“Saturday, 30th. We had gone about 3 miles this morning, when lo! to our great delight, we beheld a wide valley! This we had entirely overlooked between us and the high mountains which terminated our view yesterday. Rivers evidently meandered through it, for timber was seen in long extended lines as far as the eye could reach. But we were unable to reach it today, and encamped in the plains. Here grew a few white oaks. Traveled today about 20 miles. Saw many tracks of elks. The valley was wonderfully parched with heat, and had been stripped of its vegetation by fire. Wild geese, fowls, etc. , were flying in multitudes.”
So when did Bidwell and Co. enter the promised land of California? By present day borders they had already been in California for about two weeks, since they had started making their way into the Sierra Nevada in mid-October. Of course they had been in Mexican territory much longer than that, but the land they were traversing was more like the Great Empty Quarter of North America than part of a foreign nation. Although claimed by Mexico, the territory that later became the states of Utah and Nevada was uninhabited by anyone except Native Americans.
For the Mexicans, Alta California was a narrow strip of land along the Pacific coast. There had been little exploration and no settlement in the Central Valley. All the missions and ranchos lay between the Pacific Ocean and the Coastal Range. Bidwell & Co. had not reached the settled part of California yet, but at least they could see ahead of them a land where they would not starve to death.
They were in California at last, but they didn’t know it. Most of the men were sure that they would not reach California until they crossed another mountain range. How far they still had to go to get to California was hotly debated in the group, with some insisting that they could not get there before winter set in.
But still, if we have to pick a date for their entry into California, October 30 is as good as any. They could see California spread out before them, and it was everything they had been promised: a fertile land teeming with wild game, with a healthy climate and plenty of room for all. California at last!It didn’t really look like this, but Albert Bierstadt’s painting California Spring conveys the delight with which John Bidwell must have looked out upon the California landscape.