(from the California
Death Valley in ’49
By William Lewis Manly
Edited by Leroy and Jean Johnson
Foreword by Patricia Nelson Limerick
Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, CA and Heyday Books, Berkeley, CA,
2001, 399 pages, paperback, $18.95, ISBN 1-890771-47-3
Reviewed by Mary-Ellen
The Bancroft Library, Retired
The mention of Death
Valley instantly brings to most minds clear images of intensely hot days,
freezing nights and miles of shifting sand. It is perhaps California’s most
widely-known geographic feature due in no small part to Death Valley in ’49,
William Lewis Manly’s haunting chronicle of disaster, survival and heroism.
Originally published in San Jose, California, in 1894, this powerful
narrative has become one of the great classics of California literature.
William L. Manly was born
in Vermont in 1820. His family migrated westward, eventually settling in
Wisconsin. By 1845 he was hearing rumors of new opportunities farther west.
He described his reaction as a sort of pioneer or western fever resulting
from learning that good farm land was readily available in Oregon. In the
winter of 1848, reports began to circulate that gold had been discovered in
California. His pioneer fever was quickly replaced by a serious case of gold
fever. Manly concluded that the only cure was California.
Manly set out on the Oregon Trail. Upon reaching Fort Bridger, he and his
company decided to float down the Green and Colorado rivers to reach
California. In their attempt to find a shortcut to the mines they found
themselves stranded in Death Valley. He and friend John Rogers were elected
to continue west to seek help and return with supplies.
Manly’s account of his struggles for survival is unbelievably detailed and
spell-binding. It was a struggle on two levels— to avoid death by
starvation, thirst and exhaustion and a struggle for moral survival as the
man responsible for the lives of his company. Patricia Nelson Limerick
carefully examines these two struggles in her marvelous Foreword.
Heyday Books deserves a great deal of credit for reprinting this invaluable
piece of Californiana in such a handsome volume and made even more valuable
by the inclusion of an outstanding Foreword, Preface, Epilogue and Notes.