October 1, 1841 — Still Worried

October 1st. The stream had already attained the size of which we supposed Mary’s river to be, and yet its course was due NW. Distance 20 miles.

Still headed northwest, still wondering if this is the right river.

How much knowledge did they have about this river? How much had it been explored previously?

Other than that erroneous fictionalized map, their only information came from fur trappers at Fort Hall. That’s where four of the men went to seek a pilot.

They were able to learn very little of the region lying west of Salt Lake. Their information was to the effect that there was a great and almost impassable desert which we were liable to become involved in if we went too far to the south. That there was a stream running west which had been visited by one of the trappers belonging to the Hudson Bay Company, among whom it was known by the name of Mary’s or Ogden’s River. That we must try to strike that stream, for to the south of it we would find no feed for animals. That we must be careful not to go too far to the north, for if we did, we would become involved in a maze of canyons and streams with precipitous cliffs which led off into the Columbia River and where we should be sure to wander and starve to death. The fact was no one knew but little about that country. No one had been through to California by that route so far as we could learn.

1877 Dictation, in The Bidwell-Bartleson Party, edited by Doyce C. Nunis

And with no more information than that, they went into the unknown.

The Great Basin and this river that formed the highway across it had been explored, or endured, by fur trappers looking for beaver twice before the Bidwell-Bartleson Party came along.

The first recorded sighting of the river (other than by the natives) was on November 9, 1828, by Peter Skene Ogden, a fur trapper for the Hudson Bay Company.  Ogden explored the river for several hundred miles. He initially named the river “Unknown River”, since he had no idea where it came from or where it went, but later he named it “Paul’s River”, after one of his trappers who died on the expedition and was buried on the river bank.

Ogden later changed it again to “Mary’s River,” after his Native American wife, and this is the name those fur trappers at Fort Hall used.  Ogden, who couldn’t seem to make up his mind, later suggested calling it “Swampy River,” because it ended in a marshy sink.

Peter Skene Ogden, around 1854. Bet he didn’t look like that in 1828.

Joseph Walker and Benjamin Bonneville led a band of trappers along the river all the way to California via the Humboldt River, the Humboldt Sink, the Carson Sink, and then up into the Sierra Nevada in 1833. They called the river “Barren River” for its lack of trees.  Washington Irving, who made Bonneville famous in 1837 with his book about the expedition, called it “Ogden’s River.” I wonder if John Bidwell read the book?

Finally in 1845 the river was explored by the “Pathfinder”, John C. Fremont. By his day the explorations of the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt were well-known to all.  Humboldt had never been anywhere near the Humboldt River, but his other explorations were famous, so Fremont thought it fitting to give his name to this river. It’s certainly better than “Swampy River” or “Barren River.” Although I must admit “Unknown River” has a certain appeal.

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September 30, 1841 — What’s in Your Pack?

Thursday, 30th. Our course today was about due north, 18 miles.

It was more like northwest, but Bidwell’s entry betrays his anxiety. They want to go west, they were told the river ran west, why are they headed north?

They occasionally saw Indians, but had very little success finding game. This was a problem, since they were totally out of provisions. In his 1877 Dictation he recalled:

We descended the Humboldt River seeing more or less Indians who did not appear to be hostile, yet they did not approach us. The country was almost destitute of game. We saw scarcely any deer or antelope. The whole region had been recently burned over. Almost our only dependence for provisions therefore was on our oxen, which we were still driving to meet any emergency, although they had become so poor that they could carry no loads.

If his oxen couldn’t carry loads, then Bidwell was packing everything he still owned on his back. What did he have in his backpack? Probably a blanket, eating utensils, his journal and a pencil, and some ammunition.

And two books.

John Bidwell kept two items which he could not bear to part with: a small textbook on astronomy called The Geography of the Heavens, and the large illustrated Celestial Atlas that went with it. These were too precious to leave behind in the desert. He had purchased them in St. Louis, Missouri so he could teach himself astronomy, and he would carry them all the way to California. 

The star-gazing would have been good in Nevada. You can still see these books at the California State Library.

Isn’t that amazing?

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September 29, 1841 — Turning North Again

Wednesday, 29th. Traveled about 20 miles, course of the stream was W.N.W. According to the map Mary’s river ran W.S.W. Strong doubts were entertained about this being Mary’s river. The men who got directions at Fort Hall were cautioned that if we got too far south, we would get into the Great Sandy Desert-–if too far north, we would wander and starve to death on the waters of the Columbia, there being no possibility of getting through that way. We had now been 6 days on this stream, and our course had averaged considerably north of west.

Between Elko and Battle Mountain the Humboldt River runs west, and then at Battle Mountain it takes a turn north and runs northwest for some 50 miles to Winnemucca. (Of course, none of these towns existed then.) This is where Bidwell & Co. got very worried. If they kept going north they were going to end up in those bewildering canyons they had been warned about.

