This Desolate Region — August 26-27, 1841


Thursday, 26th. Traveled all day over dry barren plains, producing nothing but sage, or rather, as it ought to be called, wormwood, and which I believe will grow without water or soil. Two men were sent ahead to search for water, but returned a little while before dark, unsuccessful.

Our course intersected an Indian trail, which we followed directly north towards the mountains, knowing that in these dry countries the Indian trails always lead to the nearest water. Having traveled till about 10 o’clock p.m. made a halt, and waited until morning. Distance about 30 miles.


This was one of those days when they traveled all day in the hot sun, hoping to find fresh water, and saw nothing but sand, salt, and sagebrush. Another day like that might have killed them all. They were wise to follow the Indian trail.

Friday, 27th. Daylight discovered to us a spot of green grass on the declivity of the mountain towards which we were advancing. 5 miles took us to this place, where we found, to our great joy, an excellent spring of water and an abundance of grass. Here we determined to continue ’till the route was explorer to the head of Mary’s river and run no more risks of perishing for want of water in this desolate region.

Reminds me of this song:

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Bidwell Birthday Bash!


The Bidwell Mansion Association invites you to a PARTY! Help us celebrate John Bidwell’s 197th birthday. Tickets are $5 for adults and teens, $2 for children, and kids under 4 are free. Enjoy a concert by the Chico Community Concert Band, birthday cake and ice cream, games on the lawn, a cakewalk, entry to the ground floor of Bidwell Mansion and dramatic vignettes inside the mansion.

If you crave some dinner, the Madison Bear BBQ Wagon will be there with a burger and chips for $6, and a cool drink for $1.

John and Annie will be on hand to welcome guests. The program inside the mansion will feature:DSCF0262

John Bidwell reminiscing with his old trail mate Nicholas “Cheyenne” Dawson about their 1841 trip to California in his office.

Annie Bidwell and her friend Belle Royce in the library discussing women’s rights and women’s wiles.

kitchenFlorence Proud and Ruby English in the kitchen arguing over cream and cake.

All the vignettes are based on diary entries, letters, and recollections of the characters themselves. Take a trip back in time to see and hear Bidwell Mansion come alive!

It all happens this Sunday, August 28, from 4 to 6 p.m.  See you there!


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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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