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The Story of Inyo by W.A. Chalfant - 1922

Death Valley Party of 1849

CHAPTER VI - Death Valley Party of 1849

Next in Inyo annals comes the tragic story of the pioneers who, seeking a short route to California, marked their way across the deserts with abandoned equipages, lonely graves or unburied corpses, and found in Death Valley the culmination of their miseries and misfortunes.

A writer of the period said that the overland trail could be traced by the headboards and mounds above the bodies of its victims. Disease and hardships, the arrows of hostile Indians, and sometimes Mormondom's "destroying angels," all did their shares toward justifying this assertion. Hundreds, who set forth in hope, were laid to rest by the wayside, their lonely graves more often visited by pariah coyotes or trampled by bison than seen by human beings. The full tale of those journeyings has never been told. Here and there some special tragedy found a place in the blood-stained history of pioneering. None exceed in horror the truth about those who perished at the verge of the promised land, the Donner party famishing in Sierra snows and the Death Valley party starving in the desert.

The record of the Death Valley party is found in the narratives of W. L. Manley, Mrs. Brier, J. B. Colton, Edward Coker and Thomas Shannon, all of whom were of the party ; of P. A. Chalfant, founder of the Inyo Independent and Inyo Register, who was with it during part of the journey; and of others having more or less information. There is not always agreement between the stories, and sometimes a rewriting must choose between contradictory statements.

The nucleus of the expedition was a band of young men from Galesburg, Illinois, who organized to make the trip to the newly discovered land of gold. They were youths of buoyant spirits, and anticipated a journey of pleasure rather than hardships. The name of "Jayhawkers" was adopted, for some reason not explained by any of them. An impromptu initiation ceremony was used to test the fortitude of applicants for the undertaking. The candidate was first carried around the camp on the shoulders of four men. He then bared one leg to the knee and stood upright while he repeated a vow that he would stand by his comrades through all perils. Following this a small bit of flesh was nipped from his bare leg; this was done twice more, and if he showed a lack of fortitude on any of these tests he was deemed unworthy of membership. Little did those carefree young fellows dream the nature of the hardships they were to encounter. A few of them failed; most of them proved their worth.

Some additions to the train had been made by the time Salt Lake City was reached. All such travelers remained in the Mormon capital for some time, recruiting their livestock, securing supplies, and otherwise preparing for the unknown journey ahead. The Jayhawkers reached there in July, 1849, and remained until toward the end of September. More emigrants joined the train in Salt Lake, until when the caravan was finally complete, at a rendezvous about 100 miles south of the city, it comprised 107 wagons and about 500 head of stock. No account states the number of persons. The original Jayhawkers numbered thirty-six. In the expedition as finally made up there were several times as many, with members from Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, and nearly all the western states and territories.

One of the subdivisions amalgamated into the great caravan was known as "The San Francisco party," which had started from Omaha with forty-five wagons, June 6th. It was somewhat elaborately organized, with constitution and bylaws, and with some of the characteristics of a military expedition. John Brophy was its "colonel," Judge Haun bore the title of "major," and Rev. J. W. Brier was designated as "chaplain." One of its younger members was P. A. Chalfant, father of the compiler of this record. It was decided to divide the expedition into seven different companies. Some of the units already had their organizations; the small companies and detached individuals not thus included were formed into new commands. The Jayhawkers, after long argument, decided against allowing any women or children in their division, and the families which had joined them made up a separate party. To this there was one exception. Rev. Brier preferring the Jayhawkers to the party with which he had come and declaring that he and his wife and children would stay with the Illinois men in any case. From the fact that the Brier family traveled apart from the Jayhawkers during parts of the subsequent journey it is probable that his welcome in their camps was not cordial.

All went well until a point about 250 miles from Salt Lake was reached. Some one got hold of a copy of one of Fremont's maps showing the route across Walker's Pass. It indicated that 600 miles of travel would be saved by following Fremont's course, instead of going farther north. Its advocates also cited the fate of the Donner party, caught in midwinter in the Sierras. It would seem that this last argument was intended for the San Francisco party, which decided on the northernmost route, and which completed its journey by entering California through Beckwith (or Beckwourth) Pass late in the year, without special hardships.

