The first emigrant train to California has been called the Bartleson Party, the Bartleson-Bidwell Party, and the Bidwell-Bartleson Party, after its captain, John Bartleson, and its most prominent member, John Bidwell. Bidwell rose to fame and influence in California, but what became of the captain of the company?
John Bartleson wasn’t the oldest man in the company, but he was older than most. The majority of men were, like John Bidwell, in their twenties. Bartleson was born in October 1786, making him 54 years old when they set out from Missouri. He was part of the “Chiles Mess,” made up of Joseph B. Chiles, Michael Nye, and some German immigrants. When they joined the company he insisted on being made captain, probably feeling that as an older and more experienced man, he was more qualified to lead the group. Bidwell wrote of him:
He was not the best man for the position, but we were given to understand that if he was not elected captain, he would not go; and he had seven or eight men with him, and we did not want the party diminished.
Exactly what he did when he arrived in California, other than get a passport in San Jose, I am not sure, but he didn’t stay long. He was one of those who decided than California was not for them, and promptly turned around and went back to Missouri. In 1842 he joined Chiles in traveling back via the southern route. After all, he had said to one and all when they were starving in the Sierras,
Boys! If I ever get back to Missouri, I will never leave that country. I would gladly eat out of the troughs with my dogs.
John Bartleson died in Jackson County, Missouri on October 7, 1848, at the age of 61. What if he had stayed in California? Maybe he would have lived longer and made a fortune when gold was discovered. But he gave up on California too soon.