On the Trail — August 22-24, 1841

On August 22 the men who had gone to Fort Hall returned. They had been unable to obtain a guide to take them across the desert. (Cue the ominous music.)

Fort Hall, 1849

Interior of Fort Hall in 1849

They reported on the emigrants who had opted for going to Oregon rather than California:

The families that went into Oregon had disposed of their oxen at the fort and were going to descend the Columbia river with pack horses — they in exchange received one horse for every ox. Their waggons they could not sell. They procured flour at 50 cents a pint, sugar at same price, and other things in proportion.

High prices on the Oregon Trail.

On the 23rd they passed by the Great Salt Lake. Water was scarce.

Tuesday, 24th.  Cattle strayed this morning to seek water–late start–day was warm–traveled about 10 miles in a W. direction, encamped where we found numerous springs, deep, clear, and somewhat impregnated with salt. The plains were snowy white with salt. Here we procured salt of the best quality. The grass that grew in small spots on the plains was laden with salt which had formed itself on the stalks and blades in lumps, from the size of a pea to that of a hen’s egg. This was the kind we procured, being very white, strong and pure.

Ten miles in a day was good progress under those conditions.  Oxen could pull a wagon at 2 or 3 miles per hour for about 5 hours a day, so 15 miles a day was pretty much the maximum. On a very good day they might make 18 to 20 miles. But these were not good days.

Day after day of 10-15 miles a day would wear a team down. They had to eat, they had to have water, and they had to have rest.

By the time Bidwell & Co. got to the Great Basin, they had been traveling for nearly four months. The last few weeks had been especially hard on the animals. They couldn’t keep up this pace — not on salty water and dry grass. Bidwell and his friends were finding that they had to rest the animals more and more often, and indeed on the 25th they would stay put, giving the oxen a chance to recuperate. But they couldn’t afford to delay either, so the next day they harnessed up the oxen and got on the trail again.

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On the Trail — August 21, 1841

Saturday, 21st. Marched off in a NW direction, and intersected our trail of Thursday last, having made a complete triangle in the plain. At this intersection of the trails we left a paper elevated by a pole, that the men returning from Fort Hall might shun the tedious rounds we had taken. Found grass and water which answered our purpose very well, though both were salt. Distance ten miles.

Having passed unawares through Cache Valley, they reached the point at which the Bear River emptied itself into the Great Salt Lake. Thomas Fitzpatrick had told them to turn west before they reached the lake, in order to find the Humboldt River, so they headed northwest, crossing their tracks in the process.


Fort Hall in 1849

They were still waiting for the men who had gone to Fort Hall. These four men were supposed to come back with provisions, and (they hoped) a guide to help them cross the desert. Clearly they could have really used a guide. But it would get worse before it got better.



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On the Trail — August 19, 1841

John Bidwell and friends were traveling slowly southward through Cache Valley, in what is now northern Utah. Sometimes they followed the Bear River, other times they had to leave the river and “journey over hills and ravines, going to almost every point of the compass to avoid them.” It was August, the weather was hot, and basically they were lost. The only water they found on the 18th was so salty they could not drink it.

Thursday, 19th. Started early hoping soon to find fresh water, when we could refresh ourselves and our animals, but alas! The sun beamed heavy on our heads as the day advanced, and we could see nothing before us but extensive arid plains, glimmering with heat and salt. At length the plains became so impregnated with salt that vegetation entirely ceased; the ground was in many places white as snow & perfectly smooth — the mid-day sun, beaming with uncommon splendor upon these shining plains, made us fancy we could see timber upon the plains, and wherever timber is found there is water always. We marched forward with unremitted pace till we discovered it was an illusion, and lest our teams should give out we returned from S. to E. and hastened to the river which we reached in about 5 miles.

It sounds like they were wandering around the Bonneville Salt Flats, but that area is further west. They were actually a few miles north of the Great Salt Lake, in a similar desert region that is still largely uninhabited, although irrigation has made farming viable.

A high mountain overlooked us on the east and the river was thickly bordered with willows — grass plenty but so salt our animals could scarcely eat it; salt glitters upon its blades like frost. Distance 20 miles.

You have to feel sorry for those poor oxen and mules, with nothing it eat but dry salty grass.

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California’s First Newspaper


The first newspaper published in California, the Californian, appeared on August 15, 1846, 170 years ago today. The publishers were Walter Colton and Robert Semple.The first issue announced the declaration of war against Mexico by the United States.

Walter Colton, from Vermont, came to California by ship in 1845. He was a chaplain in the U.S. Navy and the first American alcalde of Monterey. His book Three Years in California is a classic in the literature of the Golden State.

Robert B Semple came over the California Trail in 1845 from Kentucky. He was active in politics and publishing, served as president of the first California Constitutional Convention, and held a Mexican land grant in Colusa County.

The Californian was a single sheet, with the news on one side in English and the other side in Spanish. It was published weekly in Monterey on cigarette paper, the only paper available. In 1848 it merged with Sam Brannan’s California Star in San Francisco to become the Alta Californian.

If you want to look at the Californian, you can access it on the California Digital Newspaper Collection.


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On the Trail — August 14-15, 1841

Traveling southward on the Bear River, toward the Great Salt Lake:

Saturday, 14th. Left the river on account of the hills which obstructed our way on it; found an abundance of choke cherries, many of which were ripe. Road uncommonly broken, did not reach the river; distance about 14 miles.

Bidwell and friends would have recognized and welcomed chokecherries; they grow all chokecherriesover North America. Here is a website about preparedness and edible wild foods where you can learn more. At this point in their journey, in mid-August, is when chokecherries ripen and are ready to pick.

