On the Trail – October 7, 1841

Now we have been found fault with long enough, and we are going to California. If you can keep up with us, all right; if you cannot, you may go to hell!

Captain John Bartleson’s words still rang in John Bidwell’s mind when he wrote about the incident 48 years later.   (Although Bidwell, mindful of the audience for Echoes of the Past, put in a dash — for the word “hell.” I am assuming that’s what Bartleson said.)

Bartleson and his eight companions took off on their mules, with most of the meat from a freshly-slaughtered ox.  They had not said a word about abandoning their companions before this. Figuring that he and his men had enough meat to get them to the mountains, they left the others in the dust—the other men mostly on foot, Nancy Kelsey and her little daughter on a horse, and the slow-traveling oxen.

Who was John Bartleson? Nothing much is known about him before he joined up with the Western Emigration Society in 1841. After making the trip to California, he returned to Missouri in 1842. He died there on October 7, 1848, aged 61 years.

At 55 years of age when the wagon train set out for California, he was considerably older than the rest of the men in the company. Most of the men were, like John Bidwell, in their early 20’s or 30’s. Bartleson insisted on being chosen as the captain of the company, saying that if he was not, he and the men with him would not go. Since the party wanted all the men and guns they could muster, they allowed Bartleson to take charge.

At the outset, this probably didn’t make a lot of difference. Thomas Fitzpatrick, the trail guide hired by Father DeSmet, was the real leader of the combined companies. It was only after the two groups split up that Bartleson’s defects became apparent. Headstrong and over-bearing, Bartleson made a poor leader. If it were not for the fact that they still needed all hands, the rest of the company would probably be glad to see the back of John Bartleson.

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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