The guide for the whole expedition was Jefferson Hunt, a Mormon leader. The travelers had been urged, in Salt Lake, to take a southerly route, as the Mormons were anxious to have a road established by which they could reach certain Spanish-grant lands in southern California. Hunt was to conduct them to Los Angeles, and to receive $12 per wagon as pay.

When the order was made excluding families from the Jayhawker train two of the men who left it with their wives and children were Asabel Bennett and J. B. Arcane. Manly, who has left the most complete record, chose to go with Bennett, his close friend. This party traveled more or less independently of the Jayhawkers, though taking the same general course and experiencing similar hardships. While the two bands were together at different times, their experiences during much of the journey were separate stories.

The final disintegration of the big caravan took place at what was then named Poverty Point, in the Wasatch Mountains. The road ended in steep precipices. The Jayhawkers insisted on finding a way down and went on in spite of Hunt's warnings, taking with them twenty-seven wagons, including those of Bennett and Arcane. As already noted, the San Francisco party had previously struck out independently. Those who, at Poverty Point, accepted Hunt's advice were led south and safely into southern California. They have no further place in this story, and our later narration pertains to the Jayhawkers and the offshoots that took the same general course as they did.

The last camping place in Utah was beside a playa lake. The desert-wise know such places — absolutely flat spreads of land which after heavy, though rare, storms are covered with a few inches of water. When they dry out to level smoothness, seen from a distance they resemble calm surfaces of water. Each of the '49 parties wasted both time and strength in vain deviations to reach such supposed bodies of water.

Manly drove no team, but acted as a general scout. At the Utah camp he ascended the highest near point, and on returning to camp reported a belief that there was no water ahead for a hundred miles. Doty, the Jayhawker captain, admitted discouragement at this, but decided to go ahead on the same course. The next morning his men and their twenty wagons pulled out, leaving Bennett, Arcane, Manly and associates in camp with seven.

Doty traveled five days without finding water, and by then his party had used all that had been brought from the playa lake. A subdivision headed by a man named Martin struck out on a different route from the one followed by Doty the next day. The latter 's plight, while sorry enough, was less desperate than it was to become. Toward morning of that night's camp, the sky clouded and a little snow fell. Enough of this was caught and melted to satisfy men and animals and to provide a little reserve.

No more water was found until the Amargosa (meaning bitter) river bed was reached. That stream is on rare occasions a torrent of large volume, but for part of its course is usually lost in the sands. The Doty men found a slight trickle of bitter fluid, and drank it freely. The water, heavily charged with minerals, made them ill, and they left the stream and struck out toward a pass ahead. They were near the eastern base of the Funeral range, later christened for one of the tragedies of this expedition.

All the courage the party could muster was needed in reaching the summit. The way grew steeper. Debris and washouts filled the canyons, through which probably no human being, except possibly Indians, had ever passed. Men and oxen were weakened by the chemicals taken at the Amargosa. One of the oxen died on the way up, and its carcass was the last to be left without being utilized for food. Even that one was not wholly wasted, for a straggler of the expedition cut a steak from it. After two days of struggle the party stood on the summit and looked down into one of nature's freaks—Death Valley.

The train toiled down the pass, and on the third day reached some springs around which some coarse grass grew. Realizing that the oxen could not take the wagons farther, the party camped and prepared to finish the journey in the lightest possible marching order. Wagons were abandoned, and their woodwork was used to feed the fires over which the stringy flesh of the oxen was dried. Rice, tea and coffee were measured out by the spoonful, with an understanding that thereafter each individual must look out for himself and expect no help from anyone else. The canvas of the wagon covers was fashioned into knapsacks, and powder cans were set in slings to serve as canteens, none of the latter having been included in the equipment. Moccasins were made from the hides of slain animals, for the men and for the tender-footed among the surviving oxen. The Martin party, which had branched off some days before, and the Bennett-Arcane subdivision both came into camp while these preparations were under way.

