Death Valley is perhaps the West’s most aptly named topographical feature and over years it has taken the lives of countless thousands of travelers, prospectors, treasure hunters and others who ventured into its tortured arid wilderness.
The circumstances of these deaths are roughly similar: horses died, they ran out of water, got lost, became delirious with the heat etc., but at least one of the valley’s victims left behind a more accurate account of his last hours on earth.
Al Williams’ body was found the morning of August 3, 1911 at Sharpe’s Camp, a sometime [ng] a few miles southeast of Darwin, California. A Nevada prospector who had traversed Death Valley many times in the [l,] Williams apparently lost his horse then lost himself on this trip. He had set out from [o] Springs on May 18 and nothing more was heard of him until his body was found, though his friends had searched for him earlier in the summer, sick and unable to leave his camp, Williams apparently waited day by day for someone to come and rescue him. As he waited, he recorded his condition and his thoughts in the following diary which was found on his body:
Thursday, May 18
Left Coso Springs.
Wednesday, May 24
Nothing to eat since Thursday.
Friday, May 26 —
week in sick, cannot walk 50 feet. Tried to get dove; no go.
Saturday, May 27
Hungry, hungry and so weak. Headache, sick. Will probably die soon.
Sunday, May 28
Very weak today. Nearly froze last night. Very hungry.
Monday, May 29
Cold: almost froze. Am much weaker; do not think I have will last two days more. Pain in my side.
Tuesday, May 30
Colder than ever last night. Did not sleep a minute. Very weak. Hello the headache. Very dizzy.
Wednesday, May 31
Am nearly all in; can scarcely breathe. Water getting low.
Thursday, June 1
Worse today, Sick; no sleep; too cold. Water is playing out fast it will not be long til the end.
Friday, June 2
Am about the same. No sleep; cold nights. This is a living hell. Very weak.
Saturday, June 3
No sleep; cold night. Am worse than ever. will hold out as long as I can.
Sunday, June 4
Vomit yellow, bitter stuff when I drink water. Second time now. Cold; no sleep; very weak.
Monday, June 5
Vomit when I drink. Very weak; legs sore; cold all night; no sleep. Cannot last much longer.
Tuesday, June 6
Vomited again. Getting weaker.
Wednesday, June 7
Don’t see how I can live much longer. I stagger like a madman. Feel drunk and dizzy.
Thursday, June 8
Worse; am nearly blind; very sick and dizzy. No sleep; gnats are eating me up.
Friday, June 9
Don’t believe I can get another canteen of water. Sick and dizzy: cannot see much. Think it will be all off soon.
In the back of the diary under the date of June 9, 1911, Williams wrote the following: “Have stood it 23 days without anything to eat. If I can get one more canteen of water I am satisfied it will be the last one. This is surely hell on earth. And so sick and dizzy I can scarcely see this in the gnats are eating me up.” Too weak to write and almost blind for the last three days of his life, Williams merely made his cross in the diary to show that he was still alive.
The men who found the body at first considered bringing it out to a nearby ranch and notifying the Inyo County coroner, but its condition was such that they decided against such a course. A shallow grave was dug on a high bench about 50 feet from the dry spring and Williams was laid away.
One of the men wrote a short account of his death from the diary and placed it in a tobacco can which was then stuffed into a crude monument built over the grave.
Williams diary itself was brought back to Darwin and given to the editor of the Inyo County Independent who subsequently might venture out unprepared or who might go out on a rescue mission and give up too soon, thus condemning another of their fellows to the awful sacrifice which the desert seems to periodically demand.
One of the more unusual pioneers of the early nineteenth century was John Brown, born in Worcester, Massachusetts on December 22, 1817. He started west as a teenager making his way to St. Louis and getting a job rafting down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. He took a job sailing along the Gulf Coast and was shipwrecked off the coast of Galveston. We can not follow him too clearly during this period but he fought with Sam Houston in the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836. He spent two years at Fort Leavenworth and then became a trapper for some fourteen years in the Rocky Mountains. He was able to tell of his encounters with bears and with Indians in a most exciting way.
