a manifest he found in the trunk, he concluded William B. Robinson stashed the trunk on January 2, 1850. Robinson—as I mentioned earlier—was a Jayhawker. They abandoned their wagons at Jayhawker Well; this cave is almost twenty-four 'crow miles' southwest of the well.

     The trunk (31 in. long, 12.75 in. high & 10.5 in. wide) was filled with an eclectic array of seemingly pre-1849 items: gold, silver, and copper coins (face value about $48.27), a doll, two tintype photographs, a flint lock pistol, a shroud or table cloth, a pair of worn-out baby shoes, two ceramic bowls, a brass bowl, two books, the optical portion from a surveying instrument, two powder horns, a drinking (?) horn-cup, a small gold (?) and pearl pin, a key chain with key, a leather-covered metal canteen (?), a small leather pouch, and a jug shaped basket. Also Jerry found a letter and a manifest purportedly written by William B. Robinson before he stashed the trunk.

     Robinson did not survive his desert ordeal; he died at Barrel Spring on January 28, 1850.

     John Southworth had mentored Jerry. Shortly before Jerry discovered the trunk, he and his filmmaker friend interviewed Southworth on camera. Some compelling force drove Jerry to explore the western flank of Pinto Peak. In part he was driven by Southworth's analysis of the Jayhawkers' escape route that is predicated on his faulty interpretation of Wheeler's map (Johnsons 1987b and see: Southworth 1978: 106).

     To make a long story short, Jerry left the trunk in the cave and on Christmas Eve Day, 1998, thirty-three days after he discovered it, he and his hiking team "discovered" the trunk as they descended Pinto Peak. They were following the Jayhawker route John Southworth published in his book Death Valley in 1849 (1978: 48).

     Jerry and his hiking companions removed the trunk from the cave and took it home for "safe keeping." On New Year's Day, 1999 the Antelope Valley Press proclaimed in a front page article: "Treasure Found on '49er Trail." The news of this fabulous and miraculous discovery immediately found its way into most major newspapers throughout the free world. Jerry Freeman was interviewed on Good Morning America and he said—thinking he was quoting one of the Jayhawkers—he found the trunk on the "highest rafter of the roof of hell."

     Newspaper and television reporters clambered to interview Jerry. They immediately grabbed and ran with the story-without bothering to see if the 'treasure trove' was authentic. (They were apparently looking for some relief from the President Clinton impeachment proceedings, which had occupied the news media ad nauseam.)

     Jerry was going to return the trunk to the Park Service during a press conference at Barrel Spring but decided to personally deliver the trove to the park superintendent in Death Valley on January 5, 1999.

     Before the Park Service rendered an opinion as to the authenticity of the trunk and its contents, Richard Lingenfelter proclaimed the find a hoax. The hoaxter used the word "grub stake" on the manifest, a word that had not been coined until later in the gold rush. This would be equivalent to claiming you had a letter from the 1950s with "cyberspace" in it.

     Following Lingenfelter's disclosure, the Park Service issued a cautiously worded press release casting serious doubt on the validity of the find. Over the next few weeks numerous anachronisms in the trunk were revealed, but the most blatant was an 1853 gold coin that the hoaxter defaced in an amateurish attempt to make it look like an 1843 or earlier coin (Johnson 2001b). There were also two tintype photographs in the trunk. The tintype photographic process was patented in 1856 (Johnson 1999).

     There is no question, and almost everyone now agrees, the trunk is a hoax. Yet some doggedly believe the trunk is authentic. One of these believers is John Southworth; he fervently maintains Robinson left the trunk on Pinto Peak on January 2, 1850. The hoaxter who planted the trunk did such a superficial job putting the cache together, the resurrected Towne Pass Myth stood for only four weeks.

     Southworth privately printed an eighteen-page booklet titled The Robinson Cache on Pinto Peak: Its Fascinating Story Brought Up to Date detailing his hypothesis ([2001]). In this booklet he attempts to rationalize the anachronisms in the trunk by postulating Robinson's traveling companions carried the trunk out to civilization and turned it over to his relatives who "requested its return to the mountain as a lasting memorial" to Robinson.

     With fervor, Jerry Freeman said he would go to his grave believing Robinson left the trunk in the cave. He did. Jerry, at age 58, died March 20, 2001. 


     The Towne Pass Myth stood for twenty-three years, but in 1987 that myth was demolished (Johnsons 1987b). The discovery of a bogus 1849er trunk temporarily resurrected the myth.

     Researching the wagon and foot trails used by the Death Valley '49ers is particularly challenging. Aside from an 1849 inscription in Nye Canyon, Nevada, there is no discernable physical evidence we can use to identify the Brier-Jayhawkers trail. Fortunately there are two Jayhawker diaries in the Huntington Library, San Marino, California, but unfortunately neither is very detailed. William Lewis Manly and Jayhawker Lorenzo Dow Stephens each wrote a book describing their travails into and out of Death Valley. These reminiscences, particularly the Stephens book, are not always accurate. Thus, when tracing the Brier-Jayhawkers and the trails of their companions, we must rely on first hand memoirs that were written twenty to fifty years after the fact and on anecdotal information like Miller's article mentioned earlier.

     Even so, there is a fair amount of information we can use to make reasonable inferences as to their trails. The entrance and escape routes the Death Valley '49ers used have been, and always will be, subjects of intense debates.