The Briers, traveling by themselves despite the father's objections, had reached Forty-Mile Canyon, in eastern Nevada, when the storm occurred that gave Doty water enough to enable him to reach the Amargosa. They remained there for a week to recuperate, though the oxen suffered much from cold. On leaving, the oxen were laden with necessities and the wagons were burned, together with everything that was not considered necessary for traveling. Mrs. Brier, writing in later years, termed this action a fatal step. Somewhere between there and Death Valley the Briers fell in with the Bennett-Manly train. On the way they came upon a number of small squashes, cached by Indians, and took them. In view of the scarcity of provender among the Indians of that dreary region, it is not surprising that the natives sought vengeance, to the extent of a night attack on the camp. Arrows were shot into three oxen.

This party entered Death Valley by rounding the southern end of the Funerals, instead of toiling across as the Jayhawkers had. Mrs. Brier's account tells that her oldest boy. Kirk, aged nine years, gave out. She carried him on her back until he said he could walk. He made a manful effort, stumbling along for a while, then sank down and cried that he could go no farther. His heroic mother would then pick him up and carry him again. Though often falling to her knees from weakness, she got her little brood safely into the Death Valley camp.

The Martin party did not tarry. They were in marching order, and on leaving gave all their oxen to the Bennett-Brier camp, saying they could progress better without them. Martin struck out straight westward, his men carrying on their backs the things they deemed essential. While they were crossing one of the ranges, a man named Ischam, who had left the Doty party, as will be hereafter mentioned, struggled into their camp and died there. They crossed to the south of Saline Valley and reached Owens Lake.

Hostile Indians were found at the lake and some skirmishing resulted, without harm to anyone. While they were there a snow fell and no fire could be made. Believing the lake to be of the playa kind, like so many with which they had become familiar on the desert, they were about to undertake to wade it, when one of the party found the old trail made by Walker's last party. A friendly Indian advised them to follow it, which they did, through Walker's Pass to safety.

From the accounts it appears clear that the Jayhawkers under Doty struck out from the Death Valley camp without encouraging Bennett and his party to accompany them. Brier again refused to accept dismissal, and forced himself and family in with them. Two days later Doty rejoined Bennett, and the two subdivisions were together at some camps, apart at others. The Jayhawkers' departure was, therefore, not a desertion but a following out of the plan of travel all the way.

Doty believed that the best way out was to the northward. On the way he found good water. He turned westerly from that spring and climbed the Panamint range. They came upon the body of an ox, for which none of the stories account. They cut out what seemed to be the best of the meat, but after making a supper from it the remainder was thrown away. Darkness came on before they found a camping place, and to their astonishment they saw a fire ahead. They found at it a traveler who had wandered from one of the other parties. They expected that the next day would reveal the valley of Los Angeles, west of the range they were climbing. Instead, on reaching the summit they beheld another lake, which they concluded to be another saline deposit. This was probably in Panamint Valley. The party divided, and each person made his own way across the valley. Some found good water; others found a supply of mesquite beans, in which unfortunately they saw no food value. On the west, or probably southwest, side the party reunited and toiled up a canyon. Near its head wet ground gave hope of finding water, but digging produced no results. Here one of the men, named Fish, died, and his body was left lying upon the ground.

A gentle grade sloped down from the next summit. A large lake was visible far to the left; from the descriptions given, this was probably Searles borax lake. Half way down the slope Ischam gave out, and was left. A little farther on one of the scattered men found a small spring of good water and called the others to it.

Here there is a contradiction in the accounts.

The statement has been made that Ischam wandered into the Martin camp, and died there, and that this was at a point from which "Owens Lake was reached. Colton's story is that from the spring mentioned in the last paragraph, certainly many miles south of Martin's course, a detachment went back to rescue Ischam. They found him alive, but with his tongue and throat so swollen that he could not swallow the water they gave him. While the rescuers were with him, says Colton, he died, and was buried in a shallow grave in the sand. Wherever this victim of the desert breathed his last, doubtless more than one of those with him wondered how soon his owm turn would come to sink to rest in the desert and see, with scarcely comprehending eyes, his comrades pass on to escape a like fate.