In 1842 it is believed that he helped physically to build Fort Pueblo. It is here that he made the acquaintance of such frontiersmen as James Waters, Tim Goodale, Dick Owens, Calvin Briggs, John Burroughs and Old Bill Williams. He trapped from Colorado to the Yellowstone and met Kit Carson, James Bridger, the Bents and the Sublettes.
Jim Beckworth, a former slave from Virginia whose father had freed him, was a noted trapper who spent several years as a member of the Crow Indian tribe, found himself a Mexican bride, Louisa Sandoval, in Taos and brought her and their small daughter, Matilda, to Fort Pueblo in October 1842. He set up as a trader with only limited success and when spring came, he set out for California, leaving his wife and daughter at the Fort. It was here that Louisa met John Brown and they decided to live together as a family. There were no clergy nearer than Taos. The marriage was certainly successful since they remained together for the rest of their long lives and had several children. Before John Brown settled down to a more quiet married life, he had had an experience with Nicolasa, apparently a fascinating young Mexican girl, and killed a Frenchman in a duel which took place in the early 1840s on a ranch of Jose Weis on the Greenhorn. It was the same Nicolasa, who incited Rube Herring to kill Henry Beer at Fort Lupton on July 4, 1843. Herring took Nicolasa to Fort Pueblo and lived with her there until James Waters stole her away from him. Not long after Waters killed Edward Tharp in a fight over the same girl. (When most of these men went to California a few years later, Nicolasa was left behind.)
From 1843 to 1845 John Brown made Fort Pueblo his headquarters. Can we speculate that he had a few successful trapping expeditions? At any rate he moved to the Greenhorn in 1845 and opened a store. He must have found some money in order to invest in a store. It was his policy to trade chiefly with whites and not with Indians although there were times when he sold whiskey to the Indians under the counter, since it was illegal to sell alcohol to Indians. The record of his accounts has been preserved in the Huntington library in California. He noted the sales made and the names of the buyers. His first accounts appeared in April 1845. Brown
stocked only what he called essentials, but did not at first include such items as coffee, sugar and flour. He did carry whiskey and tobacco. Brown bought his goods mostly in Pueblo. With demand he soon added flour, sugar, coffee, pants, shoes, etc. Among his customers was William Bent who sent E. Garry (Edmund Guerrier) to sell goods and to buy a steer from Brown in November 1846. William’s brother, George Bent, bought 1½ fanegas of corn. Other customers whose names appeared in his account book were Cosper (who worked for Alexander Barclay), James Grieves, William Adamson, one of Barclay’s foremen, Joseph Bridger and Rube
Herring. No Indian names appear except those Indian wives of whites.
It is revealing to note that the specie which Brown handled included doubloons, sovereigns, gelders, and Mexican pesos and gold pieces as well as American dollars.
Louisa was active in the store. Entries often appear in her handwriting. She also made candles and soap when a pig was slaughtered. The store was prosperous and Brown expanded his business into other projects such as farming. He built irrigation ditches and grew corn,
watermelons, wheat and hired Mexicans to herd cattle and horses. The Mexicans he hired became his customers. He built for them adobe houses and then added a grist mill between December 1846 and February 1847. The Mexicans were well treated. They were free employees, not like the peons on a Mexican hacienda who were paid only in supplies which kept them constantly in debt to the ranchero. Brown hired 3 men in 1845, 24 men in 1846, 8 men in 1847, and 2 men in 1848. Most stayed only a few months.
Not only did Brown mill his own flour, he accepted grain from others to be milled. He sold flour for 5 cents a pound or $8 per fanega. (One fanega was equal to 1.6 bushels.) Farmers from Hardscrabble and from Pueblo brought their wheat and corn to be ground at $1 per fanega. Barclay and Doyle rented yokes and harnesses from Brown.
