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Above Photo: Bezaleel W. Armstrong, circa 1846. 2nd Lt., 1st and 2nd Dragoons. Served in the Mexican War at Vera Cruz and Mexico City. Right: Independence Rock on the Oregon Trail in Wyoming. Photo from Hayden Survey, William H. Jackson, 1870. Courtesy National Archives.
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1841 - Detail
May 1, 1841 - The first wagon train to California, with sixty-nine adults and several children, leave from Independence, Missouri. The journey would take until November 4.
Within two years, it would be considered a small excursion, when wagon trains would reach one thousand people in settlement of the west, but this wagon train, heading out over the Oregon Trail west before deking toward California, would be the first attempt to take a major group trip. There had been previous wagon trains, both on the Oregon Trail and Santa Fe trails since the early 1820's. John Bartleson and John Bidwell would lead the train over a haphazard wagon road created by three previous smaller parties. The trip would take five months at fifteen miles per day; it would cover over two thousand miles, traversing the Oregon Trail and crossing the Great Salt Lake and Sierra Nevada Mountains.
The group consisted of Bartleson, chosen captain despite his temperament, and Bidwell, a twenty-one year old native of New York who had been slowly traveling west through his young life, reaching the Kansas City area after stops in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Iowa. He had left Ohio in 1838 with $75, eventually settling in Missouri, and beginning to teach. Josiah Belden, a Connecticutt orphan, age twenty-six in 1841, and later mayor of San Jose, California, would join the party. They would be directed, for parts of the journey, by Father Pierre-Jean De Smet, a Jesuit missionary who had been traveling Iowa, Montana, and Wyoming since 1838, and Thomas Fitzpatrick, a mountain man, trapper, and head of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, defunct since 1834. The party would be known as the Western Emigration Society.
The trip would head toward the Mexican Province of Alta California and the Mexican land grant of John Marsh called Rancho Los Meganos. Marsh was the second owner. It began in Sapling Grove in Westport, Missouri, west of Independence, and travel over the Oregon Trail. There is some disagreement over the date the party started, with May 1 and May 9 suggested. Once reaching Fort Hall in Idaho, the party started to disperse, with half deciding to continue on the road to Oregon, and the other half to their original destination along the north shore of the Great Salt Lake. They would abandon their wagons west of the lake before ascending the Sierra Nevadas to reach Alta California.
However, there were problems with an arrival of United States immigrants in Alta California. Mexican generals had orders to evict any Americans who tried to colonize Mexican territory. When a portion of the Bartleson-Bidwell company arrived at Mission San Jose, they were detained, but eventually allowed to stay if they became Mexican citizens.
Bidwell Account of the Journey - The Start
When we reached Sapling Grove, the place of rendezvous, in May, 1841, there was but one wagon ahead of us. For the next few days one or two wagons would come each day, and among the recruits were three families from Arkansas. We organized by electing as captain of the company a man named Bartleson from Jackson County, Missouri. He was not the best man for the position, but we were given to understand that if he was not elected captain he would not go; and as he had seven or eight men with him, and we did not want the party diminished, he was chosen. Every one furnished his own supplies. The party consisted of sixty-nine, including men, women, and children. Our teams were of oxen, mules, and horses. We had no cows, as the later emigrants usually had, and the lack of milk was a great depriva- tion to the children. It was understood that every one should have not less than a barrel of flour with sugar and so forth to suit; but I laid in one hundred pounds of flour more than the usual quantity, besides other things. This I did because we were told that when we got into the mountains we probably would get out of bread and have to live on meat alone, which I thought would kill me even if it did not others. My gun was an old flint-lock rifle, but a good one. Old hunters told me to have nothing to do with cap or percussion locks, that they were unreliable, and that if I got my caps or percussion wet I could not shoot, while if I lost my flint I could pick up another on the plains. I doubt whether there was one hundred dollars in money in the whole party, but all were en- thusiastic and anxious to go. In five days after my arrival we were ready to start, but no one knew where to go, not even the captain. Finally a man came up, one of the last to arrive, and announced that a company of Catholic missionaries were on their way from St. Louis to the Flathead nation of Indians with an old Rocky Mountaineer for a guide, and that if we would wait another day they would be up with us. At first we were independent, and thought we could not afford to wait for a slow missionary party. But when we found that no one knew which way to go, we sobered down and waited for them to come up; and it was well we did, for otherwise probably not one of us would ever have reached California, because of our inexperience. Af- terwards when we came in contact with Indians our people were so easily excited that if we had not had with us an old mountaineer the result would certainly have been disastrous. The name of the guide was Captain Fitzpatrick; he had been at the head of trapping parties in the Rocky Mountains for many years. He and the missionary party went with us as far as Soda Springs, now in Idaho Territory, whence they turned north to the Flathead nation.
