Death Valley is nothing if not a historical and geological theme park. Because of its many short-lived mining booms, it has left behind an abundance of interesting and compelling characters. The recorded history began with the first sizeable group of wagons that traversed the valley, and it is from this party that a couple of young heroes emerged.
Heroism requires a predicament, and the situation these migrating people got themselves into begged for a hero or two because serious mistakes were made and needed to be resolved. The westward trek was part of a national hysteria: the 1849 gold rush to California. This party’s story is a common one in which people with too little information were in too much of a hurry. Certainly greed, excitement, and gullibility also played a role.
This story begins in the fall of 1849 when a large group of forty-niners prepared to set out from Salt Lake City on the final leg of their journey to the gold fields of California. They’d arrived in Utah too late to cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains by the most direct route—over Donner Pass—so they had little choice but to take a much longer southern route that skirted the mountains via the Old Spanish Trail.
A small group—the Bennett-Arcan party—broke from one of the main groups and decided to take an easy shortcut after they’d been shown a map drawn by a Captain Smith, who was leading another party along a different route. Unfortunately for the Bennett-Arcan party, which included families with children as well as several unmarried men, this map came straight from Smith’s imagination. To make matters worse the guide they’d hired, along with the only map, disappeared the night before departure. The party remained undeterred and set out anyway.
They surely realized their folly in short order, but things came to a head three weeks later. After many miles of sagebrush desert with little water and barely any food for their draft animals, they were blocked by a chain of mountains they couldn’t cross. They believed they’d reached the Sierra Nevada Range and that California’s Central Valley lay just on the other side. Little did they know that not one but four mountain ranges still separated them from their destination. Here, a revelation came when they realized they were trapped and would soon starve if they couldn’t get help.
This is where the heroes, William Manly and John Rogers, come in. These two young men volunteered to walk out and find help. With just a few pounds of dried meat, a gunpowder tin for a canteen, and all the money the party had ($30), they set off trudging across the salt pan, over the daunting mountain ranges, and across the Mojave Desert. Two weeks later they stumbled upon a ranch about 30 miles from Los Angeles. After picking up a couple of horses, a mule, and some supplies, the tired twosome reversed their direction and hurried back to Death Valley. Both horses died of exhaustion but the mule survived. This heroic trek through a completely unknown desert wilderness saved the lives of all but one of the members of the Bennett-Arcan Party. Over thirty days Manley and Rogers had covered 500 difficult miles. Then they had to make the journey a third time in leading the others out.