“Cheyenne” Gets His Nickname (Nicholas Dawson Part 3)

There were two men in the Bidwell-Bartleson Party named Dawson: Nicholas and V.W. Almost nothing is known about V.W., including what the initials stood for, but he went by the nickname “Bear.” The two men were not related. It was not long into the journey when Nick Dawson earned his own nickname.

While we were in the Platte valleys a little incident occurred that gave me a nickname for the rest of the journey: we were now in the country of hostile Indians, and Fitzpatrick had warned us not to stray beyond sight of the wagon train. But one day, curious to see the country that lay beyond the range of hills, I had ventured farther than usual, and coming upon a herd of antelope I, in my eagerness to get a shot at them, had followed them still farther. I was off my mule . . . trying to creep near enough for a shot at them, when I was startled by an Indian whoop.

I sprang upon my mule, but he perversely wheeled and ran toward the sound, I pulling desperately at the reins. Finally I got his head in the direction I wanted to go, but no amount of urging could get that mule to hurry, and in an instant I was surrounded by Indians. One galloped by me, thrust a spear along my back, and motioned for me to dismount. I did so. They seized my gun and knife, stripped me of my outer clothing, and taking my mule, left me. I hurried after our train, and overtaking it, told my story.

The alarm spread along the line, and all was confusion. Fitzpatrick galloped back, calling out the horsemen as he came, and was off with them to find the Indians, and if necessary, give them battle. I was very angry now, and intent on vengeance, so hastily borrowing a horse and gun, I hurried after the party. I came on at full speed and was aiming at the first Indian within range, when I was stopped by some forcible language from Fitzpatrick, and perceived that Fitzpatrick and the Indians were engaged in a friendly powwow. It had proved to be a band of Cheyennes, friendly but thievish.

They camped near us that night, and Fitzpatrick attempted to get back my property. He and I and the Indians sat around in a circle, and for every article to be returned, gifts of blankets, clothes, etc. had to be thrown down, a peace pipe smoked by all, and much haranguing done. Fitzpatrick’s patience gave out before all was got back, and declaring that I ought to be satisfied to have got off with my life, he refused to intercede further. I chafed under my enforced friendliness, and after that, to distinguish me from another Dawson in the company known as Bear Dawson, I was called Cheyenne Dawson.

Nearly everyone who wrote a memoir of the journey mentions this incident. John Bidwell, Josiah Belden, Nancy Kelsey, and James John all relate it. Bidwell had this to say:

A young man (Dawson) was out hunting, when suddenly a band of Cheyenne Indians about 40 in number came upon him; they were pleased to strip him of his mule, gun, and pistol, and let him go. He had no sooner reached the camp and related the news than the whole band came in sight. We hastened to form a corral with our wagons, but it was done in haste. To show you how it affected the green ones, I will give the answer I received from a stout, young man (and he perhaps was but one of 30 in the same situation), when I asked him how many Indians there were. He answered with a trembling voice, half scared out of his wits, there are lots, gaubs, fields and swarms of them!!! I do really believe he thought there were some thousands. Lo! there were but 40, perfectly friendly, delivered up every article taken, but the pistol.

Bidwell was proud of his “self-possession” and you wouldn’t catch him admitting to being frightened.


Portrait of Cheyenne chief Wolf-on-the-Hill by George Catlin, 1832

Josiah Belden left the best description of the Cheyennes:

We found them to be a war party of the Cheyenne tribe, about 50 or 60 warriors, fine looking, and they said they were looking for the Pawnees. They were fully armed with bows and arrows and tomahawks, and some few guns. They were the finest looking body of men I ever saw for Indians, quite a formidable looking party.


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The Adventures of Nicholas “Cheyenne” Dawson, Part 2

Nicholas Dawson was born in Beaver County, Pennsylvania on January 22, 1819, making him just 6 months older than John Bidwell. He received a good education for the day, good enough to be employed from time to time, like Bidwell, as a schoolteacher. He was, as he said, “a great reader,” and especially enjoyed books of travel and exploration.

