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Book Review: Death Valley '49ers

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September 2004

Frank F. Latta (b. 1892; d. 1981)
Death Valley '49ers
2003 photographic reproduction of 1979 first edition
Paperback, $24.95
Bear State Books
P.O. Box 96, Exeter, California 93221
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ISBN 1-892622-19-X

     Frank Latta's Death Valley '49ers is back in print. It is an important addition to any Death Valley library that is already well stocked with books covering the travails of the Death Valley '49ers. This paperback reprint is a photographic reproduction of the hardback, first edition.


     The strengths of the book are in the recollections Latta collected from friends and descendants of the Death Valley '49ers, the pictures he collected for the book, and quotes from letters and recollections from the original '49ers. The Wade descendants he interviews filled large gaps in the Wade story. He also added valuable information about John Rogers.

     As a scholarly work, Death Valley '49ers falls far short of the mark. Frustratingly there are virtually no reference citations throughout the book. For example, on page 16 Latta quotes in toto a letter John Colton (one of the Jayhawkers) wrote to his father. We do not know where Latta found this letter; thus, there is no reasonable way to verify the accuracy of the quote. Some quotes have material missing without an ellipse. We noted some quotes are not accurate, and others have sentences moved around. There is no bibliography—a major shortcoming of the book—so you can not use Death Valley '49ers as a path into the literature.

      Another shortcoming is the copy and substantive editing errors in the first edition that are repeated here. For example, the photo captions on pages 206 and 208 are incorrect: The photograph on p. 206 does not show Furnace Creek Wash as stated nor can you see Ash Meadows. The photograph on p. 208 does not show Mount Argus (Argus Peak), the Slate Range, Searles Lake Valley, or the El Paso Range as stated. There are also numerous typographical errors. For example Manly's book was published in 1894, not 1895 (pp. xii & 339). A knowledgeable reviewer could have easily caught these errors.

     All but two of the photo captions end with "now in Bear State Library." For years, readers and researchers have tried to locate the Bear State Library; they did not realize the library was Latta's personal collection. This "Library" is now in the possession of Chris Brewer, publisher of the new reprint. We cannot vouch for the accuracy of the reminiscences because Latta denied us access to the transcriptions of his interviews. We hope the new owner of this library will allow scholars and historians access to the collection.

     In November 1974 we visited Latta at his ranch. He showed us his draft manuscript and asked if we would write the chapters covering the escape route of the Bennett-Arcan party. We considered his offer but felt we had to do more research before going into print. Also, we noted factual errors in his manuscript, and he apparently overlooked some important published data, such as Dr. Wolff's monograph on the escape route of the Bennett-Arcan party (Wolff 1931). We felt these shortcomings should be rectified; so, we wrote Latta in December 1974 saying, "it would be helpful and necessary to get an outside review [of your manuscript]... to bring certain things up to date." For instance, we pointed out that although Manly (and other '49ers) referred to the San Francisquito Ranch, the true name was the San Francisco Ranch (Rancho San Francisco), and we recommended Latta read Ruth Newhall's 1958 book The Newhall Ranch and Farming Company. He apparently did not follow our advice to have the manuscript reviewed outside his private press.

     Latta did not write the final chapters of his book; instead, he went to the best-published source of information—Manly's Death Valley in '49. Latta quotes extensively from this book; over 40 percent of the pages in Death Valley '49ers are quotes from Manly's book.

     When Latta wrote us, he said he started "gathering data regarding the parties through Death Valley" in 1932, and met William Lewis Manly in "about 1902." He told us what is now in his book (pp. xii-xiii) that Manly arrived at his father's home in northwestern Merced County about 10:00 AM, and Manly and Latta's father talked until after midnight. Frank Latta was born in September 1892, so he was ten years old when Manly purportedly visited Latta's father. According to Latta, Manly was traveling around with horse and buggy selling his books for $2.50. This story is at variance with known facts.

     Manly visited John Rogers in Merced on June 3, 1895, when he took the train to Merced and "hired a man with horses and buggy to take me the fourteen miles to Rogers' home" (In: Woodward 1949: 43-45). In a letter to John Colton dated May 19, 1898 (JA 634), Manly said, "I am a weak old man [and] I have had 3 nervous prostrations since Sept. It must soon end. When these spells comes on me I am as helpless as [an] infant cant stand alone nor feed myself dont gain my strength & cant walk much." Then in 1899 (JA 649) he sent another letter to Colton and said, "this is probably the last letter I shall be able to write." He sent one more letter in March 1901 (JA 639). By then his handwriting was so deteriorated the letter is difficult to read; in it he says: "I am an invalid & will never recover."

