Monday, May 14, 2012

Frederick Funston

This latter pair were 24-year-old Frederick Vernon Coville, who was in later years a well-known flora expert and who was the chief plant collector on the trek, and his assistant, Frederick Funston, who had recently proved his merit collecting grasses on the Northern Plains. Funston was humorous and modest when he related the story of his appointment as Coville’s aid. He wrote to a friend that his father’s congressional influence—together with his ability to do "cussing for the outfit"—had won him a slot on the expedition’s roster. Whatever true degree of "leverage" was, Funston had become a member of an important scientific expedition. This was an effort that the national government had launched to make maps and do a complete biological survey of the long-dreaded region. The expedition faced a task that forced Funston and his colleagues to spend altogether between eight and nine months in the field.

There were at least two notable features about this work of this group of scientists and their helpers who roamed the wilds in Death Valley during these months of 1891. One of these remarkable aspects was the terrible nature of the hardships that everyone endured. Just traveling in these desert surroundings--where even in January the thermometer’s mercury rose to 88 degree F in the shade—was a great strain on the men’s stamina. Funston, who was mounted on "a little roan broncho [that was] as tough as wire," went out northward from San Bernardino, California, and moved into the Mohave desert on January 1, 1891. He rode with the group who joined the second party of the expedition on January 18. On this date, Funston and his cohorts made contact with the northern members of expedition who had begun their march from Keeler, California, at a later time. Two days after the rendezvous, the entire organization "entered northern Death Valley via the dry bend of the Amargosa" river.

Funston characterized even these preliminary treks made in the cooler weeks of winter as being pure "hell." The starkness of the colors of the desert rock formations, the sparseness of the usual types of vegetation, and the "flats of salt and soda" whose "mirages...[were, so he speculated,] finer than those of the Sahara [desert]" all left indelible impressions on his mind. Always there was the prevalent lack of moisture that extended even to finding enough potable water for the men and their 17 horses and burros. At times "three or four days" travel separated water holes, and scarcity necessitated the stringent rationing of water that the men took from the essential casks that they had carefully lashed to burro backs and wagon beds.

Although the expedition frequently broke up into smaller units in order to perform various scientific tasks, movement was never easy. In the valley’s lower reaches, traveling exposed Funston and his group to a horrible death by suffocation in the event that they fell into one of the countless, half-hidden soda marshes that dotted the terrain. Up higher on the mountain slopes, the going became even more tortuous because of the incredibly difficult topography. At one juncture in late April, the merciless landscape forced Funston’s party to traverse a mountain range by way of "an almost impossible canon." This wilderness gorge required the field scientists and their helpers to turn to their picks and shovels and put in "seven days of hard work" just to hack their way to their objective that was only five miles away by direct distance. Such slavish labor was not by any means a rarity. The expedition covered the entire area of Death Valley during the course of its work, though "months were spent by the trekkers in the valley of the Amargosa [river alone.]"

Funston had good cause to remember this bitter, salt- and sulphur-filled stream, because at Ash Meadows on the Amargosa the expedition underwent "the starving time." They were at a site in Nevada that was about 30 miles to the east of Furnace creek ranch. From here, the supply base for the scientists was 200 miles away. Because of "someone’s inexcusable blundering" and failure to send provisions, Funston’s party had to live "for about two weeks on climate." As Funston recalled this hungry episode, the desperate men partook of a crude diet of "gophers, blackbirds, badgers, [and] chuck-wallies..." The latter was "a big clumsy lizard [that was] about a foot long" and that had white, tender flesh that was "suggestive of spring chicken." Though the stubby botanist later looked back on this period at Ash Meadows with a humorous eye, he also remembered that "at the time it was a very serious affair."

Of course, these events that were so filled with physical hardship and danger were Frederick Funston’s meat. Aside from those perilous scrapes that were common to the entire expedition, Funston underwent several adventures that were somewhat more peculiar to himself. On February 20 Funston and Coville set out across the desert, bound for the tiny mining settlement of Panamint, California. The place was 100 miles from the party’s camp, and was then serving as their post-office station.