Bidwell Account - The Separation
As I have said, at Soda Springs at the northernmost bend of Bear River our party separated. It was a bright and lovely place. The abundance of soda water, including the intermittent gushing so-called Steamboat Spring; the beautiful fir and cedar covered hills; the huge piles of red or brown sinter, the result of fountains once active but then dry all these, together with the river, lent a charm to its wild beauty and made the spot a notable one. Here the missionary party were to turn north and go into the Flathead nation. Fort Hall, about forty miles distant on Snake River, lay on their route. There was no road; but something like a trail, doubtless used by the trappers, led in that direction. From Fort Hall there was also a trail down Snake River, by which trapping parties reached the Columbia River and Fort Vancouver, the headquarters of the Hudson Bay Company. Our party, originally sixty-nine, including women and children, had become lessened to sixty-four in number. One had accidentally shot and killed himself at the forks of the Platte. Another of our party, named Simp- son, had left us at Fort Laramie. Three had turned back from Green River, intending to make their way to Fort Bridger and await an opportunity to return home. Their names were Peyton, Rodgers, and Amos E. Frye. Thirty-two of our party, becoming discouraged, decided not to venture without path or guide into the unknown and trackless region towards California, but concluded to go with the mis- sionary party to Fort Hall and thence find their way down Snake and Columbia rivers into Oregon. The rest of us also thirty-two in number, including Benjamin Kelsey, his wife and little daughter remained firm, refusing to be diverted from our original purpose of going direct to California. After getting all the information we could from Captain Fitzpatrick, we regretfully bade good-by to our fellow emi- grants and to Father De Smet and his party. We were now thrown entirely upon our own resources.
Bidwell Account - The Arrival
We were now on the edge of the San Joaquin Valley, but we did not even know that we were in California. We could see a range of mountains lying to the west, the Coast Range, but we could see no valley. The evening of the day we started down into the valley we were very tired, and when night came our party was strung along for three or four miles, and every man slept right where dark- ness overtook him. He would take off his saddle for a pillow and turn his horse or mule loose, if he had one. His animal would be too poor to walk away, and in the morning he would find him, usually within fifty feet. The jaded horses nearly perished with hunger and fatigue. When we overtook the foremost of the party the next morning we found they had come to a pond of water, and one of them had killed a fat coyote; when I came up it was all eaten except the lights and the windpipe, on which I made my breakfast. From that camp we saw timber to the north of us, evidently bordering a stream running west. It turned out to be the stream that w~ had followed down in the moun- tains the Stanislaus River. As soon as we Wild grapes also abounded. The next day we killed thirteen deer and antelopes, jerked the meat and got ready to go on, all except the captains mess of seven or eight, who decided to stay there and lay in meat enough to last them into California! We were really almost down to tidewater, but did not know it. Some thought it was five hundred miles yet to California. But all thought we had to cross at least that range of mountains in sight to the west before entering the promised land, and how many more beyond no one could tell. Nearly all thought it best to press on lest the snows might overtake us in the mountains before us, as they had already nearly done on the mountains be- hind us (the Sierra Nevada). It was now about the first of November. Our party set forth bearing northwest, aiming for a seeming gap north of a high mountain in the chain to the west of us. That mountain we found to be Mount Diablo. At night the Indians attacked the captains camp and stole all their animals, which were the best in the company, and the next day the men had to overtake us with just what they could carry in their hands.
The next day, judging by the timber we saw, we concluded there was a river to the west. So two men went ahead to see if they could find a trail or a crossing. The timber seen proved to be along what is now known as the San Joa- quin River. We sent two men on ahead to spy out the country. At night one of them returned, saying they had come across an Indian on horseback without a saddle who wore a cloth jacket but no other clothing. From what they could understand the Indian knew Dr. Marsh and had offered to guide them to his place. He plainly said Marsh, and of course we supposed it was the Dr. Marsh before referred to who had written the letter to a friend in Jackson County, Missouri, and so it proved. One man went with the Indian to Marshs ranch and the other came back to tell us what he had done, with the suggestion that we should go on and cross the river (San Joaquin) at the place to which the trail was leading. In that way we found ourselves two days later at Dr. Marshs ranch, and there we learned that we were really in California and our journey at an end. After six months we had now arrived at the first settlement in California, November 4, 1841.
Bidwell's Life After the Journey
John Bidwell's arrival in Alta California coincided with that of John Sutter of pending gold fame, having completed his settlement near Coloma, California in June 1841. Bidwell became his business manager. After Sutter's employee, James W. Marshall found gold there in 1848, Bidwell staked a successful claim along the Feather River prior to the main rush. He became a major with allegiance to the United States and California in the Mexican American War, rose to Brigadier General in the California Militia after it, and served in the California Senate and later as a Representative in the United States Congress. In 1892, he ran for President of the United States on the Prohibition Party ticket, coming in fourth with 2.3% of the national vote.
Photo above: Lithograph showing wagon train with Indians behind the rocks, 1877, S.H. Redmond, H. Steinegger, Britton, Rev. and Company. Courtesy Library of Congress. Photo below: Three replica wagons at Eagle Rock, Scotts Bluff National Monument. Courtesy National Park Service. Information Source: The First Emigrant Train to California, General John Bidwell, The Century; a popular quarterly Volume 0041 Issue 1 (November 1890) via Cornell University Library; Wikipedia Commons.
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