An ox was killed at this spring, and the party was refreshed by the rest, good water and such poor sustenance as the carcass afforded. Proceeding, the party came upon a trail at a point south of Walker's Pass. Mindful of the Donner party's fate in the winter of 1846-7, Doty feared to undertake to cross the Sierras, the snowcrowned summits of which were visible ahead, so he turned south. At another spring some bunch grass was found, and the emaciated oxen were given a day's rest. One of them was slaughtered. Such were the straits of the men that hardly a part of the animal was wasted. The blood was saved for food. The intestines were cleansed with the fingers; the hair was singed from the hide, and all was roasted and eaten. One man softened the end of a liorii in the fire and gnawed the softened part. Many bones of cattle were seen along the trail, evidence that others—possibly the Mexicans who did some journeying into the desert—had come to grief in the same region. A man wandered from this camp, and was supposed to have perished until he was found in an Indian camp, years afterward.

The Brier family reached this camp before Doty left it, and were given portions of the slain ox. While Mrs. Brier was preparing a piece of liver for her children, a famishing Jayhawker took it from them while her attention was diverted. Such cases were few ; the ordeals brought out more unselfishness than the reverse. No other water supply was found for four or five days, while the worn travelers slowly made their way over the seemingly endless desert. The trail grew fainter and at last was wholly lost. Again small bands branched off to hunt for water. In one of these bands was Thomas Shannon. He started a jackrabbit from a bush and shot it. Drinking its blood he became delirious and was so found by a comrade who had come on a supply of water. A drink of water improved Shannon's condition, and the men made a meal from the first wholesome food they had had for days. All the others rallied to the spot except a man named Robinson, who died before reaching it and was left in his blankets.

Another day's journey brought them to snow, and on February 4, 1850, they reached running streams and pleasant surroundings. Three wild mustangs were killed, supplying a hearty meal. Going on, the adventurers came to where many cattle ranged. Two animals soon fell before their guns. While they were feasting, two Mexicans approached, and proved friendly enough when they found that the marauders were not Indians as they had thought. From then on the Doty party members were cared for, and scattered to different parts of the State.

Having seen the Doty party to safety, we return to note the misfortunes of Bennett, Manly, Arcane and associates. Manly scouted far in advance, and while so doing he came on the carcass of an ox, from the thigh of which some meat had been cut. The sun had dried the flesh at the edge of the cut, and Manly made a meal of this raw dried beef. On Christmas Day he returned to the Brier camp, at that time distant from Doty's. He records that Brier was delivering a lecture on education, his family being his sole audience— a strange proceeding, Manly remarks, considering that the sole need at the time seemed to be something to sustain life.

Brier started on the next morning, and Manly found some scraps of bacon that had been thrown away at the camp. They seemed to him the best morsels he had ever tasted. Bennett's wagons were some miles back, and he rejoined them. Wild geese were heard overhead at night, and this was interpreted to mean that Owens Lake could not be far away. The next day he walked over the salt-crusted floor of Death Valley, and at dusk reached the campfire of the Doty party, then preparing to abandon their wagons. Meantime Bennett's gaunt oxen had dragged the wagons to Furnace Creek, to which he returned. The next stopping place was the "last camp," the location of which was much debated in after years. Manly 's record indicates the spot as follows: Camped at a faint stream since named Furnace Creek ; out of the canyon and into the valley ; due south, distance not stated ; across to the west side ; the second night from Furnace Creek at a spring of good water coming from a high mountain which he says is now called Telescope Peak, This was the real "last camp." The party journeyed eight miles farther, reaching a sulphur spring on the top of a curious mound, from which return was made to the good water.

There was, however, more than one of the "last camps." The Jayhawkers burned their wagons a few miles from Furnace Creek, at a place later called Lost Wagons. The Bennett camp, most prominent of all because of the long stay made there and the prolonged hardships of its occupants, was undoubtedly at Bennett's Wells, on the west side of Death Valley sink, and 260 feet below sea level. The water is brackish with salt and sulphate of soda, but is usable. Four of the ox-team drivers concluded to strike out for themselves. Two of these were named Helmer and Abbott. It is probable that one of these was the individual whom the Jayhawkers picked up in the mountains. Two others later came into the Jayhawker camps, without having fared any better than those they had deserted.

