More about Nancy Kelsey

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’s cabin, from an article by Philip Ault.

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.

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Lost and Found at Rancho Chico

“Rancho Chico Bldgs., 1858.” Royce, C.C. In memoriam: John Bidwell, v.l, p. 216

In this image you can see Bidwell’s store on the left, the bridge over Chico Creek, and the old adobe building on the right, surrounded by cottonwood trees and a few horses and people.

The adobe building served as John Bidwell’s house in the 1850s. but it was also his ranch headquarters and a way station on the heavily traveled Marysville-Shasta Road. D.F. Crowder, who came to Chico in 1856, described the scene:

There was no bridge across Chico creek but there was a ford near where the present bridge now stands. The Shasta trail, now the Shasta road, lead off almost due north as it does now and it was black with immigrants — just like ants, coming and going. Some had ox teams, some were afoot and others drove mules. I don’t remember ever seeing a burro at that time.

It was inevitable that some traveler would leave an item behind after their overnight stay. Here are two letters from guests seeking their lost possessions (original spelling retained):

Shasta City    Nov. 2nd 1851

Mr. John Bidwell


On Monday last we had the pleasure to dine at your ranch in Companie with doctor George and in going in the dining room on the right hand and near the door of the Kitchen there was a wedge in the walls on to wich my Lady hung a blue Coat wich has been forgotten.

I wish Sir you would be kind enough to deliver said Coat to the bearer who will take it to a friend of mine in Marysville to have it sent up by the mail or if the mail stage passes to your ranch you would much oblige me by sending it to me at the hotel de France Shasta City by the first mail

            your obedient servant

            G. Dassonville

Oak Grove July 2nd / 51

Mr. Bidwell

            Sir Please send by the barer a watch left at hour house by a gentleman who staid at your home last night and oblige yours etc.  St. Clare T. Phillips

P.S. The watch was left under his pillow

John Bidwell Papers, California State Library

I am not sure about the first name of the latter writer. Maybe you can figure it out:

Both these letters were written in 1851 before Bidwell’s log cabin burned down. Did these folks dine and sleep in the cabin, or was the adobe already constructed? Bidwell employed several men in addition to the Mechoopda workers who lived in their own village. Did they all sleep in the cabin?

Bidwell was surely building a number of other structures at that time. Nelson Blake, who was employed by Bidwell in 1850-51 later wrote “I often think of making adobes and of hauling boards and shingles down over that fine mountain road” (Blake to Bidwell 19 June 1853) so there was construction going on before the cabin burned in 1852.

At any rate, everybody knew that they could get a meal and a bed (with a pillow — such luxury!) at Bidwell’s Ranch. I hope the gentleman got his watch and the lady got her blue coat back.

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The Kelly-Griggs House Reopens

Back in 2017 I wrote about my visit to the Kelly-Griggs House in Red Bluff. As I said then about this beautiful historic home:

The Kelly-Griggs House is a classic example of 19th century American architecture, and one of several handsome Victorian homes in Red Bluff, California. If you visit it, you must give yourself a some extra time to drive around the neighborhood and enjoy the other fine houses of Red Bluff. At the Kelly-Griggs House Museum they can give you a handy “windshield tour” map of other Victorian homes.

The House closed during the pandemic and has been undergoing extensive (and ongoing) renovation. At last it is re-opening to the public and the organization invites everyone to a grand re-opening celebration on Sunday, April 16th from 1:00 to 3:00 p.m.

The Kelly-Griggs House is not only a lovely example of a fine Victorian home but also a museum featuring costumes and textiles, local history items, and a collection of Native American artifacts. Well worth a visit.

So step back in time at the Kelly-Griggs House! To schedule a tour, call 530-527-1129.

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It’s California Poppy Day!

April 6th is California Poppy Day, honoring our state flower. The California Poppy was designated the state flower in 1903, and in 2010 April 6th was named an official state holiday (but not one where anybody gets the day off, sorry to say). Instead, according to Senate Bill 944:

. . . all public schools and educational institutions are encouraged to conduct exercises honoring the California Poppy, including instruction about native plants, particularly the California Poppy, and the economic and aesthetic value of wildflowers; promoting responsible behavior toward our natural resources and a spirit of protection toward them . . .