His reading gave him a good case of wanderlust, and at the age of 19 he set out on his travels, with the aim of spending the next six years “in seeing the world.” With $10 in his pocket, he headed west. The year was 1838.

He stopped first in Lexington, Missouri, about 15 miles east of Independence. When the Platte Purchase in northwest Missouri opened up, he joined the rush to settle a claim. A couple years later John Bidwell would be doing the same thing. He taught school to earn money, then sold his claim and began wandering again, up and down the Mississippi River, looking for work and adventure.

His longest stretch of work was in Sevier County, Arkansas, where he taught school for 9 months. It was there that he also met his future wife, 12-year-old Margaret Wright. Several more years of the nomadic life would pass for Nicholas Dawson before he came back to claim his bride.

When the school year ended he took stock of his situation. Three years had gone by of the six he had set aside for travel. He hadn’t seen near as much as he wanted to yet.

I thought I should set out for foreign lands. My plan was to go to Independence, Mo., where I should most likely find a company going to Oregon. I could take in the Rocky Mountains and buffaloes on the way, and go on to the Pacific.

So he bought a horse and set out for Independence, where he met John Bartleson and decided to join the company that was gathering to travel to California.

It was a very mixed crowd. There were heads of families going out first to find a spot to bring their families to [Bartleson might have been one of these], and heads of families taking the families along to share whatever fortune might bring [Samuel and Benjamin Kelsey were two such]. There were many adventurous youths like myself and John Bidwell (afterwards governor of California [not quite]), who wanted nothing but to see and experience. There were gentlemen seeking health, and an English lord, Lord Romain, going out with a half-breed hunter John Grey, to shoot buffalo.


Notice that at the time, John Bidwell had no more ambitious plans than seeing the Wild West and enjoying an adventurous summer.

Nick Dawson joined Bartleson’s mess, bought a share in his wagon and team, and traded his horse for a mule (mules were hardier). After he had paid for his share of the provisions

I had seventy-five cents left – and I had that still when I reached California.

According to Measuring Worth, this is the equivalent of having about $25 left over.

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The Adventures of Nicholas “Cheyenne” Dawson

A stand-out member of the Bidwell-Bartleson emigrant company, and the last surviving member of that band, was Nicholas Dawson. During his adventures on the trail he earned the nickname “Cheyenne” from an incident that typifies Indian encounters in the old West. He spent three years in California in the 1840s, went back to the States, came back for the Gold Rush, went back again to the States and finally settled in Texas. He was in many ways the prototypical pioneer.


He kept a trail journal – mostly a record of miles covered — and in old age wrote a narrative of his travels. It was published by the Grabhorn Press in 1933 as Overland to California in ’41 and ’49, and to Texas in ’51. (It’s a rare book, but Meriam Library Special Collections has a copy.) In their later years he and John Bidwell corresponded, reminiscing about old times.

Chico, Cal.  Dec. 20, 1891

Dear Mr. Nicolas Dawson     Austin, Texas

Your very welcome letter of 12th instant is received, and I assure you it takes me entirely by surprise. You were very kind indeed to write me. Our party of 1841 are now few and far between. Besides yourself and myself I know if but two others, namely (now living) Michael C. Nye who now lives in Oregon, and Josiah Belden who lives in New York City. Belden is very rich – Nye not rich but quite well off I think. But I have not seen him for ten years or more. Saw Mr. Belden about five years ago.

Dawson probably heard that Bidwell was still alive because of the latter’s prominence in the temperance movement. By the time they exchanged letters both men were in their seventies, but both still hardy and active.

Stay tuned and I’ll tell you how “Cheyenne” Dawson joined up with the first emigrant train to California, and how he got his nickname.

