If you ever wondered how Death Valley earned its ominous name, here are dreadful stories aplenty to satisfy your curiosity. William Manly traversed the area for twelve months around 1849, and was one of the few who lived to tell the tale. According to his narrative, “Many accounts have been given to the world as to the origin of the name and by whom it was thus designated but ours were the first visible footsteps, and we the party which named it the saddest and most dreadful name that came to us first from its memories.”
The book starts out chronicling the author’s early life, including his childhood on a farm on the East Coast, and his subsequent travels to the frontier colonies of Michigan and Wisconsin. He earned a living doing odd jobs, hunting and trapping, and made his way further west until news of the Gold Rush in California reached him and he decided to head out there. He ended up leading a party of emigrant families across the desert to California, and the main part of the narrative tells the long and harrowing tale of that journey. Every step of the way was miserable, and the members of the party often cursed themselves for setting out in the first place:
Mrs. Bennett and Mrs. Arcane were in heart-rending distress. The four children were crying for water but there was not a drop to give them, and none could be reached before some time next day. The mothers were nearly crazy, for they expected the children would choke with thirst and die in their arms, and would rather perish themselves than suffer the agony of seeing their little ones gasp and slowly die. They reproached themselves as being the cause of all this trouble. For the love of gold they had left homes where hunger had never come, and often in sleep dreamed of the bounteous tables of their old homes only to be woefully disappointed in the morning.
Crazed with thirst and starving, the party split up and most of the members perished. Although he could have made it the rest of the way on his own, Manly felt he had to look after the rest of the party:
Prospects now seemed to me so hopeless, that I heartily wished I was not in duty bound to stand by the women and small children who could never reach a land of bread without assistance. If I was in the position that some of them were who had only themselves to look after, I could pick up my knapsack and gun and go off, feeling I had no dependent ones to leave behind. But as it was I felt I should be morally guilty of murder if I should forsake Mr. Bennett’s wife and children, and the family of Mr. Arcane with whom I had been thus far associated. It was a dark line of thought but I always felt better when I got around to the determination, as I always did, to stand by my friends, their wives and children let come what might.
In order to save the others, the author and one other man struck out alone to see if they could bring back help. They made it to California, where they found water and endless green fields. In a remarkably brave and selfless gesture, he went back to rescue what might be left of the party, although they had little hope that anyone would still be alive:
No signs of life were anywhere about, and 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 human heart could bear. When should we know their fate? When should we find their remains, and how learn of their sad history if we ourselves should live to get back again to settlements and life? If ever two men were troubled, Rogers and I surely passed through the furnace.
However, two of the original families were still alive, and the men succeeded in leading them to their destination after many more trials. Besides the sad and desperate tale of this particular party, the author also relates the stories of various other emigrant groups, including the ‘Jayhawkers’, a group of young men who set out west to find gold. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in desert pioneering.