On the Trail — October 18-19, 1841

Fortunately for the Bidwell-Bartleson Party, the winter storms had not yet come to the Sierra Nevada mountains. (The Donner-Reed Party was not so lucky.) Even so, it was a struggle.

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 would 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 W., on which we encamped, having come 15 miles.

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 lest they were headed downstream.

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Somewhere in the Sierras

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.

Tuesday, 19th. Descending along the stream,we found several oak scrubs which confirmed us in the hope that we were on the waters of the Pacific. But the route became exceedingly difficult–the stream had swelled to a river–could not approach it–could only hear it roaring among the rocks. Having come about 12 miles a horrid precipice bid us stop — we obeyed and encamped.

Those who went to explore the route had not time to come to any conclusion where we could pass. We had descended rapidly all day; the mts. were still mantled with forests of towering pines. The roaring winds and the hollow murmuring of the dashing waters conveyed int he darkness of the night the most solemn and impressive ideas of solitude.

To a person fond of the retiring life, this, thought I, would be a perfect terrestrial Paradise, but it was not so to us, when we knew that winter was at hand, and the Capt. Walker (the mountaineer) had been lost in these very mountains 22 days before he could extricate himself.

It was tough going. Joseph Walker had guided Bonneville’s party through the Sierras in 1833 and was with Fremont on his exploring trips during the 1840’s. Fremont named the Walker River and Walker Lake after him. Bidwell had probably read about him in Washington Irving’s popular account of the Bonneville expedition. Spending 22 days wandering around the Sierra Nevada as winter came on was certainly not anything that he wanted to do. The sooner they got out the better.

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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