I did a book about Nancy Kelsey in 2017 but it doesn’t look like I ever wrote very much about her here. A call from a journalist writing an article about her has inspired me to revisit her life and fill in some gaps in her story.
Nancy Kelsey was the only female member of the 1841 Bidwell-Bartleson Party and the first American woman to cross the Sierra Nevada mountains into California She did it barefoot and carrying her baby girl.
When asked why she went to California, she replied, “Where my husband goes, I go,” a statement that was true throughout their married life. Ben Kelsey had itchy feet and could never stay in one spot for long. He first worked for John Sutter as a hunter and trapper, but soon left. He wanted to be his own boss.
Ben and Nancy and their growing family were frequently on the move. They lived in Sonoma, Arcata, Kelseyville, Kern County, Fresno, Lone Pine (where an earthquake drove them out), Gilroy, Lompoc, Puente, and Los Angeles. Probably a few other places too. They went to Oregon in 1843 and to Mexico and Texas in the 1860s, returning both times to California.
Ben died in February, 1889 in Los Angeles, in those days just a medium-sized town of around 50,000 people. Nancy moved to the Cuyama Valley to be near her oldest daughter, Martha Ann, the child she had carried over the mountains. Martha Ann was married to Jesse B. Lewis, a blacksmith and rancher. Don’t picture a Bonanza-style spread — life was hard and money was scarce on the ranch.
Nancy lived in a small cabin, and raised chickens and vegetables and herbs. She served as a nurse and midwife for her neighbors. It was a small but tight-knit community where neighbors depended on one another.
You may not be familiar with the Cuyama Valley and the town of New Cuyama. It lies roughly halfway between the heavily populated Central Coast and the California Central Valley, in a remote corner of Santa Barbara County. It’s about sixty miles from Santa Maria, a two-day journey by wagon or horseback in Nancy’s day. It’s a beautiful rugged region, but you wouldn’t have much reason to go there unless you were traveling between Bakersfield and Santa Maria. Which I did quite a few times via Highway 166 after we moved from Bakersfield to Santa Maria in the 1980s.
Here’s a good article from SFGate about the cowboy life in Cuyama.
Next time: Nancy Kelsey’s last years.