May 19, 1841

Wednesday, 19th. This morning the wagons started off in single file; first the 4 carts and 1 small wagon of the missionaries, next 8 wagons drawn by mules and horses, and lastly, 5 wagons drawn by 17 yoke of oxen. . . . Our course was west, leaving the Kanzas no great distance to our left, we traveled in the valley of the river which was prairie excepting near the margin of the stream. The day was very warm and we stopped about noon, having traveled about 12 miles.

This afternoon we had a heavy shower of rain and hail. Several Kanzas Indians came to our camp; they were well armed with bows and arrows, and some had guns. They were daily expecting an attack by the Pawnees, whom they but a short time ago had made inroads on, and had massacred at one of their villages a large number of old men, women, and children, whole the warriors were hunting buffalo.

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May 18, 1841

It’s May 18th, so time to start following John Bidwell’s journal of the adventures of the Bidwell-Bartleson Party:

May, Tuesday 18th 1841. Having waited at this place (2 miles W. of Kanzas river) 2 days, and all the Company being arrived, except those heretofore mentioned, the Company was convened for the purpose of electing a Captain and adopting rules of government of the Company; when T. H. Green was chosen President – and J. Bidwell, Secretary.

After the rules were read and adopted, J. Bartleson was elected Captain; it will be understood that Fitzpatrick was Capt. of the Missionary Company and pilot of the whole. Orders were given for the company to start in the morning, and the meeting was broken up.

John Bidwell, the young schoolteacher, was chosen to be secretary, and he took that responsibility seriously. That’s the reason we have such a good account of this trailblazing group of pioneers.

Talbot H. Green, the man elected as president of the company, had made a good impression on the other men. Nicholas “Cheyenne” Dawson recalled him as “a young man of evident culture and very pleasing address.” When the company gathered to organize and elect officers, Green was elected president. This was not a position with much responsibility. The Company had a captain, John Bartleson, and a trail guide, Thomas Fitzpatrick, who was the true leader, at least until the California-bound company parted from the larger group. But Green’s election was testimony to his instant likability.

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Tombstone of John Bartleson, from findagrave.com

John Bartleson was born in October 1786, making him 54 years old when they set out from Missouri. He was part of the “Chiles Mess,” made up of Joseph B. Chiles, Michael Nye, and some German immigrants. When they joined the company he insisted on being made captain, probably feeling that as an older and more experienced man, he was more qualified to lead the group. Bidwell wrote of him:

He was not the best man for the position, but we were given to understand that if he was not elected captain, he would not go; and he had seven or eight men with him, and we did not want the party diminished.

He proved to be a poor leader, as we will see, and returned to Missouri the year after they arrived in California, dying there in 1848.

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John and Annie Bidwell Video!

I am very pleased to announce that I now have a read-aloud version of my picture book about John and Annie Bidwell. With the fantastic help of Jean Ping, I was able to turn this book into a video experience.

My heartfelt thanks go to Jean and to Kelly Noble, who suggested we do this. I also thank the staff at Bidwell Mansion State Historic Park, who allowed us to film inside Bidwell Mansion.

I hope this project will be especially useful for 3rd and 4th grade teachers and students. Even if you can’t visit Bidwell Mansion at this time, and you can’t get the book from the library, you can still enjoy the story of Chico’s pioneer couple.

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Missionaries and Mountaineers

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At first we were independent, and thought we could not afford to wait for a slow missionary party. But when we found that no one knew which way to go, we sobered down and waited for them to come up; and it was well that we did, for otherwise probably not one of us would ever have reached California, because of our inexperience.

Afterwards when we came into contact with Indians our people were so easily excited that if we had not had with us an old mountaineer the result would certainly have been disastrous. The name of the guide was Captain Fitzpatrick; he had been at the head of trapping parties in the Rocky Mountains for many years. He and the missionary party went with us as far as Soda Springs, now in Idaho Territory, whence they turned north to the Flathead nation.

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John Gray, as depicted by Father Nicholas Point. S.J.

The party consisted of three Roman Catholic priests — Father De Smet, Father Pont, Father Mengarini — and ten or eleven French Canadians, and accompanying them were an old mountaineer named John Gray and a young Englishman named Romaine, and also a man named Baker. They seemed glad to have us with them, and we were certainly glad to have their company. (Echoes of the Past)

Click on those links to read the fascinating stories of John Grey and “Lord” Romaine.