So I hope you learn something about the California Poppy today. Here are some tidbits of information, with which you can stun your friends and family.

The California poppy (Eschscholzia Californica) is one of 12 species in the genus eschscholzia, which is named for botanist Johann Friedrich von Eschscholtz. 

Before they flower, the plants look a bit like carrots. But don’t try to eat the yellow taproot — it is mildly toxic. I am not sure what constitutes “mildly toxic” and I do not plan to experiment and report my findings.

Other species of eschscholzia grow in Western North America and you can find pictures and descriptions at the wonderful website CalFlora.

As you know, I like to visit Table Mountain Ecological Reserve in Butte County every year for the wildflower display. The true California poppy is not a native of Table Mountain, but two of its cousins are there:

Foothill poppy

One is Eschscholzia caespitosa or foothill poppy, which is nearly identical, except that it lacks a collar below the petals. These are only found in a few rocky outcrops.

The other is the smaller, paler cousin of the California poppy, Eschscholzia lobbii, or frying pans. (Yes, the flower is called frying pans. I’m not sure why, but you can think of it as a little pan full of melted butter, ready for your morning eggs.)

Frying pans are very common on Table Mountain. You see them everywhere — swathes of little yellow poppies.

Frying-pans at Table Mountain

More information on California’s state symbols can be found at

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Bidwell’s Old Adobe

“The ‘Old Adobe’ in 1868.” from “In Memoriam: John Bidwell” by Col. C.C. Royce

After his log cabin on Chico Creek burned down in 1852, John Bidwell built this two-story (with a one-story wing) adobe building. It was his home, his ranch headquarters, as well as a tavern and a hotel for travelers on the Marysville-Shasta Road.

Although the year of the photograph is 1868, the year that Bidwell Mansion was completed, the mansion does not appear in the photo. It would have been outside the photo, off to the left. It was set quite a way further back from the road.

The adobe stood for several years after the mansion was built. It was still standing in 1872 when the newspaper reported it being using as a polling place for the “Mill” precinct. It appears on a bird’s-eye map of Chico made in 1872.

This undated painting by an unknown artist hangs in the Butte County Pioneer Museum in Oroville. (It is impossible to get a good photograph of the painting because of the bright light that shines on it.) Across a lively scene on what is now the Esplanade, you can see the adobe on the left, the mansion in the center, and another residence on the right. (That same house shows up in the 1868 photograph.) Here is a close-up of the adobe:

By the end of 1874, it was gone. The Weekly Butte Record reported on April 25, 1874, that it was “Disappearing.”

The old adobe on the Bidwell premises, so familiar to old residents of Chico, is undergoing the process of demolition. In a little while it will have entirely disappeared, and those who have known it long will know it again no more forever. In its time it has witnessed Chico’s growth from nothing to be the most flourishing town in Northern California.

In Bidwell’s diary for April 21 he notes: “Tearing down adobe house.” Later that year he had the cottonwood trees by the former adobe torn out as well.

I don’t like to go back. When people talk of the “good old days,” I like the present better. I don’t want to return to those days. . . . I had an old adobe house that was built in ’52 — an insect-infested house. A great many people say “let it stand.” But I removed every vestige of it. It had no charms for me.

John Bidwell: 1891 Dictation.
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Table Mountain and Oregon City


Spring is running a bit late this year. With all the cool and cloudy skies we have had lately, the flowers are only just getting started. But with all the rain, the wildflower season will only get better and better.

My daughter and two granddaughters went to Table Mountain two weeks ago and almost the only thing we saw was carpets of California goldfields. That’s mainly what we saw again today, but the lupine, bluedicks, popcorn flowers, and frying pans are beginning to show up.

A nice cluster of bluedicks

The streams are rushing along, full of water, and the waterfalls are throwing themselves down the hills. Here are two girls by one of my favorite waterfalls, with more water than I have ever seen.

The section of Table Mountain set aside for hiking is officially known as North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve. A Lands Pass from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife is required to visit. I have never seen anyone checking for passes, but it only costs $5.40 for a day pass and the fee goes towards upkeep and improvements.

