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



WHEELER'S 1877 MAP OF THE DEATH VALLEY REGION

     A faulty interpretation of the Wheeler's 1877 map is an exquisite example of how a "good story … has a way of distorting the facts: [and how some people] see what … [they] want to see and close … [their] eyes to everything else."

     The first detailed map of the Death Valley region was made by 1st Lieutenant George M. Wheeler and published in 1877. He directed a reconnaissance of the Southwest, and his report and maps contributed immensely to our understanding of the region.

    Wheeler's map is amazingly accurate. By enlarging his map and overlaying it on a modern map, landmarks like Towne Pass, Star of the West Hill, Wildrose Spring, and Telescope Peak are virtually the same points on his 1877 map and on modern maps.

     However, on Wheeler's map, a "Pinto Pk." is labeled north of his "Town's Pass"; whereas, Pinto Peak on today's maps is south of Towne Pass (Johnsons 1987b).

     Pinto Peak becomes a pivotal landmark as I shall explain. Its location in relation to other landmarks, such as Towne Pass is crucial to analyzing the route taken by the Jayhawkers and the Brier family when they crossed the Panamint Range west of Death Valley.

     While the Jayhawkers were burning their wagons at Jayhawker Well, Reverend Brier and his family caught up with them; the Briers had abandoned their wagon in western Nevada. The Jayhawkers reluctantly let the Briers travel with them as they trekked to Rancho San Francisco, near today's Castaic Junction. Also with this group was a man named William B. Robinson (who purportedly left a trunk on the western slope of Pinto Peak, more on him later).

     In 1873 Reverend Brier returned to Death Valley guiding a party searching for the Lost Gunsight Lead. Three years later he wrote a letter and said: "At our old Camp in Town's Pass where we melted snow I found a Butcher Knife" (In: Johnsons 1987a: 177). Juliet Brier (1901) said she and her family "crossed the Telescope Range [Panamint Range] by Towne's Pass." An "educated conjecture" is they were both referring to today's Towne Pass.

     So where is Towne Pass? Is the Towne Pass mentioned by the Briers north or south of today's Pinto Peak? If you hypothesize Wheeler's "Pinto Pk." is the same as today's Pinto Peak, then it follows that the Briers and their traveling companions exited the valley south of today's Pinto Peak.

     Two widely published trail buffs have concluded none of the Death Valley '49ers escaped from Death Valley via today's Towne Pass, which is north of today's Pinto Peak. Embodied in their conclusion is the 'Towne Pass Myth.'

     George Koenig (1964: 6-7) was the first to contend the Towne Pass mentioned by the Briers was south of today's Pinto Peak: "Popularly, the emigrants exited [Death Valley] via present day Towne Pass. But this 'ain't necessarily so'; for Lt. Wheeler's … [1877 map shows] Towne Pass as [being] south, not north, of Pinto Peak" (emphasis his).

     Twenty years later Koenig (1984: 124 & 127) reinforced his contention by saying, "Lt. Wheeler's … mapping [of] Towne Pass is shown south of Pinto Peak rather than where it is known today" (emphasis his). He continued by saying "the one [canyon] to the south of … [Pinto] peak would likely offer the best of optional descents. This gains support from Lt. Wheeler's mapping of 'Town [sic] Pass' just south of Pinto Peak."

     Then again, two years later, Koenig (1986: 99) enhances the Towne Pass myth by saying: "Of particular interest …. [is Wheeler's] mapping of Town's Pass south of Pinto Peak, cluing the '49er escape route south of the presently designated [Towne] pass" (emphasis his).

     Fourteen years after Koenig first put forth the argument that Towne Pass of yore was south of today's Pinto Peak, John Southworth parroted Koenig. Southworth (1978: 106) says, "[T]he Wheeler Report of 1877 mapped its [Towne Pass] location south of [today's] Pinto Peak."

     Koenig wrote a review of Southworth's book (1978 & 1986: back cover). In it he said Southworth's "iconoclastic shattering of the Towne Pass myth as the escape route … [of the '49ers is] an excellent addition" to the Death Valley literature (emphasis mine).

     Because Reverend and Juliet Brier said they left Death Valley via Towne Pass, both Koenig and Southworth concluded the Briers crossed the Panamint Range south of today's Pinto Peak-the headwater of Jayhawker Canyon. Thus, the Briers and the Jayhawkers, which included Rood and Robinson, went by Jayhawker Spring where the "1849 W.B.R." inscription is located. Southworth has the Brier family crossing the pass and continuing southward down an unnamed canyon and he has the Jayhawkers going to the summit of Pinto Peak, thence directly west. These conclusions are predicated on the contention that Wheeler's "Town's Pass" is south of today's Pinto Peak.

     How did Wheeler's 1877 map come to show "Town's Pass" south of "Pinto Pk."? The original hand-drawn base map for Wheeler's published map is housed in the National Archives, Washington D.C. There is no Pinto Peak designated on this map. However, north and west of "Town's Pass" is inscribed "Pinto or Calico Mounts."—meaning a range of mountains, not a single mountain. The superscript "s" designating "Mountains" is small, it is possible the cartographer who prepared the map for publication misunderstood the Wheeler's intention and the cartographer designated the nearby peak "Pinto Pk." Thus, Wheeler's published map has "Pinto Pk." north of "Town's Pass."

     Today's Pinto Peak is not the "Pinto Pk." shown on Wheeler's map. This cartographic artifact beckoned Koenig and Southworth up the wrong canyon and became the foundation of a myth that stood for twenty-three years.

     By the way, the name "Pinto Peak" mysteriously moved to its present location in 1908. The latitude and longitude of Wheeler's "Town's Pass" are virtually identical to those of Towne Pass on modern maps. Therefore, Wheeler did not map Towne Pass south of today's Pinto Peak.

     The Brier family and the Jayhawkers exited Death Valley via today's Towne Pass (Johnsons 1987b).