OUR CHRISTMAS AND THE TERRORS OF DEATH VALLEY – As told by Mrs. Julia Brier

Reprinted from the December 25, 1898 edition of The San Francisco Call

In a cozy home at the edge of the town of Lodi lives Mrs. Julia Brier, with her son, Rev. J. YV. Brier Jr., his wife and two sturdy grandchildren. A very bright, but modest, wee old lady, now in her eighty-fourth year, is the heroine of the famous Death Valley party. This is the first time since 1850 that she has spoken of that awful experience to a news paper representative.

I don’t know how to tell you about our struggle through Death Valley in 1849-50 and the Christmas we spent amid its horrors. I never expected to say anything about it for a newspaper. I was the only woman in the party — Mr. Brier, our three boys, Columbus, John and Kirk, the oldest being nine years, and two young men, St. John and Patrick, made up our “mess,” as we called it.

We reached the top of the divide between Death and Ash valleys and, oh, what a desolate country we looked down into. The next morning we started down. The men said they could see what looked like springs out in the valley. Mr. Brier was always ahead to explore and find water, so I was left with our three boys to help bring up the cattle. We expected to reach the springs in a few hours and the men pushed ahead. I was sick and weary, and the hope of a good camping place was all that kept me up. Poor little Kirk gave out and I carried him on my back, barely seeing where I was going, until he would say, “Mother, I can walk now.” Poor little fellow! He would stumble on a little way over the salty marsh and sink down, crying, “I can’t go any farther.” Then I would carry him again, and soothe him as best I could.

Many times I felt I should faint, and as my strength departed I would sink on my knees. The boys would ask for water, but there was not a drop. Thus we staggered on over salty wastes, trying to keep the company in view and hoping at every step to come to the springs. Oh, such a day! If we had stopped I knew the men would come back at night for us, but I didn’t want to be thought a drag or hindrance.

Night came down and we lost all track of those ahead. I would get down on my knees and look in the starlight for the ox tracks and then we would stumble on. There was not a sound and I didn’t know whether we would ever reach camp or not. About midnight we came around a big rock and there was my husband at a small fire.

“Is this camp?” I asked.

“No; it’s six miles farther,” he said.

I was ready to drop and Kirk was almost unconscious, moaning for a drink. Mr. Brier took him on his back and hastened to camp to save his little life. It was 3 o’clock Christmas morning when we reached the springs. I only wanted to sleep, but my husband said I must eat and drink or I would never wake up. Oh, such a horrible day and night!

We found hot and cold springs there and washed and scrubbed and rested. That was a Christmas none could ever forget.

Music or singing? My, no. We were too far gone for that. Nobody spoke very much, but I know we were all thinking of home back East and all the cheer and good things there. Men would sit looking into the fire or stand fazing away silently over the mountains, and it was easy to read their thoughts. Poor fellows! Having no other women there, I felt lonesome at times, but I was glad, too, that no other was there to suffer.

The men killed an ox and we had a Christmas dinner of fresh meat, black coffee and a very little bread. I had one small biscuit. You see, we were on short rations then and didn’t know how long we would have to make provisions last. We didn’t know we were in California. Nobody knew what untold misery the morrow might bring, so there was no occasion for cheer.

Fred Carr said to me that night: “Don’t you think you and the children had better remain here and let us send back for you?” I knew what was in his mind. “No,” I said, “I have never been a hindrance, I have never kept the company waiting, neither have my children, and every step I take will be toward California.”

Then I was troubled no more. As the men gathered around the blazing camp fire they asked Mr. Brier to speak to them— to remind them of home— though they were thinking of home fast enough anyway. So he made them a speech. It was a solemn gathering in a strange place.

So ended I believe, the first Christmas ever celebrated in Death Valley. The next morning the company moved on over the sand to — nobody knew where. One of the men ahead called out suddenly, “Wolf! Wolf!” and raised his rifle to shoot.

“My God, it’s a man!” his companion cried. As the company came up we found the thing to be an aged Indian lying on his back and buried in the sand — save his head. He was blind, shriveled and bald and looked like a mummy. He must have been one hundred and fifty years old. The men dug him out and gave him water and food. The poor fellow kept saying, “God bless pickaninnies!” Wherever he had
learned that. His tribe must have fled ahead of us and as he couldn’t travel he was left to die.

