A Journey to California, 1841

Bodega, Port of the Russians
Upper California, March 30th, 1842

Most Esteemed Sir:–Owing to circumstances I am compelled to abridge my journal and likewise a description of the country so far as I have been able to travel. By perusing the following pages you will learn most of the particulars of all my travels since I left the United States.

So wrote John Bidwell in 1842 to an unknown recipient, possibly Elam Brown, with whom he had boarded in the winter of 1840-41. Evidently he had promised before he left on his travels to keep a journal and send it back east for his friends who were eager to know more about California and how to get there.

During his spare time in February and March of 1842 he copied out the journal and added his observations of California. But how did he get the copy back to his friends in Missouri? He couldn’t just pop it in the mail. He probably sent it east with Joseph Chiles, another member of the Bidwell-Bartleson Party. Chiles had arranged with General Mariano G. Vallejo to build a grist mill near Sonoma, and returned to Missouri via the Santa Fe Trail during the summer of 1842. But it might have gone later with someone else. It’s difficult to say.

Sometime in 1843, ’44, or ’45 the journal was published as a pamphlet, by an unknown printer, without Bidwell’s permission. This became the first overland guidebook to California. Only one copy is still in existence–the copy carried by George McKinstry when he emigrated to California in 1846. It now resides in the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley.

How many other copies were printed and came west will never be known. But George McKinstry became Bidwell’s partner in running a store at Bidwell’s Bar. When they met, sometime between 1846 and 1849, McKinstry must have exclaimed, “You’re the man who wrote the guidebook that got me here!” to which Bidwell would have said, “I never told anyone they could print that thing!”

About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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