     We trail researchers must carefully scrutinize all data before incorporating it into the foundation of our own research. The same research rules and guiding principles used in science must be used in historical trail research. We must rigorously challenge each hypothesis, and if it cannot stand, we must reject it or formulate a new hypothesis.

     The late Professor Richard Marius, of Harvard University, left some sound advice for all of us who are tracing emigrant trails (1999: 48):

Skepticism is one of the historian's finest qualities. Historians don't trust their sources, and they don't trust their own first impressions. They question everything…. They do their best to argue against their own points of view to see if their views can withstand opposition…. [G]ood historians are willing to question all the evidence and all the assumptions, and in the end question themselves rigorously…. Nothing is quite so destructive to a historian's reputation as to present conclusions that prove gullibility, laziness, or the unwillingness to ask questions that make the data provide real insight into the meaning of the past.

     I began this paper with a quote from Conniff and will close with his caveat: "[We must guard against] distorting the facts … [lest we and the] subject become entrapped together in its charms" because this will inevitably drag us down the wrong trail.



Brier, Juliet 1901, Feb. 24. San Francisco Examiner. In: Long, Margaret. 1950. The Shadow of the Arrow. Caldwell, ID: The Caxton Printers, Ltd. p. 208.

Conniff, Richard. 2002. "Kon Artist? Though Evidence Against His Theory Grey, Kon-Tiki Sailor Thor Heyerdahl Never Steered From His Course." Smithsonian. 33 (July): 26-27.

Fletcher, Colin. 1964. The Thousand Mile Summer in Desert and High Sierra. Berkeley, CA: Howell-North Books.

Johnson, LeRoy C. 1999. "The Trunk Is Bunk." In: Proceedings, Fifth Death Valley Conference on History & Prehistory, March4-7, 1999. Edited by: Jean Johnson. Bishop, CA: Community Printing and Publishing. p. 252-277.

_________. 2001a. "The Truth Behind the Robinson Chest." [This is a spoof article I wrote and posted anonymously. On August 6, 2001, I came forward as the author. I had hoped the hoaxter would read the spoof and admit his clandestine deed.]

_________. 2001b. "Debunking the Trunk: The Gold Coin." [This article, unlike the above, is not a spoof. It documents the anomalous 1853 gold coin that was in the trunk.]

Johnson, LeRoy and Jean. 1987a. Escape from Death Valley: As Told by William Lewis Manly and Other '49ers. Reno, NV: Univ. of Nevada Press.

_________. 1987b. "Cartographical Confusion -or- The Case of the Leaping Landmarks." In: Proceedings, First Death Valley Conference on History & Prehistory, February 8-11, 1987. Edited by: [Jean Johnson]. N.P. p. 86-97. [Subsequently reprinted by Death Valley Natural History Association.]

Koenig, George. 1964. "Zeroing in on the Gunsight." The Branding Iron, Los Angeles Westerners Corral. No. 69 (June): 6-7.

_________. 1984. Beyond This Place There Be Dragons: The Routes of the Tragic Trek of the Death Valley 1849ers Through Nevada, Death Valley and on to Southern California. Glendale, CA: Arthur H. Clark Co.

_________. 1986. Death Valley Tailings: Rarely Told Tales of Old Death Valley. Death Valley, CA: Death Valley '49ers, Inc.

Leedy, Paul D. 1980, 2nd ed. Practical Research, Planning and Design. 2d ed. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc.

Lingenfelter, Richard. 1986. Death Valley & the Amargosa, A Land of Illusion. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Manly, William L. 2001. Death Valley in '49. Edited by: LeRoy and Jean Johnson. Berkeley, CA: Heyday Press.

Marius, Richard. 1999. A Short Guide to Writing About History. 3d ed. New York: Longman.

Miller, George. 1919. "A Trip to Death Valley." Historical Society of Southern California Annual Publications. 11(Part 2): 56-64.

Stephens, Lorenzo Dow. 1916. Life Sketches of a Jayhawker of '49. San Jose, CA: Nolta Bros.

Southworth, John. 1978. Death Valley in 1849, The Luck of the Gold Rush Emigrants. Burbank, CA: Pegleg Books. [Reprinted, revised, and enlarged in both 1980 and 1986. The 1986 edition was published by the Death Valley '49ers, Inc. Death Valley, CA and it has on its back cover review comments by E. I. Edwards and George Koenig.]

_________. ND [2001]. The Robinson Cache on Pinto Peak, Its Fascinating Story Brought Up to Date. NP. [This eighteen-page booklet has for its cover Southworth's map (from the above book) showing the Jayhawker and Brier routes, the former going directly west from the summit of Pinto Peak and the latter going south from the summit.]

Wheat, Carl I. 1939. Trailing the Forty-Niners Through Death Valley. San Francisco: Taylor & Taylor. [This booklet is a reprint of Wheat's article that appeared in the Sierra Club Bulletin. 24 (June 1939).]

Wheeler, George M. 1877, Issued May 7th. U.S. Geographical Surveys West of the 100th Meridian. Part of Eastern California, Atlas Sheet No. 65 (D.). [Washington, D.C.: Secretary of War.]


* Paper presented at Oregon–California Trails Association Meeting; Reno, Nevada, August 17, 2002.

   Contact presenter at:

LeRoy Johnson
4916 Westridge Road
Bishop, California 93514
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Phone: 760-387-2720