The Forty-Niners in Death Valley: A Tentative Census.
When, late in December, 1849, white wanderers first looked out upon the salt playas of the great desert sink later to be known as Death Valley, they were in no mood to exclaim upon the weird beauty of the scene. Instead, they were gripped with foreboding and harassed by deep discouragement as they gazed upon this new and formidable barrier to their westward progress.
Already nearly two months had slipped away since they had left the "Old Spanish Trail" at a point near what is now the southwestern corner of the State of Utah. There they had branched hopefully out into the unknown, in search of a shortcut to the California gold diggings. But as Christmas neared they found themselves in desperate straits, their food well-nigh exhausted, their oxen half-starved, their nerves on edge. Small wonder that no member of this weary band of luckless emigrants halted to list the names of those who found themselves thus trapped upon the desert! Small wonder that Sheldon Young noted in his sketchy "Log" that this was "Damned dubious looking country!" Henceforth it must be each man for himself, and the Devil take any who might linger in this wasteland to record the tale of their disaster.
When, in later years, certain of the survivors of this desperate trek sat down to write of their experience, or gathered to renew friendships born of those hours of travail, they found that the names of many of those who had been with them on this desert "shortcut" had already been forgotten. There had been several distinct groups, generally traveling as separate parties, but frequently crossing one another's trail, and of some of these groups not a single name seems to have been preserved, while of others only two or three are now available.
There were the "Jayhawkers," the "Georgians" and the "Mississippi Boys"; there were the parties headed respectively by the Reverend James Welsh Brier and by Asahel Bennett, and there were certain single men who trailed now with one and now with another party of the train. Of the Georgians only the name of the Captain seems to have been recorded, while of the larger group of Mississippi Boys only the nicknames of three Negro slaves have apparently survived. The Jayhawker list was itself somewhat elastic, varying from year to year under John B. Colton's enthusiastic reunion promotion.
Even allowing liberally for possible duplications, it is apparent that well over one hundred emigrants were included among these unwilling discoverers of Death Valley, and the following list is presented with no illusion of it being a complete or final census, but rather as a tentative check-list, containing all the names as yet discovered by the writer. Where available, brief individual data is included in respect to certain members of the party.
THE JAYHAWKER PARTY
Although the thirty-four men above listed are those ordinarily considered to have made up the Jayhawker Party, at least some of them were not of that group prior to their arrival in Death Valley. Thus, Messrs. Fish and Gould had previously camped with the Brier family, and Fish camped with the Briers the night before his death. On February 15, 1892, Colton wrote Brier that there had been "thirty-eight" Jayhawkers, in which total he was possibly omitting Sheldon Young and adding the five Briers, who were, however, not truly of that group at any time.
In addition, R.H. Allen, son of George Allen, wrote to Colton many years after 1849-50 of a certain William Nesbit, whom he declares to have been "one of your party." One John Morse, of Henderson Grove, Illinois, was also listed by Colton on at least one occasion, and John Goller has also been included in some lists. (He remained in Los Angeles as a blacksmith and carriage maker, and died there on July 7, 1874, after having revisited the desert on several occasions, in an attempt to rediscover the "Lost Goller Mine," which he claimed to have found while on the 1849 trek.) Colton also mentioned "four Dutchmen," who traveled with the Jayhawkers, but were not of the party, and it is possible that Goller was one of these. Occasionally, a son of Edward F. Bartholomew has also been listed, but it seems doubtful whether he was with the party.
In addition, the names of Alexander Ewing and his son, John C. Ewing, appear in some lists, as do those of "Deacon" C. Arms, Robert Price and Norman Taylor (all three from Knoxville, Illinois), and three unnamed men are said to have been in the group "paying their way to be taken to the mines." It seems probable that if they were ever members of the party, none of these last eight continued with the Jayhawkers into Death Valley. Recently the name of Alexander Benson, as a possible member of the party, was also brought to the writer's attention by his son, but no other record has been found of him.
Were all these to be included, the total number of Jayhawkers, instead of being Colton's "thirty-eight," would be increased to some fifty-one. Doubtless some of those whose names are not known were duplications, and it seems probable that around forty men were from time to time members of or traveling with the Jayhawker Party.
