October 7, 1841 — The Departure of Capt. Bartleson

Thursday, 7th. Capt. Bartleson, having got enough meat yesterday to last him a day or two, and supposing he would be able to reach the mountains of California in 2 or 3 days, rushed forward with his own mess, consisting of 8 persons, at a rate entirely too fast for the oxen, leaving the rest to keep up if they could, and if they could not it was all the same to him. The day was very warm.

The Indian pilot remained with us — the river spread into a high, wide swamp, covered with high grass — Indians were numerous. Encamped by the swamp about dark, having come about 25 miles — water bad — no fuel, excepting weeds and dry cane grass which the Indians had cut in large heaps to procure honey from the honey dew with which it was covered.

They have reached the Humboldt Sink, where the river spreads out into a marshy swamp and soaks into the sand. The supposed leader of the company, John Bartleson, without consulting with any except his own mess, has decided to strike out on his own and beat the others to California.

John Bidwell never forgot this act of betrayal. Years later, in The First Emigrant Train to California (Echoes of the Past), he wrote about that morning:

When nearly ready to go, the Captain and one or two of his mess came to us and said, “Boys, our animals are better than yours, and we always get out of meat before any of the rest of you. Let us have the most of the meat this time, and we will pay you back the next ox we kill.” We gladly let them have all they wished. But as soon as they had taken it, and were mounted and ready to start, the captain in a loud voice proclaimed,

“Now we have been found fault with long enough, and we are going to California. If you can keep up with us, all right; if you cannot, you may go to – – -!”

(This was first published in The Century Magazine in 1890, a time when no respectable publication would print a swear word like “hell.” What Bartleson said is pretty clear, and John Bidwell never forgot it.)

Bartleson and his eight companions took off on their mules, with most of the meat from a freshly-slaughtered ox.  They had not said a word about abandoning their companions before this. Figuring that he and his men had enough meat to get them to the mountains, they left the others in the dust—some of the men and Nancy Kelsey on horses or mules, the rest on foot with the slow-traveling oxen. Jimmy John’s journal entry notes that:

They thought they could leave us behind and have the first sight of the beautiful plains of California. Our animals are giving out. Left one horse and mule today and threw away some heavy baggage.

Sink of the Humboldt, Nevada by Edward Deakin (1838-1923)

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.
This entry was posted in Bidwell-Bartleson Party, John Bartleson. Bookmark the permalink.

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