Although it was illegal to sell whiskey to Indians, Brown did sell them whiskey, much watered down by four to nine times, and he even added drugs to keep the Indians quiet when they were drunk. We should not criticize Brown too severely for this practice since all traders did
sell to the Indians illegally in spite of the attempts of such men as Fitzpatrick to put a stop to it. The Indians would get into brawls with one another. It has been estimated that in 1841 there were 120 Indians killed in drunken brawls and in 1842 up to 500.
One of the intriguing facts of the life of John Brown was his experience as a psychic. He had a Spirit Guide who came to him in his waking moments and gave him significant messages. On one occasion the Spirit Guide appeared to Brown and saved him and his friends Estes and Stone from a grizzly. Once when Brown was camped at the foot of Pikes Peak the Guide showed
Brown an emigrant family named Washburn arriving at Pueblo along with a Mr. Waters who had a grey mare brought from the East for Tim Goodale. His friends made fun of Brown, but took him seriously enough to send Goodale to Pueblo to learn whether the vision was accurate. Goodale returned with the report that every fact was correct.
On another occasion while living in an Indian lodge with Briggs and Burroughs, the Guide told Brown that he would throw a stone and break his mule’s leg. In spite of his serious attempts to control himself, he threw a stone which broke the leg of the mule. Brown was literate and wrote a book about his spiritualist experiences called the “Mediumistic experience of John Brown, the
medium of the Rockies.” The book was published in San Francisco and is very rare today.
In Pueblo on February 2, 1848 in an argument over Candelaria, the wife of James Waters, Edward Tharp was killed by Waters. Waters hid out on the Fountain while his friends brought him food. He soon went to Greenhorn, where he stayed and hired a team to go to Pueblo to get his things and bring them to Greenhorn, where he stayed, grinding corn and herding cattle for
John Brown. With no lawmen in the area at that time, the only crime which was recognized for punishment was that of murder. The accepted punishment was banishment.
On June 6, 1848 John Brown had a sale of all his goods and closed his store. California called! Brown started south with his wife Louisa and their son John, Jr., who had been born the previous October in Greenhorn. Those who went with them included Archibald Metcalf, James Waters and Blackhawk leading 60 horses and mules packed with deerskins which they had traded from the Utes. They were joined by Lucien Maxwell, his servant Indian George, and Charles Town. Some Apaches attacked them and they raced to escape. Some friends (?) urged Louisa to throw down the child and escape. She clutched him tightly around the neck and
jumped her horse over a ravine and escaped back to Greenhorn. She held the boy’s neck so firmly that ever afterwards he could not hold his head upright. All the horses and mules with the deerskins were lost to the Apaches. After this loss some of the travelers were determined to get to Taos. Lucien Maxwell and his party decided to avoid the popular Raton Pass and take
the next pass to the east of Raton, Manco Burro Pass. At the top they were resting when the Apaches attacked. In quite a lengthy battle Indian George and Charles Town were killed. But Lucien Maxwell was one of those who managed to struggle down the south side of the pass
where they were rescued by Dick Wooton who had come to look for them. Fortunately for the Browns, they did not travel with the group at that time.
Greenhorn was not completely abandoned. Kit Carson and Jesse Nelson and ten others left Taos on June 25, 1848 and went through Greenhorn where they found only Bill New, Calvin Jones and some Mexicans. But when they crossed the St. Charles they found a few farmers including John Brown and his family, Charles White, James Waters, and Rube Herring cultivating the lowlands and living in some old houses that had been abandoned.
In June 1849 a large procession left the Arkansas for California. John Brown and his family, now including three children, joined John Burroughs and Calvin Briggs and their Shoshoni wives, Lancaster Lupton with his Cheyenne wife and four children, Rube Herring without Nicolasa, Charles White, Alexis Godey, James Waters with Candelaria. They reached Salt Lake City on July
4 and arrived at Sutter’s Fort on September 1, 1849. Almost all of them decided to move south. Actually, John Brown was not comfortable in the climate of the Bay area and they all went to San Bernardino where they spent the rest of their lives as friends and became very wealthy. It was in 1851 that they boarded a schooner at San Francisco and sailed south to San Pedro where they landed in April 1852. Brown hired Sheldon Stoddard to take his goods to San Bernardino where he arrived on May 1.