THE BRIER PARTY
The names "Harrison" and "Achison" occur in certain statements made by Brier at widely separated intervals, and probably refer to the same pair of brothers. It is even possible that they were in fact the "Edgerton" brothers, of the Jayhawker Party. Mrs. Brier (in her account of Christmas in Death Valley, San Francisco Call, December 25, 1898) mentions "two Germans" and a man called "Croker" (probably Edward Coker, listed elsewhere). In a letter to Richards dated January 20, 1898, the Rev. Brier spoke of "Patrick and Lummis St. John" as having met the Brier party "utterly destitute" beyond "Borax Valley." This may refer to the two Arcan teamsters, whose names seem not elsewhere to be available. Mrs. Brier speaks of them as "St. John and Patrick." In addition, she mentions Fred Carr as having been in the Brier group, but he seems to have been with Coker, and is there listed.
THE BENNETT-ARCAN PARTY
In addition to these, there were two teamsters who had worked for Mr. Arcan, but whose names are nowhere given, though they may have been among the persons mentioned by the Briers. There was also a Frenchman, whose name is unrecorded, but who is known to have gone out of Death Valley with the Wade family. Manly states that when he and Rogers left for the coast there were eleven "grown persons" in camp, and since the Wades were separately encamped and the four teamsters had already departed there is still one person unaccounted for.
THE TOWNE PARTY OF "MISSISSIPPI BOYS"
This was the small party which continued with the Briers after the larger group of Mississippi Boys left to go up Darwin Wash. Towne's party continued down Panamint Valley, and finally left the Briers at the "Camp of the Horse Bones." The first names of these five persons seem not to have been recorded by any of those who knew them on the westward trek.
THE MISSISSIPPI BOYS
Of the larger group of Mississippians who broke away from the Jayhawkers and Briers near Towne's Pass, only the names of these three Negro slaves have apparently been recorded. Manly mentions a David Funk who may have belonged to this party, which is said to have included around fifteen men. It is barely possible that the group with which Edward Coker left Death Valley was this party, though Coker himself was from New York.
The names of the other members of this party seem to be wholly unrecorded. They were apparently also known as "The Bug Smashers." Stephens wrote that the group consisted of some fifteen members, while Colton (San Francisco Chronicle, February 15, l903) remarked that it included "about twenty" men.
THE COKER PARTY
Many years had passed after the 1849-50 trek before Coker met Manly and told him his story. Coker stated that the party with which he escaped over Walker Pass consisted of twenty-one men, though he lists only the eight here named. Several, said he, were from Coffeyville, Mississippi. There remain certain curious problems in respect to this group. If, as some have presumed, it is to be identified with the larger party of Mississippi Boys, or if, as has also been suggested, it was in fact the party otherwise mentioned as the Georgians or the "Bug Smashers," Coker and his companions could not have been with the Briers and Jayhawkers, as Coker states, after Fish and Isham died, for these other parties left the Jayhawkers and the Briers a number of days before those deaths occurred. Doubtless no final answer to many of these queries can now be expected, although in the present list every effort has been made to avoid a duplication of names.
THE SO-CALLED "SAVAGE-PINNEY PARTY"
While it is possible that this party did not actually traverse Death Valley, it is deemed proper to list it here, since numerous writers have mentioned this group, and since a complete list of the names of its ten members has but recently become available. This was the party which left "Captain" O.K. Smith and his group near "Division Spring" in Southeastern Nevada late in November, 1849. The ten adventurers headed west, packing their food on their backs, and of their experiences practically nothing is known, save that Pinney and Savage, at least, managed to escape and reach the California diggings.
In addition to the above parties, Manly mentions one David Funk, of Texas, and a Mr. and Mrs. Henry Dale and their three children, of Texas. It is possible that this latter name may have been a misreading or misprint of the name Wade, since no other list mentions a "Dale" family. However, it is known that the Wades came from Illinois, rather than Texas, and it is therefore possible that there was another family, otherwise unrecorded, among the Death Valley discoverers.
Several of the survivors later mentioned one "Townshend," but it now seems probable that this reference is in fact to Towne. Haynes' remark, "Find body of Townshend scalped," in the Argus Range, west of Searles Lake Valley, is difficult to explain, since no other account mentions any such circumstance, and since it is now known definitely that Towne made his way safely out to the goldfields.
In a letter dated January 17, 1876, Brier wrote of "The New York Boys." Apparently these were among the men already listed.
It would obviously be impracticable without undue expansion of this article to attempt to cite the precise source of each individual item. No comprehensive bibliography of the extensive literature relating to Death Valley has as yet been published, but since the basic sources of data in respect to the Valley's discoverers are comparatively few, the following may serve to outline the nature of such fundamental material.
