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Book Review: Death Valley '49er Trails

B. G. Olesen
Death Valley ‘49er Trails
184 pages. Price: $60.00 (hardback only).
ISBN 0-9747494-0-0
Published by Photophysics
12051 Skyway Dr.
Santa Ana, CA, 92705

Review by:
LeRoy & Jean Johnson
July 2004

     A handsome book has been added to the Death Valley literature—Death Valley ‘49er [sic] Trails. It has pretty pictures, large type, a good table of contents, and copies of USGS maps with the author’s interpretation of the ’49er routes drawn on them. The material is presented in an easy-to-follow sequence.

     Mr. Olesen delineates his interpretation of the sundry escape trails pioneered by Manly and Rogers, the Bennett-Arcan wagon train, and the Brier-Jayhawker groups as they escaped from Death Valley in winter 1849-1850. He limits his investigation to the trails from Death Valley to Searles Valley.

     Why did Olesen publish this book? He explicitly tells us “there are … errors present in the published trail information…. [and] the reader must understand however, that the trail definitions and site locations set forth in this book are more exact, detailed, and correct that those previously published.” Then he follows with the bold statement that his book “supersedes trail information in earlier publications” (4:1:1; Olesen’s page: column: paragraph).

      Unfortunately, this book does not live up to the author’s claims. He chides other researchers for inserting a conclusion “as a fact” (28:2:1), then he does the same thing repeatedly.

     The book has the superficial appearance of a scholarly work. However, there is no index, so it is, in effect, useless as a research tool.

     The author’s Selected Bibliography has only 36 citations, and important citations are left out; thus, the reader is hamstrung when checking the veracity of quoted material. It is rife with mistakes: The University of Nevada Press is not in Nebraska, Manly is spelled Manley, there are numerous missing and incorrect publication dates, and Dr. Wolff did not coauthor his monograph with others—“et al.” is incorrect.

     The maps have clear titles, are well labeled, and appear to be from computer generated maps that typically produce jagged lines. But they are without scales and north arrows, and the map legend (p. 167) has the arrows of the Jayhawker and Brier groups reversed from those on the maps.

     The book is sprinkled with copy errors; possibly the author or his publisher did not use a copy editor. As a harbinger of things to come, the defects begin on the cover where the author mistakenly uses a single quote mark as a contraction mark (i.e., an apostrophe) for 1849, and this error is repeated throughout the text. The book is peppered with missing small words and other mistakes such as an incorrect date (1894 instead of 1849), an incorrect name—Brier when discussing the Wades (89:2:1), incomplete citations, two em dashes instead of ellipses, and sentences that appear to have sections missing. Some pages (3, 26-29, 182-3) have a larger type font than the rest of the text.

     The copy errors could be overlooked if the analyses of the routes were carefully researched and based on the readily available data. The author uses what he considers an analytical approach to the puzzles of the routes, and he uses quotes but often fails to adequately reference them. He goes on for pages discussing various minute points to explain his conclusions.

     Following are examples of the author’s questionable research, manipulation of data, and factual errors.


     Olesen quotes from letters in the Jayhawker Collection in The Huntington Library, but a reader has no way of knowing how to find them because the author does not cite them correctly. Each letter in this collection has a “JA” number, and typically scholars reference these letters by citing these numbers so scholars can readily track down a letter.

     For instance, Olesen quotes from a letter by Charles B. Mecum (104:1:2), a Jayhawker, as: “(Mecum letter: 1872).” (This letter is JA 715 in the Jayhawker Collection.) And he leaves Mecum out of his bibliography.

     Olesen quotes passages from individual letters written by William Lewis Manly and references them “(Manly: 1890-1893 letters).” Presumably Olesen is referring to letters in the Jayhawker Collection. There are at least 13 Manly letters written between 1890-1893 in the Jayhawker Collection, and scholars will be forced to read most—if not all—of these letters to find Manly’s quotes. Again, he leaves the Manly letters out of his bibliography.