When we reached the Jayhawkers’ camp they were about to burn their wagons and pack their oxen to hurry along. That made us still gloomier, but none Complained. The men realized that ‘to stop or go back meant death, and they determined to struggle on while strength and life lasted, trusting tomorrow to bring them to the land of plenty. Then we struggled through the salty marsh for miles and
miles. Oh, it was terrible. We would sink to our shoe tops and as water gave out we were nearly famished. I have heard since that Governor Blaisdell of Nevada found our tracks there twelve years later and still encrusted in the hardened salt.

A march over twenty miles of dry sand brought us to the foot of the mountains, with hope almost gone and not a drop of water to relieve our parched lips and swollen tongues. The men climbed up to the snow and brought down all they could carry, frozen hard. Mr. Brier filled an old shirt and brought it to us. Some ate it white and hard and relished it as though it was flowing water, but
enough was melted for our frenzied cattle and camp use.

 

 

Here we lived on jerked beef and miserable pancakes. Some of the company told us they were going to leave their cattle, bake up their provisions and push ahead as a last resort. Dr. Carr broke down and cried when we would not go back to the springs. I felt as bad as any of them, but it would never do to give up there. Give up — ah, I knew what that meant a shallow grave in the sand.

We went over the pass through the snow into what they named Panamint Valley, and found a deserted Indian village among the mesquite trees. We were rejoiced by seeing hair ropes and bridles and horse bones, thinking we had reached civilization. The men ahead, however, could only report more sand and hills. After two days here we struggled away into the desert, carrying all the water possible. We grew more fearful of our provisions and watched each mouthful, not daring to make a full meal. Coffee and salt we had in plenty. The salt we picked up in great lumps in the sand before coming over the last mountains. Our coffee was a wonderful help and had that given out I know we should have died.

New Year’s day was hardly noticed. We spent it resting at the head of Panamint Valley. Sometimes we went south and again north, not knowing whether or not we should get out of that death hole of sand and salt. On January 6 two of our mess decided to leave us and take their provisions.

These men — Masterson and Crumpton — owned the only flour we had, so they baked up their dough, except a small piece, which I made into twenty two little crackers and put away for an emergency. Then with tearful eyes they gave us their hands, with averted faces, and turned away without a word. That was our last bite of bread until we reached San Francisquito Ranch, six weeks- later. From that on my husband and I and the poor children and St. John and Patrick lived on coffee and jerked beef, except when we killed an ox for a new supply. Even then there was not an ounce of fat in one and the marrow in their bones had turned to blood and water. Did I blame the men for leaving us as they did? Oh, it happened so long ago I can hardly tell now — and they felt that they ought to try to save their own lives.

The valley ended in a canyon with great walls rising up — oh, as high as we could see, almost. There seemed no way out, for it ended almost in a straight wall. I know many of the company never expected to leave that narrow gorge. By that time most of them could hardly stagger more than a few steps at a stretch; some were beyond even that. Mr. Brier managed to keep erect with the aid of two sticks. Providence was with us that awful night, or the morning would have risen on the dead.

Seeping up from the sand Mr. Brier found a little water, and by digging: the company managed to scoop up about a pint an hour. Coffee and dried beef kept us alive till morning, but the moaning of the suffering cattle was pitiful. At daylight we managed to reach the lowest bench of the cliff by holding to the cattle. Father Fish came up by holding to an ox’s tail, but could go no farther. That night he died. I made coffee for him, but he was all worn out. Isham died that night, too.

It was always the same — hunger and thirst and an awful silence, so I’ll just tell of one or two more experiences.

Everybody knows how the company went across the Mojave Desert and finally reached San Francisquito Ranch. Our greatest suffering for water was near Borax Lake. We were for forty eight hours without a drop. A mirage fooled us. We went to bed hoping against hope.

In the morning the men returned with the same story: “No water.”

Even the stoutest heart sank then, for nothing but sagebrush and dagger trees greeted the eye. There were wails and lamentations from lips that had never murmured before. My husband tied little Kirk to his back and staggered ahead. The child would murmur occasionally, “Oh. father, Where’s the water?” His pitiful, delirious wails were worst to hear than the killing thirst. It was terrible. I seem to see it all over again. I staggered and struggled wearily behind with our other two boys and the oxen. The little fellows bore up bravely and hardly complained, though they could barely talk, so dry and swollen were their lips and tongue. John would try to cheer up his brother Kirk by telling him of the wonderful water we would find and all the good things we could get to eat. Every step I expected to sink down and die. I could hardly see.

At last we came upon two Germans of the company, who had gone ahead. They were cooking at a tiny fire.

“Any water?” asked my husband.

“There’s vasser,” one said, pointing to a muddy puddle.

The cattle rushed into it, churning up the mud, but we scooped it up and greedily gulped it down our burning, swollen throats. Then I boiled coffee and found the pot half full of mud, so you can see what that water was like. It was awful stuff, but it saved our lives. A little later we came to a beautiful cold spring. Oh, how good it was. I have always believed Providence placed it there to save us, for it was in such an unlikely place.

Sometimes we found water and grass in plenty, but never a thing to eat, save where we tried making acorn bread, and that was a failure. And the silence of it all!. At night I would go to bed praying for God to help us through. “Oh.” I thought, “if I could only see something to show the end of our journey.” But I didn’t dare speak of it for fear of alarming the children.

But I never lost hope. I couldn’t give up. We needed all our hope and faith. I knew before starting we would have to suffer, but my husband wanted to go, and he needed me. When near the place where Mojave is now Robinson said to me: “Mrs. Brier, I have a presentiment I shall never reach California.” None of us knew then that we were well across a section of the State.

“Oh, yes, you will; don’t give up,” I said to cheer him. The next day he fell off his pony and died. The men dug a shallow grave with their knives and laid him to rest.

Father Fish said he thought the Lord would bring him through because he came in such a good cause, He intended to raise enough money to pay off his church’s debt, back in Northern Indiana.

Then there was Gould. He would pick up everything the rest threw away, until he had so much that Mr. Brier gave him an ox to carry his load. Gould repented and had a most happy conversion out in the desert.

Before the bread gave out one man, Croker, who was in our party complained of the short allowance of bread. I told him we must save it as long as possible, and he said, with an oath, that he would have it while it lasted. “You shall,” I said, “but that won’t be long,” and it wasn’t. Then he left our mess. Before we were through that journey I heard that man begging for even the entrails of a crow.

Did I nurse the sick? Ah, there was little of that to do. I always did what I could for the poor fellows, but that wasn’t much. When one grew sick he just lay down, weary like, and his life went out. It was nature giving up. Poor souls!

So we went on and on until the morning we arrived at San Francisquito ranch. Oh, that was a beautiful morning. Just before this the men had killed a wild mare and two colts and the company ate the meat with a relish, but it tasted- too sweet. This morning, February 12, 1850, the sun was bright and the grass and flowers seemed like paradise” after the awful sand and rocks of the desert. One of the men shot a hawk and another a rabbit and we were preparing to have a feast on them, when we heard more shooting ahead. The wind blew toward us the sound of lowing cattle and we were, in great wonder. The Jayhawkers came rushing back with dilated eyes, saying they had seen ten thousand head of cattle and wagon tracks and believed we were near a farm. Oh, what an excitement came over us! Soon we came up to where the Jayhawkers had killed some cattle and saw thousands of head all around, and the men eagerly cut off pieces of the warm, raw meat, ready to devour it, when an old Spaniard and some Indian vaqueros came galloping up on fine horses.

Our men expected trouble and held, their guns ready. The Spaniard was amazed at our appearance, I suppose. We looked more like skeletons than human beings. Our clothes hung in tatters. My dress was in ribbons, and my shoes, hard, baked, broken pieces of leather. Some of the company still had the remains of worn-out shoes with their feet stickin’ through, and some wore pieces of ox hide tied about their feet. My boys wore oxhide moccasins. Patrick knew a little Spanish and said to the Spaniard, pointing to Mr. Brier, “Padre.”

The old man took off his hat, bowed and said in a broken voice, “Poor little Padre!” He led us up to his house and the old lady there burst out crying when she saw our condition. They were very kind and cooked us a grand feast, killing the finest animal among their cattle in honor of the “padre.”

Our stomachs were too weak to digest the solid food and we nearly died in fearful agony after eating so heartily.

In the midst of our awful pain Dr. Irving of Los Angeles happened along and by the use of medicines relieved us. But for him some would have died, for the men were rolling in fearful pain, all bloated, on the ground. We rested at the ranch and then traveled on to Los Angeles without trouble, being aided all the way.

It was like coming back from death into life again. It was a long, long, weary walk, but thank God, he brought us out of it all.

About the author

Jim Mattern

Jim is a scapegoat for the NPS, an author, adventurer, photographer, radio personality, guide, and location scout. His interests lie in Native American and cultural sites, ghost towns, mines, and natural wonders in the American Deserts.

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