“She was the best man of the party”
Juliet Brier was one of the first Euro-American travelers to cross Death Valley as part of the original and ill-fated ‘49ers party. Her strength and resilience not only kept her entire family alive during their dangerous journey across Death Valley, but also brought them to prosperity once they reached Los Angeles. Fellow ‘49er William Lewis Manly wrote that among the travelers, “all agreed she was the best man of the party.”
Born in 1813 in Manchester, Vermont, Juliette Wells was always a woman with a strong sense of self. She decided “Juliette” was unnecessarily complicated and simplified her name to “Juliet,” or even “Julia” to her friends. In 1839, she married Reverend James W. Brier with whom she would have three sons and three daughters. In 1849, Reverend Brier was called to spread the ministry of the Methodist faith in the West, so the Briers packed up and began the long overland journey to California.
Unfortunately, the Brier family arrived in Salt Lake City, Utah too late in the year to travel safely over the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Fears of crossing the mountains in winter, especially after the story of the Donner Party in 1847, hastened travelers quickly across the West. Those who arrived too late were unable to stay in Salt Lake City, which could not sustain the influx of travelers through the fall and winter. Many people were forced to seek alternate, and often dangerous ways into California.
The Briers joined a party of travelers following Jefferson Hunt to the Old Spanish Trail, which meandered around the southern end of the Sierra Nevada, though the path from Salt Lake City was not an established one. The journey was uneventful until the travelers reached present-day Enterprise, Utah. There, Juliet & her family split off with about 100 other wagons to follow a map that a passing pack train showed them. This map showed “Walker Pass”, and a non-existent mountain range that provided passage across the Sierra Nevada. Eager to reach central California without losing much more time, the group set off along this shortcut.
The party soon realized that there was no “Walker Pass”, and instead found themselves in the Beaver Dam Wash – a large canyon that covered wagons could not travel through. Many turned back, but the Briers stayed with the group of people that would come to be known as the Jayhawkers. Juliet Brier took great care to ration food and water for her family and did most of the manual labor necessary to travel West. According to William Lewis Manly’s account,
She was the one who put the packs on the oxen in the morning. She it was who took them off at night, built the fires, cooked the food, helped the children, and did all sorts of work when the father of the family was too tired, which was almost all of the time.
Juliet went without water many times and frequently had to haul oxen out of the muddy valley floor. She worked tirelessly to care for her husband and three sons and was ultimately deemed responsible for their surviving the trip into California.
By the time the ‘49ers arrived in Los Angeles, few had anything more than the clothes on their backs. The wagons had to be abandoned, broken down for firewood or modified to traverse rocky paths. Their oxen were packed with essentials for survival and little else. The Briers survived their ordeal in Death Valley with quite a few oxen, and thus enjoyed a level of financial security that others in their party did not. The Briers sold off their oxen and purchased half of a hotel that generated enough revenue for them to live.
In California, Juliet had three daughters, and lived the rest of her life as a family woman. She does not appear frequently in many records after that, but she lived to be 99 years and 8 months old; she outlived her husband and all but one son.
At a time when women were rarely commended for their strength, Juliet Brier proved the strength and determination even 5-foot 90-pound women have always had. The hardened prospector men who traveled with the Briers always remembered her as the little woman who could do the impossible, even in Death Valley.
Last updated: October 1, 2021