August 11-12, 1841 — John and Jimmy’s Big Adventure

I, in company with another man (J. John), went some distance below the camp to fish in the river; fished sometime without success-–concluded we could spend the afternoon more agreeably. The day was uncomfortably warm, could find no place to shelter us from the burning sun, except the thick copses of willows–these we did not like to enter on account of the danger of falling in with bears. We concluded to ascend the mountain, where were two spots of snow in full view, in order to enjoy the contrast between a scorching valley and a snowy mountain. Supposed the snow not more than 4 miles distant; set out without our guns knowing they would be a hindrance in ascending the mountain.

Our march was unremitted for at last 4 miles, had only gained the side of a hill which we at first supposed not more than a mile off; here we lingered to observe several kinds of trees which we had not before observed, among which were a kind of rock maple, choke cherry, &c. But conscious of being defeated in our object, if we lost much time, we ran up the eminence with renewed vigor, till at last gained the summit. But, being determined not to be outdone, we continued on under all the strength we could command. Crossed a valley 3/4 of a mile wide, ascended craggy steeps and passed through thickets of the densest kind; night obscured the valley below us, lost sight of the snow above us, afraid to return lest we fall in with bears as their signs were plenty and fresh; continued to ascend the mountain till midnight could not find the snow — we were cloud, not having our coats. Clouds drifted against the mountain and made us wet — slept under a pine tree which afforded us good shelter.

Morning came, it found us about half a mile below the snow, took as much as we could conveniently carry; took another route down the mountain, running and jumping as fast as our strength would permit, arrived at the camp about noon. They supposed, without a doubt, that the Blackfeet had got us, had been up all night on guard, every fire had been put out, they had been out twice in search of us and were about to start again when we arrived. We were received with a mixture of joy and reprehension. The company was soon under way and traveled about 4 miles.

James John, always known as Jimmy John, was from Ohio and ten years older than Bidwell. He would later settle in Oregon and found the town of St. Johns on the Willamette, now a neighborhood in Portland.

Bidwell told this story every time that he told about the trip; it was a major feature in all his accounts. In his 1877 dictation for H.H. Bancroft, he describes their route down the mountain:

At first the way was smooth and easy but soon we were sliding down in the snow and mud with our buckskin suits wet and bedraggled. This way soon led into a most rugged canyon and thickets so dense that it became impossible to pass through them except in the trails of the grizzly bears. . . . We carried our sheath knives in our hands at every step, for we knew not at what instant we would meet a bear face-to-face.

Steve Ferchaud illustrated this adventure for my picture book biography of John and Annie:

In The First Emigrant Train to California he describes their reception when they returned on the 12th:

Their first questions were “Where have you been?” “Where have you been?” I was able to answer triumphantly, We have been up to the snow!  and to demonstrate the fact by showing all the snow I had left, which was now reduced to a ball about the size of my fist. 

He was lucky that someone didn’t beat him over the head with that chunk of ice. One man suggested that they ought to be horsewhipped. “We laid hold of our rifles at once and told him neither he nor anyone else should apply such language to us.”

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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