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Death Valley Lost 49ers

Subdeacon Joe

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In January of 1848, gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill in California and people from all over the United States packed their belongings and began to travel by wagon to what they hoped would be new and better life. Since most of these pioneers began their exodus to California in 1849, they are generally referred to as 49ers. One of the supply points along the trail was Salt Lake City, where pioneers prepared for the long journey across the Great Basin desert before climbing over the High Sierra Mountains to the gold fields of California. It was important to leave Salt Lake City and cross the desert before snow began to fall on the Sierra Mountains, making them impassible. Only a couple of years before, a group of pioneers called the Donnor Party left late out of Salt Lake City and was trapped by a storm, an event that became one of the greatest human disasters of that day and age. The stories of the Donnor Party were still fresh on everyone's mind when a group of wagons arrived at Salt Lake City in October of 1849. This was much too late to try to cross the mountains safely, and it looked like these wagons were going to have to wait out the winter in Salt Lake City. It was then that they heard about the Old Spanish Trail, a route that went around the south end of the Sierras and was safe to travel in the winter. The only problems were that no pioneer wagon trains had ever tried to follow it and they could only find one person in town who knew the route and would agree to lead them. As this wagon train left Salt Lake City, some of these people would become part of a story of human suffering in a place they named Death Valley.


The first two weeks of travel on the Old Spanish Trail were easy, but the going was slower than most of the travelers wanted. The leader of the group, Captain Jefferson Hunt, would only go as fast as the slowest wagon in the group. Just as the people were about to voice their dissent, a young man rode into camp and showed some of the people a map made by John Fremont on one of his exploratory trips through the area.





The map showed a short cut across the desert to a place called Walker Pass. Everyone agreed that this would cut off 500 miles from their journey so most of the 120 wagons decided to follow this map while the other wagons continued along the Old Spanish Trail with Captain Hunt.


The point where these wagons left the Old Spanish Trail is near the present day town of Enterprise, Utah where a monument (Jefferson Hunt Monument) has been constructed to commemorate this historic event. Almost as soon as these people began their journey, they found themselves confronted with the precipitous obstacle of Beaver Dam Wash, a gaping canyon on the present day Utah-Nevada state line (Beaver Dam State Park, Nevada). Most of the people became discouraged and turned back to join Jefferson Hunt, but about 20 wagons decided to continue on. It was a tedious chore getting the wagons across the canyon and took several days. In the mean time, the young man who had the map of the short cut got impatient and, under the cloak of darkness, left the group. Despite the fact that the group didn't have a map, they decided to continue on thinking that all they had to do was go west and they would eventually find the pass.



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One of the men in this group was a William Manly.  He wrote a book about his experiences on this trip called "Death Valley in 49".  Its an excellent read.

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