In the May 2017 Issue...

William Lewis Manly

Remembering the Death Valley Ordeal of 1849

Tombstone Epitaphhe trouble began near Independence Rock, a touchstone of sorts for thousands of Oregon- and California-bound overland emigrants. As fall 1849 approached, William Lewis Manly and his fellow travelers were faced with an upsetting truth. If the dream had been to reach California’s goldfields via the so-called northern route before winter, the reality was something else: There was no way they could get their wagons, their stock, and themselves up and over the Sierra Nevada before the snow flew.

U. S. Army soldiers confirmed the worst: “They said we were entirely too late to get through to California, on account of crossing the Sierra Nevada mountains, which, they said would be covered with snow by late November, or even earlier, and that we would be compelled to winter at Salt Lake.” So wrote Manly several decades later in Death Valley in ’49, an account of the “sufferings of the band of men, women and children” who named the centerpiece of one of the nation’s best-known national parks.

The unwelcome news left Manly’s party, which had coalesced in St. Joseph, Mo., with an unappealing option, insofar as the 29-year-old Vermont native saw the situation. The group could wait out the winter in Salt Lake, the Mormon settlement in northern Utah. It was not the months-long delay that bothered Manly; it was his disdain for adherents of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Mormons were considered pariahs by mainline Christians, which is why the Saints had moved from Illinois to Missouri to Utah. “I had known of their history…and the prospect of being thrown in among them with no money to buy bread was a very sorry prospect for me,” Manly wrote. “We began to think that the only way to get along at all in Salt Lake would be to turn Mormons, and none of us had any belief or desire that way.”

The fear of being a stranger in a strange land only grew in the days following the stop at Independence Rock, where Manly searched in vain for the name of an old friend, Asabel Bennett, from whom he became separated weeks earlier near the Missouri River. The separation was particularly hard on Manly because his “outfit,” including a gun, clothing, and other possessions – the stuff needed to get to California − was in Bennett’s wagons.

“I spent all the time I could hunting for Mr. Bennett’s name, but I could not find it anywhere,” Manly wrote. “To have found his name, and thus to know that he had passed safely past this point would have been a little re-assuring in those rather doubtful days.”

Doubtful indeed. After crossing the northern Rocky Mountains at wagon-friendly South Pass, Manly arrived at Pacific Springs on the Green River, a stem of the Colorado River. Manly and several companions began to wonder aloud if they could somehow bypass Salt Lake (and the feared Mormons) and get to the Pacific Ocean by river.

“We put a great many ‘ifs’ together and they amounted to about this: If the stream were large enough; if we had a boat; if we knew the way; if we had plenty of provisions; if we were bold enough to set out on such a trip, etc., we might come out at some point or other on the Pacific Ocean.” One of the ‘ifs’ no longer was an ‘if’ – all Manly’s party had to do was to look at the Green River right in front of them. After learning from an Army soldier that the Green and its successor reached the Pacific, the other ‘ifs’ seemed less iffy. Despite being told “we had no obstacles except cataracts, which they had heard were pretty bad,” the entire proposition – to reach California by river – didn’t seem iffy at all.

So Manly and other drivers working for Charles Dallas “threw down their whips,” a demonstrative sign they were all in for the river route. Dallas paid Manly $60 for his Winnebago pony – a companion since Manly left Wisconsin – and agreed to sell the Green River Seven enough flour and bacon to see them on their way. “So we parted company, the little train moving on its way westward,” Manly recalled. “Our military captain, the soldier boys, and the gay young lady taking the route to Oregon, and we sitting on the bank of the river whose waters flowed to the great Pacific. Each company wished the other luck, we took a few long breaths and then set to work to carry out our plans.”

