Book Review: Death Valley '49er Trails
Pieces of the Puzzle Come Together
By B. G. Olesen
12051 Skyway Dr.
Santa Ana, CA, 92705
Hardcover, 184 pp, photos, maps, selected bibliography
Past Sheriff of Westerners Los Angeles Corral
Death Valley has excited more interest and been the subject of more books than any other segment of California’s vast desert country. To a large degree, this enduring fascination is the result of a book published in 1894 and reprinted many times since. William Manly’s “Death Valley in ’49” has been termed a literary classic by none other than Lawrence Clark Powell, California’s late, great bibliophile. And well it should. William Lewis Manly’s account of the trek he and John Rogers made from the floor of Death Valley across mountain and desert wastes to the Los Angeles area and their return is richly detailed and gracefully written — one of the great adventure stories of the California Gold Rush.Since the 1930’s, Death Valley historians have attempted to retrace Manly and Rogers route. Although Manly’s book is “a descriptive gold mine” there are segments of the trek that are open to various interpretations as to their precise route. Dr. John Wolff, Carl Wheat, E. I. Edwards, Burr Belden, Leroy Hafen, George Koenig, John Southworth and Leroy and Jean Johnson have all tried their skills at retracing the epic journey. When the Johnsons’ published their “Escape from Death Valley in 1987”, this was thought by some to be the definitive account, the final word on the subject.
Not so. Taking nothing away from the Johnsons’ outstanding effort, we now have Bob Olesen’s richly detailed analysis of the 49er routes out of Death Valley. Olesen is a retired aerospace engineer who has spent much of the last twenty-five years studying Death Valley and the gold-seeking emigrants who passed through it. He puts his considerable talents to work in retracing not only the Manly-Rogers route, but the paths taken by the Jayhawkers, the Briers, the Wades, the Earharts, and the final escape of the Bennett-Arcan party. On numerous excursions, accompanied by fellow Death Valley historian John Southworth, Olesen painstakingly covered all conceivable variations of the 49er routes out of Death Valley. As Southworth writes in the Foreword, “We have stood on many a desert height and argued the relative advantages and disadvantages of distant trail alignments. We have walked and driven miles of those trails searching for landmarks and eliminating potential but impractical routes of the ‘49ers.” What makes Olesen’s detailed route and site investigations unique is his use of tools unavailable to previous Death Valley historians, such as the Global Positioning System (GPS) and digitalized topo maps.
Olesen begins with a cursory account of the hundred-plus wagons that followed Captain Jefferson Hunt south on the Salt Lake-Los Angeles Trail. “Gold Fever” took hold of the emigrants in southern Utah, causing most of the wagons to turn west on a supposed shortcut to the California gold mines. Upon reaching the deep canyon now known as Beaver Dam Wash, most turned back. Twenty-seven wagons continued west across the barren Nevada desert. Most burned their wagons and continued west, across Death Valley, on foot. Lagging behind the others, the Bennett-Arcan party, which included Manly and Rogers, kept their wagons and descended Furnace Creek Wash into Death Valley, turned south along the valley’s eastern side until the wagons could go no farther, then crossed to the west side, directly under the imposing rampart of the Panamints.
Olesen gives a detailed analysis of the probable site of Manly’s flowing spring, which flows only after heavy snowfall in the high Panamints, confusing some writers, and the Long Camp, so named because the Bennett-Arcan party camped here many days before continuing south to the Little sulfur well. Johnson places the Long Camp at today’s Bennetts Well, but Olesen makes a good case that the camp was a mile farther south.
The heart of Olesen’s book is a carefully reasoned, detailed analysis of Manly and Rogers most likely route south from the Little sulfur well, southwest through Warm Spring Canyon and Butte Valley, over Manly Peak and down the ridge west into Panamint Valley, around the south end of the valley to avoid the Little salt creek mudflats, over the Slate Range via Manly Pass, and down into Searles Valley near present-day Trona. Olesen bases his conclusions on Manly’s two accounts — his 1894 book and 1888 newspaper articles, the Jayhawker and Reverend Brier routes, and most importantly, thorough knowledge of the terrain. The author, accompanied by Southworth, drove or walked almost the entire distance. On the return trip, Olesen has Manly and Rogers recrosssing the Panamints farther south, via Goler Canyon.
Olesen also covers the escape south from Death Valley of the Wade and Earhart parties. The Wades’ wagon was the only one known to have gone all the way, but the author speculates that the Earharts’ wagon may have gone all the way, too.
The author also spends considerable effort in locating the gravesites of the few who failed to escape Death Valley — Mr. Fish, Mr. Isham, and Captain Culverwell.
For those who wish to travel the 49er routes out of Death Valley, Olesen describes the present state of roads, most of them rough, some passable only with high clearance four-wheel drive vehicles.
The book is enhanced by fifty-two color photographs showing the 49er routes and viewpoints, eleven topographic maps marked with trail routes and sites, and a Site Location Table giving GPS coordinates.
This superb volume will be warmly welcomed by all Death Valley aficionados. In the opinion of this reviewer, it ranks among the dozen or so best Death Valley books and should be the definitive study of the 49er routes out of Death Valley for years to come.