Before Badwater:  William Lewis Manly’s 1849 Crossing of Death Valley

In 1978, Al Arnold became the first person to run the 146 miles from the Badwater Basin in Death Valley to the summit of Mt. Whitney in the High Sierra.  Since then thousands of runners have completed a “crossing” in one form or another.

Contemporary runners face epic challenges in Death Valley:  brutal temperatures, fierce winds, and endless mountains  – valid reasons for the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon to tout itself as the “toughest footrace in the world.”

Runners take on these challenges to show the world that we still have the physical endurance and strength of spirit of our ancestors.  That we haven’t lost their determination and grit.  That in a world of wondrous technology, we haven’t gone soft.

In reflecting on his experience in Death Valley, Al Arnold once said, “If reincarnation is true, then I must have lived before as some kind of scout with an army or with pioneer settlers.  I really feel that you could drop me almost anywhere in the world and, barring human adversity, I’d survive.”

Interestingly, it was a scout who undertook the first documented crossing of Death Valley and the High Sierra.  The year was 1849, and the scout was named William Lewis Manly.  He was leading a group of pioneer settlers, or “emigrants” as they were then called, on an ill-fated shortcut from Salt Lake City to the California goldmines.

Arnold might well be Manly’s reincarnation, as they share the qualities of endurance and commitment.  Yet their experiences were quite different.  Arnold’s crossing was an achievement of training, discipline, and audacity.  Manly’s crossing was a venture gone wrong, a lesson in hunger, thirst, and fear, and a quest for survival.


If you’ve been to Death Valley before, chances are you’re familiar with Zabriskie point, a popular tourist site offering views across the salt fields to the Panamint Mountains.  Walk a mile into the badlands and you’ll encounter a pinnacle of rock that rises above the sulfite hills.  This is called Manly Beacon, and it’s named for our scout.  In December 1849, he stood near here and surveyed Death Valley through his spyglass, scanning desperately for a pass through the Panamints.

The situation was not promising.  There was no sign of water, and nothing to eat.  The emigrants were menaced by hostile Indians from whom they had, against Manly’s better judgment, stolen food.  The oxen were starving, and so were the people.  They had no map.  The small group of men, women, and children he was escorting hoped that the fertile valleys of California lay just behind the Panamints, but Manly knew they did not.

View of Manly’s Beacon from Zabriskie Point, with Panamints in the background. Wikipedia Commons (public domain), credit: Paul Hermans

Manly was born April 6, 1820 on his family’s farm in St. Albans, Vermont.  Farming the rocky soil and braving the northern New England winters was not an easy livelihood.  Rumors of better opportunities out west soon caught the family’s attention.  At the tender age of nine, Manly was sent west with his aunt and uncle in a horse-drawn wagon in search of better land.  They made it to Michigan and secured a 200-acre lot from the government, at which point his parents packed up and traveled west to join them.  The family built a log cabin plastered with mud and cleared the land to grow wheat, corn, and potatoes.

It was an improvement from Vermont.  Nonetheless, by the time he turned twenty, Manly felt his horizons were limited.  With a friend, he built a small boat and headed west across Lake Michigan, carrying a rifle, some extra clothes, and $7 in cash.  Ditching the boat on the western shore of Lake Michigan, the pair walked westwards into the Wisconsin prairie, looking for work.  But the settlers here were poor.  Manly and his friend were treated to bad food and undrinkable coffee, slept in lice-infested beds, and found only occasional odd jobs such as chopping wood or hunting.

As winter approached, the family farm seemed like the better option.  Retracing his steps to Lake Michigan, Manly discovered the boat was missing.  A change in route became necessary.  He walked sixty miles that day, he recalled in his memoirs.  He felt a little stiff and sore, but eventually made it home.

The next spring he was on the move again, this time taking a steamer to Chicago and catching a carriage ride further west.  He did some mining and chopped more wood.  As winter drew near, he and another young adventurer headed into northern Wisconsin, where they shot bear and trapped sable and marten.  While camping in the snowbound forests, Manly adopted many of the practices of the local Indians.  He wore homemade moccasins and buckskin jumpers, carried a tomahawk, and slept with his gun close at hand.  He thought it necessary they be “real Indians in custom and actions in order to be considered their equals.”  But he never forgot that it was the Native Americans who were the “real kings of the forest.”