After Bennett and party had gone back from the sulphur spring to Last Camp, a council decided that the only chance of getting any of the expedition through alive was to send out two of the strongest men as a forlorn hope, while the main party remained to await their return. W. L. Manly and John Rogers were selected for the undertaking. An ox which had given out was killed; so scanty was its flesh that seven-eighths of all of it was packed into the knapsacks of the two men. Two spoonfuls of rice and the same amount of tea was added to their stock, and after a parting which might prove to be the last they set out. Those remaining in camp were Bennett, wife and three children; Arcane, wife and son; Captain Culverwell; two Earhart brothers; and four other grown persons, besides a Mr. and Mrs. Wade and their three children, who traveled the same course as the others but kept in a camp of their own. The Brier family were traveling in a free-lance fashion, as has been set forth, not acceptable to the Jayhawkers and not choosing to join Bennett and Arcane.

The second day out Manly and Rogers found the body of Fish on the trail, and saw the holes the Jayhawkers had dug without finding water. Another range of mountains was crossed before Rogers found a little sheet ice, which they melted. The next night they overtook Doty and his men and were supplied with meat and water to relieve their immediate distress. They traveled on ahead, passing the advanced members of the Jayhawkers and noting the skulls of horses by the wayside.

One day after another the story was much the same until they reached fresh water in the southern Sierras. A crow, a hawk and a quail were the first fresh meat they obtained; all three birds were stewed together. On the last day of December, 1849, or the first day of January, 1850, the men emerged from a barren valley into a meadow on which cattle were grazing. A rifle shot soon supplied them with food. A traveler named Springer, on his way to the mines to the north, was met, and gave them further necessities. Reaching a ranch near San Fernando Mission they obtained two horses, small sacks of beans, wheat, coarse flour, and some dried meat. From another stockman they bought a mule and a horse, and with this equipment took the back track for Death Valley. The three horses gave out one after another, the mule being the only animal able to stand the hardships of the trip. The body of Captain Culverwell was found as they neared Last Camp.

Seven wagons had been there when they left; only four were seen as the anxious envoys looked from afar. The canvas covers were gone. Had hostile Indians exterminated the unfortunates, or had they taken three of the wagons and started in some other direction? Manly and Rogers approached within a hundred yards without seeing a sign of life; then Manly fired a shot. All was quiet for a few minutes, until a man crawled from under a wagon and looked around. His shout, "The boys have come!" electrified the camp, as well may be imagined. Bennett and Arcane caught the returned men in their arms, and Mrs. Bennett fell upon her knees and clung to Manly. Not a word was spoken, in the great emotion of all, until Mrs. Bennett exclaimed, "I know you have found some place, for you have a mule." It was some time before anyone could say anything without weeping. It had been twenty-six days since the forlorn hope had started out. All but the Bennett and Arcane families had abandoned the camp. Culverwell had set out with the last party before Manly and Eogers returned, but did not get far. Wagons were abandoned, and the little procession set out for the land of running water and wholesome food. The children were slung in improvised "aparejos," made of stout shirts sewn together and thrown across the backs of oxen. The extreme emaciation of the animals did not prevent their bucking because of the unusual burden, and another camp had to be made to straighten out the tangle. The next day the party took its last view of the dreary surroundings, someone uttering: "Good-bye, Death Valley!" This appears to be the correct story of its naming.

The oxen became reconciled to their loads, and the women walked. In one place it became necessary to lower the beasts over a precipice by means of their crude canvas harness. Day by day the party moved along, with the important advantage over former experiences that they now had a better supply of food and some idea of their course. These facts did not, however, keep some of the weaker members from giving up hope, in spite of the assurances of Manly and Eogers, until discouragement finally ruled almost as it had before. Men, women and children were wasted, almost barefoot, and in tatters. The little ones cried for water that was not to be had. At last the melancholy procession passed through Red Rock Canyon and to a joyous resting place at springs not far from the southern end of that strangely sculptured defile. Strengthened and heartened, they pressed on, reaching snow in the Sierras nineteen days after leaving Death Valley. Toll was taken from the first herd of cattle found, and they were soon being cared for by the generous hospitality of the pioneer settlers.

