Cresting the Sierras

Sonora Pass, in the area where the Bidwell-Barleson Party crossed the Sierra Nevada.

The view from up there. Sonora Pass, in the area where the Bidwell-Bartleson Party crossed the Sierra Nevada.

The Bidwell-Bartleson Party climbed up narrow canyons on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada, following streams and seeking grass for their mounts. Some were on horses or mules, others were on foot. On October 18th they crested the mountains, and John Bidwell wrote:

“Monday, 18th. Having ascended a about half a mile, a frightful prospect opened before us–naked mountains whose summits still retained the snows perhaps of a thousand years, for it had withstood the heat of a long dry summer, and ceased to melt for the season. The winds roared–but in the deep dark gulfs which yawned on every side, profound solitude seemed to reign. We wound along among the peaks in such a manner as to avoid most of the mountains which we had expected to climb–struck a small stream descending toward the West, on which we encamped, having come 15 miles.”

According to Michael Gillis, the “small stream” that they camped by was Clark’s Fork, which flows into the Middle Fork of the Stanislaus River. They didn’t know how far they had to go yet, but at least they were headed downstream. Considering that they were crossing the mountains without a guide, a map, or even a compass, they were doing pretty well.

Michael J. Gillis traced this journey in his article for the Overland Journal entitled “The 1841 Trans-Sierra Route of the Bidwell-Bartleson Party.” On the 18th he says that the group was climbing up Golden Canyon, and crested the Sierra Nevada at an elevation of 9,425 feet. The article isn’t available online, but I have a photocopy.

“In only four days, thanks to good weather, good luck and some savvy scouting, the Bidwell-Bartleson Party had made its way to the west side of the Sierra Nevada.” The worst of their journey was behind them, but before them they only saw an unending vista of snow-capped mountains, and they had no idea how far they still had to go. They didn’t even know that they had arrived in California. Another two weeks of struggle lay ahead of them before they reached the valley.

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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