PSR Fuel

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


THE BUNK TRUNK HOAX

     The old trunk found in the Panamint Range is a classic example of how a "good story … has a way of distorting the facts: [and how some people saw what they wanted to see and closed their eyes] … to everything else."

     Jerry Freeman had been researching the route the Brier family took into and out of Death Valley. Jerry, his two daughters, and two of his friends were tracing the Brier trail from Enterprise, Utah to Barrel Spring—at the southern edge of the Mohave Desert—four miles southeast of Palmdale, California.

     On November 22, 1998, while on a solo scouting trip on the western flank of Pinto Peak, Death Valley National Park, Jerry discovered a small trunk in a shallow cave (Johnson 1999). Jerry opened the trunk, and based on a letter and a manifest he found in the trunk, he concluded William B. Robinson stashed the trunk on January 2, 1850. Robinson—as I mentioned earlier—was a Jayhawker. They abandoned their wagons at Jayhawker Well; this cave is almost twenty-four 'crow miles' southwest of the well.

     The trunk (31 in. long, 12.75 in. high & 10.5 in. wide) was filled with an eclectic array of seemingly pre-1849 items: gold, silver, and copper coins (face value about $48.27), a doll, two tintype photographs, a flint lock pistol, a shroud or table cloth, a pair of worn-out baby shoes, two ceramic bowls, a brass bowl, two books, the optical portion from a surveying instrument, two powder horns, a drinking (?) horn-cup, a small gold (?) and pearl pin, a key chain with key, a leather-covered metal canteen (?), a small leather pouch, and a jug shaped basket. Also Jerry found a letter and a manifest purportedly written by William B. Robinson before he stashed the trunk.

     Robinson did not survive his desert ordeal; he died at Barrel Spring on January 28, 1850.

     John Southworth had mentored Jerry. Shortly before Jerry discovered the trunk, he and his filmmaker friend interviewed Southworth on camera. Some compelling force drove Jerry to explore the western flank of Pinto Peak. In part he was driven by Southworth's analysis of the Jayhawkers' escape route that is predicated on his faulty interpretation of Wheeler's map (Johnsons 1987b and see: Southworth 1978: 106).

     To make a long story short, Jerry left the trunk in the cave and on Christmas Eve Day, 1998, thirty-three days after he discovered it, he and his hiking team "discovered" the trunk as they descended Pinto Peak. They were following the Jayhawker route John Southworth published in his book Death Valley in 1849 (1978: 48).

     Jerry and his hiking companions removed the trunk from the cave and took it home for "safe keeping." On New Year's Day, 1999 the Antelope Valley Press proclaimed in a front page article: "Treasure Found on '49er Trail." The news of this fabulous and miraculous discovery immediately found its way into most major newspapers throughout the free world. Jerry Freeman was interviewed on Good Morning America and he said—thinking he was quoting one of the Jayhawkers—he found the trunk on the "highest rafter of the roof of hell."

     Newspaper and television reporters clambered to interview Jerry. They immediately grabbed and ran with the story-without bothering to see if the 'treasure trove' was authentic. (They were apparently looking for some relief from the President Clinton impeachment proceedings, which had occupied the news media ad nauseam.)

     Jerry was going to return the trunk to the Park Service during a press conference at Barrel Spring but decided to personally deliver the trove to the park superintendent in Death Valley on January 5, 1999.

     Before the Park Service rendered an opinion as to the authenticity of the trunk and its contents, Richard Lingenfelter proclaimed the find a hoax. The hoaxter used the word "grub stake" on the manifest, a word that had not been coined until later in the gold rush. This would be equivalent to claiming you had a letter from the 1950s with "cyberspace" in it.

     Following Lingenfelter's disclosure, the Park Service issued a cautiously worded press release casting serious doubt on the validity of the find. Over the next few weeks numerous anachronisms in the trunk were revealed, but the most blatant was an 1853 gold coin that the hoaxter defaced in an amateurish attempt to make it look like an 1843 or earlier coin (Johnson 2001b). There were also two tintype photographs in the trunk. The tintype photographic process was patented in 1856 (Johnson 1999).

     There is no question, and almost everyone now agrees, the trunk is a hoax. Yet some doggedly believe the trunk is authentic. One of these believers is John Southworth; he fervently maintains Robinson left the trunk on Pinto Peak on January 2, 1850. The hoaxter who planted the trunk did such a superficial job putting the cache together, the resurrected Towne Pass Myth stood for only four weeks.

     Southworth privately printed an eighteen-page booklet titled The Robinson Cache on Pinto Peak: Its Fascinating Story Brought Up to Date detailing his hypothesis ([2001]). In this booklet he attempts to rationalize the anachronisms in the trunk by postulating Robinson's traveling companions carried the trunk out to civilization and turned it over to his relatives who "requested its return to the mountain as a lasting memorial" to Robinson.

     With fervor, Jerry Freeman said he would go to his grave believing Robinson left the trunk in the cave. He did. Jerry, at age 58, died March 20, 2001.