September 20, 1841

Monday, 20th. Passed along one of the highest mountains we had seen in our whole journey, seeking a place to scale it, as we wished to travel W. instead of S., being convinced that we were already far enough south. At length passed through and descended into a beautiful valley, inclining towards the W. All now felt confident that we were close of the headwaters of Mary’s river — distance 25 miles. Two hunter slept out last night, the Company taking a different direction from that which they expected.

There were indeed already far enough south. The trouble with Nevada is that it is covered with numerous small mountain ranges, all of which run north- south. These create a barrier for anyone trying to travel west. If at this point they had gone north, they would have reached the headwaters of Mary’s River, at Humboldt Wells. That would not have been difficult.

If they could have gone due west, they would have hit the river about where Elko is today. But there were mountains in the way in that direction. Either trip would have been about 25 miles. Instead, they will take a roundabout way, south through the Ruby Valley before turning north. The mountain they see may be Humboldt Peak, the southernmost high summit in the East Humboldt Range.

Humboldt Peak, Nevada
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September 19, 1841 — Lost in the Desert

Sunday, 19th. This morning I met 3 men who were coming to bring me water, etc. Arrived at camp; they journeyed yesterday about 17 miles, did not travel today.

This entry doesn’t tell much. The company is camped at a place called Warm Springs and John Bidwell recuperates there after his ordeal in the desert. He must have been exhausted. He was also quite angry with Captain Bartleson, who had kept the party moving forward after promising to wait for Bidwell. All that will come out in later tellings of the story.

For the rest of the story about finding the oxen and returning to the wagon train, we have to look at other accounts. This is from The First Emigrant Train to California (Echoes of the Past):

They [the Company] had promised to stop when they came to water and wait for me. I traveled all night,and at early dawn came to where there was plenty of water and where the company had taken their dinner the day before, but they had failed to stop for me according to promise.

I was much perplexed, because I had seen many fires in the night, which I took to be Indian fires, so I fastened my oxen to a scraggy willow and began to make circles around to see which way the company had gone. The ground was so hard that the animals had made no impression, which bewildered me. Finally, while making a circle of about three miles away off to the south, I saw two men coming on horseback. In the glare of the mirage, which distorted everything, I could not tell whether they were Indians or white men, but I supposed them to be Indians, feeling sure our party would go west and not south. In a mirage a man on horseback looks as tall as a tree and I could only tell by the motion that they were mounted.

I made a beeline to my oxen, to make breastworks of them. In doing so I came to a small stream resembling running water, into which I urged my horse, whereupon he went down into a quagmire, over head and ears, out of sight. My gun also went under the mire. I got hold of something on the bank, threw out my gun, which was full of mud and water, and holding to the rope attached to my horse, by dint of hard pulling, I succeeded in getting him out — a sorry sight, his ears and eyes full of mud, and his body covered with it. At last, just in time, I was able to move and get behind the oxen. My gun was in no condition to shoot. However, putting dry powder in the pan, I was determined to do my best in case the supposed Indians should come up; but lo! they were two of our party, coming to meet me, bringing water and provisions.

It was a great relief. I felt indignant that they party had not stopped for me–-not the less so when I learned that Captain Bartleson had said, when they started back to find me, that they “would be in better business to go ahead and look for a road.” He had not forgotten certain comments of mine of his qualities as a student of Indian character.

There was no love lost between John Bidwell and John Bartleson. Bidwell, who considered himself a good judge of character and a man of “self-possession,” considered Bartleson to be a hot-headed ignoramus. Bartleson had previously shown himself to be careless of the Company’s safety when approached by unknown Indians.. Moreover, Bartleson would do nothing in the future to distinguish himself.

The two men who came to the rescue were Robert H. Thomes (for whom Thomes Creek in Tehama County is named) and Grove C. Cook. If there was a third man (as he says in his journal entry) it was probably “Cheyenne” Dawson.

Water! by Frederic Remington
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September 18, 1841 — Lost Oxen

Saturday, 18th. Morning found us on the east side of a mountain not far from its base but there were no signs of water; the lost oxen not having come up, I, in company with another young man, went in search of them while the company went on, promising to stop as soon as they found water. I went back about 10 miles, but found nothing of their trail–-the sun was in a melting mood–-the young man became discouraged and in spite of all my entreaties returned to the company.