Another ‘if’ on the list – the boat needed for river travel – appeared by what must have seemed to be divine providence. Manly’s group found an abandoned ferry boat, 12 feet long by 6 feet wide, mired in sand along the riverbank. After also finding two oars in the sand, Manly was sure they’d made the right call. “It looked as if we were taking the most sensible way to get to the Pacific, and almost wondered that everybody was so blind as to not see it as we did.” So off they went – Manly, M. S. McMahon, Charles and Joseph Hazelrig, Richard Field, Alfred Watson, and John Rogers. Moving down the Green River with “ease and comfort,” Manly said, the men were “feeling much happier than we would had we been going toward Salt Lake with the prospect of wintering there.”


About Those Cataracts

Tombstone Epitaphast Ham’s Fork, the group got its first taste of “a rapid roaring river” studded with “many dangerous rocks that were difficult to shun.” While using a pole to guide the boat around a rock, Manly was suddenly catapulted into the river. He wasn’t hurt, later writing that “such things must be expected” when seven men are gliding along in a small boat. “As near as we could estimate we floated about thirty miles a day, which beat the pace of tired oxen considerably.”

They reached Brown’s Hole in northwestern Colorado on the fifth day. Just below Brown’s Hole are the Gates of Lodore, where nearly vertical rock cliffs tower above the river channel. Manly, remembering he’d seen Brown’s Hole marked on a government map, feared the worst. “I told the boys I guess we were elected to go on foot to California after all, for I did not proposed to follow the river down any sort of hole into any mountain.” They weren’t in an actual hole, of course, but it sure seemed like one. Describing the “deep, dark canyons,” Manly wrote, “This was really an immense crack or crevice, certainly 2,000 feet deep and perhaps much more…Each seemed to lean in toward the water as it rose.”

The dark shadows took their toll. Were they still in United States territory? Had any white men traveled the river before? What lay around the next bend? One question was answered when they saw a name and date, “ASHLEY, 1824” on a large rock. Another question was answered when their boat was upended and dashed against a large rock where the swift current held it fast. “This seemed a very sudden ending to our voyage and there were some very rapid thoughts as to whether we would not be safer among the Mormons than out in this wild country, afoot and alone. Our boat was surely lost beyond hope, and something must be done.”

(The full version of this story appears in our print edition. To subscribe, click here.)

Our other May features…

Founding of The Tombstone Epitaph – In 1879, as a publisher in Tucson, John P. Clum had heard the stories of the “wonderfully rich” silver discoveries in Tombstone. By early 1880, Clum no longer could stay away from the lively town with the deathly name. After selling his interest in the Arizona Citizen and purchasing necessary newspaper printing equipment, Clum was off to Tombstone, where he and partner Thomas Sorin launched The Tombstone Epitaph on May 1, 1880. “Millions In It.,” the headline over a Page 1 story, suggested the arc of the busy camp’s fortunes since 1878, when the Schieffelin brothers and Richard Gird filed the area’s first silver claim. “No Tombstone is complete without its epitaph,” Clum quipped in an introductory editorial.

You Mean That’s Gold? – As winter 1849 approached, a group of California-bound gold seekers decided they’d need to take the generally snow-free “southern route” via Los Angeles to get to their intended destination. Opting to follow the Old Spanish Trail through the eastern Mojave Desert, the group passed near Salt Springs, about 30 miles north of present-day Baker, Calif. Taking little interest in the brackish water and rocky hills, the group was happy to press on toward Southern California. But two men who knew what gold looked like gathered some samples and later returned to Salt Springs, thereby launching the Mojave Desert’s first gold mine.

Lon Megargee, Artist and Rascal – Artists often have stories to tell – or not tell – and that’s certainly true for Lon Megargee, a lifelong bad boy who holds a unique place in Arizona’s history following statehood in 1912. Anyone who goes to the state capitol in Phoenix can see Megargee’s artistic contributions to Arizona, and likely applaud them. As for the artist, well, that might be quite a different story.

And Much MoreOur regular features, including Frontier Fare, YesterWest, the Adventures of Randy Jones and Booger Red, Twisted Tails, and the antics of the Buffalo Gals.


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