Inyo County
Land of the 20-Mile Shadows
Pioneers of Eastern California

The Search For the "Lost Pioneers" of 1849
and The Discovery of The '49er Chest (?) in Death Valley National Park

(This 'discovery' has since been discredited by the Park Service, but the references are here primarily for those interested in this strange bit of modern history...)

1999, January 16

Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter: "Rare Chest Recovered"

The following article is from Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter and is copyright 1999 by Richard W. Eastman and Ancestry, Inc. It is re-published here with the permission of the author.

Vol. 4 No. 3 - January 16, 1999

Rare Chest Recovered

The following article was released this week by the National Park Service:

On January 1st, a local newspaper ran an article describing the discovery of a trunk associated with a group of Forty-Niners which had been found in a remote area of the park by Jerry Freeman, a resident of Pearblossom, California. According to the article, Freeman found the trunk last November while scouting routes for a planned backpacking trip which would retrace routes which might have been taken through the area by Forty-Niners on their way to the California gold fields. Freeman first found a knife and ox shoe, which led him to a more thorough search of the area. He found the trunk wedged into a rock shelter, held in place with rocks and a piece of wood. During this and subsequent trips, Freeman and associates reportedly opened, photographed and inventoried the contents of the trunk, then put it back in its original location. Park chief of resource management Linda Greene contacted Freeman by phone on January 4th. Freeman told her that he'd in fact removed the trunk from the park and taken it to his home. He said he'd done this because he was afraid that pot hunter might find it and take it for economic gain, and because he was concerned about the Park Service's ability to preserve the artifacts. Greene convinced Freeman that it was in his best interest and the best interest of the artifacts for him to turn the trunk and all its contents over to park staff. Freeman and his brother brought the trunk to the park the next day and gave them to Blair Davenport, curator at Furnace Creek.

The trunk has been inventoried and placed in storage. Its contents included lace textiles, ceramic and brass containers, a handmade basket, a sighting glass, a pair of children's shoes, a doll, jewelry, books, correspondence, pictures, a canteen, a flintlock pistol with a holster, powder horns, a property manifest, and coins from the late 1700s through 1849. Park staff are currently in the process of making a determination on the authenticity of the trunk and its contents and assessing the accuracy of the location where it was reportedly found. If the trunk and contents are authentic, they evidently belonged to William Robinson of Illinois, a Jayhawker who traveled through Death Valley.

Robinson was with a group of Forty-Niners who were seeking a short cut from the Spanish Trail. They began their ill-fated journey on November 11, 1849 at Mount Misery, Utah, separating into groups and eventually arriving in Death Valley in December, 1849. They then continued west in separate groups and arrived in various parts of the Panamint Mountains by January, 1850. According to diaries, folklore, and other accounts, thirst, starvation, and the death of their livestock forced many to leave behind por]tions of their personal belongings in order to survive the remainder of the trip. The trunk with its contents appear to be associated with Robinson. The handwritten manifest with instructions is dated January 2, 1850. Historical records indicate that Robinson survived his trek out of Death Valley, but that he apparently died from drinking too much cold water when near exhaustion upon reaching Barrel Springs (near present-day Palmdale, California) on January 28, 1850. Removal of the trunk and its contents meet all legal thresholds and definitions found within the Archeological Resources Protection Act of 1979. A final decision on any potential charges against Freeman remains on hold pending the park's authenticity investigation of both the articles and the reported location of the find.

My thanks to Homer Thiel for passing along this information.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

 Visit Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter at

Weekly newsletter available by e-mail.


©1998-2008 Susan Guhm, All Rights Reserved