Death Valley, about 150 miles from Lancaster, is connected to the Antelope Valley by a harrowing mid-nineteenth century tale of survival and perseverance – the story of the Bennett-Arcan* wagon party, William Lewis Manly (1820-1903) and John Haney Rogers (1822-1906), a group now infamously known as the Lost ‘49ers.
Between 1849-50 California saw a flood of travelers coming to take advantage of the Gold Rush with over 25,000 people emigrating from the eastern United States. In October of 1849, the Bennett-Arcan party along with about 500 others set out following Captain Hunt from Salt Lake City, Utah on their way to California. The plan was to follow a southern route called the Old Spanish Trail to Los Angeles and then turn north along the coast. Captain Hunt, who had traveled the Old Spanish Trail numerous times before, offered to lead the wagon train. Alongside this wagon train were the young scouts William Manly and John Rogers, only 29 and 27 years old at the time.
Along the way the travelers encountered another wagon train led by Captain Smith who revealed a crude map that purported to show a short-cut to the goldfields; by taking a more direct westward route, it would supposedly save the travelers about 500 miles. Captain Hunt, having never heard of this trail, doubted it should be followed; though potentially faster, it was sure to be hazardous. However, unconvinced by his warning and peeved by his slow pace, several groups chose the short-cut. While on this new path the trail soon dwindled to nothing, and most of the wagons turned back to rejoin Hunt. The Bennett-Arcan party and a few other families persisted on the diversion, first veering to the north then turning west and breaking a new trail.
In December, these pioneers entered what would become known as Death Valley. The lost pioneers had now been traveling across the desert for about two months since leaving the Old Spanish Trail. Their food supplies were exhausted, their oxen were dying of starvation from lack of forage, and their wagons were doddering. Discouraged and weary, their worst problem was not the valley that lay before them; it was the towering and impenetrable Panamint mountains to the west. After a failed attempt to cross the mountains, the group decided they would have to leave their wagons and belongings behind and walk to civilization if they were to make it out. They retreated to the valley floor and sent Manly and Rogers on a rescue mission. Thinking the Panamint Range was the Sierra Nevada, those awaiting rescue expected a speedy return, assuming it would take the young men no more than two weeks.
Setting out on their mission, Manly and Rogers began climbing the mountains. After dropping down into Panamint Valley they went south and climbed a small pass into Searles Valley, making their way into Indian Wells near present-day Ridgecrest. It was here that they got their first true look at the Sierra Nevada Mountains. They continued south using a small trail that followed the same route as present-day California State Route 14. Ironically, they walked right by Walker Pass (present-day California State Route 178 to Lake Isabella), the mountain pass they had originally set out to cross almost three months earlier with Captain Hunt. Bypassing Walker Pass, they entered into what was to become the worst part of their journey – across the Mojave Desert and the Antelope Valley. A region with very few water sources, the only things that saved them from dying of thirst were a few puddles of water and ice from a recent storm. They walked until their shoes disintegrated, leaving their feet bare and blistered.
Nearly a month went by as the men walked hundreds of miles through the Mojave Desert until they reached Rancho San Francisco in present-day Valencia on January 1, 1850. They finally found refuge at the Del Valle family home where they were able to replenish their supplies. Fed and clothed, Manly and Rogers started their trek back with food and water, three horses, a one-eyed mule and a proven route out of the desolate desert valley. Along the way, one of the horses was ridden to death and the other two had to be abandoned.
When Manly and Rogers finally arrived back at the camp of the Bennett-Arcan party, they found that most of the group had left to find their own way out of the valley. Only two families had remained: Asabel and Sarah Bennett and their children George, Melissa and Martha, as well as John Arcan, his pregnant wife Abigail and their son Charlie. While stranded in the desert valley waiting for rescue, the families had slaughtered several oxen and used the wood of their wagons to cook the meat and make jerky, leaving them without resources until Manly and Rogers returned. On February 11, 1850, Manly and Rogers finally set out with the remaining members of the Bennett-Arcan party. One man had perished during their long wait, so as they made their way west over the mountains, one member of the party is reported to have proclaimed "Goodbye, Death Valley," giving the valley its morbid name.
By February 27, the group had reached the area that is now Rosamond, camping at a rainwater hole south of the Rosamond Hills before crossing the desert toward Palmdale. While traversing through this unknown landscape, the women and children were perturbed by the strange looking Joshua Trees growing from the desert floor, which they dubbed “Cabbage trees.” It took them more than two days to reach the Barrell Springs area from Rosamond, where they camped next to a small watering hole. From this point on, their route is speculative; it is debatable whether the group made their way to the Santa Clarita valley via Soledad Canyon or Bouquet Canyon. Due to the distance walked reported in Manly’s accounts, it is likely that they traversed through Bouquet Canyon, mistaking it for Soledad Canyon.
The Bennett-Arcan party reached Rancho San Francisco on March 7, 1850. Finally, Rogers and Manly had completed their rescue mission and saved Asabel, Sarah, George, Melissa and Martha Bennett and John Arcan, pregnant Abigail and their son Charlie from certain demise in the desolate wilderness of Death Valley. The so-called "short-cut" that had lured the Lost '49ers away from Captain Hunt's wagon train had proven to take more than four months and cost the lives of many men through the entire ordeal. Between all of the parties that diverged from Captain Hunt’s wagon train, it’s believed that 130 people died in Death Valley and Antelope Valley during this journey.
Manly later documented this perilous journey in his book, Death Valley in ‘49, which was first published in 1894.
*There is an alternate spelling of Arcan, referred to as Arcane in some sources.