Nobody knows exactly when the first European set eyes and foot upon Ash Meadows and the Amargosa Valley. The natives had long established a network of trails in the American West, and some of these footpaths connected present-day California with the lands of present-day Nevada, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico.
Spanish explorers became familiar with this network as early as the 16th century. And a route was established by the Spanish around this time, that connected New Mexico to California, and that passed through the Amargosa Valley. This eventually became known as the Old Spanish Trail.
But for hundreds of years, few Spaniards traveled this trail, and none ever established themselves in the Amargosa Valley. They left these natives alone, to continue on with their primitive civilization.
Mountain men learned of this route, from the natives, and traversed it to reach California during the 1820s and 1830s. American explorer John C. Fremont traveled this trail in the 1840s, and very likely passed through the Amargosa Valley. He made a sketchy map of the area, but it was difficult to figure out.
In 1847, the Donner Party met with a well-publicized disaster while trying to cross the high and rugged Sierra Nevadas. So in October of 1849, another party of wagon train immigrants, encamped in Salt Lake City, decided to go low, upon a more southerly route to the California goldfields. They would make the unprecedented move of skirting around the Sierras, that were so deadly in the winter.
They used a copy of Fremont’s sketchy map, and sought out the lush and water-abundant Owens valley, to the west of Death Valley, as their route around the Sierras. But Fremont’s map depicted a non-existent, east-to-west mountain range, and this set them arsy-versy on a discombobulated route that ended them up in the much drier Amargosa Valley, to the east of Death Valley.
They stopped at Ash Meadows, and rested and filled up with water. At this point, the natives could have advised them to head due south, paralleling the course of the dry, Amargosa riverbed, where their trek would be much easier. But by this time, the natives had come to regard the white man as a cruel and mean people, and so they allowed them to find their own fate.
And find it they did. This party of fools initially drove south, to present-day Death Valley Junction. But then they made the disastrous decision to drive their wagons and mules west and northwest, to seek out Walker Pass of the Owens valley. This carried them along the route of California’s present day Highway 190, over the Amargosa mountains, and straight down into the heart of Amargosa’s sister valley. The valley of death itself, at Furnace Creek.
The Panamint Mountains stood like an impenetrable wall, to their west. They were trapped, and had to decide whether to continue either north or southwest, to seek a way around the towering Panamints. With no guidance, and no knowledge of the territory, most of them continued north toward what appeared to be a pass near present-day Stovepipe Wells.
A late-arriving family, the Wades, made a more fortunate gamble. They turned southwest and found an exit from the valley through Wingate Wash, and escaped unscathed.
Those who gambled north through this terra incognita, were greeted by a landscape devoid of much vegetation. By the time they reached the sand dunes near Stovepipe Wells, their oxen were dying from lack of forage. There they made a heartbreaking stop at what is today referred to as “Burned Wagons Camp.” At this camp, they slaughtered their remaining oxen and made jerky.
They then proceeded on foot toward Towne Pass, but were forced by exhaustion and disorientation to stop about 5 miles southwest of Stovepipe Wells, and make camp.
The desert heat generally rose no higher than the 60s and 70s. It was nice and cool, for Death Valley. They were lucky it was December. Had they arrived in July, when high temperatures average 116 F at Furnace Creek, and where the highest temperature ever officially recorded on planet Earth, of 134 F, would melt thermometers in July of 1913, they would have surely died of heat exhaustion.
One family, the Briers, made the daring decision to abandon the party. They ventured out upon a heroic and desperate scramble over the Panamint Mountains to the west, and escaped the ravages of this hellish valley.
Two men were sent south to search for help and a way out, for those families that remained. Four weeks later, after a nearly impossible 500 mile round-trip trek, they returned with food supplies, three horses, and a mule. But the three horses died before they could reach the camp.
With only a mule and the meager food provisions, the remaining parties managed to footslog their way to civilization. However, two soon died along the way, just west of the Panamints.
Before the return of this rescue party, they had sent another party, of three men, on a mission southwest, to find a way out of the valley. Two made it out and managed to reach civilization and return with provisions. But one of these men, a Captain Culverwell, couldn’t keep up with his two traveling companions. He turned back, but died of dehydration just a few miles short of the camp. He is the only one of these 49ers to have died within Death Valley itself.
The Timbisha Shoshone, who inhabited this valley, could have helped these hapless travelers. But it is said that their contempt for a people they considered to be cruel, kept them away.
Their name for the valley was Tumpisa, which means “Rock Paint,” after the paint they made from the red clay that can be found in the area. But this 49er party, as they sat starving in the shade of short shrubs, came up with a new name. Perhaps they were inspired by Psalm 23:4, which references the valley of the shadow of death.
Because from that time on, this inhospitable geological wonder has been known as Death Valley.
This is the latest installation of my series, The Amazing Amargosa. Come on back in a few days for the next installation, entitled, Chapter 6: The Wheeler Survey. Click here to read the previous installation. Click here, to start at the beginning.