     As part of Olesen’s literature review, he says he analyzed “original documents and reliable published literature” (1:2:1), but he gives no explanation as to what constitutes “reliable published literature.” Olesen tells the reader “not all of the publications listed were used for reference purposes” (3:2:4). But in the bibliography introduction he contradicts this statement by saying “this listing is limited to source material considered most directly related to the trails defined in this book” (p. 181). Nine of the thirty-six references in his Selected Bibliography are not cited as references in the text. Subtracting these nine from the total leaves a paltry number “used for reference purposes.”

     Throughout the book, to support his contentions, Olesen uses arrogant words and phrases such as “exact location identification of the wagons” (27:1:2 italics ours); “there is no doubt” (32:1:2); “grass and weeds proves [sic]” (34:1:1); “it does not exist” (36:1:3) referring to the arrastre at Arrastre Spring that very much does exist; “would unquestionably be” (68:1:2); “there could be no other place” (80:1:2); “It is just not believable” (113:2:2), “exactly” (127:1:4); “precisely states distances [about Sheldon Young’s log]” (149:2:2); “consistently exact” (150:1:1). We could go on ad nauseam, but you get the picture. Olesen presents little or no data to support his assertions of being precise, exact, and having no doubt.

     In Olesen’s Acknowledgements (p. iii), he says he is “indebted to … Mary Jensen … and others who have contributed in many ways.” Mary is the great great granddaughter of Harry and Mary Wade. The Wade family followed the Bennett-Arcan families into and southward in Death Valley. Belden (1957:4) alleged Harry had been a Royal coachman in England. Olesen says “another source states that no confirmation of Royal employment has been found” (10:1:1). If this information came from Mary Jensen, Olesen should have credited her with this revelation.

     Olesen repeatedly quotes from Manly’s “From Vermont to California” articles that appeared in The Santa Clara Valley, a monthly horticultural and viticultural journal. Most issues of this serialized account are housed in The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. Olesen excerpts quotes from these articles and cites them thusly: “(Manly: 1888)” (e.g., 20:2:2). There were twelve issues of “From Vermont to California” published in 1888. If, as Olesen says, he worked with “original documents” he should have listed the month and page. If he used the 1888 account found in Escape from Death Valley, he should have cited the page number to aid future researchers and scholars.

     Olesen chides the Johnsons (who have analyzed the routes in detail with over 250 references) by saying we “make no distinct connection between facts and conclusions or substantiate conclusions by relating them to the facts presented. Their conclusion [concerning the location of the Bennett and Arcan‘s Long Camp] is inserted as a fact wherein it more suitably appears to be a theory” (28:2:1; emphasis ours).

     Mr. Olesen is correct: it is a theory.

     A theory “implies a large body of tested evidence and a greater degree of probability” than does a hypothesis (Barnhart 1986:663). A theory is also a “statement that explains the facts” (Barnes-Svarney 1995:2). For those interested in our “large body of tested evidence” and our argument that “explains the facts,” see page 25, and notes 21, 22, 23, and 82 in Escape from Death Valley. For additional evidence, see our paper in Proceedings: First Death Valley Conference on History & Prehistory (pp. 22-43). Olesen is right about the theory but wrong when he says we don‘t “substantiate conclusions by relating them to the facts presented.”


     Olesen fanaticizes a seep and a spring that no one (including Olesen) has ever seen. The mythical seep is northwest of Striped Butte (p. 60) and the mythical spring is on the floor of Death Valley—the latter he named “Flowing spring” (pp. 13-15 & pp. 91-94). Olesen says Johnson “essentially ignores Manly’s precise statement that the water he discovered was a running stream.” (28:2:1). However, here is what Manly really says: “we found a good spring of fresh water … the small flow from it spread out over the sand and sank in a very short distance.” (1894:144; italics ours). More about this later.

     To support his contention that these miraculous water sources existed in winter 1849-1850, Olesen offers his readers subjective climatic information: “The winter of 1849-1850 was an exceptionally wet one” (25:2:2); followed by: “… the wet winter as shown by ‘49ers [sic] statements” (26:1:1). Then we are told the winter of 1849-1850 “was an unusually wet winter” (93:2:3). Where is all this leading?