     In a letter to John Colton, dated January 20, 1902 (JA 981), Lorenzo Dow Stephens wrote that Manly "met with an accident about six or eight months ago. He fell and broke his hip and has not been able to walk since."

     Latta was aware of the above-cited letters in the Jayhawker Collection (see p. 340 in Latta's book). Yet he does not attempt to resolve Manly's statement of debilitating health nor Stephen's statement that in 1901 Manly was in a wheel chair. These data indicate Manly was not physically capable of driving a wagon around the state hawking books in 1902. 

     Listed below are samples of some of the numerous errors we noted in the book and we give most of the references needed to check our claims. We have not pointed out where current route analysis is at variance with Latta's. Page numbers are from Manly's original edition of Death Valley in '49, and the page numbers in brackets [] are from the Heyday edition, now readily available (Manly 2001).

p. 4	In 1849 Kit Carson resided in Taos, New Mexico, and began farming with 
Lucien Maxwell that same year at Rayado, New Mexico (Thrapp 1988: 234).
Thomas L. (Pegleg) Smith was running a trading post at Bear Valley on the
Oregon Trail in 1849 (Thrapp 1988: 1336). It is extremely unlikely either
of these men encountered any of the Death Valley '49ers. We did not bother
to track down the whereabouts of Bridger and Baker.

p. 4 The Hunt wagon train did not break up at Mountain Meadows. The division
point is five miles north of the meadows at a site between Enterprise and
Newcastle, Utah. A large monument commemorates this point. Latta quotes
Rev. Brier as his authority for this error (p. 67); Brier was mistaken.
Manly (1894:111 [67]) said the division point was
"very near ... Mountain Meadows."

pp. 5-6 Tom Shannon's letter to "all old Jayhawkers" was written on
January 17, 1894 (JA 878), and is housed in the Jayhawker Collection,
Huntington Library, San Marino, California. Hereafter, we will not track
down the ubiquitous, unreferenced quotations.

p. 8 The arrival of the Georgians at the Mariposa mines is documented in
Mexican Gold Trail, the Journal of a Forty-Niner
(Evans 1945: 254 & 259).

p. 8 "Jayhawker Well" is a few yards east of McLean Spring, which is unpotable
salt water and is the water source for Salt Creek. The well's name is not
an official name. This shallow well (two feet deep) has potable water (barely so).

p. 9. Colton got sick not at Valley Wells but from water at Searles Lake or at
Paxton Lake in Indian Wells Valley. Valley Wells, north of Searles Lake,
was developed by the potash mining company as a recreation site for the
plant's employees. The wells supplied water for the swimming pool at the site
and water for the chemical plant at Trona. There never was a spring at the site.

p. 11 There is no "spring located about one-fourth mile north of the present
ruins of the Old Eagle Borax Works." The nearest potable water north of the
borax works is Tule Spring; it is 3.3 miles north of the borax works. There is
poor potable water at the works (Eagle Borax Spring).

p. 11 It was not Manly's advice to go forward without scouting ahead. This was
Bennett's idea (Manly 1894: 213 [134] and Johnson & Johnson 1987: 116).

p. 41 Manly and Rogers traveled together only as far as Los Angeles, not
Benicia (Manly 1894: 384 [176]). However, Manly saw Rogers in Benicia years
later (Manly 1894: 469 [305]).

p. 57 We have copies of most of the letters in the Jayhawker Collection and
we do not agree that the Jayhawkers "[a]lmost always ... wrote the two words
separately, Jay Hawk."

p. 63 Acoma is not in Meadow Valley, Nevada. It is a place-name along the
Union Pacific Rail Road about twenty crow miles east of the valley.

p. 67 Brier's recollection is wrong; he was never at Mountain Meadows. The
"cutoff" is about five miles north of Mountain Meadows.

p. 69 "Cobble Creek" should read Hobble Creek.

p. 75 Charles Elliott Wade was born in 1838, not 1883.

p. 79 John Wells Brier, not John Welsh Brier (also wrong on pp 173 & 175).

p. 79 Asabel Bennett was born in 1814 according to the 1850 census, not 1807.

p. 79 The age of Melissa Bennett given here contradicts the age in the caption
on p. 300.

p. 81 Martha Bennett was born January 21, 1848, so she had her 2nd birthday
in Death Valley.

p. 83 Crumpton and Masterson did not demand they be given "all they wanted
to eat." Instead, they gave Mrs. Brier part of their small supply of flour and
she baked it "into twenty-two little crackers and put [them] away for an
emergency" (In: Belden 1954: 24). The man begging for the "entrails of a crow"
was Crocker (In: Belden 1954: 27).

