The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 2003, Volume 49, Number 2
Gregg Hennessey, Editor

Book Review

Matthew F. Bokovoy, Book Review Editor

Death Valley in ‘49.

By William Lewis Manly. Leroy and Jean Johnson, ed. Foreword by Patricia Nelson Limerick. Berkeley, CA: Heyday Books, 2001. annotations, notes. 399 pp. $18.95 paper.

Reviewed by Mark R. Ellis, Assistant Professor, History Department, University of Nebraska at Kearney

Sometime in late February 1850, William Lewis Manly and a small group of beleaguered overland emigrants climbed out of Death Valley along its western rim. Looking back over their shoulders at the valley that had been their prison for over three months, Manly reportedly muttered to his friends, “Good-bye, Death Valley.” With those words spoken, Manly is generally credited with giving Death Valley its morbid name.

Death Valley in ’49 is Manly’s gripping firsthand account of his struggles to find a route out of Death Valley and his valiant effort to save several families who were out of supplies and could no longer travel. Manly was a footloose adventurer who as a young man eked out a living as a hunter and trapper on the Great Lakes frontier. In 1849, wanderlust and the lure of gold pulled the twenty-eight year old to California. After several mishaps, including an ill-advised journey by boat down the Green River, Manly and his traveling partners stumbled into Salt Lake City, too late in the season to cross into California via the more direct northerly route (this was just three years after the tragedy of the Donner Party). Rather than winter in Salt Lake City, Manly joined a wagon train that was bound for Southern California. Disputes with their Mormon guide soon splintered the wagon train into multiple groups who struck out across the desert on various uncharted paths, putting them on a collision course with the hostile terrain of Death Valley. The group of families with whom Manly was traveling soon found themselves low on supplies and unable to push on. Manly and another young man were selected to find their way through the desert to California and bring back help. For fourteen days the pair stumbled through Death Valley and climbed through mountain passes before descending into California where the residents of a Mexican rancho offered generous assistance. Suffering great hardships, the pair returned to their companions with food and supplies and guided them out of Death Valley and into California.

Death Valley in ’49 covers much more than the hardships experienced by Manly in his escape from Death Valley. The first few chapters discuss Manly’s early life in Michigan and Wisconsin while closing chapters deal with his return trips to Death Valley later in life. Several chapters highlight the experiences of other overland parties who also found themselves trapped in Death Valley at the same time as Manly. Manly’s account is not only high adventure but it provides valuable insights into the daily trials and tribulations of the overland experience. The narrative, for example, depicts how overland wagon trains organized, established leadership, and dealt with day-to-day decisions. Manly’s narrative is a clear reminder that death and disease were tragic components of overland migration. Manly’s language also reflects nineteenth-century biases and prejudices towards Mormons and Indians.

Manly’s incredible story first appeared in print in The Santa Clara Valley, an agricultural periodical. Titled, “From Vermont to California,” Manly recounted his harrowing adventure in thirty-eight monthly columns during the late 1880s. In preparing to compile his serialized account into a book, Manly contacted as many survivors as possible to ensure that he had the whole story. With the help of an editorial assistant who did much of the writing, Death Valley in ’49 was first published as a book in 1894.

The editors, Leroy and Jean Johnson, experts on all things to do with Death Valley, have thoroughly cited Manly’s narrative, pointing out inaccuracies and providing additional historical information that enhance the book. The Johnsons, who have obviously retraced Manly’s route through Death Valley, also provide modern day names for rivers and lakes, mountains and valleys, and other locales that he saw in 1849-50. A better, more detailed map and perhaps a few photographs or images of Death Valley would make this an even better read. Renowned historian, Patricia Limerick, also contributes with a thought-provoking introduction that outlines the significance of Manly’s work. “When you finish reading Death Valley in ’49,” Limerick suggests, “you may feel as if you should find someone in need and offer your help,” just as Manly did by guiding his doomed traveling partners out of Death Valley.

Until reading Death Valley in ’49, I had never experienced a book that parched my mouth from thirst nor made my stomach growl from hunger pangs. For those who open the cover of this book and begin turning pages, William Lewis Manly’s account of crossing Death Valley on foot while nearly dying from thirst will certainly produce similar physical and perhaps emotional reactions. Death Valley in ’49 will be of interest to a general readership and is a must read for students and scholars of the overland experience.