 

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Partnering Up

In five days after my arrival we were ready to start, but no one knew where to go, not even the captain. Finally a man came up, one of the last to arrive, and announced that a company of Catholic missionaries were on their way from St. Louis to the Flathead nation of Indians with an old Rocky Mountaineer for a guide, and that if we would wait another day they would be up with us. At first we were independent, and thought we could not afford to wait for a slow missionary party. But when we found that no one knew which way to go, we sobered down and waited for them to come up. (Echoes of the Past, p. 133)

And a good thing they did.

The wagon train was very lucky to be able to join up with the missionary party. Without the guidance of the trail guide — Thomas Fitzpatrick — hired by the missionaries, they probably would have gotten hopelessly and fatally lost.

Thomas Fitzpatrick, born in County Cavan, Ireland, had been a mountain man, fur trapper, and trail guide in the Rocky Mountains for twenty years. He spoke several Indian languages and knew the geography (like the location of South Pass).

The missionaries were led by Father Pierre Jean De Smet, a Belgian Jesuit who spent many years working among the American Indians. In 1841 he was on his way, with two other priests and three lay brothers, to minister to the Flathead Indians. He established St. Mary’s Mission on the Bitterroot River near Missoula, Montana. Bidwell described him as follows:

He was genial, of fine presence, and one of the saintliest men I have ever known, and I cannot wonder that the Indians were made to believe him divinely protected. He was a man of great kindness and great affability under all circumstances; nothing seemed to disturb his temper. (Echoes of the Past, p. 114)

More information on Father De Smet can be found in this article from Historic St. Mary’s Mission and Museum.

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Where Do I Get All This?

The adventures of the Bidwell-Bartleson Party didn’t officially start until John Bidwell was elected secretary on May 18th and began keeping his journal. Up until that point we can’t put a date on the various events that led up to the journey. But Bidwell filled us in on his experiences in two other accounts.

In 1877 the historian and indefatigable collector Hubert Howe Bancroft sent  S. S. Boynton to take down Bidwell’s dictation of his journey. Boynton at the time was  principal of the Oroville schools, and later became editor of the Oroville Register. The dictation is titled “California 1841: An Immigrant’s Recollections of a Trip Across the Plains.” Anyone who wants to read it can find it in The Bidwell-Bartleson Party, edited by Doyce B. Nunis, or on microfilm at Meriam Library Special Collections (if you live here in Butte County).

510CB5PGCNL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_Nunis’s book also contains Bidwell’s account, written in 1890 for the Century Magazine, titled “The First Emigrant Train to California.” Another place to find this is in Echoes of the Past, which collects all three articles on California life dictated by Bidwell for the Century. Bidwell’s journal account is also in Nunis’s book, as well as every other account, even if it is only a page or two, by a member of the group.

Can you see the original journal? No, unfortunately.

During his spare time in February and March of 1842 Bidwell copied out the journal and added his observations of California. Then he sent it back to Missouri to an unknown friend, and that friend had it printed up as a guidebook. How did he get the copy back to Missouri? He couldn’t just pop it in the mail. He probably sent it east with Joseph Chiles, another member of the Bidwell-Bartleson Party who returned to Missouri in 1842.

Sometime in 1843, ’44, or ’45 the journal was published as a pamphlet, by an unknown printer. This became the first overland guidebook to California. Only one copy is still in existence–-the copy carried by George McKinstry when he emigrated to California in 1846. It now resides in the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley. It has been printed by the Bancroft in their keepsake series and that can be found (again) at Meriam Library Special Collections, or other rare book collections.

Bidwell’s own original journal — that’s long lost. Sigh.

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“Fully Competent to Go Anywhere”

No one of the party knew anything about mountaineering and scarcely anyone had ever been into the Indian Territory, yet a large majority felt that we were fully competent to go anywhere no matter what they difficulties might be or how numerous and warlike the Indians.

We heard before starting, however, that a party of Catholic missionaries from St. Louis going to the Flathead Indians under the auspices of Father De Smet were soon expected and that they had for their guide the experienced Captain Fitzpatrick.

The more prudent advised waiting for the missionary party and finally with much persuasion they prevailed on the others to wait. (The 1877 Bidwell Dictation)

“More prudent” — that would describe John Bidwell.

But what confidence these men had in their abilities to take on anything. No map, no guide, no trail experience — but so what? Let’s get going! How hard can it be?

Little did they know . . . .

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Thomas “Broken-Hand” Fitzpatrick in his later years.

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