Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Juliette Briers Tackles Death Valley

  My nephew, Larry Sircy, is a truck-driver and is very familiar with the wide open vastness of the American West. We were talking about how unforgiving it can be even for the modern traveler. I have driven or ridden various routes to Oregon, California and Colorado numerous times over the last 45 years. Like the time I drove through the desert of northern Nevada and I only saw one gas station and one car in a 200 mile stretch of highway. I was sweating bullets the whole time, fearful of breaking down in the middle of nowhere with a young wife and baby. Or the danger of driving in the winter time in sub-zero cold in blizzards that can strand you and completely bury your car in a few short hours. Larry and I were trying to imagine what the early pioneers traveling by wagon train and other means had to endure during the westward migration. One such story is of a hardy pioneer woman named Juliette Briers who was married to the Reverend John Wells Briers. Juliette was born in September 1813 in Vermont. She was the mother of three sons aged 8, 7, and 4. When her wagon train set out for Los Angeles in October 1849 there were 80 wagons, 250 people, and 1,000 head of horses, oxen and cattle. She was a small woman but was probably the toughest of the group. She put the packs on the oxen in the morning, took them off at night, lit the cooking fires, cooked the meals, took care of the children, and nursed her husband through dysentery. She worked a lot because her husband was too tired to work most of the time according to one witness. She would be seen with one child on her back, one in her arms and holding one by the hand while walking on the trail. Once when an oxen got stuck chest deep in mud she refused to leave the animal until someone came and helped her get it out. Everyone helped but her husband who sat on his butt nearby while everyone else worked. He was described by one of the men disgustedly as "an invalid preacher who had never earned his bread by the sweat of his brow". 

  It was just two years after the Donner party disaster and the leader of the wagon train, Captain Jefferson Hunt wanted to avoid the route through the Sierra Nevada. Hunt took a wrong turn but later corrected himself. Many in the wagon train lost faith in Hunt's judgement as a result. Four families decided to break off from the wagon train in November. Reverend Brier's family was one of the four families. This was during the California Gold Rush and Brier had gold fever. They passed a wagon train going in the opposite direction and they gave the Brier party a bogus map. The Reverend Brier spotted mountains and 72 people turned back. They would show up in Los Angeles 7 weeks later without any problems. The Briers along with 27 wagons continued on to what would become a nightmare.They entered into a barren and sun baked valley. It was a vast wasteland where they never saw a living thing. After a few days they ran low on water. Reverend Brier went on ahead to look for water leaving Juliette to care for the kids and cattle by herself. She said "I was sick and weary... and poor little Kirke gave out, and I carried him on my back, barely seeing where I was going. Night came, and we lost track of those ahead". She crawled on her hands and knees in the moonlight. About 3:00 A.M. she found her husband sleeping comfortably and the others camped on a creek that they named Furnace creek.

  On Christmas day someone suggested that she and the children stay at the creek until they could come back for her. She bluntly told them "I have never kept the company waiting, neither have my children. Every step I take will be towards, California". Twenty miles into the desert their tongues began to swell and their lips cracked. Oxen began to die. Some of the men climbed nearby mountains and returned with snow in their shirts to use for drinking water for the people and animals. Meals sometimes consisted of bones boiled in ox blood. The first to die was the Reverend Mr. Fish who was traveling to the gold fields to find enough money to pay off his church's debts. Eventually four people would die before they managed to leave this horrible valley. As they were leaving one of the men turned and said "Goodbye Death Valley". So this is how Death Valley got it's name. It is the lowest point on the north American continent and one of the hottest. Reunions were held in later years of the survivors and all agreed that Juliette Briers was the heroine of the group.


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