The westward movement of Americans rolled west of the Appalachians and hung up for a decade or two on the barrier of the Mississippi-Missouri River. It was almost an interior sea-coast, the barrier between the settled lands, and the unpeopled and treeless desert beyond, populated by wild Indians. To be sure, there were scattered enclaves, as far-distant as the stars, in the age of “shanks’ mare” and team animals hitched to wagons, or led in a pack-train: far California, equally distant Oregon, the pueblos of Santa Fe, and Texas. A handful of men in exploring parties, or on trade had ventured out to the ends of the known continent … and by the winter of 1840 there were reports of what had been found. Letters, rumor, common talk among the newspapers, and meeting-places had put the temptation and the possibility in peoples’ minds, to the point where an emigrating society had been formed over that winter.
The members had pledged to meet, all suitably outfitted and supplied on the 9th of May, 1841 at a rendezvous twenty miles west of Independence, on the first leg of the Santa Fe Trail, intent for California, although none of them had at the time any clear idea of where to go, in order to get there. A handful of wagons, two or three at a time straggled into the meeting place, at Sapling Grove, in the early weeks of May until there were about thirty-five men … which was considered a suitable size for the party. There were in addition to the men, ten children and five women: three wives, the widowed sister of one of the wives, and a single unmarried woman, and it would appear that none of them, man or woman, had been into the far West before. They had a vague notion of the latitude of San Francisco Bay, and perhaps were dithering for some days over whether to follow the long- established Santa Fe Trail, or the slight track which wandered off in the direction of the fur-trading post at Fort Laramie and from there on to Oregon.
While they were still making up their minds, a small party of Jesuit missionaries led by the legendary Father Pierre De Smet and bound for Ft. Hall in the Oregon territory arrived. The Jesuits had hired the equally legendary mountain man, Thomas “Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick as their guide, and the California-bound party attached themselves to this party, no doubt with a certain amount of relief. Sufficient to the days’ travel were the evils thereof, and the Jesuits and “Broken Hand” would accompany them for the first thousand miles.
They left on the 12th of May, after electing one John Bartleson as nominal captain… but like the Stephens-Townsend Party of three years later, seemed to have functioned more or less as a company of equals. They moved slowly for the first few days, having gotten word that another wagon and a small party of men was trying to catch up to them; ten days later, they did so. Among the late-comers was Joseph Chiles, who would eventually cross and recross the continent by the California trail many times over the following fifteen years. Another three days later, the party was joined by a single elderly horseman, traveling alone, penniless and without weapons, trusting in the protection of the God he served; the Methodist Rev. Joseph Williams. Reverend Williams had taken it into his head to go forth and minister to the heathen Indians. Arriving at Sapling Grove to find the party already gone, he had ridden alone through the wilderness to join them. Whether this was an act of jaw-dropping naivety, or saintliness is a matter of opinion.
Under the stern direction of Fitzpatrick, the party reached Fort Laramie after 42 days of hard travel. The party traveled in a mixture of conveyances and teams: The Jesuits in four mule-drawn carts and a single small wagon, then eight emigrant wagons drawn by horse and mule teams, then a half-dozen drawn by ox teams. The cracking pace set by the mule carts meant many exhausting hours in harness for the slower oxen, which a single day of rest at Ft. Laramie did nothing to make up for. And supplies were already running short. They hunted for buffalo along the valley of the Sweetwater, and met up with a party of 60 trappers on the Green River, who told them flat-out that it was impossible to take wagons over the mountains and desert and mountains again to California. At that point, a small group of seven men packed it in and headed back to Missouri, and all but thirty-one men and Mrs. Nancy Kelsey decided to carry on with the trail towards Ft. Hall and Oregon.
The adventures of the California-bound party are well-documented, as there were four diarists among them. A fair proportion of them became successful and pillars of their respective communities in later life, although one, Talbot Greene, later turned out to be an embezzler escaping the authorities. He was pleasant, well-liked and trusted by the others, serving as their doctor, and carried with him to California a very large chunk of what appeared to be lead. No one could fathom why he needed quite so much of this commodity, but even then, it was considered bad form in the West to pry too much into personal affairs.
