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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

The First Wagon Party

They are known as the Bartleson-Bidwell Party, or alternatively the Bidwell-Bartleson Party, the first organized group of emigrants to trek across half a continent with wagons, and the first group of ordinary American civilians to cross the formidable Sierra Nevada into California. The year was 1841. Prudent advice said they were fools to attempt it; but in fact, their amateur expedition opened a new phase in the expansion of the United States.

The company was mostly composed of single men in their twenties and early thirties, although there were three married men who were taking their wives and children. California’s gold would not be discovered for another seven years, an event that would send thousands of bedazzled gold-seekers rushing west on trails established by emigrant wagon trains in the latter half of the 1840s.

But in 1841 there was no trail to California, and only a faint one into Oregon Territory. These ordinary people were simply taking a courageous step into the unknown, motivated by a fur trapper’s glowing tales that described California as a paradise. Some were seeking economic opportunity and a more healthful environment far from the malaria-plagued Mississippi Valley; others were admittedly just seeking adventure. Some members were well educated for their time. That is, they knew arithmetic, could read fluently, and could write in flowing cursive. Others had no book learning, but were skilled in the ways of survival on a frontier. Unknown to the rest, one of the members was an embezzler who was running from the law.

None of them knew exactly how to get to California. They had a letter from a man who lived there, a former Missourian named John Marsh, containing vague directions for a route Marsh had never traveled himself, and they had a hand-drawn, inaccurate “map” that was essentially useless. Luckily, they were able to attach themselves to another expedition that was headed for Montana, a group of Catholic missionaries and their entourage, sixteen men altogether, who had wisely hired veteran fur trapper/mountain man Tom Fitzpatrick as their guide. The combined parties traveled together for the first half of the journey.

The first 1,000 miles ended at Soda Springs (Idaho). Thus far the trip had had its dangers and mishaps and one bad Indian scare, all resolved by Tom Fitzpatrick’s considerable expertise. But Fitzpatrick—who had never been to California either—was going no farther than Fort Hall, some 50 miles northwest. The Catholic missionaries were continuing on farther north, escorted by Indian guides. For the next 1,000 miles until they reached California, the Bartleson Party would have to travel through a vast, uncharted, trackless wilderness with no guide.

Reality set in. About half of the party, including two men with families, decided to take Fitzpatrick’s advice and go to Oregon instead. They would have no guide, but there were a few fur trade outposts along the way; it was the safer route. The other half, thirty-two men including Ben Kelsey, plus his teenaged wife Nancy and their toddler daughter, were determined to get to California. Leaving their camp on the Bear River, the party split on the morning of August 11, 1841.

Now completely on their own, the Bartleson company stumbled blindly over hostile terrain trying to find the Humboldt River, which they mistakenly believed would take them straight into California. Near today’s Utah-Nevada border, they abandoned their wagons because they felt the wagons were slowing them down, and what provisions the wagons carried were low anyway. Packing what they could on their mules and oxen, they crossed desert wastelands in the heat of summer, living on often sparse wild game and, one by one, their oxen.

They found the Humboldt, but also found that the river dissipated into marshlands. Ignorant of the geography, their view of the Sierra Nevada blocked by intervening mountains, they missed seeing the Truckee River Pass. Half-starved and desperate, they staggered over the Sierra for thirteen days in October, perilously following the Stanislaus River to the Central Valley floor. There, they happened upon an Indian who guided them to John Marsh’s ranch at the foot of Mt. Diablo, where they arrived on November 4th.

Miraculously, all of them survived.

Historians have given this party its name based on the participant’s extant trail diaries and later memoirs. John Bartleson, a man then in his fifties, was indeed the elected captain of the California-bound party. However, John Bidwell—although a principle organizer and promoter of the expedition in the months ahead of time—was, out on the trail, merely one of several young men in their twenties who were expected to obey orders. Then, fortunes changed. John Bartleson returned to Missouri in 1842, and died there in relative obscurity six years later, whereas John Bidwell remained in the West and became prominent. In 1848 he found gold on the Feather River and founded a gold camp named Bidwell’s Bar. His new-found wealth enabled him to purchase the 28,000-acre Rancho Del Arroyo Chico, which he developed using innovative agricultural experiments and techniques. In 1849 he was elected to the first State Senate and in 1864 as a United States Senator from California. Bidwell died in 1900, a man of enviable stature and reputation. He is the founder of the city of Chico.

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