I don’t know whether John Bidwell or anyone else had a compass with them, but Bidwell frequently indicates their direction. He may have just been estimating the direction by the sun. He mentions a map, but they definitely did not have a map. There was not an accurate map to be had.

Bidwell had been shown a map of the West before he left Missouri. It showed two mighty rivers flowing out of the Great Basin all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Possibly that was the map he had in mind.  That map, which he had seen at the home of Elam Brown, where he boarded during the winter of 1840-41, showed both rivers traveling southwest to the sea. No wonder he was worried.

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September 28, 1841 — On the Humboldt

Tuesday, 28th. Traveled about 20 miles. Several Indians came to our camp this evening–-no timber excepting willows, grass plenty.

They have a river to follow, but it is not the kind of river they wish they had. The Humboldt slowly meanders in maddening loops and ox-bows, multiplying the distance traveled. The water is barely drinkable, warm and silty and tasting of alkali. The landscape is hot and dry in September, with little shad to be found. There are no cottonwoods or other substantial trees, just the occasional thin thicket of willows.

As one traveler, Reuben Cole Shaw, wrote in 1849:

The Humboldt is not good for man nor beast and there is not timber enough in three hundred miles of its desolate valley to make a snuff box, or sufficient vegetation along its banks to shade a rabbit, while its waters contain the alkali to make soap for a nation.

Humboldt River landscape

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September 27, 1841 — Palisade Canyon

Monday, 27th. Road was very difficult all day; course of the stream W. Traveled about 20 miles.

They are not hauling wagons anymore, so even if the “road” is rough, they can still make 20 miles a day, which is not bad. Jimmy John thought it was 25 miles.

Today we traveled about 25 miles down Marys river through a deep valley with clifts of rock in each side some times perpendicular for some hundred feet through which the river runs in a southwest course. We camped on the bank of the river where the valley widens a little. We killed an ox this evening for beef.

They are pretty sure now that they are on Mary’s River. The deep, cliff-bordered valley is Palisade Canyon. Today the railroad runs through the canyon, but not the road (I-80), which bypasses the canyon, just like most other wagon trains did. (This information is from No Trail to Follow: The First Wagon Party to California, 1841, by Michael E. LaSalle, 2018. If you ever want to follow the route of the Bidwell-Bartleson Party step by step, this is the book for you.)

Alfred A. Hart (1816-1908), photographer – Library of Congress
“Entering the Palisades. Ten Mile Canyon” 1868

They killed an ox for beef. They don’t have any other provisions anymore. They have about 10 oxen left. Will the beef on the hoof hold out long enough to get them to California? Keep reading.

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September 26, 1841 — Mary’s River?

“Sunday, 26th. The valley, seen yesterday evening, was but 4 or 5 miles in length and led into another difficult defile, though not so long as the one of yesterday, for we passed it into another valley. Distance 18 miles–-the stream continued to increase in size.”

They were by now on Mary’s River, but they didn’t know it. They were still unsure of their position.  How do you know you have arrived at the place you have been looking for, when you don’t know what it looks like, and there are no signposts?

In Echoes of the Past Bidwell states that they arrived at the river the day after some men climbed up the precipice and saw a valley a few miles ahead. “By one o’clock that day [we] came out on what is now known as the Humboldt River.” This is looking back from the vantage point of 40 years later, when he knew what he didn’t know back in 1841. At the time, in his journal, the company debates their position for several days before they decide that they are indeed on Mary’s River and headed in the right direction.

The South Fork joins the Humboldt River about eight miles west of Elko, Nevada. This is also the location today of the California Trail Interpretive Center. If you like trail history, it’s a great little museum to visit, very interactive and family-friendly. Sad to say, it is temporarily closed at this time.

Daniel Jenks “Humbolt River Valley” 1859 https://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2004661640/
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September 25, 1841 — South Fork

Saturday, 25th. The creek became perfectly dry and its banks rose to high perpendicular precipices, so that there was no other road than the dry bed of the stream. Having come about 15 miles, we encamped in a place affording a little grass and water, where we could see nothing but the sky. But the men who ascended the precipice to see what was in the prospect ahead said that in about a mile we would come to a valley–this was delightful news.

They are in one of the canyons formed by the South Fork of the Humboldt River. It is the end of the summer, so the riverbed is dry. A couple of the men climb to the top of the canyon and come back with good news: there is a valley up ahead.


Here is Bidwell, describing the journey along this stream bed in the 1877 Dictation.

We followed down the stream, but it soon ceased to have any water. This dry streambed we had to cross many times, but at last the banks became so steep that we were confined to the bed of the stream itself. Our animals became very footsore, so much so that they could scarcely stand, yet it was too rocky for them to lie down and the hills were too steep to attempt to get out of the canyon.

