The Lost 49ers — the True Story of How Death Valley Earned Its Name

’49ers mining gold at El Dorado. Image Source: Library of Congress.

The “Lost ‘49ers” refers to a group of pioneers who set out from Salt Lake City in October 1849, during the California Gold Rush. During their journey, they tried to take a shortcut, which took them through a desolate place they called “Death Valley.”

Gold is Discovered at Sutter’s Mill

On January 24, 1848, James W. Marshall discovered flakes of gold in the South Fork American River near Sutter’s Mill in present-day Coloma, California. Soon after, the Mexican-American War ended, and the United States gained possession of the area as part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. It was a key moment in America’s Westward Expansion and the fulfillment of Manifest Destiny.

The California Gold Rush and the ‘49ers

In December, President James K. Polk announced to the nation that gold had been found and the California Gold Rush commenced. Thousands of Americans living East of the Mississippi River packed up their belongings and headed West over the Oregon Trail, making their way to Salt Lake City. Because the mass migration started in 1849, these pioneers came to be known as the “‘49ers.”

James K Polk, 11th President, Portrait
President James K. Polk. Image Source: National Portrait Gallery.

The ‘49ers Head to Salt Lake City

Pausing at Salt Lake City gave the 49ers a chance to resupply, in preparation for crossing over the Great Basin and the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which had to be done before winter. Otherwise, the 49ers took a chance on suffering the same fate as the ill-fated Donner Party and getting trapped in the snowy mountain passes.

‘49ers Head West on the Old Spanish Trail

In October 1849, a train of around 100 wagons and 250 people left Salt Lake City, heading West. The train was organized by the San Joaquin Company and led by Captain Jefferson Hunt. The train moved slowly along the “Old Spanish Trail” and Hunt refused to leave slower wagons behind.

A Shortcut Around the Sierra Nevada Mountains

At one point, a young man — Orson K. Smith — rode into the ‘49ers camp with a rough, hand-drawn map that showed a shortcut through the desert to Walker Pass. The source of the map is unclear, but it may have been made by John C. Fremont during one of his expeditions to map the West.

General John C. Fremont, Civil War, USA
John C. Fremont. Image Source: National Archives.

Some thought the shortcut would take as many as 500 miles off of the trip. When it was brought to Hunt’s attention, he refused to divert from the Old Spanish Trail.

The Lost ‘49ers Head to the Shortcut

However, some of the ‘49ers had lost confidence in Hunt, due to some mistakes he had made in navigating the trail. Most of the wagons decided to try the shortcut, while a handful stayed with Hunt. The two parties split up at present-day Enterprise, Utah. Hunt continued along the Old Spanish Trail while the “Lost ‘49ers” made for the shortcut.

Some of the Lost ‘49ers Turn Back

The Lost ‘49ers — who were led by Captain C. C. Rich and Francis Pomeroy — quickly found their path was not as easy as they hoped when they encountered a canyon — Beaver Dam Wash — at the present-day border of Utah and Nevada. Most of the wagons backtracked and rejoined Hunt. However, about 25 wagons continued to search for the shortcut, believing they would eventually find it.

Among the Sierra Nevada, Albert Bierstadt, 1868,. Image Source: Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The Lost ‘49ers Split Into Factions

This last group of Lost ‘49ers was made up of two factions. One is known as the Bennett-Arcan Party. The other party called itself the Jayhawkers.

The Lost ‘49ers traveled through present-day Panaca, Nevada, which is roughly 160 miles north of Las Vegas. From Panaca, they went southwest, toward Groom Lake. When they arrived, the two groups argued about where to go from there. By then, everyone was thirsty and needed water. It had been two months since they had left Hunt and the rest of the expedition.

The Bennett-Arcan Party wanted to go South, toward Mt. Charleston, so they could find good, clean water. The Jayhawkers, on the other hand, insisted on continuing to move Southwest.

The Lost ‘49ers Go Their Separate Ways

Both groups made their way to present-day Death Valley Junction and entered present-day Death Valley. From there, they moved North and some of them arrived near present-day Furnace Creek on December 24, 1849 — Christmas Eve. Upon leaving Furnace Creek, the two groups went their separate ways.

Oregon Trail, Wagon Train Breaking Camp, Painting, Miller
Breaking up Camp at Sunrise, Alfred Jacob Miller. Image Source: Walters Art Museum.

The Jayhawkers

The Jayhawkers went North, moving toward the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes, with about 20 wagons. When they arrived, they decided they needed to leave their wagons and belongings behind and walk the rest of the way. They broke the wagons down for firewood and slaughtered some of the oxen. Then they made fires and cooked the meat to make jerky. Eventually, they crossed the Panamint Mountains and made their way to safety by following an old Native American Indian trail.

The Bennett-Arcan Party

The Bennett-Arcan Party, with 5-7 wagons, tried to cross through the Panamint Mountains by going through Wam Springs Canyon, but the effort failed. They made their way back to the floor of the valley and sent two men — William Lewis Manly and John Rogers — for help.

Death Valley Gets Its Name from the Lost ‘49ers

It took the two of them a month to make the 200-mile walk to Mission San Fernando, gather supplies, and return to their party. When they returned, they found one of the men had died. As they packed up and left the valley, legend has it one of them said, “Goodbye, Death Valley.”

23 days later, the Bennett-Arcan Party — the last of the Lost ‘49ers — arrived at Ranch San Francisco in Santa Clarita Valley, ending their journey.