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.
Everyone loves a good story, and—sad to say—the quest for a good story can lead historians astray.
In a recent exposé of Thor Heyerdahl's Kon-Tiki research, Richard Conniff said:
The trouble with a good story is that it has a way of distorting the facts: we see what we want to see and close our eyes to everything else…. [And] a good story can be so compelling that teller and subject become entrapped together in its charms.
Conniff's article casts serious doubt on Heyerdahl's subsequent findings that evolved from his monumental odyssey aboard the balsa-log raft Kon-Tiki. In 1947, he sailed her from Peru to French Polynesia across 4,300 miles of ocean and then orchestrated data to support his hypothesis that New World Indians populated Polynesia.
Researchers formulate hypothesis when they attempt to solve a problem. A hypothesis "is a logical supposition, a reasonable guess, an educated conjecture" (Leedy 1980: 5 & 61). Once a historian has formulated a hypothesis he or she must objectively collect data and aggressively try to falsify your hypothesis.
If you cannot falsify it, possibly you have not found the requisite data—keep looking. After you make repeated attempts to falsify your hypothesis and it still stands, you will feel safe in provisionally believing your "educated conjecture." Rest assure, once you are reasonably convinced your hypothesis is sound and you publish it or present it at a conference, there are scads of other researchers who will aggressively try to falsify your hypothesis.
Read more: Death Valley '49er Trails & How Artifacts Can Confound Unwary
Frank F. Latta (b. 1892; d. 1981)
Death Valley '49ers
2003 photographic reproduction of 1979 first edition
Bear State Books
P.O. Box 96, Exeter, California 93221
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.
We’ll never know exactly why Joe Simpson shot Jim Arnold that Easter Sunday, April 19, 1908. It’s hard enough to tell exactly what happened because there are conflicting accounts that have been embellished in numerous retellings.
When it comes to the story of Joe Simpson, most writings published since have focused on his death and the treatment of his remains afterward. After all, he was lynched by vigilantism in Skidoo, California, and the legend of his disinternment and re-hanging for benefit of the press is deeply entrenched. The newspapers of the day focused on Simpson’s murder of Jim Arnold and the subsequent lynching, but are mute regarding his remains afterward. This author wanted to focus on Simpson’s life prior to his appearance on the scene in Skidoo’s history, as well as his murderous actions, death and aftermath. It’s truly wondrous that when the subject of Joe Simpson comes up among historians, what usually follows is spirited dispute.