On the Trail — August 11-12, 1841

After traveling 6 miles the morning of August 11th, the company halted at the parting of the ways. Father DeSmet and his missionaries, along with their guide Tom Fitzpatrick were going on up into Idaho. Half the the emigrants in Bidwell’s group decided to go along with them and continue to Oregon, this being the safer route. Bidwell recorded that “the California company now consisted of only 32 men and one woman and child, there being but one family.” The family was Ben and Nancy Kelsey and their little girl.

Oregon Trail

Monument along HW 28 designating the location of the “parting of the ways’ for those emigrants who chose to take the Seminole Cutoff. From https://walkingtheoregontrail2012.com/

Four men out of the company went as far as Fort Hall with the Oregon group to seek provisions and, if possible, a guide. The California company proceeded a few miles down the Bear River and camped to await their return. John Bidwell and Jimmy John decided to go fishing. I have combined here his journal entry and his later account in The First Emigrant Train to California.

I, in company with another man (J. John), went some distance below the camp to fish in the river; fished sometime without success-–concluded we could spend the afternoon more agreeably. The day was uncomfortably warm, could find no place to shelter us from the burning sun, except the thick copses of willows–these we did not like to enter on account of the danger of falling in with bears. (Journal)

Looking across the valley they could see a mountain with inviting patches of snow.

Supposed the snow not more than 4 miles distant; set out without our guns knowing they would be a hindrance in ascending the mountain. (Journal)

They walked and walked, but the mountain never seemed to get any closer. Bidwell suggested they return to camp, but Jimmy gave him a scornful look and kept walking.

I called to him to stop, but he would not even look back. A firm resolve seized me to overtake him, but not again to ask him to return.

The rocks were sharp, and soon cut through our moccasins and made our feet bleed. But up and up we went until long after midnight, and until a cloud covered the mountain. (The First Emigrant Train to California)

In the dark, above the timberline, they crawled under a stunted tree and lay there shivering. They had no coats or blankets to keep them warm.

Day soon dawned, but we were almost frozen. Our fir-tree nest had been the lair of grizzly bears that had wallowed there and shed quantities of shaggy hair. The snow was still beyond, and we had lost both sight and direction. But in an hour or two we reached it. It was nearly as hard as ice.  (The First Emigrant Train to California)

John Bidwell cut a large piece out with his knife and wrapped it in his handkerchief. They decided to take a shorter but steeper route back to the camp.

At first the way was smooth and easy but soon we were sliding down in the snow and mud with our buckskin suits wet and bedraggled. This way soon led into a most rugged canyon and thickets so dense that it became impossible to pass through them except in the trails of the grizzly bears. . . . We carried our sheath knives in our hands at every step, for we knew not at what instant we would meet a bear face-to-face. (A Journey to California)


Steve Ferchaud’s illustration of the snow adventure.

The two footsore adventurers limped across the hot valley until at last they came into camp about noon.

They supposed without a doubt, that the Blackfeet had got us, had been up all night in guard, every fire had been put out, they had been out twice in search of us and were about to start again when we arrived. We were received with a mixture of joy and reprehension.

Their first questions were “Where have you been?” “Where have you been?” I was able to answer triumphantly, “We have been up to the snow!”  and to demonstrate the fact by showing all the snow I had left, which was now reduced to a ball about the size of my fist. (The First Emigrant Train to California)

He was lucky that someone didn’t beat him over the head with that chunk of ice.

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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