06. November 2006 · Comments Off on Bidwell-Bartleson, 1841 · Categories: General, Good God, History, Old West, Pajama Game

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. It was almost an interior sea-coast, the barrier between the settled lands, and the un-peopled and tree-less 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. And 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 of the party. There were, in addition to the men, ten children and five women: three wives, the widowed sister of one of them, and a single unmarried woman, and it would appear that none of them 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 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 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. The 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 perspective.

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.

Their further adventures 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 of them, 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 large chunk of lead. No one could fathom why he needed quite so much of this commodity; even then, it was considered bad from to pry too much into others’ personal affairs.

(To be continued)

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