As long as you have made the drive to Table Mountain, why not visit Oregon City while you are there? Oregon City is a tiny community with a gold rush history. It was settled by a group of Oregonians, led by future California governor Peter H. Burnett, in 1848. (Click on the link if you want to find out why Burnett was not a very good governor.)

Oregon City boasts a covered bridge and the oldest schoolhouse in Butte County. Go on a weekend during wildflower season and you will find the school open and staffed by volunteers from the Butte County Historical Society. It’s worth a visit.

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Classroom Visits

Fairview School’s Community Read-In is back and that makes me happy. Ever since I worked at the Orland Free Library, I have enjoyed visiting Fairview School in the Spring for the Community Read-In. All kinds of adults come to read and talk about books with the kids — police officers, firefighters, business owners, city officials, park rangers, and even librarians.

Fairview School hasn’t had a Read-In since 2019. Now it’s 2023 and I am looking forward to it — next week on April 6.

I visit 4th grade classes and talk about California history. How did people get to California? What did it take to make the journey? What did California look like when John Bidwell arrived here in 1841?

It’s so much fun to talk to the students. They ask great questions. They have imaginative ideas. I always have a good time.

If you are a teacher, or if you know a 4th grade teacher who would like a visitor to give a presentation about California history, please get in touch. I don’t charge anything as long as the school is in my area (Butte, Glenn, or Tehama Counties). I might want some gas money if I’m visiting a school further afield. 🙂

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Luzena Goes into Business

After two or three days Luzena and Mason Wilson sold their oxen for six hundred dollars and bought a hotel. Whatever you may picture as a hotel in 1849 Sacramento, your imagination exceeds the reality.

The hotel we bought consisted of two rooms, the kitchen, which was my special province, and the general living room, the first room I had entered in Sacramento. I thought I had already grown accustomed to the queer scenes around me, but that first glimpse into a Sacramento hotel was a picture which only loss of memory can efface. Imagine a long room, dimly lighted by dripping tallow candles stuck into whisky bottles, with bunks built from floor to ceiling on either side.

Illustration from Overland to California by William G. Johnston. Thanks, Internet Archive!

How much of this hotel was framed, and how much was mere canvas, Luzena does not say. What she calls the “living room” was the “everything” room: bedroom, dining room, parlor, and tavern.

A bar with rows of bottles and glasses was in one corner, and two or three miners were drinking; the barkeeper dressed in half sailor, half vaquero fashion, with a blue shirt rolled far back at the collar to display the snowy linen beneath, and his waist encircled by a flaming scarlet sash, was in commanding tones subduing their noisy demands, for the barkeeper, next to the stage-driver, was in early days the most important man in camp. In the opposite corner of the room some men were having a wordy dispute over a game of cards; a cracked fiddle was, under the manipulation of rather clumsy fingers, furnishing music for some half dozen others to dance to the tune of “Moneymusk”.

“Monymusk” (the usual spelling), is a Scottish reel. That “cracked fiddle” played by “clumsy fingers” probably didn’t sound as good as this version.

One young man was reading a letter by a sputtering candle, and the tears rolling down his yet unbearded face told of the homesickness in his heart. Some of the men lay sick in their bunks, some lay asleep, and out from another bunk, upon this curious mingling of merriment and sadness stared the white face of a corpse. They had forgotten even to cover the still features with the edge of a blanket, and he lay there, in his rigid calmness, a silent unheeded witness to the acquired insensibility of the early settlers. What was one dead man, more or less! Nobody missed him. They would bury him tomorrow to make room for a new applicant for his bunk. The music and the dancing, the card-playing,
drinking, and swearing went on unchecked by the hideous presence of Death. His face
grew too familiar in those days to be a terror.

Luzena Stanley Wilson, ’49er; memories recalled years later for her daughter Correnah Wilson Wright.

A young man lays dead in his bunk and the drinking, dancing, and card-playing continue without heed. The fiddle plays on, “unchecked by the hideous presence of Death.” It was the first, but not the last corpse that Luzena would see.

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What Mrs. Fisher Knows

Mrs. Abby Fisher must have been some cook. Her friends persuaded her to put her recipes in a cookbook, the first published by a black woman west of the Mississippi.

