September 16, 1841 — Wagons Abandoned

Thursday, 16th. All hands were busy making pack saddles and getting ready to pack. While thus engaged an Indian, well advanced in years, came down out of the mountains to our camp. He told us by signs that the Great Spirit had spoken to him to go down upon the plains in the morning, and on the E. side of the mountains he would find some strange people, who would give him a great many things. Accordingly, he had come.

We gave him all such things as we had intended to throw away; whenever he received anything which he thought useful to him, he paused and looked steadfastly at the sun, addressed him in a loud voice, marking out his course in the sky, as he advanced in his invocation, which took him about 2 minutes to perform. As he received quite a number of articles, it took him a considerable part of the day to repeat his blessings. No Persian, in appearance, could be more sincere.

“Cheyenne” Dawson well remembered the same incident. According to him:

As we neared a beautiful little fresh water lake in the valley, we were astonished to see, coming to meet us, laughing and making gestures of extravagant joy, an old Indian. He signed that he was expecting us; that he had dreamed of our coming. When we camped he moved his camp near ours and went from mess to mess, making us welcome, with a countenance full of happiness. The boys began to make him presents of old clothing, pieces of iron, etc. As each gift was made, he would point a bony finger to the east and slowly revolve his hand to the west, apparently mumbling, as he did so, a prayer.

At first they were only giving the Indian a few unneeded items, but then they made the decision to abandon the wagons, and that meant more property to leave behind and more gifts for the old Indian.

We signed to our aged host that the wagons and everything abandoned were his, all his, and left him circumscribing the heavens — the happiest, richest, most religious man I ever saw.

John Bidwell tells more about the company’s packing adventures in The First Emigrant Train to California.

Packing is an art, and something that only an experience mountaineer can do well so as to save his animal and keep his pack from falling off. We were unaccustomed to it, and the difficulties we had at first were simply indescribable.

The trouble began the very first day. But we started — most of us on foot, for nearly all the animals, including several of the oxen, had to carry packs. It was but a few minutes before the packs began to turn; horses became scared, mules kicked, oxen jumped and bellowed, and articles were scattered in all directions.

Bidwell only had oxen, no horse or mule, so he had the difficult task of getting packs onto his oxen. It was a scene both comic and desperate. Oxen are not trained to carry packs — I imagine that trying to get some kind of pack onto the back of an ox is not an easy thing. But Bidwell had no choice — his two oxen were all he had to carry his belongings, other than his own back. They were also his dinner on the hoof.

Bidwell didn’t have all the straps and buckles and rings that you see here. He improvised by tearing up the wagon cover for ropes, according to Dawson.

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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