Knox County Jayhawker's trunk discovered-- maybe

by Rex Cherrington

On Christmas Eve 1998, Jerry Freeman, with his daughters Holly and Jennifer of Pearblossom, Calif., found themselves a Christmas present. Along with other members of a small group recreating the path of the "Jayhawkers of Death Valley," they discovered a trunk hidden in a cave in the side of a mountain west of Death Valley-- near Towne Pass and Jayhawker Canyon. It is believed the trunk belonged to William Robinson, one of the famed Jayhawkers.

The Jayhawkers were '49ers, participants in the famous California Gold Rush, and most of the 36 men were from Knox County.

Unlike the meaning of Jayhawker in today's vocabulary, in 1849 it did not refer to a Kansan. While no authority exists on the origins and meaning of the term, one can conjecture it is a mythical creature with the feisty characteristics of the jaybird combined with the swift and powerful anatomy of a hawk, capable of surviving when death seems inescapable. Freesoilers in Kansas adopted this nickname as they were determined to thrive and make a political statement when many thought they would surely be killed by the proslavery faction.

The Knox County group adopted this name in October 1849 near the present day city of Payson, Utah. John B. Colton couldn't recall exactly why they picked the name Jayhawker but guessed it was just the meanest thing they could think of. Jayhawkers were mostly young single men participating in the biggest adventure they could imagine.

These Knox County '49ers started the long trek in covered wagons drawn by oxen in early April and took a month to get to Keosauqua, Iowa, where they organized and hired a Mormon named Miles to be their guide to Salt Lake City. The journey was plagued by many problems; stampedes of their cattle, difficulties with Indians, cattle rustlers, cholera and quicksand are mentioned. They arrived in Salt Lake City in early August and were convinced by people in that locale that they had arrived too late in the year to go over the Sierras and the Humboldt River Route, the most direct way to the gold fields. They were reminded of the devastation of the Donner Party in 1846. Some ignored the warning and and left immediately; they arrived in California safely within 30 days. Reports of bad grazing northwest of Salt Lake were apparently false rumors.

Jefferson Hunt was directed by Latter Day Saints church president Brigham Young to move a wagon train of a few families to Los Angeles. These families were to do mission work, not only in California but in the Pacific Islands. Hunt was agreeable to leading others for ten dollars per wagon, and a wagon train of 107 wagons was assembled. Twelve of these wagons were the Jayhawkers. They left in early October to go by way of the Spanish Trail, south and west to where they could intersect the trail from Santa Fe to Los Angeles. Most thought the wagon train too large and there was dissatisfaction with the slowness at which they were advancing.

Capt. O. K. Smith led a pack train that overtook the Hunt Party. The Smith Company intended to try a shortcut and passed around a map that suggested a more direct route toward the gold fields. The dissension worsened and ultimately the wagon train divided. Among the most vocal advocate in the Hunt Train for the shortcut was Rev. J. W. Brier, a Methodist minister from Iowa City. Brier, who wasn't a Jayhawker, gave a short speech, which included the famous quoted words, "swim, live or die, go it boots." Practically gibberish but in the condition of the moment, persuasive words.

Hunt stayed on his intended course and those who wished were free to leave. At first, nearly all the gentiles (non-Mormons) left but many soon realized they would be better off with Hunt and returned to the trail. The Jayhawkers were among the hundred or so people who left and often took the lead. These people became the discoverers of Death Valley. Just like when Columbus discovered America, they were lost. They are credited with giving Death Valley its name. Popular myth suggests Death Valley was named because of a wagon train where everybody died. Truth is, of these hundred or so people, only one died in what we now call Death Valley. A dozen or more seceders died after leaving Hunt's train.

On February 4,1850 the first few Jayhawkers were discovered by the ranch hands at Del Valle Ranch. Rescue efforts continued until all the survivors were gathered and rescued. Among those who did not survive was William Robinson, who died on January 28, 1850 and was buried in a shallow grave dug by his companions, using only their knives in the hard rocky soil. Little is known about Robinson. If he had ties to Knox County, he likely had relatives near Victoria, though earlier conflicting accounts say he was from Knoxville or Maquon. He may have been a young drifter who only stayed in Knoxville or Maquon briefly.

