Does anyone read books anymore? This is not a rhetorical question—my books section is basically a ghost town nowadays. Still, for those of you who still like to hold a bound stack of old paper in your hands for hours at a time, here's William L. Manly's Death Valley in '49, a classic story of pioneer life and the California Gold Rush, plus a truly remarkable account of a disastrous journey across Death Valley.
"Death Valley" does not make for particularly easy reading, but I do recommend it if you are interested in California history—and particularly the history of Owens Valley and neighboring Death Valley. I came across the book thanks to a helpful commenter, who noted after my Telescope Peak hike that Manly's book takes place in the surrounding area.
The book begins with Manly's childhood, in the eastern U.S., when his family was struggling to work a farm on a settlement claim. Later, as a young man, Manly leaves home and goes on a fur trapping adventure to earn some cash. About this time, gold is found in California, and Manly joins a wagon train heading west, hoping to strike it rich in the Sierra. The wagon train arrives late in the year at Salt Lake City, and the eager pioneers, guides, and families are told that it is too late to cross Donner Pass into California.
Rather than wait out the winter on the bleak shores of the Great Salt Lake, Manly and the others decide to try an uncharted southern route across the desert, on a tip from an Army captain. That shortcut proves to be a disaster, leading them directly into the heart of the waterless Death Valley. Ultimately Manly would survive, foraging ahead for supplies in Southern California, and returning to rescue two families (many others died). Later, Manly finally makes it to the gold fields, and enjoys some success as a prospector.
Manly's account of the Death Valley crossing falters a bit when it comes to describing the actual route his wagon train took, making it difficult to identify exactly where he and his party are at any given time. But the book is brilliantly successful when it comes to embedding us within this particular time and place in American history. The daily rigors of pioneer life are made vividly plain.
There are also the challenges of managing such a large group of often-squabbling families, the constant threat of running out of crucial supplies, the navigational challenge of going off-the-map, and an endless game of cat-and-mouse between the wagon train and native peoples who are always looking to raid supplies. Manly describes all of it, in remarkable detail.
But perhaps the book is most successful simply for the way it allows us to experience what it actually meant to strap all one's possessions to a old wagon and head off toward a wholly uncertain future across inarguably hostile ground. More than once I found myself astonished by the audacity and resolve of these hardy folk. There is far more struggle than success in this story, and many of these pioneer families pay the ultimate price for their dreams of a better life.
On the whole, I don't know of a more vivid or accurate account of pioneer life in Gold Rush-era California. Highly recommended.