The First Overland Letter to California

California Spring, by Albert Bierstadt

I thought I knew a lot about the 1841 Bidwell-Bartleson Party — the first group of emigrants to leave the United States on the overland trail. But I didn’t know about the letter carried by Elias Barnett to John Marsh, which is the earliest letter to be carried overland from Missouri to California. I have the Overland Journal of the Oregon-California Trails Association to thank for bringing this to my attention.

When the Bidwell-Bartleson Party left Missouri in May 1841, Elias Barnett was carrying a letter from William B. Barnett and William Hague, merchants of Independence, Missouri. The letter was addressed to John Marsh and began, “you will receive this by the hands of our friends Elias Barnett and Michael Nye whom together with a number of others visits California for the purpose of exploring the country and returning to the United States.” This implies that the men did not come to California with the intention of settling, but instead wanted to explore and scope out the country and report back whether or not it was suitable for American settlement.

They asked John Marsh to inform them about “the government, if they would willingly admit Americans to the rights of citizenship . . . and what would be the reception of an American population by the government of California.” They also desired a report on ” soil, climate, timber, water, productions of the country, etc. etc.” and the “commercial and mercantile and manufacturing advantages” of California.

But it wasn’t John Marsh who fulfilled their request. It was John Bidwell. During his first year in California, he polished up his overland journal and added an extensive report entitled “Observations about the Country.” He describes the trees, the grasses, and vegetables like potatoes and beans. He gives a day-by-day weather report from November 1841, when he arrived, to April 1842 (“2nd. Very fine, strawberries will be ripe in a few days”), and a general description of the summer (“heat is intense”) and fall.

He gives a lengthy report on the “Resources of the Country,” including information about fruit trees, livestock, the missions, the healthy climate (“the fever and ague are seldom known”), water, timber, fish, and birds. He describes houses made of unburnt bricks, and mills run on horse power. It is a country where a little bit of industry might make a man rich. “Wealth here principally consists in horses, cattle, and mules.”

He admired the horsemanship of the Spaniards.

The dexterity with which the Spaniards use the lasso is surprising; in fact, I doubt if their horsemanship is surpassed by the Cossacks of Tartary. It is a common thing for them to take up things from the ground going upon a full run with their horses; they will pick up a dollar this way.They frequently encounter the bear on the plain in this way with their lassos and two holding him in opposite directions with ropes fastened to the pommels of their saddles.

Vaqueros Lassoing a Bear, by James Walker, 1877.

It is not known how Bidwell’s journal was carried back East; possibly it was taken by a returning emigrant like Joseph Chiles, who made a trip back to the States in the summer of 1842. Bidwell said later that he did not intend for it to be published, but published it was, although where or when or by whom is unknown. The only extant copy belonged to George McKinstry, who used it as a guidebook for his 1846 journey to California. That copy is now in the Bancroft Library.

Bidwell’s descriptions of California influenced other would-be emigrants. Zach Montgomery, a friend of John Bidwell’s younger brother Thomas, recalled:

It was by reading this journal of young John Bidwell that the mind and heart of this narrator first became fascinated with California.

in Quest for Flight, by Craig S. Harwood, p. 5

That first overland letter taken to California by Elias Barnett caused John Bidwell to write a description of California, both factual and glowing, that inspired many an emigrant to set out on the trail, even before the news of gold in California reached the States.

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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