October 11, 1841 — Looking for a River

Monday, 11th. Left the lake this morning, going to the mountains on a S.W. course. Today we left the trail of Capt. B. and having traveled 19 miles, arrived on a stream which flowed rapidly, and afforded more water than Mary’s river. We though now, without doubt, that we were safe on the waters of the S. Joaquin (pronounced St. Waukeen) according to Marsh’s letter. Here grew willows, balm Gilead, and a few cottonwoods. The course of the stream as far as we could see was S. — but knew not how soon it might take a turn here in the mountains.

These pioneers had been motivated to set out for California by tales they heard from fur trappers, like Antoine Robidoux, and by letters written by Dr. John Marsh that were published in the Missouri papers. Marsh lived near Mt. Diablo and the nearest large river was the San Joaquin, so the company was on the lookout for it, but they had yet to cross the Sierra Nevada. It gives you an idea how little they knew of the geography around them.

The river they have found was the Walker River, which flows out of the Sierra. This was the river they would follow up into the mountains. In The First Emigrant Train, Bidwell wrote:

Leaving the Sink of the Humboldt, we crossed a considerable stream which must have been the Carson River, and came to another stream, which must have been Walker River, and followed it up to where it came out of the mountains, which proved to be the Sierra Nevada. We did not know the name of the mountains. Neither had these rivers then been named, nor had they been seen by Kit Carson or Joe Walker, for whom they were named, nor were they seen until 1845 by Fremont, who named them.

Bidwell is right about the Carson River, but wrong about the Walker. Joe Walker had explored it in 1833, but it was Fremont who named it.

Bidwell’s “balm Gilead” is either the balsam fir or the balsam poplar. Both trees exude a strong-smelling sweet resin.

Walker River in Nevada

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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