Wandering around the Sierras

It was getting late in October, the Bidwell-Bartleson Party had run out of food, and they were still making their way down the canyons of the western side of the Sierra Nevada. On October 23, 1841, John Bidwell set off on his own to hunt for game, which was “exceedingly scarce.”

You would think that Bidwell would take someone else with him, but he doesn’t seem to have heard of the buddy system. His idea was to range ahead of the party looking for game to shoot, then rejoin them further down the trail. He didn’t find any game, he got himself lost in the steep and rocky canyons, and wound up spending the night in a strange and fantastic landscape.

“Just at dark I came to an enormous fallen tree and tried to go around the top, but the place was too brushy, so I went around the butt, which seemed to me to be about twenty or twenty-five feet above my head. This I suppose to have been one of the fallen trees in the Calaveras Grove of Sequoia gigantea or mammoth trees, as I have since been there, and to my own satisfaction identified the lay of the land and the tree. Hence I concluded that I must have been the first white man who ever saw the Sequoia gigantea, of which I told Fremont when he came to California in 1844.” (Echoes of the Past)


“The Father of the Forest,” the tree where John Bidwell sheltered in 1841. Picture taken in 2010. The roots are now much worn down compared to when Bidwell saw them.

Bidwell always considered himself the first white man to lay eyes on the giant sequoias, and many years later he proudly showed Annie the grove where he had spent a cold and sleepless night. The discovery of the grove is usually credited to Augustus Dowd in 1852, and he certainly publicized it, but Bidwell and others had stumbled across these giants of the forest before he did:  J.K. Leonard recorded seeing the trees in 1833 and Joseph Walker in 1834. Neither of their writings were available to Bidwell, so he was justified in thinking that he was the first American (other than the natives) to see these wonders.

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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