08. November 2006 · Comments Off on Bidwell-Bartleson, 1841 Part 2 · Categories: General, History, Old West, Pajama Game

(part two: part one here)

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 Far 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. No less than four of them kept diaries, three of which 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, they camped north of the Lake and sent two men 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 then Mary’s or Ogden’s River (now the Humboldt). If they could find and follow it, it would guide them on 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 the 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, 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 hairs-breadth 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.

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