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

Article Index


     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