The young man who went with John Bidwell to search for the oxen was “Cheyenne” Dawson. Under the hot summer sun he gave up, saying that there were plenty of cattle in California. Which was true, but Bidwell had to go on — without his oxen and their packs he had nothing. It is a testament to Bidwell’s character that he carried on alone, determined to find the oxen, even after his friend had given up and turned back.

A pack yak, kind of like a pack oxen, from

Water in the company was in very short supply. Before they left on their search they were each given about a half cup (4 oz.) of water. This was all they had until the next day.

About an hour after [Dawson departed] I found the trail of the oxen which bore directly north. After pursuing it some distance, I discovered fresh moccasin tracks upon the trail, and there began to be high grass, which made me mistrust the Indians had got the oxen. But my horse was good and my rifle ready, and I knew the Indians in these parts to be very timid, for they were generally seen in the attitude of flight. But what made me most anxious to find the oxen was the prospect of our wanting them for beef. We had already killed 4 oxen and there were but 13 remaining, including the lost ones, and the Co. was now killing an ox every two or three days.

Having followed the trail about 10 miles directly north, to my great delight I found the oxen. I was soon in motion for the Company, but not being able to overtake them, was obliged to stop about dark. I passed the night rather uncomfortably, having neither fire nor blanket. I knew Indians to be plenty from number signs, and even where I slept, the ground had been dug up that very day for roots. The plains here were almost barren, the hills covered with cedar.

In his 1877 Dictation, Bidwell tells this story again. For those of you interested in firearms, he says that he had “a flintlock rifle and a pair of dragoon pistols also flintlocked.” Before leaving Missouri, he had asked old trappers what kind of weapons to take, and was told to have nothing to do with “those new-fangled things called caps” because if they got wet they were useless, whereas you could always pick up a replacement flint.

Here is a nice little video from the Bureau of Land Management on how to load and fire a flintlock rifle.

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September 17, 1841 — Bidwell Pass

Friday, 17th. About 11 a.m. all were ready to start; horses, mules, and 4 oxen, packed. Proceeded south along the mts. seeking a place to pass through. At length an Indian trail took us across into a dry plain, perfectly destitute of grass and water. Traveled ’till about midnight, having come about 17 miles. This plain was white in many places with salt, and the cool evening contrasting with the color of the salt on the ground gave a striking similarity to winter. Two of the oxen that were carrying packs got lost from the Company in the night, about 8 miles from where we encamped, but it was supposed they would follow on.

This is probably the point at which they cross south of the Pilot Range through what today is called Bidwell Pass in Elko County, Nevada. It would be used by some other later emigrant groups, but the California Trail in Nevada generally took a more northerly route. There is a trail marker at the pass.

The lost oxen did not “follow on,” and Bidwell had to go looking for them the next day.
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September 16, 1841 — Wagons Abandoned

Thursday, 16th. All hands were busy making pack saddles and getting ready to pack. While thus engaged an Indian, well advanced in years, came down out of the mountains to our camp. He told us by signs that the Great Spirit had spoken to him to go down upon the plains in the morning, and on the E. side of the mountains he would find some strange people, who would give him a great many things. Accordingly, he had come.

We gave him all such things as we had intended to throw away; whenever he received anything which he thought useful to him, he paused and looked steadfastly at the sun, addressed him in a loud voice, marking out his course in the sky, as he advanced in his invocation, which took him about 2 minutes to perform. As he received quite a number of articles, it took him a considerable part of the day to repeat his blessings. No Persian, in appearance, could be more sincere.

“Cheyenne” Dawson well remembered the same incident. According to him:

As we neared a beautiful little fresh water lake in the valley, we were astonished to see, coming to meet us, laughing and making gestures of extravagant joy, an old Indian. He signed that he was expecting us; that he had dreamed of our coming. When we camped he moved his camp near ours and went from mess to mess, making us welcome, with a countenance full of happiness. The boys began to make him presents of old clothing, pieces of iron, etc. As each gift was made, he would point a bony finger to the east and slowly revolve his hand to the west, apparently mumbling, as he did so, a prayer.

At first they were only giving the Indian a few unneeded items, but then they made the decision to abandon the wagons, and that meant more property to leave behind and more gifts for the old Indian.

We signed to our aged host that the wagons and everything abandoned were his, all his, and left him circumscribing the heavens — the happiest, richest, most religious man I ever saw.

