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Death Valley in '49


Alexander Combs Erkson was one of the pioneers of 1849, having left the state of Iowa in the month of May, when he assisted in organizing a company known as the "Badger Company" at Kanesville, the object being mutual assistance and protection. This company joined the Bennett party mentioned so prominently in this history, at the Missouri, and traveled with them or near them to the rendezvous near Salt Lake where the new company was organized for the southern trip taken by the Death Valley party, the Jayhawkers and others. As the experience of Mr. Erkson was in some respects different to that of the parties mentioned, he having taken a different route for a part of the way, it was thought best to embody it in this history. The following was dictated to the editor of this book, and as Mr. Erkson died before the written account could be revised by him, it is the best that can possibly be obtained.

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"We arrived at the Mormon camp near Salt Lake, Salt Lake City, in the month of August. Several of us went to work getting out lumber for Brigham Young while we were waiting and resting. The mormons all advised us not to undertake to go on by the northern route, and as the travelers gathered at this point they canvassed the situation. We used our teams when we were at work for Brigham and assisted in building a dam across a caņon where he intended to build a woolen mill. I earned about a hundred dollars by my work, which was paid to me in ten-dollar pieces of a gold coin made by the Mormons. They were not like the U.S. coins. I remember one side had an eye and the words--'Holiness to the Lord.'

We entered into an agreement with Capt. Hunt, a Mormon, to pilot us through, and turned all our gold into that company, thus bringing none of the Mormon gold with us. We went on with the company as has been related in the foregoing pages, till we arrived at Mt. Misery, so named by us, when we took the back track, while Mr. Manley and the others went on as they have related. We had meetings by the light of a greenwood fire, and the matter was talked up in little knots of people, and then some one would get up and speak. One J.W. Brier, a preacher, was the principal blower. 'You are going wrong!' said he, We should go west, and in six weeks we will be loaded with gold!'

Hunt got a little confused at a place called Beaver Meadows, or Mountain Meadows, and thought perhaps he could find a new road. Several men were sent out to look, and some of us in camp played ball for amusement while we were waiting. Hunt's men came back and said there were no prospects of a new road, and he said he knew the southern route and believed it would be safe to go that way.

He told us that we must decide the next day. When we came to the road where we were to separate he filed off on his road and the others filed off on their road and then came back with their whips in their hands. I had filed in after Hunt, and they tried to convince me that I was very wrong. A Mr. Norton of Adrian, Mich., promised Mrs. Erkson a horse to ride if she would go, and so I left Hunt and turned in on the other road, the hindmost wagon. This is going back a little with the history and bringing it up to Mt. Misery. On my way back from Mt. Misery I climbed up on a big rock and inscribed the date--Nov. 10, 1849.

In our journey we came to what is called 'The rim of the Basin,' and traveled along on that a distance till we came to the Santa Clara River and saw where the Indians had raised corn and melons. We followed on down that stream and found our teams gradually failing. Noting this we decided to overhaul our loads and reject a lot of things not strictly necessary to preserve life. I know I threw out a good many valuable and pretty things by the roadside. I remember six volumes of Rollin's Ancient History, nicely bound, with my name on the back, that were piled up and left. We followed along near the Santa Clara River till it emptied into the Virgin River. It was somewhere along here that we first saw some Yucca trees. The boys often set fire to them to see them burn.

The Virgin River was a small stream running on about the course we wanted to travel, and we followed this course for thirty or forty miles. We found plenty of wood and water and mesquite. After awhile the river turned off to the left, while we wanted to keep to the right, so we parted company there. We heard of a river beyond which they called the 'Big Muddy' and we went up a little arroyo, then over a divide to some table land that led us down to the Big Muddy. We made our wagons as light as possible, taking off all the boards and stakes we could possibly get along without. Wm. Philipps and others were placed on short allowance. They had an idea that I had more provisions in my wagon than I ought to have, but I told them that it was clothing that we used to sleep on. I divided among them once or twice. When we reached the Muddy we stopped two or three days for there was plenty of feed. It was a narrow stream that seemed as if it must come from springs. It was narrow between banks, but ran pretty deep, and a streak of fog marked its course in the morning. We understood it was not very far from where we left the Virgin River to the Colorado, some said not more than fourteen miles and that the Colorado turned sharply to the south at that point. Mr. Rhynierson and wife had a child born to them on the Virgin River, and it was named Virginia.

