August 11, 1841 — The Parting of the Ways

Wednesday, 11th. Having traveled about 6 miles this morning the Company came to a halt — The Oregon company was now going to leave Bear river for Ft. Hall, which is situated on Lewis river, a branch of the Columbia. Many who purposed in setting out to go immediately through to California, here concluded to go into Oregon so that the California company now consisted of only 32 men and one woman and child, there being but one family.

Fort Hall is on the Snake River, which is indeed a tributary of the Columbia, but I think Bidwell thought they were closer to Oregon and California than they really were.

Monument along HW 28 designating the location of the “parting of the ways’ for those emigrants who chose to take the Seminole Cutoff. This monument, however is now believed to be a substantial distance from the true ‘Parting of the Ways. Along HW 28 Wyoming.

The two companies, after bidding each other a parting farewell, started and were soon out of sight. Several of our Company, however, went to Ft. Hall to procure provision, and to hire if possible a pilot to conduct us to the Gap in the California mountains, or at least to the head of Mary’s river. We were therefore to move slowly ’till their return. Encamped on Bear river, having come about 12 miles.

The Gap in the California mountains! If only there were, how much easier the journey would be for them and all the later pioneers. In a later writing, The First Emigrant Train to California, Bidwell writes:

Thirty-two of our party, becoming discouraged, decided not to venture without path or guide into the unknown and trackless region towards California, but concluded to go with the missionary party to Fort Hall and thence to find their way down Snake and Columbia rivers into Oregon. The rest of us — also thirty-two in number, including Benjamin Kelsey, his wife and little daughter — remained firm, refusing to be diverted from our original purpose of going direct to California. After getting all the information we could from Captain Fitzpatrick, we regretfully bade good-by to our fellow emigrants and to Father De Smet and his party.

And so they ventured into the unknown, and into the very worst part of the journey. But first, John Bidwell and his friend James John are going to have an adventure.

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August 10, 1841 — Soda Springs

Tuesday, 10th. The day was fine and pleasant; a soft and cheerful breeze and the sky bedimmed by smoke brought to mind the tranquil season of autumn. A distance of 10 miles took us to the Soda Fountain, where we stopped the remainder of the day. This is a noted place place in the mountains and is considered a great curiosity–within the circumference of 3 or 4 miles there are included no less than 100 springs, some bursting out on top of the ground, others along the banks of the river which are very low at this place, and some even in the bottom of the river.

The water is strongly impregnated with soda, and wherever it gushes out of the ground, a sediment is deposited, of a reddish color, which petrifies and forms around the springs large mounds of porous rock; some of which are no less than fifty feet high. Some of these fountains have become entirely dry, in consequence of the column of water which they contained becoming so high as to create sufficient power by its pressure to force the water to the surface in another place.

In several of the springs the water is lukewarm — but none were very cold. The ground was very dry at this time, and made a noise as we passed over it with horses, as though it was hollow underneath. Cedar grows here in abundance, and the scenery of the country is romantic. Father De Smet, with 2 or 3 Flathead Indians, started about dark in the evening to go to Fort Hall, which was 50 miles distant.

It sounds like Yellowstone National Park, or Bumpass Hell in Lassen Volcanic National Park.

Bumpass Hell, July 2020

The Soda Fountain, or Soda Springs, was a well-known landmark on the Oregon Trail, and many travelers got out their diaries and recorded their impressions. It’s difficult to find any photos from the 19th century though. Here is one, taken by W.H. Jackson in 1872, of extinct basins at Soda Springs.

Library of Congress

Today the landscape has changed greatly at Soda Springs, Idaho. Most of the naturally carbonated springs are gone, covered by a man-made reservoir. The main attraction is a geyser, the only “captive” geyser in the country, which was created in 1837 when a well drilling operation, which was attempting to build a natural hot springs swimming pool, inadvertently released a tepid geyser that shot 100 feet into the air. The geyser now has a timer on it and is released once an hour.

Mike Price, The geyser John Bidwell didn’t get to see

Let’s hope they all took baths here. I’ll bet they needed them.

Mike Price,
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August 9, 1841

Monday, 9th. Distance 18 miles.

Jimmy John tells us a little bit more.

9th. Traveled 16 miles on the bank of the river except in the afternoon we left the river and returned to it at night and camped. Killed two antelope and caught a number of fine fish.

Note the difference in mileage, which suggests that they were estimating it.

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August 8, 1841

Sunday, 8th. Started about noon and went ten miles; scenery grand.

I have never traveled through the Bear River Valley, so I don’t have any pictures of my own. But here are a few gathered from around the web to give you an idea of the grand scenery that John Bidwell was enjoying.

The hills often came right down to the banks of the river, making travel along the river impossible. (See the last photo of Black Canyon.) The company would have to detour inland and around the hills, then back to the river. Jimmy John noted one such detour on the 7th:

Left the river this morning and came to it at twelve. Nooned there and left it again on account of the hills next to the river. Came to it at night and camped on its bank.