Sunday, 15th. Continued our journey over hills and ravines, going to almost every point of the compass in order to pass them. The day was very warm — the grass had been very good, but it was now very much parched up. Having come about 15 miles, we encamped on a small stream proceeding out of the mountains at no great distance from us. But we were surprised to see it become perfectly dry in the course of an hour; some of the guard said there was plenty of water in it about midnight.

They were still waiting for the men who had gone to Fort Hall to return with provisions and information.

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A Visit to Coloma


The original site of the sawmill on the bank of the American River.

Coloma is the site of Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, where James Marshall in January 1848 first found flecks of gold in the tailrace of the sawmill he was building for Captain John Sutter. My husband and I took our two grand-daughters on an excursion there yesterday.

For California history enthusiasts, it is a great place to visit, although I do not recommend it on a hot August afternoon. A variety of buildings and mining equipment are spread throughout the park. Walking between them in the heat is desiccating, and leads to spending too much time in the air-conditioned gift shop.


Today’s sawmill is only a short way from the site of the first one.

The last time I was here, more than twenty years ago, they were working on a replica of Sutter’s Sawmill. The completed mill is a fine sight. The original was in the process of being built when Marshall found gold. His Mormon workers stayed on to finish the job before they went looking for gold for themselves, and then made their way over the Sierras to seek their families and their church at the Great Salt Lake.


The Mormon Workers Cabin

Some of the buildings are replicas, but many are original. The two stone Chinese stores with iron doors, the Mormon workers cabin, the remains of the jail, the Monroe home and the blacksmith shop are all authentic. There is a fine museum, replica Indian dwellings, and a Nature Center. Pretty much something for everyone. We had a good time, in spite of the heat.  And I found my book for sale in the gift shop!




The museum has a display of artifacts belong to James Marshall: Marshall’s rifle (a fine-looking piece), Marshall’s walking stick, Marshall’s milk can. And . . . Marshall’s batea, the first batea I’ve ever seen.




If only John Bidwell had seen this batea, the Gold Rush might have happened much sooner, and John Bidwell and his friend Pablo Gutierrez would be heralded as the discoverers of gold. Click here to read the story of the batea.


That’s a batea!


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On the Trail — August 11-12, 1841

After traveling 6 miles the morning of August 11th, the company halted at the parting of the ways. Father DeSmet and his missionaries, along with their guide Tom Fitzpatrick were going on up into Idaho. Half the the emigrants in Bidwell’s group decided to go along with them and continue to Oregon, this being the safer route. Bidwell recorded that “the California company now consisted of only 32 men and one woman and child, there being but one family.” The family was Ben and Nancy Kelsey and their little girl.

Oregon Trail

Monument along HW 28 designating the location of the “parting of the ways’ for those emigrants who chose to take the Seminole Cutoff. From https://walkingtheoregontrail2012.com/

Four men out of the company went as far as Fort Hall with the Oregon group to seek provisions and, if possible, a guide. The California company proceeded a few miles down the Bear River and camped to await their return. John Bidwell and Jimmy John decided to go fishing. I have combined here his journal entry and his later account in The First Emigrant Train to California.

I, in company with another man (J. John), went some distance below the camp to fish in the river; fished sometime without success-–concluded we could spend the afternoon more agreeably. The day was uncomfortably warm, could find no place to shelter us from the burning sun, except the thick copses of willows–these we did not like to enter on account of the danger of falling in with bears. (Journal)

Looking across the valley they could see a mountain with inviting patches of snow.

Supposed the snow not more than 4 miles distant; set out without our guns knowing they would be a hindrance in ascending the mountain. (Journal)

They walked and walked, but the mountain never seemed to get any closer. Bidwell suggested they return to camp, but Jimmy gave him a scornful look and kept walking.

I called to him to stop, but he would not even look back. A firm resolve seized me to overtake him, but not again to ask him to return.

The rocks were sharp, and soon cut through our moccasins and made our feet bleed. But up and up we went until long after midnight, and until a cloud covered the mountain. (The First Emigrant Train to California)

In the dark, above the timberline, they crawled under a stunted tree and lay there shivering. They had no coats or blankets to keep them warm.

Day soon dawned, but we were almost frozen. Our fir-tree nest had been the lair of grizzly bears that had wallowed there and shed quantities of shaggy hair. The snow was still beyond, and we had lost both sight and direction. But in an hour or two we reached it. It was nearly as hard as ice.  (The First Emigrant Train to California)

John Bidwell cut a large piece out with his knife and wrapped it in his handkerchief. They decided to take a shorter but steeper route back to the camp.

At first the way was smooth and easy but soon we were sliding down in the snow and mud with our buckskin suits wet and bedraggled. This way soon led into a most rugged canyon and thickets so dense that it became impossible to pass through them except in the trails of the grizzly bears. . . . We carried our sheath knives in our hands at every step, for we knew not at what instant we would meet a bear face-to-face. (A Journey to California)


Steve Ferchaud’s illustration of the snow adventure.

The two footsore adventurers limped across the hot valley until at last they came into camp about noon.

They supposed without a doubt, that the Blackfeet had got us, had been up all night in guard, every fire had been put out, they had been out twice in search of us and were about to start again when we arrived. We were received with a mixture of joy and reprehension.

Their first questions were “Where have you been?” “Where have you been?” I was able to answer triumphantly, “We have been up to the snow!”  and to demonstrate the fact by showing all the snow I had left, which was now reduced to a ball about the size of my fist. (The First Emigrant Train to California)

He was lucky that someone didn’t beat him over the head with that chunk of ice.

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