It was a gloomy trip the whole time on the Muddy. I lost three or four head of cattle, all within a day and a night. Mrs. Erkson walked to lighten the load, and would pick all the bunches of grass she saw and put them on the wagon to feed the oxen when we stopped. I let them pass me and stopped and fed the cattle, and slept ourselves. It was said that we ran great risks from Indians, but we did not see any. I had at this time only two yoke of oxen left.

We overtook the party next morning at nine o'clock, having met some of them who were coming back after us. All were rejoiced that we had come on safely. Here I met Elisha Bennett and told him my story. He said he could sell me a yoke of oxen. He had a yoke in J.A. Philipps' team and was going to take them out. He said nothing in particular as to price. I said that I wanted to see Mr. Philipps and talk with him about the matter, for he had said Bennett should not have the cattle. I went over to see him and spoke to him about Bennett's cattle and he told me they had quarreled and I could have them, and so we made a bargain. I gave twenty dollars for the cattle, the last money I had, and as much provisions as he could carry on his back. They were making up a party to reach the settlements at the Williams ranch, and I made arrangements for them to send back provisions for us. About thirty started that way--young men and men with no families with them.

I got along very well with my new team after that. It was about forty miles from water to water, and I think we camped three times. At one place we found that provisions had been left, with a notice that the material was for us, but the red-skins got the provisions. We struck a spring called-----, a small spring of water, and a child of some of the party died there and was buried.

We then went more nearly south to find the Mojave River, for we hoped to find water there. It was very scarce with us then, We had one pretty cold day, but generally fine weather, and to get along we traveled at night and a party struck the Mojave. Here there was some grass, and the mustard was beginning to start up and some elder bushes to put forth leaves. I picked some of the mustard and chewed it to try to get back my natural taste. Here the party divided, a part going to the left to San Bernardino and the remainder to the right to Cucamunga. I was with the latter party and we got there before night.

Rhynierson said to one of the party--'Charlie, you had better hurry on ahead and try to get some meat before the crowd comes up.' Charlie went on ahead and we drove along at the regular gait which was not very fast about these times. We saw nothing of Charlie and so I went to the house to look for him and found him dead drunk on wine. He had not said a word to them about provisions. That wine wrecked us all. All had a little touch of scurvy, and it seemed to be just what we craved. I bought a big tumbler of it for two bits and carried it to my wife. She lasted it at first rather gingerly, then took a little larger sup of it, and then put it to her lips and never slopped drinking till the last drop was gone. I looked a little bit surprised and she looked at me and innocently asked--'Why! Haven't you had any?' I was afraid she would be the next one to be dead drunk, but it never affected her in that way at all. We bought a cow here to kill, and used the meat either fresh or dried, and then went on to the Williams, or Chino ranch. Col. Williams was glad to see us, and said we could have everything we wanted. We wanted to get wheat, for we had lived so long on meat that we craved such food. He told us about the journey before us and where we would find places to camp. Here we found one of the Gruwells. We camped here a week, meeting many emigrants who came by way of Santa Fe.

We went on from here to San Gabriel where we staid six weeks to rest and recuperate the cattle. In the good grass we found here they all became about as fat as ever in a little while. Here the party all broke up and no sort of an organization was kept up beyond here. Some went to Los Angeles, some went on north, trading off their cattle for horses, and some went directly to the coast. We went to the Mission of San Fernando where we got some oranges which were very good for us. There is a long, tedious hill there to get over. We made up ten wagons. By the time we reached the San Francisquito Ranch I had lost my cattle. I went down to this ranch and there met Mr. and Mrs. Arcane getting ready to go to San Pedro. We came north by way of Tejon pass and the Kern River, not far from quite a large lake, and reached the mines at last. I remember we killed a very fat bear and tried out the grease, and with this grease and some flour and dried apples Mrs. Erkson made some pretty good pies which the miners were glad to get at a dollar and even two dollars apiece."

Mr. Erkson followed mining for about a year and then went into other business until he came to Santa Clara Valley and began farming near Alviso. He has been a highly respected citizen and progressive man, He died in San Jose in the spring of 1893.

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Edward Coker was one of a party of twenty-one men who left their wagons, being impatient of the slow progress made by the ox train, and organized a pack train in which they were themselves the burden carriers. They discarded everything not absolutely necessary to sustain life, packed all their provisions into knapsacks, bravely shouldered them and started off on foot from the desert to reach California by the shortest way.