Most important among the background sources is, of course, William Lewis Manly's "Death Valley in '49" (published in San Jose in 1894; reprinted by Wallace Hebbard, New York and Santa Barbara, 1929). Much of the data on this subject which appears in that volume is to be found nowhere else. In 1916 Lorenzo Dow Stephens printed at San Jose his "Life Sketches of a Jay Hawker [sic] of '49," a sixty-eight page pamphlet which should be read with some caution as Stephens was nearing the age of ninety when it was prepared and his memory was apparently then none too good.
The Brier family contributed several articles on the subject of their desert trek. As a matter of fact, though unsatisfactory as to detail, the first printed resume of the Forty-Niners' trip across Death Valley was contributed by the Rev. James Welsh Brier in the form of a brief account of a portion of the trip printed early in the fifties in the Christian Advocate, a religious journal published in San Francisco. This article was reprinted under the title "Route from Las Vegas de Santa Clara to Walker's Pass, by the way of Owen's River and Owen's Lake," in the Appendix to Heap and Beale's "Central Route to the Pacific" (New York, 1854). Mrs. Juliette Brier was the subject of an extensive interview entitled "Our Christmas Amid the Terrors of Death Valley," published in the San Francisco Call on December 25, 1898. In 1903 Sunset Magazine published two articles by the Rev. John Wells Brier under the title "The Death Valley Party of 1849" (pages 326-335 and 456-465), and in 1911 the same author wrote an account entitled "The Argonauts of Death Valley" for The Grizzly Bear (Vol. IX, No. 2, June, 1911).
John B. Colton, the youngest member of the Jayhawker party, was active for many years in maintaining the contacts of the Jayhawker survivors, and promoted numerous reunions of that group at various places. He could always be counted upon to contribute an interview for the local newspaper on the occasion of such a reunion (see, for example, "Story of the Jayhawkers," in the San Francisco Chronicle, February 15, 1903). Manly wrote a number of accounts of portions of the 1849-50 trip for the San Jose Pioneer (see, for example, the issues of that journal for April 21 and 28, 1877, August 1, 1893, March 15, 1894, May 15, June 15 and July 15, 1895). Recently an interview with John Rogers was discovered in a copy of the Merced Star for April 26, 1894, the title of the article being "On the Plains, 1849." Apparently but one contemporaneous journal of the trip across the desert has survived. This is the "Log" of Sheldon Young, and while it is meager as to detail, it is of primary importance. A typed copy is filed among the "Jayhawker Papers" in The Huntington Library.
That collection (consisting of the files and scrapbooks of John B. Colton) furnishes many clues in respect to otherwise obscure problems. Colton apparently kept every scrap of data which came to his hand, and it is fortunate that this magnificent collection of material has been preserved. In addition, much data has been collected during recent years by the National Park Service, largely in the form of interviews or correspondence with descendents of Death Valley pioneers. Finally, mention should be made of the researches of Dr. T.S. Palmer, of Washington, D.C., who, as a young man, headed the Federal Government's expedition of 1891 to these desert regions, and whose interest in the subject has never waned.
1. See "Trailing the Forty-Niners Through Death Valley," by Carl I. Wheat in Sierra Club Bulletin, Vol. XXIV, No. 3, June, 1939. [BACK]
2. See "Pioneer Visitors to Death Valley After the Forty-Niners," by Carl I. Wheat, California Historical Society Quarterly, Sept., 1939, Vol. XVIII, No. 3, pp. 195-216. [BACK]
3. The writer desires to express his appreciation to Dr. Palmer, as well as to Mr. Lindley Bynum, of The Huntington Library, and Messrs. O.T. Hagen, T.R. Goodwin and H. Donald Curry, of the National Park Service, for their cooperation and assistance in connection with the preparation of this "Census."
Mr. K. Kevil, of Santa Cruz, has also been helpful, especially in respect to the development of data on the Arcan family.
It is to be hoped that this effort to list the Forty-Niners who traversed Death Valley may lead to the bringing to light of additional data and the correction of any errors which may have crept into this preliminary attempt to develop a unified record of these pioneers. Suggestions along these lines may be addressed to the writer at 1720 Mills Tower, San Francisco, California. [BACK]
Originally published in The Quarterly, December 1939, of the Historical Society of Southern California.