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Book Review: Death Valley '49er Trails

Article Index


Rancho San Francisco

     The evidence supporting the Rancho San Francisco name is legion; yet, Olesen uses “San Francisquito Ranch” for the ranch‘s name (2:1:2 & 149:1:1). Ruth Newhall’s scholarly work, The Newhall Ranch, details the name in chapter VII, El Rancho San Francisco. Possibly Olesen did not consider her book part of the genre of “reliable published literature” (1:2:1).

Arrastre Spring

     Manly describes a spring high in the Panamint Range as having sagebrush growing around it: “[Manly and Rogers] could see some bunches of grass and sage brush” so they went there (1894:153). Several authors have concluded this spring is the one now known as Arrastre Spring. Olesen, to support his contention that Manly and Rogers did not go to Arrastre Spring, emphatically says: “There is no Sagebrush around Arrastre Spring and none could possibly grow in that sort of a hard rocky mountainside. Sagebrush requires deep, soft nutritious soil…. It is too rocky [around the spring] and lacks any fertile soil” (60:2:3 & 61:1:1). This assertion is patently false.

     Here are some quotes from noted botanical authorities: “Black sagebrush inhabits dry rock hillsides, ridges, and plateaus in the Panamint [Range]” (Sampson & Jespersen 1963:139). Taylor (1992:18) says that when sagebrush grows in “dry, rocky areas … [it] may average less than one foot in height.” And Mozingo (1986:256) tells us “dwarf sagebrush [a.k.a. black sagebrush] grows on rockier, poorer soils than big sagebrush.”

     Olesen muses about how the spring got its name: “There is no Arrastre there [at the spring].… [and] what is more, there is no Arrastre hidden by the bush as another author has stated” (63:2:3; italics ours). Apparently Olesen is making an oblique criticism of our comment in Escape from Death Valley (n31): “The spring is named after the old gold mining arrastre hidden in the brush nearby.”

     Linda Greene shows two pictures of the arrastre and discusses the derivation of the spring’s name in her definitive treatise about Death Valley mining history (1981:126-132). We also have color photographs of the arrastre that plainly show sagebrush growing there.

     The bombastic assertion that there is no arrastre at the spring is as baseless as this trumpery: “In fact, the ground near Arrastre Spring is so steep that it would be difficult to lie down without sliding down the hillside” (62:1:1). He then says: “There is no viable campsite within a mile of that seep [Arrastre Spring]” (96:1:4). This baseless statement is followed by: “No camp would have been made anywhere near Arrastre Spring” (96:2:1).

     In February 1992 we camped with nine other hikers at Arrastre Spring. One tent was pitched near the arrastre and seven more tents were pitched a short distance from the arrastre (just off the Indian trail that goes from the spring to the mouth of Redlands Canyon).

Redlands Canyon

     Olesen contends Manly and Rogers did not return to Death Valley via Redlands Canyon. Olesen says, “If, as some trail searchers have proposed, the boys went up Redlands Canyon, it is doubtful they could have reached the summit by noon. That would have been an extremely hard hike” (84:2:2). LeRoy has hiked the entire length of the canyon at least six times. One winter day he started at dawn from below Manly Falls, hiked beyond the “summit” and into Butte Valley, climbed Striped Butte, and returned to the car at sundown. Olesen’s conjecture that the hike from Redlands Spring to the head of Redlands Canyon is “an extremely hard hike” is unfounded.

     Olesen claims a fall described by Manly is in Goler Canyon rather than in Redlands Canyon. To support this claim, he tries to befuddle the reader. He wonders “exactly why [Wolff] named the huge rock fall at the mouth of Redlands Canyon Manly Fall” (145:1:2). The truth is, Wolff did not name the fall at the mouth of Redlands Canyon. Wolff described his Manly Fall as “the upper one and highest” of the four falls within a mile of the mouth of Redlands Canyon (p. 28). This dry fall is readily identified in the field as the first fall below the spring, which is about a mile from the canyon‘s mouth (see Wolff‘s Fig. 10).

     Wolff petitioned the U.S. Geographic Board to name his fall “Manly Fall,” but the U.S. Geological Service goofed when they assigned the name Manly Fall to the one at the entrance of Redlands Canyon. The fall Wolff called Manly Fall is now called Ox-Jump Fall (Johnson & Johnson n75) to differentiate it from the USGS Manly Fall that had been at the mouth of Redlands Canyon (but no longer exists because a gold mining operation recently obliterated it). How anyone can misinterpret these data is beyond comprehension.

Panamint Valley

     Olesen spends an inordinate amount of space describing the mud flats in Panamint Valley (pp. 65-71). He says, “at the present time there is sparse stunted Juniper growth in tiny clumps on the mud flats” (68:2:3). Junipers (genus Juniperus) are a montane genus that grow in high-desert environments. They do not grow on the mud flats in Panamint Valley.

Sheldon Young’s Log

     We do not know if Young’s original diary is extant. A typescript of it is in the Jayhawker Collection (JA 555) and has been reproduced in Dr. Long’s book (Long 1941:241).