John Bidwell tells more about the company’s packing adventures in The First Emigrant Train to California.

Packing is an art, and something that only an experience mountaineer can do well so as to save his animal and keep his pack from falling off. We were unaccustomed to it, and the difficulties we had at first were simply indescribable.

The trouble began the very first day. But we started — most of us on foot, for nearly all the animals, including several of the oxen, had to carry packs. It was but a few minutes before the packs began to turn; horses became scared, mules kicked, oxen jumped and bellowed, and articles were scattered in all directions.

Bidwell only had oxen, no horse or mule, so he had the difficult task of getting packs onto his oxen. It was a scene both comic and desperate. Oxen are not trained to carry packs — I imagine that trying to get some kind of pack onto the back of an ox is not an easy thing. But Bidwell had no choice — his two oxen were all he had to carry his belongings, other than his own back. They were also his dinner on the hoof.

Bidwell didn’t have all the straps and buckles and rings that you see here. He improvised by tearing up the wagon cover for ropes, according to Dawson.

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September 15, 1841 — Pilot Peak

Wednesday, 15th. Started very early, day was exceedingly warm, passed through a gap in a ridge of mountains, came into a high dry plain, traveled some distance into it, saw the form of a high mountain through the smoky atmosphere — reached it, having come about 15 miles — found plenty of water — our animals were nearly given out. We were obliged to go so much further in order to get along with the wagons. We concluded to leave them, and pack as many things as we could.

The high mountain to the west is 10,700-foot Pilot Peak. It lies within Nevada, close to the Utah-Nevada border. It could be seen from a great distance and so became a landmark and a guide to all emigrant parties moving west in this part of the country.

Pilot Peak, from the Utah side. Photo by Danita Delimont.
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September 14, 1841

Tuesday, 14th. Traveled about 25 miles and stopped about 9 o’clock at night, in the middle of a dry plain, destitute of water.

They were able to get water during the day, but couldn’t find any at the end of the day. Jimmy John noted:

We started early this morning. Passed a number of good springs. Took dinner at one of them. We traveled on the border of the salt plain until night.

By dinner he means their mid-day meal. Wagon trains typically stopped in the middle of the day for two or three hours — they called it “nooning” — to eat a meal and give their animals time to rest and graze.

Daniel Jenks “The dessert” [i.e. desert]

This drawing by Daniel Jenks shows the Nevada desert as Jenks saw it when he traveled the California Trail in 1859.

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September 13, 1841

Monday, 13th. Traveled about 15 miles south, between salt plains on the E. and high mts. on the W.

It doesn’t look like much, but it’s water.

Shibley Spring – September 13, 1841 campsite.

According to the trail guide at, the Bidwell-Bartleson Party was camped at Shibley Springs. They were lucky to almost always find a spring where they could camp for the night and refresh their animals. They are skirting along the eastern slope of the Pilot Range and getting close to the bottom of this map.

Bidwell-Bartleson Trail western Utah
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September 12, 1841 — Mr. Kelsey’s Wagons

Sunday, 12th. Mr. Kelsey left his wagons and took his family and goods on pack horses, his oxen not being able to keep up. Distance today about 12 miles.

The Kelseys have discovered what the rest of the company is about to find out — their worn-down oxen can no longer haul the wagons through the sand. In a few more days every wagon will be abandoned in the desert.

Ben Kelsey seems to have been well supplied with wagons and animals. It hade two wagons, at least four oxen to haul them, and extra horses.

Most of what pioneers packed in their wagons was food, and pretty much all the food supplies have been consumed. So why haul the wagons? It only slowed them down and the emigrants must have known that time was getting short. The wagons themselves may have been getting worn out as well and in need of repairs that only cost time.

Steve Ferchaud’s illustration for Nancy Kelsey Comes Over the Mountain

Nancy Kelsey later remembered, “We left our wagons this side of Salt Lake and finished out journey on horseback and drove our cattle. I carried my baby in front of me on the horse.”

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September 11, 1841

Saturday 11th. Traveled about 15 miles and came to water, course W.

They are close to the Utah-Nevada border, but at this time that isn’t even a line in the sand. The spring that they found is today called Owl Springs. In the photo the spring is the green spot in the middle, a group of cottonwood trees that indicates water. What a welcome sight!

Owl springs North Lucin. Trees in the center of the picture.
Biwell-Bartleson Trail western Utah
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