November 1, 1841 — “A Striking Contrast”

November, Monday 1st. The Company tarried to kill game; an abundance of wild fowl and 13 deer and antelopes were bro’t in. My breakfast, this morning, formed a striking contrast with that of yesterday which was the lights of a wolf.

“The lights of a wolf” being the lungs of a coyote.

Nancy Kelsey was not only walking barefoot and carrying her toddler, Baby Ann, but was also about six months pregnant. She collapsed in exhaustion when they reached the valley. She stated:

At one place I was so weak I could hardly stand, and I lay on the ground while Mr. Kelsey went out and killed a deer. We were then near Marsh’s ranch.

Bidwell tells it this way in his 1877 Dictation:

The eve of the next day found us surrounded by abundance; thirteen deer and antelope had been brought in. It was about the first of November, and there was no time to delay if we were going to reach California that fall. Most of the party were ready and anxious to press forward. Captain Bartleson and his men thought otherwise. They said we hadn’t yet reached California, we probably still had a long distance to travel, that such a place as we were in could not be found everywhere and they were going to stop and lay in meat for the balance of the journey.

Leaving them in camp and crossing the Stanislaus River, we proceeded down the north side of the same and camped. Early the next day the news came that the Indians in the night had attacked them and stolen all their horse. We remained till they came up, carrying on their backs such things as they were able.

John Bidwell never did get on with John Bartleson, and there is a note of satisfaction here that once again, Bartleson was wrong and got what he deserved.

The Stanislaus River

It seems strange that they still don’t know that they are in California, but all will be resolved tomorrow.

California mule deer
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October 31, 1841 — “Joyful Sight!”

Sunday, 31st. Bore off in a N.W. direction to the nearest timber; day was warm, plain dry and dusty, reached timber, which was white oak (very low & shrubby) and finally the river which we had left in the mts., joyful sight to us poor famished wretches!!! Hundreds of antelope in view! Elk tracks thousands! Killed two antelopes and some wild fowls; the valley of the river was very fertile and the young tender grass covered it like a field of wheat in May. Not a weed was to be seen, and the land was as mellow and free from weeds as land could be made by plowing it 20 times in the U.S. Distance today 20 miles.

Bidwell is looking at the valley land with the eye of a farmer. He wrote this on the evening of the 31st, but that morning and the night before was quite a different story.

Night found us scattered on a line four miles in length. Every one traveled as long as he could see and then lay down to sleep. There was absolutely nothing for the horses to eat. Fire had left the valley black and desolate. We had killed a second mule and the meat still held out. At night we would unsaddle our animals and turn them loose. There was nothing for them to eat and not even a bush to tie them to.

When morning came the foremost of the party waited for the others to come up. They had found water in a stagnant pond, but what was better, they had killed a fat coyote, and with us it was anything but mule meat. As for myself, I was unfortunate being among those in the rear and not aware of the fest in advance. I did not reach it in time to get any of the coyote except the lights [lungs] and the windpipe. Longing for fat meat and willing to eat anything but poor mule meat and seeing a little fat on the windpipe, I threw it on the coals to warm it and greedily devoured it. (1877 Dictation)


That was his breakfast, but dinner in the valley was another thing altogether. Somewhere near the present day town of Oakdale they came out of the foothills and down into the valley along the Stanislaus River, which they had followed off and on all down the western slope. They feasted on antelope and sandhill crane, and “ripe and luscious wild grapes.” Their horses feasted on the new grass just springing up from the fire-burnt ground. What a difference from morning to evening!

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October 30, 1841 — “Lo! to Our Great Delight”

Saturday, 30th. We had gone about 3 miles this morning, when lo! to our great delight, we beheld a wide valley! This we had entirely overlooked between us and the high mountains which terminated our view yesterday. Rivers evidently meandered through it, for timber was seen in long extended lines as far as the eye could reach. But we were unable to reach it today, and encamped in the plains. Here grew a few white oaks. Traveled today about 20 miles. Saw many tracks of elks. The valley was wonderfully parched with heat, and had been stripped of its vegetation by fire. Wild geese, fowls, etc. , were flying in multitudes.

With what jubilation they must have beheld the sight! Although they could not reach it that day, the Company could see a wide and extensive valley. The sight gave them great hope: hope of good food and easy traveling.

When did Bidwell and his companions enter the promised land of California? By present day borders they had already been in California since mid-October. They had been in Mexican territory even longer than that, but the land they traversed was more like the Great Empty Quarter of North America than part of a foreign nation. Although claimed by Mexico, the territory that later became the states of Utah and Nevada was inhabited solely by Native Americans.

For the Mexicans, Alta California was a narrow strip of land along the Pacific coast. There had been little exploration and no settlement in the Central Valley. All the missions and ranchos lay between the Pacific Ocean and the Coastal Range.

