PSR Fuel

Book Review: Death Valley '49er Trails

Article Index


     Olesen quotes from letters in the Jayhawker Collection in The Huntington Library, but a reader has no way of knowing how to find them because the author does not cite them correctly. Each letter in this collection has a “JA” number, and typically scholars reference these letters by citing these numbers so scholars can readily track down a letter.

     For instance, Olesen quotes from a letter by Charles B. Mecum (104:1:2), a Jayhawker, as: “(Mecum letter: 1872).” (This letter is JA 715 in the Jayhawker Collection.) And he leaves Mecum out of his bibliography.

     Olesen quotes passages from individual letters written by William Lewis Manly and references them “(Manly: 1890-1893 letters).” Presumably Olesen is referring to letters in the Jayhawker Collection. There are at least 13 Manly letters written between 1890-1893 in the Jayhawker Collection, and scholars will be forced to read most—if not all—of these letters to find Manly’s quotes. Again, he leaves the Manly letters out of his bibliography.

     As part of Olesen’s literature review, he says he analyzed “original documents and reliable published literature” (1:2:1), but he gives no explanation as to what constitutes “reliable published literature.” Olesen tells the reader “not all of the publications listed were used for reference purposes” (3:2:4). But in the bibliography introduction he contradicts this statement by saying “this listing is limited to source material considered most directly related to the trails defined in this book” (p. 181). Nine of the thirty-six references in his Selected Bibliography are not cited as references in the text. Subtracting these nine from the total leaves a paltry number “used for reference purposes.”

     Throughout the book, to support his contentions, Olesen uses arrogant words and phrases such as “exact location identification of the wagons” (27:1:2 italics ours); “there is no doubt” (32:1:2); “grass and weeds proves [sic]” (34:1:1); “it does not exist” (36:1:3) referring to the arrastre at Arrastre Spring that very much does exist; “would unquestionably be” (68:1:2); “there could be no other place” (80:1:2); “It is just not believable” (113:2:2), “exactly” (127:1:4); “precisely states distances [about Sheldon Young’s log]” (149:2:2); “consistently exact” (150:1:1). We could go on ad nauseam, but you get the picture. Olesen presents little or no data to support his assertions of being precise, exact, and having no doubt.

     In Olesen’s Acknowledgements (p. iii), he says he is “indebted to … Mary Jensen … and others who have contributed in many ways.” Mary is the great great granddaughter of Harry and Mary Wade. The Wade family followed the Bennett-Arcan families into and southward in Death Valley. Belden (1957:4) alleged Harry had been a Royal coachman in England. Olesen says “another source states that no confirmation of Royal employment has been found” (10:1:1). If this information came from Mary Jensen, Olesen should have credited her with this revelation.

     Olesen repeatedly quotes from Manly’s “From Vermont to California” articles that appeared in The Santa Clara Valley, a monthly horticultural and viticultural journal. Most issues of this serialized account are housed in The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. Olesen excerpts quotes from these articles and cites them thusly: “(Manly: 1888)” (e.g., 20:2:2). There were twelve issues of “From Vermont to California” published in 1888. If, as Olesen says, he worked with “original documents” he should have listed the month and page. If he used the 1888 account found in Escape from Death Valley, he should have cited the page number to aid future researchers and scholars.

     Olesen chides the Johnsons (who have analyzed the routes in detail with over 250 references) by saying we “make no distinct connection between facts and conclusions or substantiate conclusions by relating them to the facts presented. Their conclusion [concerning the location of the Bennett and Arcan‘s Long Camp] is inserted as a fact wherein it more suitably appears to be a theory” (28:2:1; emphasis ours).

     Mr. Olesen is correct: it is a theory.

     A theory “implies a large body of tested evidence and a greater degree of probability” than does a hypothesis (Barnhart 1986:663). A theory is also a “statement that explains the facts” (Barnes-Svarney 1995:2). For those interested in our “large body of tested evidence” and our argument that “explains the facts,” see page 25, and notes 21, 22, 23, and 82 in Escape from Death Valley. For additional evidence, see our paper in Proceedings: First Death Valley Conference on History & Prehistory (pp. 22-43). Olesen is right about the theory but wrong when he says we don‘t “substantiate conclusions by relating them to the facts presented.”