     Olesen needs to discredit the dates in Sheldon Young’s Log (diary) to support his conjured dates for Manly and Rogers’ rescue trip out of Death Valley. In order to support his contention that Young’s entries are ten days off, Olesen tells us the “original handwritten Log … [was] barely readable with pages missing” (147:2:1) and thus the “accuracy of the information in the Huntington typed copy of the Log is uncertain” (147:2:2). Olesen bases this on an explanatory note (presumably written by the typist who transcribed the Log) that says: “The Diary is written with pencil and in some portions not distinct enough to be read,—from March 28th ’49 to April 13th, ’49 the writing is nearly effaced.” This is a far cry from saying the Log—implying the entire Log— was “barely readable.”

     The missing pages in the Log covered the dates of October 24 through November 9, 1849. Olesen uses weather data in accounts of Addison Pratt, Charles Rich, and Henry Bigler for November 1 and 4 to support his contention that Young’s Log is ten days off (151:1:3). However, November 1 and 4 can not be compared to Young’s Log because his pages for those dates are missing. Then Olesen uses Young’s dates of November 22 and 23 to try to show the same weather conditions that Pratt, Rich, and Bigler experienced for November 13 and 14—nine or ten days earlier (151:2:2). This is a classic example of comparing apples to oranges.

     Let‘s compare apples to apples. On November 13: Young wrote, “Rained.” Rich wrote, “commenced to rain.” Bigler wrote, “began to rain.” (Pratt does not mention the weather.)

     On November 14: Young wrote, “rained and snowed … but went off … fast.” Pratt wrote “severe squall of rain and wind.” Bigler wrote “Cloudy…. water standing about in pools” (in Hafen & Hafen 1954). By comparing the same dates, we find Bigler, Pratt, and Rich corroborate Young’s dates.{mospagebreak title=Morphogenesis of Words}


     Words are changed by Olesen to fit his assertions. Fortunately it is easy to trace the etymology of these morphed words, and in doing so you will see how Olesen attempts to support his route conclusions by putting words into peoples’ mouths.

     Manly tells us the Bennett-Arcan wagons camped at a “good spring” that had a “small flow from it spread out over the sand and sank in a very short distance” (1894:144). Olesen uses this quotation in his book (13:2:3 & 14:1:1), and names this spring “Flowing spring.” Then this “Flowing spring” morphs into a “running stream” (28:2:1) when Olesen asserts that: “Manly’s precise statement that the water he discovered was a running stream” (28:2:1; italics ours). Olesen morphs Manly’s “good spring” into a “Flowing spring” and then into a “running stream,” and shows photos of small flash-flood gullies to illustrate his stream bed (photos 7-9 & 11).

     When the wagons were going up hill in an abortive attempt to cross the Panamint Range, Manly said they had a “rough road” (1894:149). Olesen contends the Bennett-Arcan wagons made it into Warm Springs Canyon (a canyon littered with boulders) so he morphs Manly’s “rough road” into a “rocky canyon” (18:2:2).

     Manly says the Bennett-Arcan wagons “went over a road for perhaps 8 miles and came to the mouth of a rocky canyon” (1894:148). Olesen uses this quotation but then says, “Manly’s estimate of … [traveling eight miles] south exactly to the mouth of a rocky canyon could not be correct” (31:2:2, italics ours). Olesen morphs Manly’s “perhaps” into “exactly.”

     Here is case where the author morphs a word used in one context into a very different context to support his contentions. Olesen concludes when Manly mentioned a “glass” he “undoubtedly meant a small telescope” (15:1:3). Later he says “Manly states he used his field glass at the summit of the highest peak” (64:2:1; italics ours). Olesen does not properly reference from whence he got the information about the “field glass.” Possibly he is referring to Manly’s March 16, 1890, letter to John Colton wherein Manly says he went to the summit “of the high peaks … & by the assistance of a good field glass was able to sum up the country for a 100 miles” (JA 617). According to Manly, the field glass he used belonged to Arcan: “I took Mr. Arcane’s field glass with me and was thus able to see all there was of the country” (1894:114). This comment refers to the country east of Death Valley when Manly was scouting for the wagon train, but Olesen places the above scene west of Death Valley.

     Henry G. Hanks reported that Hugh McCormack “saw the shallow grave of a person supposed to be one of the emigrants, probably a woman, as a portion of a calico dress was found with the bones.” We hypothesized these bones may have been Captain Culverwell’s, and we argue our case in Escape from Death Valley (n89).

     Olesen says it “has been suggested that this was the skeleton of Captain Culverwell” (141:1:1). The above quotation by Hanks is all the data there is concerning the skeleton. Olesen morphs “the bones” to create a fictional mummy: “This body was either in a skeletal state or in a mummified condition with some skin, flesh and hair remaining” (141:2:1; italics ours). Then we are told “it can be reasonably concluded the mummy was an Indian woman and not Captain Culverwell” (141:2:3; italics ours). We find it incredulous that in only a few paragraphs Olesen morphs “the bones” into a “skeleton,” then morphs the “skeleton” into a “mummy,” and finally morphs the “mummy” into a “mummified Indian woman.”


     The above is a small sample of the egregious errors and convoluted reckoning we found in this book. Olesen offers different ideas on the ’49er routes out of Death Valley, but he uses faulty or incomplete data to support his conclusions. Thus, his book is of little value for an understanding of the ’49er routes.

     We have not challenged Olesen’s conclusions, most of which we strongly disagree with. You, the reader, will have to judge for yourself the merits of Olesen’s analyses. When you do so, ask your self this question: Does this book supersede “trail information in earlier publications”?