Nicholas Dawson was born in Beaver County, Pennsylvania on January 22, 1819, making him just 6 months older than John Bidwell. He received a good education for the day, good enough to be employed from time to time, like Bidwell, as a schoolteacher. He was, as he said, “a great reader,” and especially enjoyed books of travel and exploration.
His reading gave him a good case of wanderlust, and at the age of 19 he set out on his travels, with the aim of spending the next six years “in seeing the world.” With $10 in his pocket, he headed west. The year was 1838.
He stopped first in Lexington, Missouri, about 15 miles east of Independence. When the Platte Purchase in northwest Missouri opened up, he joined the rush to settle a claim. A couple years later John Bidwell would be doing the same thing. He taught school to earn money, then sold his claim and began wandering again, up and down the Mississippi River, looking for work and adventure.
His longest stretch of work was in Sevier County, Arkansas, where he taught school for 9 months. It was there that he also met his future wife, 12-year-old Margaret Wright. Several more years of the nomadic life would pass for Nicholas Dawson before he came back to claim his bride.
When the school year ended he took stock of his situation. Three years had gone by of the six he had set aside for travel. He hadn’t seen near as much as he wanted to yet.
I thought I should set out for foreign lands. My plan was to go to Independence, Mo., where I should most likely find a company going to Oregon. I could take in the Rocky Mountains and buffaloes on the way, and go on to the Pacific.
So he bought a horse and set out for Independence, where he met John Bartleson and decided to join the company that was gathering to travel to California.
It was a very mixed crowd. There were heads of families going out first to find a spot to bring their families to [Bartleson might have been one of these], and heads of families taking the families along to share whatever fortune might bring [Samuel and Benjamin Kelsey were two such]. There were many adventurous youths like myself and John Bidwell (afterwards governor of California [not quite]), who wanted nothing but to see and experience. There were gentlemen seeking health, and an English lord, Lord Romain, going out with a half-breed hunter John Grey, to shoot buffalo.
Notice that at the time, John Bidwell had no more ambitious plans than seeing the Wild West and enjoying an adventurous summer.
Nick Dawson joined Bartleson’s mess, bought a share in his wagon and team, and traded his horse for a mule (mules were hardier). After he had paid for his share of the provisions
I had seventy-five cents left – and I had that still when I reached California.
According to Measuring Worth, this is the equivalent of having about $25 left over.