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A Kinder Man I Have Never Known

In the 1880s Hubert Howe Bancroft asked John Bidwell if he could supply any information about several early California pioneers, Dr. John Townsend among them. On May 23, 1884 Bidwell wrote back with short recollections of the men he had known. Of Townsend he said:

“A kinder man I have never known.”

Townsend stood out in Bidwell’s mind as a cut above the usual emigrant to California. He was intelligent and well-educated, with a medical degree from Lexington Medical College. He could have been successful anywhere in the States, but he had a restless and adventurous spirit, and was attracted to California before it became the destination of the entire nation in 1849.

He served as the first American alcalde (magistrate) of San Francisco, and as one biographer said: “he held the scales of justice so evenly as to cause him to be ever remembered for his judicial integrity.” After a successful mining venture in 1848-49 he bought 195 acres near San Jose, intending to settle down to farming and raising a family. On November 26, 1848 his wife Elizabeth bore their first child, John Henry Moses Townsend.

On December 8th, 1850 both John and Elizabeth Townsend died of cholera within hours of each other. Their son was raised by Elizabeth’s brother, Moses Schallenberger, and his wife Fannie. It was a sad end to a worthy man and his wife, who had a bright future before them.

As far as I know, there is no portrait of Dr. Townsend.

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Bidwell to Townsend

Here is a letter from John Bidwell to Dr. John Townsend, written on April 5, 1849. He congratulates Townsend and his wife on the birth of their son, John Henry Moses Townsend, born November 26, 1848. An indication of Bidwell’s regard for Townsend is seen in the salutation; the usual “My dear sir” is replaced by “My dear friend.” Since Townsend was a physician he isn’t shy about sharing the state of his health.

Bidwell was ambivalent about staying in California, at least in the valley. He was about to purchase Rancho Chico, and yet he tells Townsend he desires to close his business in the valley and travel back east. He clearly liked California better before all those goldseekers showed up.

And take a look at his signature! He didn’t usually sign with so many flourishes.

                                                Suttersville 5th April 1849

My Dear Friend,

Your kind letter of 15th Dec. last was received only ten days since. I have come down to this place from our camp on Feather River and now embrace the first opportunity to reply.

When I wrote to you before my intention was to carry on a considerable trade connected with the mining business, and for a long time before I rec’d yours, I was under the impression that my letter had never reached you. Time has passed and brought some changes with it. Mr. McKinstry my partner went to San Francisco last winter and has engaged in business with Mr. Cordua. I suppose that I may not be able to do better than to continue with them during the present season, and then I intend to close my business so far as to pay a visit to my friends at home. But before I leave I must find time to have a long conversation with you. I have not given up the idea of making my home in California. My great desire is to close my business in the valley. I must leave it for two reasons – first it is too sickly here – I am subject to the ague and fevers. I mean to say that my constitution is such that it is not calculated to endure these hot summers. Some point near the [coast] would suit me better. I have spent a very disagreeable time in the mountains this winter. I was quite unwell about a month since from pains in the breast and side. I had also a considerable cough – to a hard cold which I had taken. I was at one time thinking of coming down to see you, but I have been riding out for the last 2 or 3 weeks and I feel almost perfectly well again. If I leave this fall to see my friends I shall endeavor to spend the winter in some agreeable climate. I wish, dear friend, that you were able to go the rounds with me but I cannot anticipate so much.

So many things have been wrought within the last year, that I feel myself almost a stranger here, where I was formerly wont to be at home. Every where, — in plains and in mountains – I meet a heterogeneous mass of strangers. I am sure I should not feel the change more sensibly if I were placed in the wilds of Siberia. Among such a population as is bound to centre here we may expect, from what as already passed, the greatest confusion, resulting in the perpetration of the most horrid outrages and crimes, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc.

I am happy to congratulate upon the important event of the birth of a son.

Mrs. Townsend receives my warmest regards for her many kind attentions, and now most particularly for her desire to furnish me with room at your house. I am aware that in San Francisco a more desirable favor could not be conferred.