p. 85 Throughout the book Latta refers to "Division Spring" in southwestern
Utah as the point where the Hunt wagon train divided. There was no spring at
the division point. There is a Division Spring associated with the '49er
packers but it is in Nevada (see index in Hafen & Hafen 1954).

p. 87 Acoma, Nevada is not a town. It is a place name on the Union Pacific
Railroad east of Caliente, Nevada. During the building of the railroad a small
construction-crew camp existed at the site.

p. 87 O.K. Smith did not cross Walker Pass; he crossed Cajon Pass
(Hafen & Hafen 1954: 43).

p. 99 Savage and Pinney did not have wagons; they were associated with the
packers who were ahead of the wagons (Hafen & Hafen 1954: 251- 253, 280 & 291).

p. 100 Kane Spring should be Cane Spring. There is no Kane Spring in Nevada
(per ) but there are five Cane Springs in Nevada.

p. 120 Jayhawker Spring is in Jayhawker Canyon. Latta meant Jayhawker Well,
which is just east of McLean Spring, the water source for Salt Creek.

p. 125 "McLeans Well" should read McLean Spring.

p. 136 When Death Valley '49ers was first published (1979) there was
no service station in Wildrose Canyon but there was one there in the 1940s
when Latta apparently wrote this section of the book.

p. 140 See comment for p. 9. In 1849-50 there was no "salt well a short
distance north of the lake shore [Searles Lake].

p. 140 The "dry camp" was at the east edge of the Argus Range; not at the
"west edge of the Slate Range."

p. 145 After the emigrants left Providence Spring (at the mouth of
Indian Joe Canyon), they crossed the Argus Range, not the Slate Range.

p. 172 Latta's insertion in brackets about Bennett having only one wagon
and the driver was Rogers is incorrect. Bennett had two wagons and the two
drivers left the party in Death Valley (Manly 1894: 147 [91]).

p. 188 Manly, not Rogers, worked for the Briers in Los Angeles for more
than a month (Manly 1894: 274 [176]).

p. 192 You can not see west over the Panamints from Gold Hill.

     So why do we recommend Death Valley '49ers for your well-stocked Death Valley library? Latta gathered important first hand letters from various locations and made them handy for the reader. And the pictures and anecdotes Latta gleaned from some of the descendants of the '49ers (particularly the Wade family) and memories about John Rogers are important contributions to Death Valleyanna.



Evans, George W. B. 1945. Mexican Gold Trails, The Journal of a Forty-Niner. Edited by Glenn S. Dumke. San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library.

Belden, L. Burr, [ed]. 1954. Death Valley Heroine. San Bernardino, Calif.: Inland Printing & Engraving Co. (Mrs. Brier's "Christmas in Death Valley" account appeared in the San Francisco Call on Dec. 25, 1898, and Belden included it in this book.)

Hafen, LeRoy R. and Ann W. Hafen, eds. 1954. Journals of Forty-Niners: Salt Lake to Los Angeles, vol. 2 of The Far West and The Rockies Historical Series. Glendale, Calif.: Arthur H. Clark Co. (Now available in paperback from Bison Books.)

JA. Jayhawker of '49 Collection. 1849 ­ 1952. San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library. (In June 2000, Brooke M. Black and Jennifer L. Martinez put together a forty-three page Finding Aid to the collection. The collection was assembled by John Burt Colton who was the secretary for the informal Jayhawker organization. There are at least 1,105 separate items in the collection and each item has a "JA" number.)

Johnson, LeRoy and Jean Johnson, eds. 1987. Escape from Death Valley, As told by William Lewis Manly and Other '49ers. Reno: Univ. of Nevada Press.

Manly, William Lewis. 1894. Death Valley in '49. San Jose, Calif.: The Pacific Tree and Vine Co. (This book is available in at least two photographic reproduced editions.)

Manly, William Lewis. 2001. Death Valley in '49. Edited by LeRoy and Jean Johnson. Berkeley, Calif.: Heyday Books.

Newhall, Ruth Waldo. 1958. The Newhall Ranch: The Story of the Newhall Land & Farming Company. San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library.

Thrapp, Dan L. 1988. Encyclopedia of Frontier Biography, In Three Volumes [with 1994 supplement volume]. Spokane, Wash.: Arthur H. Clark Co.

Wolff, John E. [1931]. Route of the Manly Party of 1849-50 in Leaving Death Valley for the Coast. [Santa Barbara, Calif.: Pacific Coast Publishing Co.]

Woodward, Arthur, ed. 1949. The Jayhawker Oath and Other Sketches. Los Angeles: Warren F. Lewis. (This is a collection of many of Manly's newspaper articles.)


LeRoy and Jean Johnson
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