     Olesen (99:2:3) now points out Manly said, “‘the winter of 1849-50 was one of the wettest ever seen in California——.’ (Manly: 1849 [1894]: 224)”. Note the long dash after California, which indicates something follows. Let’s see what Manly actually said: “We now know that the winter of 1849-50 was one of the wettest ever seen in California, but for some reason or other none of the wet clouds ever came in this portion of the State to deposit the most scattering drops of moisture” (Manly 1894:224; italics ours). In our eyes, deleting the above italicized words is deceitful and lessens the credibility of the author.

     Olesen uses a solar and lunar ephemeris (presumably from the Internet) and quotations from others in the Hunt wagon train to discredit data from Jayhawker Sheldon Young’s log of 1849-1850. Olesen needs to build a case that Young’s Log is off about ten days to support his conclusion that the “Jayhawkers, Briers, Bennett-Arcan Party and others were at Travertine Springs on or about January [sic] 15th, 1894 [sic], approximately ten-days earlier than recorded by Manly, the Briers and Nusbaumer” (151:2:3). (Since the Briers and Manly were at Travertine at Christmas, presumably Olesen means December 15, 1849). Additional details are given in the next section.

     Olesen tells us the lunar ephemeris for January 5, 1850, shows the moon rose at “1:00 PM” (56:2:3 italics ours). The U.S. Naval Observatory Astronomical Applications Department ephemeris that we used to check his contention shows the moon rising at 1:00 AM, a significant difference of 12 hours.

     Olesen says Manly’s Sulphur Water Well is located at Salt Well, but Salt Well is not now, and records indicate never has been, a potable water source. Olesen does not discuss the following firsthand accounts that are contrary to his contention: Frederick Coville, of the Death Valley Expedition, said of Salt Wells on January 20, 1891, “a hole about twenty-five feet deep … found to be a nearly saturated brine.” T. S. Palmer said in 1891, “Salt Wells are two holes about 25 ft deep with a little water in the bottom. Water is a saturated solution of salt” (HM 50827: Jan. 20, 1891).

     In Olesen’s discussion concerning water at Salt Well, he tells us “the growth of Sagebrush, grass and weeds [around Salt Well] proves the presence of water here” (34:1:1). He also directs readers to his photograph 14: We see no grass in the photograph. Perhaps the man in the photograph is standing on it.


Rancho San Francisco

     The evidence supporting the Rancho San Francisco name is legion; yet, Olesen uses “San Francisquito Ranch” for the ranch‘s name (2:1:2 & 149:1:1). Ruth Newhall’s scholarly work, The Newhall Ranch, details the name in chapter VII, El Rancho San Francisco. Possibly Olesen did not consider her book part of the genre of “reliable published literature” (1:2:1).

Arrastre Spring

     Manly describes a spring high in the Panamint Range as having sagebrush growing around it: “[Manly and Rogers] could see some bunches of grass and sage brush” so they went there (1894:153). Several authors have concluded this spring is the one now known as Arrastre Spring. Olesen, to support his contention that Manly and Rogers did not go to Arrastre Spring, emphatically says: “There is no Sagebrush around Arrastre Spring and none could possibly grow in that sort of a hard rocky mountainside. Sagebrush requires deep, soft nutritious soil…. It is too rocky [around the spring] and lacks any fertile soil” (60:2:3 & 61:1:1). This assertion is patently false.

     Here are some quotes from noted botanical authorities: “Black sagebrush inhabits dry rock hillsides, ridges, and plateaus in the Panamint [Range]” (Sampson & Jespersen 1963:139). Taylor (1992:18) says that when sagebrush grows in “dry, rocky areas … [it] may average less than one foot in height.” And Mozingo (1986:256) tells us “dwarf sagebrush [a.k.a. black sagebrush] grows on rockier, poorer soils than big sagebrush.”

     Olesen muses about how the spring got its name: “There is no Arrastre there [at the spring].… [and] what is more, there is no Arrastre hidden by the bush as another author has stated” (63:2:3; italics ours). Apparently Olesen is making an oblique criticism of our comment in Escape from Death Valley (n31): “The spring is named after the old gold mining arrastre hidden in the brush nearby.”

