My car’s temperature gauge was heating dangerously as I pulled to the side of the road just outside Death Valley some years ago. Ahead of us was the endless desert to the horizon. There was nothing there but us.
The day before I had finished reading “Death Valley in ‘49” by William Lewis Manly and I now realized that I was looking at the same desert Manly struggled to cross in 1849 to save the pioneer families of an almost doomed wagon train.
The only difference from Manly’s time was the thin line of asphalt road that stretched beyond the horizon. There was no traffic. Just us. We felt very alone with no cell phone, no gas station in sight and no water. Just then, a fighter jet flew low and buzzed us. We turned the car around and happily got to water just in time.
I had read most of Manly’s book the day before at the Furnace Creek Inn, in the center of Death Valley. The great appeal of the book, since its first printing in 1894, has been the life and death struggle of good people on a quest to improve their lot in life. But the book is much more than that.
Manly is essentially telling the story of his own life in this book. His heroic saving of a wagon train, lost in a desert that is now documented as the hottest place on earth, is an important part of it, but not all of it.
William Lewis Manly begins his book at his beginning. He was born into a farming family in St Albans, Vermont, on the shores of Lake Champlain. The date was April 6, 1820, 190 years ago.
By the time Manly was 20, he was chopping wood in Detroit for $13.00 a month and beginning to search for other opportunities. He went to school to learn how to read, write and spell. It was a good thing he did or we wouldn’t have his famous book.
In 1840’s America, there were limited things a man could do to improve his financial situation. Farming, hunting and trapping, chopping wood, mining: the exchange of hard physical labor for money.
In 1848 news began to circulate of the discovery of gold in California. Manly joined a wagon train bound for California. The wagon train leaders chose a supposedly shorter but untested trail. How the wagon train got stuck and how Manly and another young man saved everyone’s lives is the exciting subject that has made his book universally appealing.
It should be mentioned that after the desert adventure, Manly was successful in the California gold fields, traveled the dangerous route across the Isthmus of Panama before the canal and witnessed the horrors of slavery in New Orleans.
Audiofile Magazine reviewed our recording commenting: “An engaging story and the author offers an intimate glimpse at the travails and tragedies of the pioneers as they moved west. Andre Stojka offers an engaging reading entirely appropriate for a man like William Manly”…I always am appreciative of a good review.
So, Happy Birthday William Lewis Manly, thank you for giving us this wonderful record of these perilous and exhilarating times. I’ll be thinking of you and your great adventure on your 190th birthday, April 6, 2013