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Book Review: Death Valley '49er Trails

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B. G. Olesen
Death Valley ‘49er Trails
184 pages. Price: $60.00 (hardback only).
ISBN 0-9747494-0-0
Published by Photophysics
12051 Skyway Dr.
Santa Ana, CA, 92705

Review by:
LeRoy & Jean Johnson
July 2004

     A handsome book has been added to the Death Valley literature—Death Valley ‘49er [sic] Trails. It has pretty pictures, large type, a good table of contents, and copies of USGS maps with the author’s interpretation of the ’49er routes drawn on them. The material is presented in an easy-to-follow sequence.

     Mr. Olesen delineates his interpretation of the sundry escape trails pioneered by Manly and Rogers, the Bennett-Arcan wagon train, and the Brier-Jayhawker groups as they escaped from Death Valley in winter 1849-1850. He limits his investigation to the trails from Death Valley to Searles Valley.

     Why did Olesen publish this book? He explicitly tells us “there are … errors present in the published trail information…. [and] the reader must understand however, that the trail definitions and site locations set forth in this book are more exact, detailed, and correct that those previously published.” Then he follows with the bold statement that his book “supersedes trail information in earlier publications” (4:1:1; Olesen’s page: column: paragraph).

      Unfortunately, this book does not live up to the author’s claims. He chides other researchers for inserting a conclusion “as a fact” (28:2:1), then he does the same thing repeatedly.

     The book has the superficial appearance of a scholarly work. However, there is no index, so it is, in effect, useless as a research tool.

     The author’s Selected Bibliography has only 36 citations, and important citations are left out; thus, the reader is hamstrung when checking the veracity of quoted material. It is rife with mistakes: The University of Nevada Press is not in Nebraska, Manly is spelled Manley, there are numerous missing and incorrect publication dates, and Dr. Wolff did not coauthor his monograph with others—“et al.” is incorrect.

     The maps have clear titles, are well labeled, and appear to be from computer generated maps that typically produce jagged lines. But they are without scales and north arrows, and the map legend (p. 167) has the arrows of the Jayhawker and Brier groups reversed from those on the maps.

     The book is sprinkled with copy errors; possibly the author or his publisher did not use a copy editor. As a harbinger of things to come, the defects begin on the cover where the author mistakenly uses a single quote mark as a contraction mark (i.e., an apostrophe) for 1849, and this error is repeated throughout the text. The book is peppered with missing small words and other mistakes such as an incorrect date (1894 instead of 1849), an incorrect name—Brier when discussing the Wades (89:2:1), incomplete citations, two em dashes instead of ellipses, and sentences that appear to have sections missing. Some pages (3, 26-29, 182-3) have a larger type font than the rest of the text.

     The copy errors could be overlooked if the analyses of the routes were carefully researched and based on the readily available data. The author uses what he considers an analytical approach to the puzzles of the routes, and he uses quotes but often fails to adequately reference them. He goes on for pages discussing various minute points to explain his conclusions.

     Following are examples of the author’s questionable research, manipulation of data, and factual errors.