This is a concentration of the most reliable accounts of that fearful experience. As stated earlier, there are contradictions without any sure indication of the true version ; there are tales differing considerably from and doubtless less correct than this narration. Allowing for the differences mentioned, it is the story of the participants themselves, hence to be accepted beyond any of the distortions and variations which have crept into print at one time or another. J. B. Colton, of the Jayhawkers, wrote that four of his party perished in the Funeral Mountains, and that the range got its name from that fact. All other accounts agree that his detachment, commanded by Doty, reached the Panamint Range, west of Death Valley, before any of its members died, and that the death of Robinson, one of the four, occurred not far from the base of the Sierras. Colton stated that a dozen stragglers followed the expedition into Death Valley and that all perished from thirst and starvation; and that another train of thirty persons lowered their wagons into Death Valley by means of ropes and that all but two or three died while hunting for water. Having in mind the care with which Manly reviewed all details, his traveling back and forth between the parties, his having been over the ground after Colton and associates had gone on, and the fact that he makes no mention of these occurrences, the Colton account lacks confirmation and seems improbable.

While the foregoing travel details tell of but three of the seven companies, it is to be remembered that (according to Manly) the rest went southward with Hunt and reached Los Angeles safely. There may have been individuals who struck out independently on the Jayhawkers ' trail and fared badly. Some names are mentioned more or less casually in one or another of the accounts without statement of what befell them. The Wade family is mentioned as being near Last Camp, without information as to what became of its members; likewise a Mr. Towne and family (hence Towne's Pass, in the Funeral Range) were connected with the expedition in some way not explained.

Different accounts say that eleven men left the Jayhawkers far east of Death Valley and that all but two perished. Manly explicitly states that these nine, the four Jayhawkers who died after leaving Death Valley, and Captain Culverwell summed up the death list. Whatever others may have died there later, the evidence is that Culverwell was the only one who died in Death Valley itself.

Every account of the expedition pays tribute to Mrs. Brier. "She was a better man than her husband," wrote one. Manly says: "All agreed that she was the best man in the (Brier) party. She was the one who put the packs on the oxen in the morning. She it was who took them off at night, built the fires, helped the children, cooked the food, and did all sorts of work when the father of the family was too tired, which was almost all the time. It seemed almost impossible that one little woman could do so much. It was entirely due to her untiring devotion that her husband and children lived."

It is to be borne in mind that this grim tragedy occurred in midwinter, at the most favorable time of year for such a journey. The furnace-like heat that means death to travelers lost in that inferno was missing at that season; the dangers were in lack of water and sustenance. East of Death Valley lie hundreds of miles of desert, and every resource of the Forty-Niners was dangerously reduced. Had the expedition been undertaken in midsummer, probably few of the members would have survived to reach Death Valley, and none would have passed that formidable barrier. Dr. S. G. George and party, visiting Death Valley in 1860, found unmistakable traces of the Death Valley party. Indians had drawn, on a smooth clay bed near one of the camps, a record of the occurrence. Men and women were shown, with children slung in bags across the backs of oxen, in single file, headed in the direction taken by Bennett. No rain had destroyed the .drawings in a decade. Numerous relics were found and given to different collections. Iron work of wagons, chains, cooking utensils and other articles were picked up by different visitors, many of the metal objects as free from rust as on the day they were discarded. Most of such finds went to the Society of California Pioneers, and like all else of interest in the society's museum were lost in the great fire of 1906.

The bones of animals noted by Manly and Doty indicated that earlier travelers had braved the same perils. It is alleged that the Mexicans traveled the wastes, as "the old Spanish trail" goes to show, and probably they were the principal sufferers. There may have been other venturesome souls who, like many in later years on those deserts, simply dropped from human ken. The George party found parts of skeletons near one of the springs. In one place a woman's skeleton, partly covered by a ragged calico garment, was found.

The Jayhawkers, though scattered to many different localities, held occasional reunions for many years. The last of these was at Mrs. Brier's home at Lodi, California, in 1911. Five of the party were living at that time, and three of them attended the reunion. Mrs. Brier died in 1913, at the age of 99 years. Manly died in San Jose in 1903, aged 83.

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