Brown bought a cabin from Marshall Hunt on the west side of the Mormon stockade. San Bernardino County was created on April 26, 1853. John Brown, Col. Isaac Williams, David Seeley and H. G. Sherwood were named county commissioners to supervise the first election. In 1854 Brown rented the vast Yucaipa Valley which was part of the San Bernardino Rancho of the
Mormons. Brown occupied a large two-story house built of adobe in 1842 by Diego Sepulveda. He raised cattle and grain. In 1857 James Waters bought the Yucaipa Ranch lands and also Brown’s cattle. Brown moved to town in San Bernardino and built a two-story house at Sixth and D Streets. He became the Justice of Peace and Rube Herring became the first County Assessor and School Superintendent.
Brown had a contract for delivering mail to the mining camps at Holcomb and Bear Valley during 1873-74. In the 1880s Brown spent much of his time writing the treatise about his psychic experiences. His Spirit Guide had appeared to him often when he was in Colorado but
failed to come to him in the later part of his life. Nevertheless he wished to preserve the memories of those times in the mountains. His book, which was published in San Francisco during his lifetime was entitled, “The Mediumistic Experiences of John Brown, the Medium of the Rockies.”
As one of the older residents of his area Brown became one of the founders of the San Bernardino Society of California Pioneers. He and James Waters were among the first vice presidents of the organization and John Brown, Jr. was the first secretary. Brown died on April
20, 1899. His funeral was held by the Spiritualist Society. His body was in a huge white casket with young women in flowing white robes surrounding it as an honor guard.
The obituary appeared in the San Bernardino Daily Sun in April 1899. He was survived by six daughters and four sons: Mrs. Sylvia Davenport, Mrs. Mary Denber, Mrs. Matilda White, Mrs. Laura Wozencraft, Mrs. Louisa Waters and Mrs. Emma Royalty. The sons were John Jr., Joseph, James and Newton.
John Brown was a man of at least three careers. As a teenager he went west and joined the fur trappers at the height of the fur trade era. As this trade shrank he turned to the management of his store to sell goods chiefly to settlers and traders, branching out to agriculture and milling. At a time when the Indians were still a menace, he decided to move to California. Here he became a wealthy rancher and was a civil servant helping to organize the County of San Bernardino, still the largest county in the United States. He was a good business man and well liked by his fellows. It is interesting to note that several of the settlers in the Pueblo area became prominent and wealthy in California.
1. Editor’s note: A search for the book, published in 1897 by the Office of the philosophical
Journal, found only 20 copies listed in library or university holdings. The nearest repository
for a copy is the Denver Public Library, which will not release the book for inter-library loan
because of its fragile condition. The book is available for examination by request at the
2. Editor’s note: Brown recorded in his book that when he arrived at San Bernardino he
found his old friend Isaac Slover already living there. Slover’s story can be read in The
Pueblo Lore, November 2001, pp. 6-10.
Belden, L. Burr. “John Brown.” In Hafe, LeRoy R., ed. The Mountain Men and the Fur Trade of the Far West. Glendale, Calif., Arthur Clarke Co., 1965-1972.
Hafen, LeRoy R. “Colorado mountain men.” In Colorado Magazine, 30:26.
Hammond, George P. The Adventures of Alexander Barclay, Mountain Man. Denver, Old West
Publishing Co., ca1976.
Lecompte, Janet. “The Hardscrabble settlement.” In Colorado Magazine, 31:94.
Lecompte, Janet. Pueblo, Hardscrabble, Greenhorn, the upper Arkansas, 1832-1856.
Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, ca1978.
Shaw, Dorothy Price. “The Cragin collection.” In Colorado Magazine, 25:176.
The Story of John Brown
(1817 – 1899)
By Edward Broadhead
(Reprinted from The Pueblo Lore, January 1985)
Wrightwood Historical Society
Wrightwood Roots Friday,March 4, 2005 A.D.
Edited by George Tilitson