Imagine trying to get an ox-drawn wagon through the hills and back down to the river.

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August 7, 1841 — Bear River Valley

John Bidwell waxes poetical in the Bear River Valley:

Saturday, 7th. This morning we were obliged to make an inland circuit from the river, the bluffs approaching so near the river as to rend it impossible to continue along its banks. We, however, reached it again by a most beautiful defile, and beautifully watered by a small rivulet proceeding from a spring. In the afternoon we again left the river on account of the hills, and did not reach it again until dark. The bluffs were exceedingly high, and no person could ever believe that wagons ever passed these huge eminences of nature, did he not witness it with his own eyes. But the pleasing view we had from their top, just as the sun was going to sleep behind the western mountains, paid us for all our trouble.

A most beautiful landscape presented itself to view — the rugged summits of almost every shape were fantastically pictured upon the sky bounding the western horizon. A beautiful little lake was seen to the south, whose surface was fancifully mottled with numerous islands, while the river meandered proudly through the valley among willows and scattering cottonwoods till it disappeared among the hills in the shades of evening. Distance traveled today 16 miles.

Over and over, Bidwell uses the word “beautiful” — what a refreshing sight that landscape must have been. After traveling across the arid landscape of western Wyoming, the Bear River valley was an oasis of good water, plentiful grass, and abundant game. The “beautiful little lake” which they could see to the south must have been Bear Lake, which gives us a pretty good idea of where they were on August 7th.

This photo of Bear Lake State Park is courtesy of Tripadvisor.
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August 6, 1841

Friday, 6th. Had a fine road down the valley of the Bear river and made about 25 miles during the day. Found many kinds of wild currants, red, black, yellow, &c., some of which were of excellent quality.

John Bidwell has mentioned finding currants before. On July 26 we talked about black currants (Ribes nigrum). Another related berry found in the Rocky Mountains is wax currant (Ribes cereum) which is very small and red.

Wax currant. By Dcrjsr – Own work, CC BY 3.0,

All these berries would be a welcome addition to the pioneer diet. They can be eaten raw straight from the bush or cooked into oatmeal or stew. Being high in vitamin C and other nutrients, they help prevent scurvy, a common ailment on the trail.

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August 5, 1841

Thursday, 5th. Proceeded down stream about 18 miles.

“Downstream” in this case means northward. They are about to cross, or have already crossed, over into Idaho, but of course this was not yet a state.

The only reason they know where they are or what the names of the rivers are, is that they are still traveling with their trail guide, Thomas Fitzpatrick. However, his job is to lead the missionaries up into Idaho to teach the Flathead Indians. They will soon be parting ways and the Bidwell-Bartleson Party will be on their own.

The Bear River Valley is providing them with good food. Jimmy John, in his journal, records that they caught and killed trout (“a great number”), chub, wild geese, antelope, and a porcupine.

Photo by Bill Schiess
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August 4, 1841 — Bear River

Wednesday, 4th. Did not travel.

Well, that’s succinct. They had just struggled over a high divide to get from the Green River to the Bear River. They had come to a valley with water and grass for the livestock. It was a good place to take a break and “recruit” the animals. (This use of “recruit” as in revive or replenish is often found in pioneer accounts.)

Jimmy John, in his journal, had more to say.

Today we did not move from the camp, but lay by and caught a good number of trout, some of which were 18 inches in length. There is a great number wild geese here and other fowls, and antelopes.

Bear River Valley. Photo taken by Charles R. Savage in 1869

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August 3, 1841

Tuesday, 3rd. Ascended a high divide and passed down by a most difficult route into the valley of the Bear river. The course of this stream was marked out as it wound its way through the vale by the willows that skirted its banks. Reached the river, where we found abundance of grass, having come about 20 miles.

An abundance of grass was always welcome. Jimmy John reported trout in the river as well.

The Bear River begins and ends in Utah, where it empties into the Great Salt Lake, but along its winding U-shaped course it wanders through three states: Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho. At 500 miles long, it is the longest river in the United States that does not empty into an ocean.

At this point on their journey, the Bidwell-Bartleson Party has come to the Bear River close to where the three states meet.

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August 2, 1841

Monday, 2nd. Retraced about 2 miles of yesterday’s travel, and went up another defile, in order to find a practicable route across the divide between the waters of the Green and Bear rivers; plenty of grass, good spring water, distance 11 miles.

According to the Uintas County, Wyoming website, “The Bear River is the world’s longest river that does not flow into an ocean. The river starts in the High Uintas of Utah, flows through Wyoming, Idaho and Utah before finally ends up in the Great Salt Lake. It is 515 miles-long, though it final destination is less than 100 miles from its headwaters.”

On this map they are about halfway between Black’s Fork and Bear Lake.

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