Comparing the Journals

When John Bidwell finished rewriting his journal sometime in 1842, he sent it back to a friend in Missouri, probably in 1843, although who carried it there no one knows. He would later claim he did not intend it for publication, but it certainly reads like a work intended for publication, and published it was, though again we don’t know by whom.

The only extant copy of “A Journey to California, 1841” is the one that belonged to George McKinstrey, and is now in the Bancroft Library. Bidwell’s original journal has disappeared.  I doubt he would have thrown it away, but somewhere in his travels he lost it. The only clue to what the original looked like are the two-week’s worth of extracts copied out by James John.

In writing up his journal for publication, Bidwell expanded on the entries and dressed up the language. We can see how by looking at a couple of entries. First the original, then the revision—

23. Meat grew scarce in camp. Having only 3 days scanty provision, it became necessary to use all means in our power to kill game which was scarce. 5 of our horses gave out today. We camped near the creek.

Friday, 23rd. Having no more meat than would last us 3 days, it was necessary to use all possible exertions to kill game, which was exceedingly scarce. For this purpose I started alone, very early in the morning, to keep some distance before the Company, who had concluded to continue as near as possible to the creek on the N side. . . .

Bidwell goes on here to tell the story of getting lost among the giant sequoias, a story that is not mentioned in the original journal at all. It was an important story to him, but he didn’t have the paper or the time on the trail to tell the story at length.

Here’s another pair:

28. Today the travling was rough. Some horses were killed by falling down the ridge of the mountain. They killed some of their horses to eat for the provision has run out. Travled about 9 miles today and camped.

“Thursday, 28th. Surely no horses nor mules with less experience than ours could have descended the difficult steeps and defiles which we encountered in this day’s journey. Even as it was, several horses and mules fell from the mountain’s side and rolling like huge stones, landed at the foot of the precipices. The mountains began to grow obtuse, but we could see no prospect of their termination. We eat the last of our beef this evening and killed a mule to finish our supper. Distance 6 miles.”

“Steeps and defiles,” “precipices,” “obtuse,” “termination” — this is Bidwell the schoolmaster writing. He is putting his best foot forward, and it is hard to believe that he didn’t intend his prose to be seen by an audience.

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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