     Linda Greene shows two pictures of the arrastre and discusses the derivation of the spring’s name in her definitive treatise about Death Valley mining history (1981:126-132). We also have color photographs of the arrastre that plainly show sagebrush growing there.

     The bombastic assertion that there is no arrastre at the spring is as baseless as this trumpery: “In fact, the ground near Arrastre Spring is so steep that it would be difficult to lie down without sliding down the hillside” (62:1:1). He then says: “There is no viable campsite within a mile of that seep [Arrastre Spring]” (96:1:4). This baseless statement is followed by: “No camp would have been made anywhere near Arrastre Spring” (96:2:1).

     In February 1992 we camped with nine other hikers at Arrastre Spring. One tent was pitched near the arrastre and seven more tents were pitched a short distance from the arrastre (just off the Indian trail that goes from the spring to the mouth of Redlands Canyon).

Redlands Canyon

     Olesen contends Manly and Rogers did not return to Death Valley via Redlands Canyon. Olesen says, “If, as some trail searchers have proposed, the boys went up Redlands Canyon, it is doubtful they could have reached the summit by noon. That would have been an extremely hard hike” (84:2:2). LeRoy has hiked the entire length of the canyon at least six times. One winter day he started at dawn from below Manly Falls, hiked beyond the “summit” and into Butte Valley, climbed Striped Butte, and returned to the car at sundown. Olesen’s conjecture that the hike from Redlands Spring to the head of Redlands Canyon is “an extremely hard hike” is unfounded.

     Olesen claims a fall described by Manly is in Goler Canyon rather than in Redlands Canyon. To support this claim, he tries to befuddle the reader. He wonders “exactly why [Wolff] named the huge rock fall at the mouth of Redlands Canyon Manly Fall” (145:1:2). The truth is, Wolff did not name the fall at the mouth of Redlands Canyon. Wolff described his Manly Fall as “the upper one and highest” of the four falls within a mile of the mouth of Redlands Canyon (p. 28). This dry fall is readily identified in the field as the first fall below the spring, which is about a mile from the canyon‘s mouth (see Wolff‘s Fig. 10).

     Wolff petitioned the U.S. Geographic Board to name his fall “Manly Fall,” but the U.S. Geological Service goofed when they assigned the name Manly Fall to the one at the entrance of Redlands Canyon. The fall Wolff called Manly Fall is now called Ox-Jump Fall (Johnson & Johnson n75) to differentiate it from the USGS Manly Fall that had been at the mouth of Redlands Canyon (but no longer exists because a gold mining operation recently obliterated it). How anyone can misinterpret these data is beyond comprehension.

Panamint Valley

     Olesen spends an inordinate amount of space describing the mud flats in Panamint Valley (pp. 65-71). He says, “at the present time there is sparse stunted Juniper growth in tiny clumps on the mud flats” (68:2:3). Junipers (genus Juniperus) are a montane genus that grow in high-desert environments. They do not grow on the mud flats in Panamint Valley.

Sheldon Young’s Log

     We do not know if Young’s original diary is extant. A typescript of it is in the Jayhawker Collection (JA 555) and has been reproduced in Dr. Long’s book (Long 1941:241).

     Olesen needs to discredit the dates in Sheldon Young’s Log (diary) to support his conjured dates for Manly and Rogers’ rescue trip out of Death Valley. In order to support his contention that Young’s entries are ten days off, Olesen tells us the “original handwritten Log … [was] barely readable with pages missing” (147:2:1) and thus the “accuracy of the information in the Huntington typed copy of the Log is uncertain” (147:2:2). Olesen bases this on an explanatory note (presumably written by the typist who transcribed the Log) that says: “The Diary is written with pencil and in some portions not distinct enough to be read,—from March 28th ’49 to April 13th, ’49 the writing is nearly effaced.” This is a far cry from saying the Log—implying the entire Log— was “barely readable.”