We all agreed that it would be impossible for the animals to retrace their steps, as they were much too worn down and jaded. Then came the discussion of the Fort Hall information that if we went too far north we would get into canyons that led into the Columbia River and that we would find it impossible to escape from them. As this canyon had led us in a northerly direction for nearly a day, many became greatly alarmed, believing we had gotten into one of those canyons and would perish there.

Can you imagine the talk going round and round, “Are we too far north? Are we too far south? What did they tell you at Fort Hall? Didn’t they say anything else? What are we going to do? Are we too far north?” and on and on, while they struggle along a rocky creek bed with their starved and miserable animals.

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September 24, 1841

Friday, 24th. As we descended the stream, it rapidly increased in size, and proved to be a branch of a larger stream. The country was desolate and barren, excepting immediately on the streams, where grew a few willows and cottonwoods; the hills in a few places produced a few shrubby cedars. Traveled today about 20 miles.

The creek they were following has joined the South Fork of the Mary’s river. Not that they know that, but at least they have access to water and grass. Numerous small streams flow out of the canyons of the Ruby Mountains join and form the South Fork. The South Fork flows northward, and they want to go west, so they are still wondering when they will be headed in the right direction.

Jimmy John noted in his journal that they killed an ox for food here.

South Fork of the Humboldt River, looking toward the Ruby Mountains https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_Fork_Humboldt_River
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September 23, 1841 — Turning North

Thursday, 23rd. We could see no termination to the valley, not any signs of Mary’s river. We therefore concluded that we were too far south, and passed over the mountains to the north, where we struck a small stream running towards the N.W. On this we encamped and found plenty of grass, a few fish were caught, some of which were trout, which led us to the conclusion that this was a branch of Mary’s river. Distance 18 miles.

Yay! They have found a creek that will lead them to the south fork of Mary’s River (the Humboldt River). At last they are headed in the right direction. They passed over the Ruby Mountains at Harrison Pass. You can see the South Fork directly below Elko on this map.

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September 22, 1841 — Indian Encounter

Wednesday, 22nd.  This morning 80 or 90 Indians were seen coming full speed from the W. Many had horses–one was sent about a half a mile in advance from the rest-–so we ought also to have done, but Capt. B. was perfectly ignorant of Indian customs, and the whole band of savages were suffered to come directly up to us, and almost surround our camp, when Mr. B. Kelsey showed by forcible gestures they would be allowed to proceed no farther. The Indians were well armed with guns and bows and arrows. The only words I recollect hearing Capt. Bartleson say were “let them gratify their curiosity!!”

The Indians were Sheshonees, but like other savages always take the advantage where they can. Besides, they were not a little acquainted with warfare, for they undoubtedly visited the Buffalo Country (having many robes) which requires much bravery to contend with the Blackfeet and Chiennes, who continually guard the buffalo in the region of the Rocky mountains. They traveled as near us as they were allowed, till about noon, when they began to drop off, one by one, and at night there were but 8 or 10 remaining. Distance about 12 miles.

This incident further sunk Bartleson’s reputation in John Bidwell’s eyes. The custom on the plains was for parties meeting for the first time to send out “ambassadors” to check each other out and find out what the other party’s intentions were. Did they want to trade? Did they need help? Or were they looking for trouble? Bartleson, by carelessly ignoring this custom, was endangering the entire company.

Four Mounted Indians, by Charles Marion Russell

In his 1877 Dictation, Bidwell tells how he and several of the other men “seized our guns and ran toward them, making signs that they must keep off to one side.” He was sure that only a show of force would give them the upper hand and allow them to continue traveling unmolested.

During the day I said to one of the men who messed with [i.e., ate with] Captain Bartleson, “Our captain don’t appear to understand Indian character. If we don’t make those fellows afraid of us, they will certainly attack us. Captain Bartleson is too timid and cautious with them.”

This remark got back to Bartleson, further souring the relationship between the two men.

Nancy Kelsey remembered this incident as well, and particularly her husband’s role in controlling the situation.

At one place the Indians surrounded us, armed with bows and arrows, but my husband leveled his fun at the chief and made him order his Indians out of arrow range.

“The Recollection of Nancy Kelsey” in The Bidwell-Bartleson Party, edited by Doyce B. Nunis

The Indians, as it turned out, were Shoshones, and willing to be friendly, although obviously capable of inflicting damage if they so chose. The Indians offered a dressed buckskin for a handful of ammunition, which they were always in need of. They then rode on either side of the Bidwell-Bartleson Party for several hours, until they gradually dropped off and went their way.

Group of Ute (Shoshone) Indians on the War Path. 1868. Andrew J. Russell, photographer. Imperial collodion glass plate negative. Collection of Oakland Museum of California.
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