During the winter of 1848, Manly now twenty-eight, heard rumors of California gold.  By spring he was on the move towards Salt Lake City and after a series of adventures arrived there in the fall of 1849, where he linked up with Mr. Asabel Bennett, a friend from Wisconsin, who was traveling west to the goldfields with his wife and children.  Come along with us, Bennett offered.  “You need not do any work. You just look around and kill what game you can for us, and this will help as much as anything you can do.”  Manly agreed.

With winter on the way, crossing the High Sierra was out of the question, as the passes would soon be covered in as much as 20 feet of snow.  Instead, the plan was to follow a southern route called the Spanish Trail to Los Angeles, then turn north along the coast.  While the route was longer, they’d arrive at the goldfields well before the snow melted in the passes.

A Mormon named Captain Jefferson Hunt, who had traveled the Spanish Trail the year before, offered to lead a wagon train for the fee of $10 per wagon.  A group formed under his leadership of approximately 110 wagons carrying 400-500 people, including Manly and the Bennetts, and a thousand oxen, cattle, and pack animals.  They set off in November of 1849.

It took a day or two to cross the divide between the Great Salt Lake and the Colorado River.  There the travelers encountered another wagon train, this one led by Captain Orson K. Smith who had a crude map that purported to show a short cut to the gold fields.  By taking a more direct westward route, it would save the gold seekers almost 500 miles.

Captain Hunt was dubious.  He had never heard of this route and doubted that a white man had ever followed it.  It might be faster, but he thought it would be hazardous.  “If you want to follow Captain Smith, I can’t help it,” he commented, “but I believe you will get into the jaws of hell.”

Unswayed by his warning, a number of people, including the Bennetts, chose the short-cut.  The trail soon petered out, and most of the wagons turned back.  But the Bennetts and a few other families persisted, first veering to the north, then turning west and breaking new trail.  Manly wasn’t confident in this decision, but he had agreed to accompany Bennett and his family and felt compelled to stick with them.

As they continued west, the land turned barren.  Distances were hard to judge in the dry air.  There were signs of Indians, but they kept their distance.  Water was becoming scarce.  To scout the best route forward, Manly would walk ahead of the wagon train, seeking out high ground from which to observe the lay of the land.  Sometimes he was gone two or three days at a time, often with little food or water.

After several weeks of travel, Manley climbed a butte in the Nevada high desert.  Far in the distance he spotted the Panamint Mountains.  “The black range seemed to run nearly north and south,” he wrote in his memoirs of the journey, “and to the north and northwest the country looked volcanic, black and desolate.”  The high point in the Panamints, Telescope Peak, was covered in snow, and towards this objective he determined to steer.  But as he returned to the wagon train from this scouting trip, he wasn’t feeling optimistic about their westward journey:

I thought of the bounteous stock of bread and beans upon my father’s table, to say nothing about all the other good things, and here was I, the oldest son, away out in the center of the Great American Desert, with an empty stomach and a dry and parched throat, and clothes fast wearing out with constant wear. And perhaps I had not yet seen the worst of it. I might be forced to see men, and the women and children of our party, choke and die, powerless to help them. It was a darker, gloomier day than I had ever known could be, and alone I wept aloud, for I believed I could see the future, and the results were bitter to contemplate.

So dismal was the outlook, he even contemplated abandoning the families.

If I were alone, with no one to expect me to help them, I would be out before any other man, but with women and children in the party, to go and leave them would be to pile everlasting infamy on my head. The thought almost made me crazy but I thought it would be better to stay and die with them, bravely struggling to escape than to forsake them in their weakness.

Meanwhile, water was becoming an issue.  It didn’t rain, and springs were few and far between.  As the party continued west, the canteens ran dry.  It was particularly hard on the children and women:

The four children were crying for water but there was not a drop to give them, and none could be reached before some time next day.  The mothers were nearly crazy, for they expected the children would choke with thirst and die in their arms, and would rather perish themselves than suffer the agony of seeing their little ones gasp and slowly die.

Unless running on a solo, self-supported basis, contemporary Badwater runners enjoy unlimited water, sports drinks, and ice, carried by their crews in air-conditioned vehicles.  Manly struggles to explain what it’s like to run out:

No one who has ever felt the extreme of thirst can imagine the distress, the dispair, which it brings. I can find no words, no way to express it so others can understand.

