A not-so-shortcut through Death Valley

FURNACE CREEK, Calif. — After the Donner Party perished in the Sierra Nevadas en route to the California gold rush, pioneers waiting in Salt Lake City to make the trip in October 1849, heard about a southerly route, the Old Spanish Trail, to avoid the harsh winter.

But they lacked much information about it and only one person in town knew the route and agreed to lead them.

Wagon train members were getting upset their guide, Captain Jefferson Hunt, was traveling too slow, and when a young man rode into camp and showed a hand-sketched map with a fictitious shortcut across the desert, some wagon train members turned back rather than traverse a gaping canyon on what is now the Utah-Nevada state line, but 20 other wagons separated from Captain Hunt and kept on going. The fake map led to a place called Walker Pass, according to a history of the Lost ‘49ers provided by Death Valley National Park.

This group passed near present day Panaca and continued across barren valleys to Groom Lake, the present day Area 51. Then they split into two different groups. The Bennett-Arcan party wanted to head toward Mount Charleston in hopes of finding a good water source, another group, the Jayhawkers stuck with the original plan traveling west. Both were saved from dying of thirst by a snow storm and both ended up in Death Valley, the historical account states.

The wagon trains passed through Death Valley Junction, riding along present day Highway 190. On Christmas Eve 1849, some arrived at Travertine Springs, the source of Furnace Creek. The lost 49ers had now been traveling across the desert for about two months since leaving the Old Spanish Trail, the historical account reads, their oxen were weak from lack of forage and their wagons were battered and in poor shape. The formidable Panamint Mountains stood in their way.

The two groups diverged again at Furnace Creek. The Jayhawkers went north toward the Mesquite Flat sand dunes where they decided to leave their wagons behind and walk. They slaughtered several oxen and used the wood to cook the meat and make jerky. After crossing the Panamint Mountains via Towne Pass and dropping down into Panamint Valley, most of them turned south, into Indian Wells Valley near present day Ridgecrest. There they followed a prominent Indian trail heading south to civilization.

The Bennett-Arcan party struggled across the salt flats and attempted to pass over the Panamint Range via Warm Springs Canyon but were unable to do so. They sent William Lewis Manly and John Rogers over the mountain to get supplies, the two men spent nearly a month walking more than 300 miles to Mission San Fernando, got supplies at a ranch and trekked back with three horses and a one-eyed mule. One horse was ridden to death, the other two had to be abandoned. When Manly and Rogers finally arrived back at the Bennett-Arcan camp they found many had left to find their own way out of the valley, only two families patiently remained.

As they made their way west over the mountains, someone is said to have proclaimed, “Goodbye Death Valley” giving the valley its name. They escaped Death Valley but it took another 23 days to cross the Mojave Desert and reach Ranch San Francisco in Santa Clarita Valley. The so-called short-cut took four months and cost the lives of many men.

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