There is much renewed interest in learning about William Robinson since the finding of the trunk. Purported eyewitness accounts vary concerning the circumstances of his death; some mention Robinson falling from a pony or donkey; others say he laid down to nap and when others tried to wake him he was found dead. A favorite story about his death has to do with drinking too much spring water after going a day or half a day without water and then dying from the overindulgence. Romantic myth abounds in the Jayhawker tradition. This article is an interpolation of accounts, going with that which seems most probable.

The trunk contained what are believed to be the possessions of Robinson. A letter tucked inside a hymn book is compelling. It reads:

" My dear Edwin, Knowed now we should have gone arowned but am thankful to not be sick the agir cause others are worse ofen me. My last ox falled in his checks afor morn and I caint carry down the steep. The locket was your mahs. The boles and the wagon shrod were the preachers wife. I toted her youngen. If you shoulddove already seen my Lydia, tell her my heart beats with hers. Kindly leave me a half stake and my short gun. Ifen I dont raturn by end of fifty I wont never come. Lord be precious to your soul. William"

When William refers to going around, likely he means he should have stayed with Jefferson Hunt, though some have thought this means he should have taken a ship around the tip of South America. The "agir" is a reference to the ague, a common ailment which was not life threatening but made one achy and uncomfortable, what we would call the flu. The preacher's wife was Juliet Brier, who with her husband, Rev. J. W. Brier, and three sons travelled with the Jayhawkers and in later years were made honorary Jayhawkers. The identity of Edwin and Lydia are mysteries. It is also a mystery how Edwin was going to find the trunk.

Also contained in the chest is a list of its contents:

"Propity manafest of William Robinson second Day of the Lords year 1850, 1 grub stake $52.75, 1 short gun, 1 looken glass, 1 small bole, 1 large bole, 1 metal one, 1 shrod, 1 hym book, 1 law book, 1 water, 1 injun basket."

The grub stake refers to cash; the looken glass, a telescope; the short gun, a flint lock pistol and the shrod is a knitted shawl, possibly used as a partition for privacy within the wagons. No mention of the doll which was found in the trunk, the children's shoes or pictures. Perhaps at the last minute someone added these items, before storing the trunk.

While the letter and reference to Lydia is heart wrenching, the location of the letter adds yet another dimension. It was folded and placed in the hymn book at the page with a hymn entitled:

Thirsting after God

1. When, fainting in the sultry waste,

And parched with thirst extreme,

The weary pilgrim longs to taste

The cool, refreshing stream,­­

2. So longs the weary, fainting mind,

Oppressed with sins and woes

Some soul-reviving spring to find,

Whence heavenly comfort flows.

3. Thus sweet the consolations are,

The promises impart,

Here flowing streams of life appear,

To ease the panting heart.

4. O, when I thirst for thee, my God,

With ardent, strong desire,

And still, through all this desert road,

To taste thy grace aspire,­­

5. Then let my prayer to thee ascend,

A grateful sacrifice,

My plaintive voice thou wilt attend,

And grant me full supplies.

It is as though Robinson predicted his death with the leaving of the letter, his property and the selection of this hymn. On the date the property list was written, Robinson had been lost for nearly two months. All members of the group suffered dehydration, poor nutrition (they ate their oxen, even drinking the blood) and the horrible feeling that comes from being lost. It is not a small wonder why accounts, many written years later, vary. The memory could understandably be affected, given the sad circumstances these people experienced. The phenomenon of survivors' remorse can also affect recall of experiences where companions have died.

The trunk has been received with much excitement, being labeled the most important archeological find of the California Gold Rush. ABC television's "Good Morning America" recently aired an interview with Freeman and showed the trunk with its contents to the world. There are skeptics who challenge the authenticity of the trunk. Some remark that the whole thing is too perfect. Those who found the trunk are convinced that it is genuine,

Holly Freeman remarked about the odor of the trunk, musty like the smell of old linen, indicating to her it had been sealed for years. Freeman has donated the trunk to The National Park Service and is hopeful it will be displayed in a museum. He estimates the value of the trunk and contents at $500,000. The foremost critic to come forward at present is Richard Lingenfelter, an astrophysicist who authored "Death Valley and the Amargosa," who attacks the use of the term "grub stake", claiming that term was not in use in the 1840s, adding that the coins in the trunk aren't worth but $500, rather than the $200,000 suggested by Freeman, and the cave would have been located ages ago by Indians.

