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Book Review: Death Valley '49ers

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September 2004

Frank F. Latta (b. 1892; d. 1981)
Death Valley '49ers
2003 photographic reproduction of 1979 first edition
Paperback, $24.95
Bear State Books
P.O. Box 96, Exeter, California 93221
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ISBN 1-892622-19-X

     Frank Latta's Death Valley '49ers is back in print. It is an important addition to any Death Valley library that is already well stocked with books covering the travails of the Death Valley '49ers. This paperback reprint is a photographic reproduction of the hardback, first edition.


     The strengths of the book are in the recollections Latta collected from friends and descendants of the Death Valley '49ers, the pictures he collected for the book, and quotes from letters and recollections from the original '49ers. The Wade descendants he interviews filled large gaps in the Wade story. He also added valuable information about John Rogers.

     As a scholarly work, Death Valley '49ers falls far short of the mark. Frustratingly there are virtually no reference citations throughout the book. For example, on page 16 Latta quotes in toto a letter John Colton (one of the Jayhawkers) wrote to his father. We do not know where Latta found this letter; thus, there is no reasonable way to verify the accuracy of the quote. Some quotes have material missing without an ellipse. We noted some quotes are not accurate, and others have sentences moved around. There is no bibliography—a major shortcoming of the book—so you can not use Death Valley '49ers as a path into the literature.

      Another shortcoming is the copy and substantive editing errors in the first edition that are repeated here. For example, the photo captions on pages 206 and 208 are incorrect: The photograph on p. 206 does not show Furnace Creek Wash as stated nor can you see Ash Meadows. The photograph on p. 208 does not show Mount Argus (Argus Peak), the Slate Range, Searles Lake Valley, or the El Paso Range as stated. There are also numerous typographical errors. For example Manly's book was published in 1894, not 1895 (pp. xii & 339). A knowledgeable reviewer could have easily caught these errors.

     All but two of the photo captions end with "now in Bear State Library." For years, readers and researchers have tried to locate the Bear State Library; they did not realize the library was Latta's personal collection. This "Library" is now in the possession of Chris Brewer, publisher of the new reprint. We cannot vouch for the accuracy of the reminiscences because Latta denied us access to the transcriptions of his interviews. We hope the new owner of this library will allow scholars and historians access to the collection.

     In November 1974 we visited Latta at his ranch. He showed us his draft manuscript and asked if we would write the chapters covering the escape route of the Bennett-Arcan party. We considered his offer but felt we had to do more research before going into print. Also, we noted factual errors in his manuscript, and he apparently overlooked some important published data, such as Dr. Wolff's monograph on the escape route of the Bennett-Arcan party (Wolff 1931). We felt these shortcomings should be rectified; so, we wrote Latta in December 1974 saying, "it would be helpful and necessary to get an outside review [of your manuscript]... to bring certain things up to date." For instance, we pointed out that although Manly (and other '49ers) referred to the San Francisquito Ranch, the true name was the San Francisco Ranch (Rancho San Francisco), and we recommended Latta read Ruth Newhall's 1958 book The Newhall Ranch and Farming Company. He apparently did not follow our advice to have the manuscript reviewed outside his private press.

     Latta did not write the final chapters of his book; instead, he went to the best-published source of information—Manly's Death Valley in '49. Latta quotes extensively from this book; over 40 percent of the pages in Death Valley '49ers are quotes from Manly's book.

     When Latta wrote us, he said he started "gathering data regarding the parties through Death Valley" in 1932, and met William Lewis Manly in "about 1902." He told us what is now in his book (pp. xii-xiii) that Manly arrived at his father's home in northwestern Merced County about 10:00 AM, and Manly and Latta's father talked until after midnight. Frank Latta was born in September 1892, so he was ten years old when Manly purportedly visited Latta's father. According to Latta, Manly was traveling around with horse and buggy selling his books for $2.50. This story is at variance with known facts.

     Manly visited John Rogers in Merced on June 3, 1895, when he took the train to Merced and "hired a man with horses and buggy to take me the fourteen miles to Rogers' home" (In: Woodward 1949: 43-45). In a letter to John Colton dated May 19, 1898 (JA 634), Manly said, "I am a weak old man [and] I have had 3 nervous prostrations since Sept. It must soon end. When these spells comes on me I am as helpless as [an] infant cant stand alone nor feed myself dont gain my strength & cant walk much." Then in 1899 (JA 649) he sent another letter to Colton and said, "this is probably the last letter I shall be able to write." He sent one more letter in March 1901 (JA 639). By then his handwriting was so deteriorated the letter is difficult to read; in it he says: "I am an invalid & will never recover."

     In a letter to John Colton, dated January 20, 1902 (JA 981), Lorenzo Dow Stephens wrote that Manly "met with an accident about six or eight months ago. He fell and broke his hip and has not been able to walk since."

     Latta was aware of the above-cited letters in the Jayhawker Collection (see p. 340 in Latta's book). Yet he does not attempt to resolve Manly's statement of debilitating health nor Stephen's statement that in 1901 Manly was in a wheel chair. These data indicate Manly was not physically capable of driving a wagon around the state hawking books in 1902.