On the Trail — October 27, 1841

Wednesday, 27th. It commenced raining about one o’clock this morning and continued till noon — threw away all our old clothes to lighten out packs . . .  I have since learned that the Indians in the mountains here prefer the meat of horses to cattle, and here in these gloomy corners of the mts. they had been accustomed to bring stolen horses and eat them. Here and there were strewed the bones of horses, so the design of the veteran Indian pilot is apparent in leading us into this rugged part of Creation.

(When Bidwell writes something like “I have since learned” it is an indication that he is rewriting his journal at a later date. The original journal is gone, and the only version is the one he expanded and copied out while at Fort Ross.)

When he got to California he learned from the Mexicans he met, or from Sutter, that the mountain Indians were known for rustling horses, all the way from the Central Valley to the coast. They drove off herds into the mountains and slaughtered them for meat. Traveling through the Sierras, the Bidwell-Bartleson Party had brought the horses to the Indians–-emaciated to be sure, but the Indians didn’t have to go down to the valley to get them.

The men noticed that each morning, after they left camp, Indians would descend on the spot where they camped and go through whatever was left behind. The men suspected their old Indian guide of duplicity, and when he left them, they were positive that his scheme all along had been to lead them to their deaths in the mountains and take everything they had. This conviction led to the only violent encounter the Company ever had with Native Americans.  Bidwell continues:

As we left this place one of the men, G. Cook, remained concealed to see if the old pilot was among the Indians, who always rushed in as soon as we left our encampments to pick up such things as were left. The old gentleman was at the head of this band, and as he had undoubtedly led us into this place to perish, his crime merited death — a rifle ball laid him dead in his tracks.

Bidwell here writes with the conviction of a justified victim, but in later accounts he seems to look back with regret. In 1877, when Bidwell dictated his recollections for Hubert Howe Bancroft, he says that Grove Cook remained behind “unknown to the others.” They heard a shot, and Cook told his story when he rejoined the group, but “we never knew whether the Indian was killed or not.” Was Bidwell trying to soften the incident?

When it came to relating the same events in 1889 for Echoes of the Past he leaves this incident out altogether. He explains that these Indians were known as the “Horse Thief Indians,” and relates how his party came across great quantities of horse bones left behind at the scene of a feast, but there is no mention of the shooting death of their guide. I suspect that by this time he was ashamed of the incident, and wished that they had handled the whole matter differently.

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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