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William Lewis Manly’s description of his harrowing ordeal in Death Valley was appropriate literally and figuratively.
Photo: William Lewis Manly is shown below.
William Lewis Manly and John Rogers filled their canteens with brackish water, loaded their rifles, and stuffed as much ox meat as they could fit into their makeshift packs. Striking west from near Furnace Creek Wash in early 1850, they shouldered the forlorn hopes of a dozen men, women, and children lost in the Nevada-California desert for three months.
They were the remnants of a wagon train of 500 people who, eager to reach California’s gold fields, refused to wait out the winter in Salt Lake City. But with the Donner Party’s fate three years earlier fresh in their minds, the emigrants were hesitant to chance crossing Northern Nevada via the California Trail. Instead, with a guide, they planned to head southwest along the Old Spanish Trail to Los Angeles, then turn north to the mines.
Shortly after crossing what is today the Nevada-Utah state line, many of the emigrants placed their hopes on a dubious map showing a shortcut across the Great Basin to the mines. Most found the terrain along the “shortcut” too rough, returned to the trail, and reached California in due course. The rest plodded on, hardship and disagreement splintering them into smaller and smaller groups.
Manly’s and Rogers’ group, including Asahel and Sarah Bennett with their three children and Jean Baptiste and Abigail Arcan with their baby boy, and several others, struggled across Nevada. A month’s trek found them at the base of the Timpahute Range in modern Lincoln County, their oxen weak from lack of forage and the children begging for water. It was here they finally thought they found deliverance. “We had been without water for 24 hours, when suddenly there broke into view to the south a splendid sheet of water,” remembered one traveler, a boy at the time. “[But] as we hurried toward it, the vision faded, and near midnight we halted on the rim of a basin of mud, with a shallow pool of brine.”
The mirage was one of dozens of trials the party faced as it drifted toward one of the most desolate patches on earth. After another month of broken wagons, lame oxen, and American Indian depredations, the Bennett-Arcan Party found itself stranded near Furnace Creek Wash, reduced to slaughtering draft animals for the meager sustenance their emaciated carcasses offered.
It was here two heroes emerged.
The youngest and fittest of the group, Manly and Rogers, were selected to go for help. The two loaded what food, water, and clothing they could carry, along with $60—all the money in camp—and headed west while the others waited at a spring and rationed their remaining food.
Ten days and 250 miles into a grueling trek through the Amargosa Desert, Manly and Rogers staggered parched and lame from another mountain pass and into a most welcome sight. “There before us was a beautiful meadow…and over the broad acres of luxuriant grass was a herd of cattle,” Manly later wrote. This, thankfully, was no mirage. The friends located a stream and dispatched a calf. “How we felt the strength come back to us with that food and the long draughts of pure clear water,” Manly continued.
The relief Manly and Rogers felt upon reaching Rancho San Francisquito (northwest of Los Angeles) was palpable, but their ordeal was far from over, for their moral obligation would find them plunging back through the unforgiving desert not once, but twice more in the coming month.
At Rancho San Francisquito they bought three horses, a mule, sacks of beans and flour, and an orange for each of the four children they had left behind. Spurred by desperation, Manly and Rogers drove the animals hard, and the horses soon gave out. But “our little mule…stood the work the best of anyone. The mule had no shoes, and it was wonderful how her little hoofs clung to the smooth rocks. We put the dreary steps steadily one forward of another, the little mule the only unconcerned one of the party,” Manly recalled.
Even as Manly and Rogers threaded their way over California’s Panamint Mountains and through narrow passes and rocky, dusty terrain, several they left at the spring lost faith in the duo.
Believing that “if those boys ever get out of this cussed hole, they are damned fools if they ever come back to help anybody,” Captain Richard Culverwell packed out. Culverwell turned back but perished before he could return to the camp. Rogers and Manly found his body on their return trip. Henry Wade, his wife, and four children, who followed and camped near the Bennetts and Arcans for most of the odyssey, found their way through the desert to the Mojave River and escaped via the Old Spanish Trail.
As the families’ camp finally loomed, Manly’s and Rogers’ hearts sank. Three of the seven wagons they had left were gone, and the others had been burned. There was no sign of their friends. “The thought of our hard struggles between life and death to go out and return, with the fruitless results that now seemed apparent, was almost more than the human heart could bear,” Manly wrote. “When should we know their fate? When should we find their remains? If ever two men were troubled, Rogers and I surely passed through the furnace.”
But eventually the camp stirred, and when Bennett spied the figures in the distance, he erupted with shouts of “The boys have come! You have saved us all!”
The travelers nourished themselves for a few days, made packs for the oxen, then headed toward Los Angeles, abandoning their wagons. As they reached a high point on their exodus, they paused to remember their struggles and give thanks. A lone voice summed up their ordeals and gave the barren landscape the name it’s known by to this day: “Goodbye, Death Valley.”