Tony Vagneur: Surviving Death Valley |

Tony Vagneur: Surviving Death Valley

We’ve all heard of the 1846 Donner Party, an unlucky group of California-seeking pioneers who spent a miserable and deadly winter stuck in impassable snowdrifts in the Sierra Nevada.

They were racing winter and, in their haste and naivete, bought into the prospect of a shortcut as described by charlatan explorer Lansford Hastings, an undeveloped trail Hastings himself had never traveled. This mistake, among others, cost them invaluable time and led to their being caught in the Sierra Nevada during one of the worst winters in recorded history. Before it was over, these hapless folks resorted to cannibalism to stay alive.

If the Donner Party faced hypothermia and starvation in a desolate winter hell, the “Death Valley ’49ers” faced different, but deadly odds in their quest to beat winter across the Sierra Nevada. In 1848, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in California and by the next year, the Gold Rush of ’49 was on, comprised of opportunity and gold-seeking people, goaded on by the promises of Manifest Destiny and striking it rich.

One such group, consisting of 107 covered wagons, arrived at Salt Lake City with the knowledge they were too late to reach California by conventional routes before winter. With the Donner debacle on their minds and faced with the prospect of spending the winter in Salt Lake City, these unfortunate travelers were lured by the nebulous idea of the Old Spanish Trail, which crossed the southern end of the Sierra Nevada, making winter travel possible. Naturally, they hired a guide of dubious experience and set out.

It went well at first until, trying to forge a further shortcut, their guide got them in a bind and they were forced to retrace their steps. At this point, a pack train headed to California crossed their path which carried a map drawn by Elijah Barney Ward, a former trapper who had trailed stolen horses over an unknown pass through the Sierras, one which would supposedly cut about 500 miles off their journey.

Most of the 107 wagons chose to travel this route (even though the pack train had kept the only map), until they reached what is known as Beaver Dam Wash, an almost-impossible to navigate precipice, at least with wagons. The pack train had sneaked through, single file.

It all started to fall apart at this point, with the group splitting up into various factions, most of them returning to join others on the Spanish Trail. A group of 20 remaining wagons continued on, thinking if they continued going west, they would eventually find their way around the gorge. They got around the gorge all right, but ended up in Death Valley, out of water and saved from dying of thirst only by a rare snowstorm.

The towering Panamint Mountains were a huge obstacle to the group and, at this point, almost two months after deciding to abandon the Spanish Trail, they were near the end of their ropes. Their oxen were but mere skeletons of their former selves and their food was almost gone. Two men were sent for help, their odds not good.

After waiting weeks for help to arrive, about half of the group left, with several perishing along the way. Shortly thereafter, help did return, carrying meager rations of beans and fat sheep jerky. Coming to grips with their plight, they realized they would have to walk the rest of the way across the desert if they were to survive at all.

Several of the oxen were killed for food; the wagons were burned to create fires for jerking the meat. The saved canvas tops of the wagons were fashioned into pack saddles for the remaining oxen, providing a means of hauling scant provisions and children across the desert.

Incredibly, they missed the turn to the pass they had set out to find almost three months earlier — no map — and were forced to cross the Mojave Desert and its Antelope Valley. If not for scattered mud puddles and ice from winter freeze-up, they would have all perished at that point. Eventually, they found a way over the mountains and emerged from the desert, their lives forever changed.

To partially quote William Lewis Manly, one of the men sent for help (and who did return with provisions), as the party finally surfaced from their tragic ordeal near the Santa Clarita Valley, “Such a scene of abundance and rich plenty and comfort bursting thus upon our eyes, which for months had seen only the desolation of the desert, was like getting a glimpse of paradise, and tears of joy ran down our faces.”

According to legend, one of the survivors looked over her shoulder as they crossed the mountains four months after their shortcut began, and said, “Goodbye, Death Valley,” thus giving the area its name.

Never trust someone who says, “I know a shortcut!”

Manly’s book, “Death Valley in ’49”, can be found at Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at

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