The Adventures of “Cheyenne” Dawson, Part 6

The Bidwell-Bartleson party of American emigrants arrived at the ranch of John Marsh on November 4, 1841. Now they at last knew for sure that they were in California. But it was not exactly what they had expected. Here is “Cheyenne” Dawson’s reaction:

We had expected to find civilization – with big fields, fine houses, churches, schools, etc. Instead, we found houses resembling unburnt brick kilns, with no floors, no chimneys, and with the openings for doors and windows closed by shutters instead of glass. There were no fields or fencing in sight – only a strong lot made of logs, called a corral. Cattle and horses were grazing everywhere; but we soon found that there was nothing to eat but poor beef. The season before had been exceptionally dry*, and no crops had been made except at the missions, where they irrigated; and , as many of the mission were on a rapid decline, but little had been raised at them.

*Which goes to show that there is nothing new about drought in California.


John Marsh in 1852

Marsh was very kind and asked us what we craved most. We told him something fat. He had a fat hog. This he killed for us, and divided it among the messes. [The men had organized themselves into groups that ate together]. He also had a small quantity of seed wheat that he was saving to plant. A part of this he had made into tortillas for us.

A generous host indeed!

He told us that if we wished we could sleep in the house. This novel experience some of us tried, but we were much disturbed by fleas, and sick-stomached men crawling over us to get out. They had eaten too much pork.

Ah! Life in old California and the romance of the ranchos! Such were the realities of life in Alta California in 1841.


John Marsh’s rancho would not have looked this good.


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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