The men of the Bidwell-Bartleson Party, who had – against all advice and counsel – decided to continue on for California had much in common. They were all young, most under the age of thirty. None of them had been into the trans-Mississippi west until this journey, although one of them was a relative by marriage to the Sublette fur-trading family. The Kelsey brothers, Andrew and Benjamin, were rough Kentucky backwoodsmen. Two of them had been schoolteachers, but all had grown up on farms, were accustomed to firearms and hunting … and hard work, of which the unknown trail would offer plenty. Of the four diaries kept by party members, three are still in existence. The diarists themselves narrated a zesty and optimistic tale of their adventures, taking some of the edge off of the desperation that must have been felt as they blundered farther and farther into the trackless wilderness. They set off with nine wagons in the middle of August, following the Bear River towards the Great Salt Lake. They had seen a map which showed two rivers flowing west from this lake, but it seemed that was a mere fantasy on the part of the map-maker.
After a week or so of this, they camped north of the Lake and sent two men back to Fort Hall seeking additional supplies and guidance. In both they were disappointed; there were no supplies to be spared from the fort stores, and there was no guide to be hired. The only advice they could get from Fort Hall was not to go too far north, into a bandlands of steep canyons, or too far south into the sandy desert. But away to the west there was a river flowing towards the south-west. That was called Mary’s or Ogden’s River (now the Humboldt). If they could find and follow it, it would guide them on for a long way.
On such sketchy advice, they continued westwards; a dry stretch around the north of the lake, until despairing, they turned north and camped at the foot of a mountain range. There was grass and water there, as they would come to know if they had not worked that out already. They traded gunpowder and bullets for some berries from friendly Indians camped nearby. At this point, they may have realized it would be better to send out scouts ahead, and party captain Bartleson and another man named Hopper rode out on a scout to look for Mary’s River. They did not return for some days, during which the party abandoned one wagon and moved gradually westward. They were probably following the tracks left by the two scouts, who did not return until eleven days were passed and they had been despaired of. Owners of two wagons hired Indian guides and went south on their own, covering two days journey, until Bartleson and Hopper returned to the reminder with word they had found a small stream that seemed to lead into Mary’s River.
They all headed southwards across the desert, southwards again after camping at a place called Rabbit Creek. By mischance, they had missed the headwaters of a creek that emptied into the river they were searching for, and in another couple of days, the team animals began to fail. The Kelsey brothers abandoned their wagons, packing their remaining supplies onto the backs of their mules and saddle horses, and the party continued with increasing desperation, south and west, and to the north-west again, until it became clear that the wagons were a useless, dragging burden.
In the middle of September the wagons were abandoned, about where present-day US Highway 40 crosses the Pequop Summit. They made packs for the mules … they tried to make packs for the oxen, who promptly bucked them off again. They set off again, giving much of what they couldn’t take to friendly Indians, and operating mostly by chance at this point, found and followed the Humboldt River. They supplied themselves by hunting and gradually and one by one, killing their draft oxen. Nancy Kelsey, the indomitable wife of Benjamin was reduced to carrying her year-old daughter, herself barefoot … and yet, as one of their comrades recollected later, “she bore the fatigues of the journey with so much heroism, patience and kindness…” She had embarked on the journey, declaring that she would rather endure hardships with her husband, than anxieties over his absence.
Gradually, as historian George Stewart put it, “their journey became one of those starvation marches so common in the history of the West. ” They soldiered on through the desert, eventually finding their way over the Sierra at the Sonora Pass, only to be caught in the wilderness canyons at the headwaters of the Stanislaus River. They did not eat well until they reached the lower stretches, the gentle San Joaquin Valley where the men – still well supplied with powder and shot – bagged enough deer for a feast. They arrived at a ranch nearby early in November of 1841.
They were the first party of emigrants to arrive overland in California, although with scarcely more than they wore on their backs, or carried. Among their numbers were included the future first mayor of San Jose, the founder of the city of Stockton, and the founder of Chico, a delegate to the convention that nominated Abraham Lincoln, and two or three who were merely quietly prosperous. The very last living member of the Bidwell-Bartleson Party died in 1903 at the age of 83. Given their hair- raising adventures on the emigrant trail, I imagine that he – like most of his comrades – would have been pleasantly surprised at having the words “natural causes” or “old age” appear anywhere in their obituaries.
The pioneer wagon train that I wrote about in my first novel followed the faint tracks left by the Bidwell-Bartleson Party from Fort Hall into the Humbolt Sink, three years later. I I’ve always found it amazing that they headed out before there was even a known trail, after the first thousand miles or so.)