Death Valley '49ers

Death Valley '49ers

The Death Valley '49ers were a group of pioneers from the Eastern United States that endured a long difficult journey during the late 1840s California Gold Rush to prospect in the Sutter's Fort area of the Central Valley and Sierra Nevada in California. Their route from Utah went through the Great Basin Desert in Nevada, and Death Valley and the Mojave Desert in Southern California, in attempting to reach the Gold Country. [1]


The Gold Rush

On January 24, 1848 James W. Marshall and his crew found gold at Sutter's Mill in Coloma, California. This discovery would lure tens of thousands of people from the United States and foreign nations. People packed their belongings and began to travel by covered wagon to what they hoped would be new and better life. Since the first great influx of these pioneers began in 1849, they are generally referred to as 49ers.

The Start

Routes to California in 1849

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 impassable.

Only a couple of years before, a group of pioneers called the Donner 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 Donner Party were still fresh on everyone's mind when a group of wagons arrived at Salt Lake City in October 1849. This was much too late to try to cross the mountains safely and the appeared the group would have to wait out the winter in Salt Lake City. Hearing about the Old Spanish Trail, a route that went around the south end of the Sierras and was safe to travel in the winter but which no pioneer wagon trains had ever tried to follow it, they found a guide who knew the route and would agree to lead them. [1] These individuals would become part of a story of human suffering in a place which 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. [1]

The parties Split-Up

The map showed a shortcut 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 meantime, the young man who had the map of the shortcut 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. [1]

After crossing Beaver Dam Wash the group passed through the area of present day Panaca, Nevada and crossed over "Bennetts Pass" to Del Mar Valley. Here they started having difficulty finding water but eventually found their way to Crystal Springs in the Pahranagat Valley. They continued over Hancock Summit into Tikaboo Valley and then on to Groom Lake in central Nevada. They had now been slowly making their way across the desert for almost a month since they had left the Old Spanish Trail . At Groom Lake they got into a dispute on which way to go. One group wanted to follow a well traveled Indian trail to the south in hopes of finding a good water source. The other group wanted to stay with the original plan of traveling west. [1]

The two groups eventually split and went their separate ways, but they both were to have two things in common. They were both saved from dying of thirst by a snow storm and they both ended up meeting again in a place called Ash Meadows near Amargosa Valley in the Amargosa Desert located east of Death Valley. From here they continued on, following the Amargosa River bed through present day Death Valley Junction, California, and then along the same route followed by current California State Route 190 past the Funeral Mountains. [1]

Lost pioneers in Death Valley

On Christmas Eve of 1849, the group arrived at Travertine Springs in the western facing canyon of the Amargosa Range, located about a mile from Furnace Creek Wash in Death Valley itself. [1]

The lost pioneers had now been traveling across the desert for about two months since leaving the Old Spanish Trail. Their oxen were weak from lack of forage and their wagons were battered and in poor shape. They too were weary and discouraged but their worst problem was not the valley that lay before them. It was the towering Panamint Range mountains to the west that stood like an impenetrable wall as far as could be seen in both directions.

They decided to head toward what appeared to be a pass to the north near present day Stovepipe Wells, California, but after discovering this was also impassable, decided they were going to have to leave their wagons and belongings behind and walk to civilization. They slaughtered several oxen and used the wood of their wagons to cook the meat and make jerky. The place where they did this is today referred to as "Burned Wagons Camp", present day Burnt Wagons, California, and is located near the sand dunes of Death Valley. From here, they began climbing toward Towne Pass and then turned south over Emigrant Pass to Wildrose Canyon in the Panamint Range. [1] After crossing the mountains and dropping down into Panamint Valley, they turned south and climbed a small pass into Searles Valley, with Searles Lake, before making their way into Indian Wells Valley near the present day city of Ridgecrest, California. It was here that they finally got their first look at the Sierra Nevada (U.S.) Mountains. They turned south, probably following a trail and traveled across Fremont Valley, close to the same route followed by current California State Route 14. Ironically, they walked right by Walker Pass, present day California State Route 178 to Lake Isabella, the mountain pass they had set out to look for almost three months earlier. [1]

Passing by Walker Pass, they entered into what was to become the worst part of their journey, across the Mojave Desert and its Antelope Valley. This is a region with very few water sources to be found. The only things that saved them from dying of thirst were a few puddles of water and ice from a recent storm. Eventually they found their way over a pass in the Sierra Pelona Mountains near Palmdale, California and, following the Santa Clara River, were finally discovered and rescued by Mexican Californios cowboys from Rancho Ex-Mission San Fernando, located near present day Santa Clarita Valley.


Legends, dramatic but untrue of these lost pioneers has often focused only on the Death Valley experiences, when other Nevada and California desert regions were also traversed.

  • All of the pioneers died which is why they call it Death Valley. Actually only one person died in Death Valley, an elderly man named Culverwell, who was half dead from the ordeals he met with in the two months these pioneers traveled across the Nevada desert before arriving at Death Valley.)
  • It was very hot when the pioneers crossed Death Valley. Actually they arrived there in December, the winter. During this time of the year, it was extremely cold in the higher elevations of the Nevada Great Basin Desert and the pioneers were saved from dying of thirst by a snow storm and by sheets of ice on puddles of water. The most comfortable temperatures they encountered on their journey were in Death Valley, which that make it a popular winter resort and tourist destination.
  • There was no water in Death Valley. Actually the pioneers found a large spring, Travertine Springs, with an output of 2,000 gallons of water per minute. They also found water at Salt Creek and Wildrose Canyon as well as snow on Pinto Peak.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Lost 49ers; article by Roger Brandt; Ranger, National Park Service; public domain U.S. government NPS website

External links

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