Their covered wagons were pulled by oxen, and the travel was beginning to take a toll on these animals, too.

Our oxen began to look bad, for they had poor food. Grass had been very scarce, and now when we unyoked them and turned them out they did not care to look around much for something to eat. They moved slowly and cropped disdainfully the dry scattering shrubs and bunches of grass from six inches to a foot high. Spending many nights and days on such dry food and without water they suffered fearfully, and though fat and sleek when we started from Salt Lake, they now looked gaunt and poor, and dragged themselves slowly along, poor faithful servants of mankind. No one knew how long before we might have to kill some of them to get food to save our own lives.

In December 1849, the wagon train arrived in the foothills above Death Valley.  They descended the wash through which route 190 now runs and made camp at a spring called Furnace Creek, which today hosts a hotel, camp ground, gas station, welcome center, and the reservation for the local band of Timbisha Shoshone Indians.

Death Valley consists of a basin that gradually sank over the last ten million years, at the same time that mountain ranges were thrust upwards, in a process that occurred across the Great Basin and Range province of the southwestern United States.  Water does not naturally flow out of Death Valley; as it evaporates, a harsh concentration of chemicals is left behind, including salt, sulfites, and borates.  Manly and the families discovered the spring water at Furnace Creek was not the best-tasting:

This water was not pure; it had a bitter taste, and no doubt in dry weather was a rank poison. Those who partook of it were affected about as if they had taken a big dose of salts.

As nasty as it might have tasted, the water was appreciated.  But now, the bigger problem was the food supply.  Manly was an experienced hunter, but game was scarce.  In this barren region, he explains in his memoirs, “a vest pocketful of powder and shot would last a good hunter till he starved to death, for there was not a living thing to shoot great or small.”

While the families stayed at Furnace Creek, Manly set out in search of another wagon train, this one called the “Jayhawkers,” who were aiming to cross the Panamint Mountains to the north, at what is today known as Town Pass.  On the way up the mountain, Manly found a dead ox.

When near the steep part of the mountain, I found a dead ox the Jayhawkers had left, as no camp could be made here for lack of water and grass, the meat could not be saved. I found the body of the animal badly shrunken, but in condition, as far as putrefaction was concerned, as perfect as when alive. A big gash had been cut in the ham clear to the bone and the sun had dried the flesh in this. I was so awful hungry that I took my sheath knife and cut a big steak which I devoured as I walked along, without cooking or salt. Some may say they would starve before eating such meat, but if they have ever experienced hunger till it begins to draw down the life itself, they will find the impulse of self preservation something not to be controlled by mere reason. It is an instinct that takes possession of one in spite of himself.

After this snack, Manly caught up with some of the Jayhawkers.  They were in poor spirits.  Town Pass was too steep and rocky for their wagons.  They had decided to slaughter their oxen for the meat and burned the wagons to dry it into jerky.  Now they were trying to get out of Death Valley on foot, every man for himself.  Manly listened to them lash out:  “One fellow said he knew this was the Creator’s dumping place where he had left the worthless dregs after making a world, and the devil had scraped these together a little.”

Having determined that Town Pass was not viable, Manly rejoined his wagon train at Furnace Creek.  It was decided to head south.  But the canyons in this direction were no better.  They camped at another spring and held a council of war.  The families would remain here while Manly and another man named John Rogers would scout a trail over the Panamints and into California and obtain extra food and pack animals.  Then Manly and Rogers would return and lead the families to safety.

They slaughtered some of their oxen for beef jerky.   But the poor animals offered little meat.  Months had passed since they had eaten a stomachful of good nutritious food. The animals walked slowly with heads down nearly tripping themselves up with their long, swinging legs. The skin loosely covered the bones, but all the flesh and muscles had shrunk down to the smallest space. The meat was tough and stringy as basswood bark, and tasted strongly of bitter sage brush the cattle had eaten at almost every camp.

Hunger was also wearing down the people.  In his account, Manly explains what happens to people as they run low on nutrition:

A man in a starving condition is a savage. He may be as blood-shed and selfish as a wild beast, as docile and gentle as a lamb, or as wild and crazy as a terrified animal, devoid of affection, reason or thought of justice. We were none of us as bad as this, and yet there was a strange look in the eyes of some of us sometimes, as I saw by looking round, and as others no doubt realized for I saw them making mysterious glances even in my direction.

