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Book Review : A Stirring Episode of Tenacity in the Old West

June 20, 1987|JONATHAN KIRSCH

Escape From Death Valley: As Told by William Lewis Manly and Other '49ers, edited by LeRoy and Jean Johnson (University of Nevada Press: $14.95, paperback; $25, hard-cover)

The saga of William Lewis Manly and the rescue of the Bennett-Arcan wagon train is one of the most stirring (if seldom-told) stories in the history of the West and the literature of survival. Manly and his fellow forty-niners, John Haney Rogers, befriended a small party of men, women and children--the Bennett and Arcan families--whose desperate attempt to find a "shortcut" to the gold fields of California in the winter of 1849-50 led them into the unknown stretches of Death Valley.

Stranded in the unforgiving desert, abandoned by their own wagon drivers, lacking food and water and the skills necessary to find them in the wilderness, the Bennett-Arcan party turned to these two young men, a pair of authentic gallants, to rescue them.

Manly and Rogers trekked on foot across about 270 miles of forbidding desert, mountain and canyon terrain, provisioned themselves at a Spanish rancho near what is now Saugus, and then returned to lead the families out of Death Valley.

"They gave us all the money they had in camp, with instructions to bring them something to eat and some animals if we could find any," Manly later recalled in his memoirs. "They said they would wait for us 18 days, and if we did not get back in that time, they would conclude we had perished in the snow or the Indians had killed us."

Those Left Wondered

And even if Manly and Rogers managed to reach a safe refuge, those left behind in Death Valley wondered if "the boys" would bother to return at all: " 'Well,' they said, 'all we have to say is, if he gets out he is a damned fool to come back to help anybody out of such a Godforsaken place as this.' " Thanks to the courage and self-sacrifice of these two heroes--and their rough-and-ready wilderness survival skills--the Bennett-Arcan families were rescued.

Leaving the Bennett-Arcan camp with just a few days' rations of dried ox meat and brackish water, Manly and Rogers nearly died in the desert. They put "small stones and bullets" in their mouths to fight thirst, and "watched to gather every green spear of grass that might grow on the north side of a rock." Fearful of Indians, they did not build a campfire at night; rather, they slept "in spoon fashion" to warm each other against the bitter cold.

Even after the rescuers had found their way back to the stranded wagon train, the half-starved women and children seemed too weak to survive the strenuous desert crossing. The two youngest children, unable to walk, were slung over the back of an ox in an improvised harness made of two "hickory" shirts.

"To bear this precious load we selected the brindled ox, 'Old Crump,' " recalled Manly, a noble soul who perceived "Christian" qualities in beasts of burden, including a faithful one-eyed mule who "was really as moral in her conduct as any one could be in a country where a man's morals are sometimes left as far east as the Missouri River."

Emerged From Purgatory

At last, the survivors emerged from their purgatory. "We . . . looked back over the plains and mountains we had crossed and worried over so long; we could see the high snow peak where we left our wagons, and with thankful hearts we said, 'Goodbye to desolation,' " Manly wrote. "We . . . wondered what the vast estate we had passed over was made for, and we thought of what the man said at the place where the large wagon train was burned: 'That this must be the place where all the dregs of creation were dumped, and everything bad since then, including Lot's wife."

But "Escape From Death Valley" is more than a retelling of a colorful and compelling story of the Gold Rush. Rather, it is the wholly absorbing account of a modern quest by a pair of contemporary adventurers whose tenacity and dedication nearly matches that of Manly and Rogers.

LeRoy Johnson is a geneticist for the U.S. Forest Service; Jean Johnson is a professional cellist and a scientific editor. Together with their two sons, the Johnsons have devoted more than a dozen years to the self-appointed mission of locating and retracing the exact route of the Bennett-Arcan party and its rescuers from Hobble Creek in Utah to the sleepy little pueblo of Los Angeles.

A Family Memoir

"Escape From Death Valley," then, is a family memoir, a historical monograph and a field guide to the deserts of Nevada and California, as well as a tale of heroism in the Old West.

The story is recounted in Manly's own words, drawn from an early (and, the Johnsons suggest, more authentic) version of his published memoirs, as well as the letters, journals and memoirs of other forty-niners, including John Rogers.

But the firsthand narrative is vastly enriched by the meticulous and lengthy annotations provided by the Johnsons, whose investigations included scholarly research in libraries and archives across the United States and repeated journeys on foot in the same bleak terrain where the rescue took place.

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