On May 19, 1841, the Bidwell-Bartleson Party started for California. John Bidwell, as secretary of the group, kept a journal. Later, while at Bodega Bay, he tidied up his journal entries and sent them back to a friend in Missouri, who had them printed as a guidebook. This is the source of most of what we know about this first group of emigrants to head for California.
Wednesday, 19th. This morning the wagons started off in single file; first the 4 carts and 1 small wagon of the missionaries, next 8 wagons drawn by mules and horses, and lastly, 5 wagons drawn by 17 yoke of oxen. It was the calculation of the company to move on slowly till the wagon of Chiles overtook us.
Our course was west, leaving the Kanzas no great distance to our left, we traveled in the valley of the river which was prairie excepting near the margin of the stream. The day was very warm and we stopped about noon, having traveled about 12 miles. (Bidwell-Bartleson Party, ed. by Doyce B. Nunis, p. 28-29)
The wagon train was very lucky to have joined up with the missionary party. Without the guidance of the trail guide — Thomas Fitzpatrick — hired by the missionaries, they probably would have gotten hopelessly and fatally lost.
The missionaries were led by Father Pierre Jean De Smet, a Belgian Jesuit who spent many years working among the American Indians. In 1841 he was on his way, with two other priests and three lay brothers, to minister to the Flathead Indians. He established St. Mary’s Mission on the Bitterroot River near Missoula, Montana. Bidwell described him as follows:
He was genial, of fine presence, and one of the saintliest men I have ever known, and I cannot wonder that the Indians were made to believe him divinely protected. He was a man of great kindness and great affability under all circumstances; nothing seemed to disturb his temper.(Echoes of the Past, p. 114)
More information on Father De Smet can be found in this article from Historic St. Mary’s Mission and Museum.