PSR Relax

Death Valley '49er Trails & How Artifacts Can Confound Unwary


     Argonauts who arrived in Salt Lake City late in 1849 were fearful of attempting a Sierra Nevada crossing—the horrors of the Donner Party were fresh in their minds. And, some of the Argonauts were short of rations. The new Mormon community of Salt Lake City did not have sufficient vittles to tide these emigrants over the winter so Captain Jefferson Hunt, a Mormon, agreed to lead 107 wagons southwesterly over a trail he helped pioneer that ended in Los Angeles.

     When the Hunt train reached southwestern Utah, it split up. On November 2, one hundred wagons headed directly west (from near today's Enterprise, Utah). All but twenty-seven wagons returned to the Old Spanish Trail and followed Captain Hunt to California. These adventurous—and foolhardy—emigrants were following the mythical "Walker's cut off" to the gold fields that would save them 500 miles and a month of travel. Eventually, after extreme hardships along the mythical trail, they blundered into Death Valley during Christmas week. William B. Rood (also spelled Rude and Roods) was a member of this group that eventually became known as the Death Valley '49ers. The sub-group he belonged to called themselves Jayhawkers.


     In early summer 1936, Tom Wilson (a Panamint Shoshone) led "Rocky" Cochran and "Buddy" Wells into a nameless canyon in the Panamint Range so they could see where Tom obtained water for his horses. At the small spring, one mile from the mouth of the canyon, they found inscribed on a large basalt boulder "1849 W.B.R." The "W.B.R." stood for William B. Rood, a member of the Jayhawker faction of the Death Valley '49ers.

     Carl I. Wheat, in his Trailing the Forty-Niners through Death Valley (1939:18) proclaimed "here, then, was the long-sought proof of the actual route of at least one of the Jayhawkers." Also near the rock Rood inscribed is a gigantic basalt boulder where James Hitchens pecked "J. Hitchens 1860." Hitchens was a member of the Darwin French prospecting party seeking the fabled Lost Gunsight Lead. Soon the canyon and the spring were officially named for the Jayhawkers—Jayhawker Canyon and Jayhawker Spring. Two years after finding the first Rood inscription, two National Park employees discovered a second boulder that Rood inscribed. It is located beside an ancient Indian trail that goes north from Jayhawker Canyon into an unnamed canyon then continues more or less on the contour into Lemoinge Canyon. On this boulder he pecked "W. B. Roods 1849."

     The Jayhawkers burned their wagons in Death Valley at McLean Spring, near a place now called Jayhawker Well, six miles southeast of the Sand Dunes. Rood was a member of this party. When they left the well they packed on their backs and the backs of their oxen a few items they would need for a forced march to civilization. Some of the men even left their pistols and rifles, deeming them too heavy to carry. A few of the Jayhawkers thought the range before them—the Panamint Range—was the Coast Mountains pictured on Fremont's map and, if so, the fertile fields of California were just over the mountain. Others thought the Panamint Range was the Sierra Nevada.

     The two rocks Rood inscribed in the Panamint Range overlooking Death Valley are examples of seeing "what we want to see … [and closing] our eyes to everything else." These rocks and Wheeler's map became the foundation for a myth that stood for twenty-three years.

     These two inscriptions are skillfully pecked; therefore, I hypothesize Rood inscribed them with a hammer and chisel. It is highly unlikely—in fact, highly improbable—Rood would have carried heavy tools as part of his personal equipment during his life-saving march out of Death Valley in December 1849.

     Rood returned to Death Valley in 1869, twenty years after his hurried exodus from the valley. He was with a small party of prospectors hunting for the Lost Gunsight Lead. This mythical lead is based on a single float of silver ore one of the '49ers found as he marched out of Death Valley. When he got to civilization, he had it carved into a gun sight to replace the missing one on his rifle. This single float is the foundation of the legendary Lost Gunsight Lead. Rood also tried to find a cache of gold coins he and his traveling companions buried when they left Death Valley. He found neither the lode nor the cache.

     One of Rood's prospecting companions, George Miller, documented this trip in an article that was published fifty years later. Nowhere in this article does Miller mention these inscriptions. Even so, I've made a "logical supposition" that Rood inscribed these rocks in 1869 rather than in 1849. When Rood saw Hitchens' inscription dated 1860, he probably said to himself, "Hey, wait a minute. I was in this area in 1849 and should be given credit for my earlier presence." So he grabbed his prospector's hammer and chisel and pecked out "1849 W.B.R." The second inscription was probably pecked when his party stopped along the trail for lunch.

     Can I falsify this hypothesis? No, I cannot; nor can I prove it. But given the location of the "W. B. Roods 1849" inscription it is extremely unlikely Rood would have gone there during a forced march over the Panamint Range.

     The two Rood rocks have befuddled trail buffs and historians since the 1930s. These two rocks coupled with Wheeler's 1877 map became a classic example of historians closing their "eyes to everything else."