In Funston’s view, Coville and himself "made a hell of a mess of the job" of retrieving the scare and highly desired mail. Actually, considering the physical environment, they showed themselves quite plucky. In only eight days they crossed 178 miles of incredibly harsh terrain. They picked up the party’s correspondence and made their way back to the new camp at Ash Meadows, Nye county, Nevada, to deliver it. This trek was a noteworthy accomplishment indeed, because no trails existed and for four days Funston and Coville, who lacked any better alternative, traveled blindly amidst a "terrible storm" just to reach the post office. Moreover, when they reached the Panamint mountains that lay on the western rim of the valley, they met such a difficult landscape that they had to quit their horses and proceed on foot. For a short distance as they moved over the snowy peaks, they literally crawled, creeping painfully along on their "hands and knees" toward their destination. Fortunately, on their return they found the abandoned mounts and were able to expedite the delivery of the mail to their colleagues back at the new camp.

On another mail run, Funston went out into the steaming desert alone. Mounted and carrying only a quart of drinking water, Funston had the mission to deliver some important communiques of the expedition to the nearest post office. At this time the mail was dispatched by the postal service at a place that was 120 miles across the desert from the campsite. As the sun reached its zenith, the temperature at the floor of Death Valley soared to an unheard of 147 degrees F. The hot, dry air blowing off the desert soon peeled Funston’s skin from his face, burning his nostrils, and parched his lips so badly that they bled. Finally Funston realized that going on would surely mean death. So he picketed his horse, rested during the last afternoon and evening, and began his return to camp at 3 A. M. In the coolest hours.

The going was much better until dawn. Soon again the sun proved cruelly enervating, and Funston had to tramp on foot and lead his exhausted mount behind him. His water gone, Funston doggedly concluded that his only recourse was to keep hiking. He did, hour after hour, and at one point he heard "shots,"—popping sounds that he finally recognized were only the products of his heat-seared imagination. At 4 A. M. On the next day, he stumbled blindly into a ranch house and pleaded weakly for water. By walking continually, day and night, Funston had beaten the desert. He had covered 40 miles and survived his cruelest and most trying experience in Death Valley.

There was an additional brush with death for botanist Funston at higher altitudes. During another trip that took him to the summit of a mountain range, Funston almost met a sudden demise. His horse lost his footing and fell over a cliff. In a matter of seconds the animal had plunged over a 1,000-foot high cliff to his death in a rocky gorge. The terrified mount dragged Funston skidding and rolling behind him as he careened toward the precipice. This time Funston saved himself only by seizing a fortuitously dangling shrub with a vise-like grip that arrested his fall.

The other notable aspect of the Death Valley expedition of 1891 was its considerable contribution to the science of desert botany. In this accomplishment, Funston played a significant part. Through his hikes around Death Valley and its adjacent mountain ranges, he secured many floral specimens. Altogether Coville and Funston collected 2,160 plant specimens during the course of the expedition. Later, following a short period of recuperation in Iola, Funston himself neatly pressed many of these specimens and arranged the Death Valley botanical collection for study while he continued to work as a field botanist for the Department of Agriculture in Washington, D. C. This employment busied him during the winter weeks of 1891-1892 and kept him in the capital until March, 1892.

Frederick Vernon Coville, the professional botanist who was in charge of the expedition’s plant project, found much of consequence during the course of his field jaunts with Funston. Of special interest to him as a plant scientist were the reactions of Death Valley’s extreme climatic conditions on its flora. His official report, "Botany of the Death Valley Expedition," soon became a classic study of desert life, and it still enjoys distinction today in the field. The successful work of the expedition immediately led Coville to seek the establishment of a laboratory for the study of desert botany, though his efforts were unavailing until 1904. Then, the board of the Carnegie Institution gave money for the building of facilities at Tucson, Arizona. Coville’s satisfaction with the work of the expedition in general and the performance of his assistant Frederick Funston in particular later bore fruit elsewhere.

Satisfaction for Coville with the outcome of the expedition, however, did not mean that at heart Funston really felt likewise. Certainly he longed for a good rest, and as he had indicated to "Buck" Franklin, as early as March, 1891, he had his "belly full of roughing it for a number of years to come." At that juncture, his fondest hope was to sell his write-up of the 1890 Colorado mountain adventure, "Storm Bound Above the Clouds," and use the anticipated $75 income for "fare cabin" on a steamship that sailed "from San Francisco to New York via Panama." Though the sea trip did not materialize, the repose at Iola did. Following the disbanding of the expedition in September, 1891, Funston was able to recoup his strength at home.


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