The Bidwell-Bartleson Party

The First Overland Emigrants to California

The Bidwell-Bartleson Party

The 1841 Bidwell-Bartleson Party was the first group of emigrants to travel overland to California along the route that would eventually become the main California Trail. They began their journey in Missouri in the company of several Jesuit priests and a group of emigrants bound for Oregon. Guiding the Jesuits was the experienced mountain man Thomas "Broken Hand" Fitzpatrick. Near Fort Hall the two parties separated, with the Jesuits, the Oregon-bound emigrants, and Fitzpatrick continuing on to Oregon and the Bidwell-Bartleson Party striking out on their own. They had no maps or guides and were following only vague directions about steering west to California.

Of the thirty-four emigrants the only woman was Nancy Kelsey. She traveled with her husband and their infant daughter. Others of note in the party included John Bartleson, Elias Barnett, Josiah Belden, John Bidwell, Joseph B. Chiles, Grove Cook, Paul Geddes (aka Talbot H. Green), James P. Springer, and Charles M. Weber.

As they crossed the Humboldt Sink in eastern Nevada, bickering among the members divided the group, but they united again to face the hardships of the Sierra Nevada. Following Indian trails and picking up advice wherever they could from Native Americans, the emigrants traced the Walker River as far as they could and then turned westward into the mountains. With little food they struggled for two weeks, following canyons, crossing snow bound passes, and worrying that they might never reach California.

photo of Donnell Reservoir, Tuolumne County, CA

Donnell Reservoir

Finally they found the Clark Fork of the Stanislaus River and followed it to the edge of the canyon which today is the site of Donnell Reservoir. Unable to find a way down into the canyon and across to the south side of the river, the emigrants were forced to continue along the more rugged north side. Their route kept them high above the river. About this time, John Bidwell made a circuitous hunting trip to the north and stumbled upon the Giant Sequoias in the south grove of today's Big Trees State Park.

Eventually they found a way down into the Middle Fork of the Stanislaus River canyon and south across another fork of the river. The route carried them onto the ridges near today's Twain Harte. Continuing west, they passed through the foothills of today's Tuolumne County. When the emigrants finally reached the plains of the San Joaquin Valley, they were relieved to find abundant game to hunt along the rivers. After a short rest they pushed on to the John Marsh ranch at the base of Mount Diablo.

Following their arrival in California, Bidwell went to work for John Sutter at his fort in Sacramento. With the onset of the Gold Rush he moved north to Chico where he established himself as one of the leaders of the state. He served as brigadier general in the state militia, a state senator, and a U. S. Congressman. He ran for the office of California governor and for the president of the United States, but was unsuccessful in those bids.

Among others of note in the Bidwell Party, Elias Barnett was a participant in the Bear Flag Revolt at Sonoma and served under John C. Fremont. Josiah Belden became the mayor of San Jose. Joseph B. Chiles returned east and became a well known guide, leading numerous parties west across the plains. Charles M. Weber founded the city of Stockton.

The best account of the Bidwell-Bartleson Party is Doyce B. Nunis, Jr.'s The Bidwell-Bartleson Party: 1841 California Emigrant Adventure; Western Tanager Press, Santa Cruz, CA, 1991.

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