Among those whom Mr. Coker can recollect are Capt. Nat. Ward, Jim Woods, Jim Martin of Missouri, John D. Martin of Texas, "Old Francis," a French Canadian, Fred Carr, Negro "Joe" and some others from Coffeeville, Miss., with others from other states.

Mr. Coker related his experience to the Author somewhat as follows:--

"One other of the party was a colored man who joined us at the camp when we left the families, he being the only remaining member of a small party who had followed our wagon tracks after we had tried to proceed south. This party was made up of a Mr. Culverwell who had formerly been a writer in a Government office at Washington, D.C., a man named Fish claiming to be a relative of Hamilton Fish of New York, and another man whose name I never knew. He, poor fellow, arrived at our camp in a starving condition and died before our departure. The other two unfortunates ones died on the desert, and the colored man reported that he simply covered their remains with their blankets.

I well remember that last night in camp before we started with our knapsacks and left the families, for it was plain the women and children must go very slow, and we felt we could go over rougher and shorter roads on foot and get through sooner by going straight across the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Our condition was certainly appalling. We were without water, all on the verge of starvation, and the three poor cattle which yet remained alive were objects of pity. It seemed almost a crime to kill the poor beasts, so little real food was there left on their skeleton frames. They had been so faithful and had plodded along when there seemed no hope for them. They might still serve to keep the party from starvation.

It was at this camp that Mr. Ischam died. The night before our departure he came wandering into camp and presented such an awful appearance, simply a living skeleton of a once grand and powerful man. He must have suffered untold agony as he struggled on to overtake the party, starving and alone, with the knowledge that two of his companions had perished miserably of starvation in that unknown wilderness of rocks and alkali.

Our journey on foot through the mountains was full of adventure and suffering. On our arrival at the shores of Owen's Lake not a man of the party had a mouthful of food left in his pack, and to add to our difficulties we had several encounters with the hostile Indians. There was a fearful snow storm falling at Owen's Lake on the evening that we arrived there, and we could make no fire. The Indians gathered around us and we did not know exactly what to make of them, nor could we determine whether their intentions were good or bad. We examined the lake and determined to try to ford it, and thus set out by the light of the moon that occasionally peeped out from behind the clouds, while the red devils stood howling on the shore.

The following morning we found what was then known as the Fremont Trail, and by the advice of some friendly Indians who came into our camp, we kept the "big trail" for three days and came to Walker's Pass. While on this trail we were followed at night by a number of wild Indians, but we prudently avoided any collisions with them and kept moving on. Going on through the pass we followed the right hand branch of the trail, the left hand branch leading more to the south and across a wide plain. We soon came to a fair-sized stream, now known to be the south fork of the Kern River, which we followed until we came to its junction with a larger river, the two making the Kern River. Here we were taken across by some friendly Indians who left the Missions farther west during the Mexican war and took to their own village located at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. At this village we were on exhibition for several hours with an audience of five hundred people or more, of the red men, and on the following morning we commenced the ascent of the mountains again, the Indians furnishing us with a guide in the person of an old Pi-Ute. He brought us over the range, through the snow and over the bleak ridges, in the month of December, 1849, and we made our first camp at an Indian village in Tulare Valley, a few miles south of where Porterville now stands.

From this Indian village we walked on until we arrived at the present site of Millerton on the south bank of the San Joaquin River. Our sufferings were terrible from hunger, cold, and wet, for the rains were almost continual at this elevation, and we had been forced several times to swim. The sudden change from the dried-up desert to a rainy region was pretty severe on us. On our arrival at the San Joaquin River we found a camp of wealthy Mexicans who gave us a small amount of food, and seemed to want us to pass on that they might be rid of us. I can well believe that a company of twenty-one starving men was the cause of some disquietude to them. They gave us some hides taken from some of the cattle they had recently slain, and from these we constructed a boat and ferry rope in which we crossed the river, and then continued our journey to the mining camp on Aqua Frio, in Mariposa county.

It is very strange to think that since that time I have never met a single man of that party of twenty-one. I had kept quite full notes of the whole trip from the state of New York to the mines, and including my early mining experience up to the year 1851. Unfortunately this manuscript was burned at the Russ House fire in Fresno, where I also lost many personal effects."

In the year 1892 Mr. Coker was living in Fresno, or near that city, in fairly comfortable health, and it is to be hoped that the evening of his days, to which all the old pioneers are rapidly approaching, may be to him all that his brightest hopes pictured.

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