     The missing pages in the Log covered the dates of October 24 through November 9, 1849. Olesen uses weather data in accounts of Addison Pratt, Charles Rich, and Henry Bigler for November 1 and 4 to support his contention that Young’s Log is ten days off (151:1:3). However, November 1 and 4 can not be compared to Young’s Log because his pages for those dates are missing. Then Olesen uses Young’s dates of November 22 and 23 to try to show the same weather conditions that Pratt, Rich, and Bigler experienced for November 13 and 14—nine or ten days earlier (151:2:2). This is a classic example of comparing apples to oranges.

     Let‘s compare apples to apples. On November 13: Young wrote, “Rained.” Rich wrote, “commenced to rain.” Bigler wrote, “began to rain.” (Pratt does not mention the weather.)

     On November 14: Young wrote, “rained and snowed … but went off … fast.” Pratt wrote “severe squall of rain and wind.” Bigler wrote “Cloudy…. water standing about in pools” (in Hafen & Hafen 1954). By comparing the same dates, we find Bigler, Pratt, and Rich corroborate Young’s dates.{mospagebreak title=Morphogenesis of Words}


     Words are changed by Olesen to fit his assertions. Fortunately it is easy to trace the etymology of these morphed words, and in doing so you will see how Olesen attempts to support his route conclusions by putting words into peoples’ mouths.

     Manly tells us the Bennett-Arcan wagons camped at a “good spring” that had a “small flow from it spread out over the sand and sank in a very short distance” (1894:144). Olesen uses this quotation in his book (13:2:3 & 14:1:1), and names this spring “Flowing spring.” Then this “Flowing spring” morphs into a “running stream” (28:2:1) when Olesen asserts that: “Manly’s precise statement that the water he discovered was a running stream” (28:2:1; italics ours). Olesen morphs Manly’s “good spring” into a “Flowing spring” and then into a “running stream,” and shows photos of small flash-flood gullies to illustrate his stream bed (photos 7-9 & 11).

     When the wagons were going up hill in an abortive attempt to cross the Panamint Range, Manly said they had a “rough road” (1894:149). Olesen contends the Bennett-Arcan wagons made it into Warm Springs Canyon (a canyon littered with boulders) so he morphs Manly’s “rough road” into a “rocky canyon” (18:2:2).

     Manly says the Bennett-Arcan wagons “went over a road for perhaps 8 miles and came to the mouth of a rocky canyon” (1894:148). Olesen uses this quotation but then says, “Manly’s estimate of … [traveling eight miles] south exactly to the mouth of a rocky canyon could not be correct” (31:2:2, italics ours). Olesen morphs Manly’s “perhaps” into “exactly.”

     Here is case where the author morphs a word used in one context into a very different context to support his contentions. Olesen concludes when Manly mentioned a “glass” he “undoubtedly meant a small telescope” (15:1:3). Later he says “Manly states he used his field glass at the summit of the highest peak” (64:2:1; italics ours). Olesen does not properly reference from whence he got the information about the “field glass.” Possibly he is referring to Manly’s March 16, 1890, letter to John Colton wherein Manly says he went to the summit “of the high peaks … & by the assistance of a good field glass was able to sum up the country for a 100 miles” (JA 617). According to Manly, the field glass he used belonged to Arcan: “I took Mr. Arcane’s field glass with me and was thus able to see all there was of the country” (1894:114). This comment refers to the country east of Death Valley when Manly was scouting for the wagon train, but Olesen places the above scene west of Death Valley.

     Henry G. Hanks reported that Hugh McCormack “saw the shallow grave of a person supposed to be one of the emigrants, probably a woman, as a portion of a calico dress was found with the bones.” We hypothesized these bones may have been Captain Culverwell’s, and we argue our case in Escape from Death Valley (n89).

     Olesen says it “has been suggested that this was the skeleton of Captain Culverwell” (141:1:1). The above quotation by Hanks is all the data there is concerning the skeleton. Olesen morphs “the bones” to create a fictional mummy: “This body was either in a skeletal state or in a mummified condition with some skin, flesh and hair remaining” (141:2:1; italics ours). Then we are told “it can be reasonably concluded the mummy was an Indian woman and not Captain Culverwell” (141:2:3; italics ours). We find it incredulous that in only a few paragraphs Olesen morphs “the bones” into a “skeleton,” then morphs the “skeleton” into a “mummy,” and finally morphs the “mummy” into a “mummified Indian woman.”