Freeman's team members point out the fact Lingenfelter hasn't seen the trunk and contents, nor the cave. Freeman has a degree in archeology from California State University and has spent the last three years hiking and researching the group collectively known as the Lost '49ers. The National Park Service is currently having the trunk and possessions scrutinized by their historian. All who are interested hope the results are released soon.

National Park Service officials aren’t so sure that the 150-year-old trunk recently exhibited is what it had been claimed to be. This trunk, reportedly found in Death Valley National Park by Jerry Freeman, was believed to contain the possessions of William Robinson, a member of the ill¯fated Jayhawker expedition, most of whom came from Knox County.

The Park Service issued a press release this week stating: ³Several artifacts in a trunk that was found in Death Valley National Park in December 1998 and touted as being associated with a group of 49ers headed to the California gold fields have been proven to have come from periods later than 1850. A conservator from the Western Archeological and Conservation Center, Smithsonian Institution curators and other subject matter specialists have evaluated the artifacts and concluded that numerous items in the trunk and materials found on the items date to periods later than 1850, the year cited on a letter placed in the trunk.²

The press release continues, ³Adhesive samples from three items in the trunk were tested and the results conclude that the materials contained 20th century polymers. Two photos in the trunk were tintypes, a photographic process that was not patented until 1856. Additionally, a manufacturer’s mark on one of the two ceramic bowls could not have occurred before 1914. Several other inconsistencies in the condition and timeframe were also noted.²

Jana Bitton, a Palmdale, Calif. resident, who has known Jerry Freeman for about one year is satisfied that the discovery is genuine, even if some items in the trunk may not be old enough to belong to William Robinson; ³Jerry Freeman is very bright but he isn’t capable of putting this together, too complicated for him to do it.²

Bitton makes six points concerning The National Park Service. The photographs aren’t even on Robinson’s list and therefore could have been placed in the trunk by someone else at a later date. The photographs being tintypes from the 1850s rather than daguerreotypes from the 1840’s does not disprove the letter or list. There were other items in the trunk which were not on the list. The Smithsonian has been contacted and it has admitted that no one there actually saw any of the trunk’s contents.

The opinion about the bowl was given from a description over the phone. The news release does not say which of the items contained the wrong kind of glue. The Park Service is not volunteering the name of the expert, who she believes to be Gretchen Voeks, a metals specialist and not a historian. The National Park Service is not volunteering any more information and has not furnished a copy of the actual report from the ³experts.² She is very disturbed that the National Park Service has declined a request to have the paper upon which the letter and list are written tested to see if they are of the proper age.

Bitton intends to continue her research in hopes of finding out more about William Robinson, when and where he was born and, if he married, to whom. She believes this information will bring her closer to identifying Edwin, to whom the letter was addressed, and Lydia, subject of William’s affection.

As for Jerry Freeman, who discovered the trunk, his troubles may be just beginning. The National Park Service is not accusing him of perpetrating a hoax and acknowledges that the trunk and contents are historical artifacts. But, quoting from the news release, ³The trunk was illegally removed from the park before being turned over to park staff. The removal of the trunk from the park made the authentication of the trunk and artifacts more difficult.² Richard Martin, Superintendent of Death Valley National Park stated: ³Removing the trunk from the park may well have impacted evidence that could have been used to understand the circumstances surrounding the origin of the trunk and artifacts.²

Jerry Freeman was quoted in the January 31st Los Angeles Times: ³I stand by the authenticity of that trunk. My feelings are [that] any conclusions the park service draws are at best suspect and probably bogus. If it was a hoax, it was a setup and I’m the fall guy.² It is anticipated that Freeman may face legal action, even though he says he never had any intention of ever keeping the trunk or any of its contents and turned all of it over to the National Park Service with no strings attached, making no claim for the customary finder’s fee. One thing for sure, it isn’t over yet!

Note: A great debt of gratitude is owed to Jana Bitton for her effort the last few weeks to keep me informed about the discovery of the trunk and subsequent developments. Also, a sincere thanks to Pat Thomas of Winona, Minn., the Knox County RootsWeb Administrator who directed Jana to me. Pat Thomas has special interest in the matter as she descends from one Jayhawker and is a great niece of another. Posted to Zephyr Online February 6, 1999
Return to the Zephyr home page: