Death Valley and the Amargosa

Richard E. Lingenfelter’s unstated thesis in his comprehensive history of Death Valley is that the restless American pioneer spirit and fantasy thrived in a vacuum. There are 470 pages of text, 110 pages of footnotes, and fifty-four pages of bibliography that make up the author’s very tangible story of illusion. Lingenfelter tells of credulity and fantasy at work in the latter half of the nineteenth century and the early decades of the twentieth. The void this faith inhabited is the lowest geographical elevation in the United States—282 feet below sea level by latest survey—where summer heat scalds and the air holds no moisture. Sitting in shade, if one finds shade in Death Valley, the basking visitor can lose more than two gallons of water to dehydration in eight hours. Climatic extremes to the side, Lingenfelter’s subject is what happened when this innocently empty world was invaded by white men in the nineteenth century.

Ancient campsites argue that humans have lived in Death Valley for at least ten thousand years. A variety of Indian tribes, including Shoshones, Paiute, and Kawaiisu, subsisted on pinenuts, mesquite beans, jackrabbits, chuckwallas, and an occasional bighorn sheep. If pinenuts were scarce the Indians suffered; if not, they thrived. Summers were hot, but the rest of the year was pleasant, and the Panamint Mountains towering to eleven thousand feet on the valley’s west side provided an escape from dreadful summer days. Living in the valley for centuries without the white man’s terminology for hell and damnation, the Indian failed to develop a mythology commensurate with the place’s malevolent genii. Their lives seem typified by gratitude for available sustenance. Their home came to be known as Death Valley when white immigrants arrived or attempted to travel through the valley in wagons. The disasters they suffered, Lingenfelter demonstrates, were never as horrible as the disasters reported. Lingenfelter argues that the strangers were expert fictioneers, skilled at sending horrors onto the sand and canyons by their imagination’s projectors. Their tendency to pile rumor upon rumor, imagined death upon imagined death, created the monstrous illusion they obscurely seemed to need—Death Valley. Death by thirst seen once, or heard about once, was sufficient to fuel visions of hundreds of such calamities. The valley floor, with the arrival of the “forty-niners,” gold seekers, cattle rustlers, and the surreal panorama of civic life—newspapers, banks, whorehouses, stock exchanges—became less an environment than a stage where dreams masquerading as men acted scenes as brief as they were similar in plot. The performances were viewed from the nation’s financial centers with imperfect clarity but absolute interest. At one time during the gold boom in Death Valley, the two biggest stocks on the New York Exchange were from Death Valley mines.

Lingenfelter, a research physicist at the University of California, San Diego, devoted the spare time of five years to researching Death Valley history. His research methodology and published record are in their methodical thoroughness the antithesis of the histrionic impulsiveness which created the subject upon which he focused. A glance through the footnotes section reveals a forest of citations from extinct and still existing newspapers, surveyors’ reports on the first explorations of the valley, mining journals, New York stock-market periodicals, city registers, company prospectuses, and personal letters. The bibliography contains what appears to be every manuscript, thesis, court case, government publication, and book on Death Valley and its obscurest happening. All but a few paragraphs in Lingenfelter’s book terminate with a footnote, which explains the extensive data base collected at the end of the book.

Lingenfelter’s desire is clearly to secure, compile, and organize a mass of information. He is less interested in interpreting the story he has amassed than in getting all of it down. This at-times plodding accounting makes for a book the historian will read from beginning to end, while the general reader will sample. Whoever the reader, he will be fascinated by the subject for the same reason that Lingenfelter seems to be—that so much life and energy could exist as it did in such a place. Any account of the white man’s greed, restlessness, dreams, and repeated losses when faced with the American frontier is hard to resist, containing as it does the familiar insensitive, unreligious white man arrogantly staking claim to a world previously untouched by a “claiming” psyche. Lingenfelter’s book is doubly interesting in this light, because very little existed in Death Valley to be claimed, yet the distinctive white need for finds and treasure flourished anyway.

After the brief chapter on the various Indians who lived in the valley, Lingenfelter presents this “white history” of Death Valley—a spectacle of crime, gold fevers, borax prospectors, swindles, con artistry, minimal profits, and large deficits. The first whites to enter were horse traders moving stock between California and New Mexico. The horse traders attracted vermin, raiders known as Los Chaguanosos, who rustled horses in California for buyers in the Mississippi Valley. Next came the gold seekers of 1849, otherwise known as “argonauts,” as in the company Jason kept when pursuing the fleece. The story of the forty-niners Lingenfelter titles “More Lost Than Found.” He disentangles several distinct stories from what is in his words “the most repeated, though frequently, garbled, tale in the history of Death...

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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Booklist. LXXXIII, September 1, 1986, p. 26.

California Magazine. XI, July, 1986, p. 32.

Choice. XXIV, November, 1986, p. 370.

Kirkus Reviews. LIV, May 1, 1986, p. 701.

The New York Times Book Review. XCI, August 24, 1986, p. 15.