Now my dear friend if I am able to do anything for you, write me boldly and without reserve, and believe me to be

Yours sincerely, J. Bidwell


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More from Dr. Townsend

Another letter from Dr. John Townsend to his wife:


Peyeys Ranch  August 16th 1848


I embrace the opportunity of writing by Mr. Norris. Yesterday Moses arrived at our camp, He is in partnership with Larkin and Green. He has two machines I think he will come to work on the Ubo day after tomorrow. I and Buchanan intend going up the Ubo to look for richer digings. The box you sent by Foster has not yet arrived but it is on the road.

I do not know what to think of buying a house. I fear it will put us too much in debt. We had better rent. If I continue in the mines I intend to have you with me.

Try and get along as well as you can. I may come home when you least expect me.

I enjoy good health but am very thin in flesh. I hope your health will continue pretty good. Write to me every opportunity. The Gold mines, spell mines. Direct to me at the Falls of Ubo.

Your dearest  J. Townsend

Moses Schallenberger was Mrs. Townsend’s younger brother. In 1844, when the Murphy-Townsend-Stevens party came to California, he was 18 years old. When the party abandoned some of their wagons at Donner Lake, he stayed behind to guard them over the winter. He survived by trapping and eating foxes.

Larkin and Green were Thomas O. Larkin and Talbot H. Green, merchant partners at Monterey. Larkin served as consul for the U.S. government.

I am sure I am misreading the name of that ranch, but I don’t know what it is, even though I think I’ve seen it mentioned in other letters somewhere. Any suggestions?

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Dr. Townsend in California

Dr. John Townsend came to California in 1844 with the Murphy-Townsend-Stevens wagon train, the first to bring wagons all the way over the Sierras. He was the first qualified physician in California and the first non-Mexican alcalde of San Francisco.

When gold was discovered he went to the goldfields in search of wealth. Here is a letter written to his wife from his camp “at the falls of Ubo River.” (No one was sure how to spell the name of the river — later they settled on spelling it Yuba.)


Dearest I received your letter by Farnham today, and by Brannan yesterday. I regret exceedingly that I have had neither ink nor paper to write. I wrote you by Stetson one month ago or more, and he certainly did not take it to you. I also wrote by Mr. Davis and Foster ten days ago which you will certainly receive. Buchanan and I are working still on our claim at the falls of Ubo, We have no hands and are working very hard ourselves. Some days we make fifty dollars a piece, and other days twenty-five dollars. We have now seventeen hundred dollars between us, and we hope in a few days to have one thousand a piece.

How could you who have known me so long believe that indifference or carelessness could induce me not to write. Judge when I tell you that I have not only three days since received my Trunk. I could get no account of it. I was out of shirts and all my clothes were worn out, and I never expected to hear of the trunk in the world as many trunks were lost. But I had no paper to write to any one about it. I could neither buy paper or shirts. Dr. Fourgeaud has been very sick of fever a[t] Johnsons I have be[en] called to see him twice as his wife did not expect him to live. I suppose she did not expect to want favours of me when she treated you as she did about Eliza.

I do not expect to return under one month as I shall probably quit for the winter. A great many have returned to San Francisco and I hope you will be able to buy some wood. Try and manage as well as you can I want to bring home all the gold that I possibly can.

Mr. O’Farrel is waiting for this and will speed it on its way but is not going to San Francisco. I will write when I can and do be satisfied with that I think you are doing well to walk in the morning for your health. Take good care of yourself dearest as all my gain would only be my curse if ill should come of you.

Yours as ever, J. Townsend

Mrs. Townsend was pregnant at the time with their first child, which explains his concern for her health.

I think these letters from the gold rush are so interesting. They tell us whether or not the miners had hired Indian workers, how much money they were making, and how much trouble it was to get supplies.  He mentions places: Johnson’s Ranch (Wheatland) and Cordua’s Ranch (Marysville).

This letter is held by The Society of California Pioneers at the Presidio. There are more Townsend papers in the San Jose Public Library.

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