Manly and Rogers scrambled up and over the Panamints and then the next mountain range and the next and finally arrived at a ranch in California, where they acquired food, two horses, and a one-eyed mule.  On the return trip, they lost the horses, but made it back to the valley with most of their supplies and the hardy mule.  The [two-hundred mile round] trip had taken three weeks.  As they approached the camp, they paused, fearful that Indians had massacred the families and were now lying in ambush.  As a signal, they fired a rifle shot in the air, and to their relief, the Bennetts emerged from underneath the wagons, where they had been sheltering from the sun, hungry and weak, but still alive.

Now it was time to get the families to Californina, no easy task in their weakened condition.  They left the wagons and most of their belongings behind and took a single ox, who was fitted with slings to carry the children.  “No unnecessary burden could be put on any man or beast,” Manly explained, “lest he lie down under it, never to rise again. Life and strength were sought to be husbanded in every possible way.”

In a modern Badwater crossing, one of the most important jobs of the crew is to keep the runner in a positive frame of mind, even as the miles mount and the fatigue deepens.  Keeping a positive attitude was important for the emigrants, too, Manly relates, especially for the women, who had no background in long distance trekking.

No reader can fully realize how much we had to say and do to keep up courage, and it is to this more than anything else that we did which kept up the lagging energies and inspired the best exertion. I don’t know but we painted some things a little brighter than they were, and tried to hide some of the most disheartening points of the prospects ahead, for we found the mind had most to do with it after all. We have no doubt that if we had not done all we could to keep up good courage, the women would have pined away and died before reaching this far. Whenever we stopped talking encouragingly, they seemed to get melancholy and blue.

As the group climbed up into the Panamint Mountains, Manly turned back for a final view of the Badwater Basin.  “Goodbye Death Valley,” he said.  The name stuck.

Leaving Death Valley – The Manly Party On The March After Leaving Their Wagons

They finally made it to California and found a beautiful rushing stream:

There it danced and jumped over the rocks singing the merriest song one ever heard, as it said—Drink, drink ye thirsty ones your fill—the happiest sweetest music to the poor starved, thirsty souls, wasted down almost to haggard skeletons.

(During my first crossing in 2010, after only two days in the desert, I heard the streams singing like this on the way to Whitney’s summit.  I wanted to stop and sit in the rushing water, but my crew wouldn’t let me.)

For the first time in months, Manly shot a deer and the party had fresh meat – a welcome change from the stringy jerky made from starving oxen.

Before I fell asleep I could hear the women say, as they cut off the pieces of meat to roast—”See the fat! Only see how nice it is!” Quickly roasted on the coals they ate the delicate morsels with a relish and, most of all, praised the sweet fat. “We like to have it all fat,” said they, showing how their system craved the nourishment the poor starved beef could not give.

(This was before nutritionists and runners became obsessed with carbohydrates.)

Upon reaching California, it took Manly several weeks to recover from the Death Valley crossing, before he felt strong enough to resume the journey towards the gold fields.

A modern-day crossing of Death Valley is no walk in the park.  The contemporary runner must manage extreme heat, elevation gain, fatigue, gastro-intestinal issues, blisters, miscommunication or organizational issues with the crew, and a host of other potential problems.  But Manly’s crossing helps put things in perspective.  Personally, I admire Manly for honoring his commitment to the Bennetts, keeping a positive attitude in front of the others, respecting the Indians, and empathizing with the suffering of people and animals.  He observed that “the mind had most to do with it after all,” and this is a lesson for us today, even with all of our technology.

After all, we runners take on challenges like the Badwater Ultramarathon in part to show the world we haven’t gotten soft, that we still have the determination and grit of our ancestors.  We’d like to imagine they would approve of our audacity and effort.

As today’s Badwater runners reach Furnace Creek and then turn the corner toward Town Pass, I would like to imagine Manly’s spirit, or maybe his reincarnation, standing there and cheering them on.



Richard Lingenfelter, Death Valley and the Amargosa:  A Land of Illusion, 1986, pp. 32-51

William Lewis Manly, Death Valley in ’49

Running the Long Path is now available on Amazon! (Click on the image to check it out)


Before Badwater:  William Lewis Manly’s 1849 Crossing of Death Valley

One thought on “Before Badwater:  William Lewis Manly’s 1849 Crossing of Death Valley

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s