     The above is a small sample of the egregious errors and convoluted reckoning we found in this book. Olesen offers different ideas on the ’49er routes out of Death Valley, but he uses faulty or incomplete data to support his conclusions. Thus, his book is of little value for an understanding of the ’49er routes.

     We have not challenged Olesen’s conclusions, most of which we strongly disagree with. You, the reader, will have to judge for yourself the merits of Olesen’s analyses. When you do so, ask your self this question: Does this book supersede “trail information in earlier publications”?


Barnes-Svarney, Patricia. 1995. The New York Public Library: Science Desk Reference. New York: Macmillan.

Barnhart, Robert K. 1986. The American Heritage Dictionary of Science. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.

Belden, L. Burr. 1957. The Wade Story, In and Out of Death Valley N.p.: [Death Valley ‘49ers, Inc.]. [Printed as the program for the dedication of the “Harry Wade Exit Route” California Historical Monument, No. 622, November 8, 1957. This booklet was reprinted in 1999 for the rededication of the monument during the 50th Death Valley ‘49er Encampment. The reprint was reformatted and printed for E Clampus Vitus by Harrington McInnis Co., Inc.. Oakland, CA. Inserted in the booklet is a four-page 1999 Addendum—The Wade Story, revised and continued by Mary Jensen. Mary is the great great granddaughter of Harry and Mary Wade.

Coville, Frederick Vernon. 1891. “Death Valley Expedition Itinerary [Diary].” Personal diary. Washington DC, Smithsonian Institute Botanical Library.

Greene, Linda. 1981. Historic Resource Study: A History in Death Valley National Monument. Vol. 1 of 2, Part 1 of 2. Denver, CA: U.S. Department of Interior.

Hafen, LeRoy R. and Ann W. Hafen. 1954. Journals of Forty-Niners: Salt Lake to Los Angeles. Glendale, CA: Arthur H. Clark Co.

Hanks, Henry G. 1883. Third Annual Report of the State Mineralogist. California State Mining Bureau. Sacramento, CA: Supt. State Printing.

Johnson, LeRoy & Jean, eds. 1987. Escape from Death Valley. Reno, NV: Univ. of Nevada Press. [This book is cited as “Johnson & Johnson 1987” in this review.]

———. 1991. “The Bennett-Arcan Long Camp and Manly’s Sulphur Water Well.” In: Proceedings: First Death Valley Conference on History & Prehistory, February 8-11, 1987. pp. 22-43. Death Valley, CA: Death Valley Natural History Association. [This publication was reformatted and reissued from the original 1987 proceedings.]

Long, Margaret. 1941. The Shadow of the Arrow. Caldwell, Idaho, Caxton Printers, Ltd.

Manly, William Lewis. 1894. Death Valley in ‘49. San Jose, CA: The Pacific tree and Vine Co. [We, as did Olesen, used Manly’s original edition, which is readily available in several facsimile editions.]

Mozingo, Hugh. 1986. Shrubs of the Great Basin: A Natural History. Reno, NV: Univ. of Nevada Press.

Newhall, Ruth Waldo. 1958. The Newhall Ranch. San Marino, CA: The Huntington Library.

Palmer, T. S. 1891. Diary, Death Valley Expedition, 1891. Personal diary. HM 50827, Palmer Collection, Huntington Library. San Marino, CA.

Sampson, Arthur W. and Beryl S. Jespersen. 1963. California Range Brushlands and Browse Plants. Manual 33. California Agricultural Experiment Station, Extension Service. [Berkeley, CA]: Univ. of California, Division of Agricultural Sciences.

Taylor, Ronald J. 1992. Sagebrush County. Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Co.

U.S. Naval Observatory Astronomical Applications Department. ( [This Web Site is easy to use and is a valuable tool for trail buffs and scholars.]

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.]


LeRoy and Jean Johnson
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