Abby and her husband Alexander came to California in 1877. In 1879 she won the highest award at the State Fair in Sacramento for her pickles, sauces, and preserves. In San Francisco she became a popular cook and caterer, her cooking rated so highly that everyone wanted her recipes.

Abby Clifton was born into slavery in South Carolina around 1831. Sometime in the 1850s she met and married her husband, Alexander Fisher, in Mobile, Alabama and the couple and their children (they had a total of 11) eventually migrated to California. In the 1880 census Alexander is listed as a “Pickle and Preserve Manufacturer” so it was a joint venture, but Abby was the one who was in demand as a cook and gained fame as a cookbook author.

As she states in her “Introduction and Apology,” Abby Fisher could neither read nor write, and that gave her doubts that she would “be able to present a work that could give perfect satisfaction.” But she didn’t let her doubts hold her back.

But after due consideration, I concluded to bring forward a book of my knowledge based on an experience of upwards of 35 years in the art of cooking soups, gumbos, terrapin stews, meat stews, baked and roast meats, pastries, pies and biscuits, making jellies, pickles, sauces, ice creams and jams, preserving fruits, etc. The book will be found a complete instructor so that a child can understand it and learn the art of cooking. Respectfully – Abby C. Fisher

I learned about Mrs. Fisher from an article by the California State Library: “Mrs. Fisher Pens a Cookbook.” You can read more about her there. Her cookbook, containing 160 recipes, is available from the Internet Archive. The recipes are brief, but certainly usable, with a little imagination. She never tells you how hot to set the oven, for example.

Here is a page with some recipes for pies, in case you want to make a sweet potato pie. Sounds delicious! (A gill is a half-cup.)

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Luzena’s First Day

Luzena Wilson got up on her first day in Sacramento and went right to work. There was no time to lose. There was money to be made feeding hungry miners.

There was no credit in ’49 for men, but I was a woman with two children, and I might have bought out the town with no security other than my word. My first purchase was a quart of molasses for a dollar, and a slice of salt pork as large as my hand, for the same price. That pork, by-the-by, was an experience. When it went into the pan it was as innocent looking pork as I ever saw, but no sooner did it touch the fire than it pranced, it sizzled, frothed over the pan, sputtered, crackled, and acted as if possessed. When finally it subsided, there was left a shaving the size of a dollar, and my pork had vanished into smoke.

Every second man in the city, it seemed, kept a store, and any of them were willing to give credit to a woman. All it took to set up shop was a barrel of flour, a barrel of salt pork, a sack of onions and what other few provisions were available. Whiskey was always a good seller.

Luzena was astounded at the prices. “Nothing sold for less than a dollar; it was the smallest fractional currency. A dollar each for onions, a dollar each for eggs, beef a dollar a pound, whisky a dollar a drink, flour fifty dollars a barrel.” Coin was scarce, but a pinch of gold dust equaled a dollar, and an ounce was worth sixteen dollars.

She was critical of the quality of the provisions. Vegetables were scarce. The best to be had were “beans and dried fruits from Chile, and the yams and onions from the Sandwich Islands.” Beef was local; everything else came around the Horn: brown, rancid butter, sour flour full of long black worms, and corned beef “with the texture of redwood.”

She could provide an excellent meal to any man willing to pay.

One morning an official of the town stopped at my fire, and said in his pompous way, “Madame, I want a good substantial breakfast, cooked by a woman.” I asked him what he would have, and he gave his order, “Two onions, two eggs, a beefsteak and a cup of coffee.” He ate it, thanked me, and gave me five dollars. The sum seems large now for such a meal, but then it was not much above cost, and if I had asked ten dollars he would
have paid it.

To give you an idea of prices in Sacramento, here is a receipt for purchases John Bidwell made in July 1849:

It reads:

Sacramento City July 25th, 1849

Mr. Jn Bidwell

                        Bot of Priest Lee & Co.

3 Cases Vinegar                      @$6                18.00

1 cask Brandy  24 ½ Gal.       @$4                98.00

5 cases Ale                              $15                  75.00


2 casks Brandy 24 ½ 23 ½ 48 gals  @$4       192.00

2 cases 4 doz. Pickles                          $18        72.00

½ doz. Lemon Syrup                          $24        12.00                                                


Rec’d Payment

                        Priest Lee & Co.

                                    pr A. Hadley

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