Most of the Company thought that they would not reach California until they crossed another mountain range. How far they still had to travel to get to California was hotly debated in the group, with some insisting that they could not get there before winter set in.

But whether or not they knew it, they were in California. California was spread out before them, and it would prove to be everything they had been promised: a fertile land teeming with wild game, with a healthy climate and plenty of room for all. California at last!

California Spring, by Albert Bierstadt
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October 29, 1841 — “A Time of Great Discouragement”

Friday, 29th. Last night, the Indians stole a couple of our horses. About noon we passed along by several huts, but they were deserted as soon as we came in sight, the Indians running in great consternation into the woods. At one place the bones of a horse were roasting in a fire; they were undoubtedly the bones of the horses we had lost. Travelled no less than 9 miles today; the night was very cool and had a heavy frost. Although our road was tolerably level today, yet we could see no termination to the mountains–and one much higher than the others terminated our view. Mr. Hopper, our best and most experienced hunter, observed that, “If California lies beyond those mountains we shall never be able to reach it.”

Most of the Company were on foot, in consequence of the horses giving out, and being stolen by Indians, but many were much fatigued and weak for the want of sufficient provision; others, however stood it very well. Some had appetites so craving that they eat the meat of most of the mule raw, as soon as it was killed; some eat it half roasted, dripping with blood.

Weary and worn to the bone, barely living on the meat of their own pack animals, struggling down rocky canyons, the Company was in a desperate situation. With no map and no guide, they had not a clue where they were, and they could see no end to their journey.

Nancy Kelsey, who had started up into the Sierras riding a horse, with Baby Ann on her lap, was now walking. In her own recollection, taken down by a friend in 1893, she says, “I walked barefoot until my feet were blistered.”

Bidwell recalled in his 1877 Dictation:

As we approached the San Joaquin Valley, the Coast Range Mountains or that portion of which Mt. Diablo is the northern terminus, rose to view in the blue distance, but we had no knowledge of any intervening valley. Our traveling had been so circuitous, so irregular and indirect, that it was impossible for any one to say where we were or how far we had yet to travel.

It was the opinion of most if not all that we were not yet within five hundred miles of the Pacific Ocean. That the blue range bounding the western horizon was simply the beginning of other and perhaps great ranges beyond. Then came a time of great discouragement, some saying if California lay beyond other ranges of mountains, that we could never live to get there.

And yet they are almost there. Their location was not far from the present-day historic gold-rush town of Sonora, the “Queen of the Southern Mines.” They are in gold country, and soon they will be in the fruitful San Joaquin Valley.

View toward Mt. Diablo from Mission Peak (this is actually the wrong side of Mt. Diablo)
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October 28, 1841 — Starving

Thursday, 28th. Surely no horses nor mules with less experience than ours could have descended the difficult steeps and defiles which we encountered in this day’s journey. Even as it was, several horses and mules fell from the mountain’s side and rolling like huge stones, landed at the foot of the precipices. The mountains began to grow obtuse, but we could see no prospect of their termination. We eat the last of our beef this evening and killed a mule to finish our supper. Distance 6 miles.

Yum! old mule meat. How John Bidwell must have longed for a loaf of bread. And those poor animals, done to death at the bottom of a cliff. It’s a wonder there was anyone with a horse left by the time they got out of the mountains.

Nancy Kelsey recalled in 1893:

At one place four pack animals fell over a bluff, and they went so far that we never attempted to recover the packs. We were then out of provisions, having killed and eaten all our cattle. We lived on roasted acorns for two days.

My husband came very near dying with cramps, and it was suggested to leave him, but I said I would never do that. We ate a horse and remained over the next day; then he was able to travel.

Illustration by Steve Ferchaud for Nancy Kelsey Comes Over the Mountain
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October 27, 1841 — Indian Conflict

Wednesday, 27th. It commenced raining about one o’clock this morning and continued till noon — threw away all our old clothes to lighten out packs, fearing the rain would make the mts. so slippery as to render it impossible to travel.  I have since learned that the Indians in the mountains here prefer the meat of horses to cattle, and here in these gloomy corners of the mts. they had been accustomed to bring stolen horses and eat them. Here and there were strewed the bones of horses, so the design of the veteran Indian pilot is apparent in leading us into this rugged part of Creation.

(When Bidwell writes something like “I have since learned” it is an indication that he is rewriting his journal at a later date. The original journal is gone, and the only version is the one he copied and expanded while at Fort Ross.)

When he got to California he learned that the mountain Indians were known for rustling horses, all the way from the Central Valley to the coast. They drove off herds into the mountains and slaughtered them for meat. Traveling through the Sierras, the Bidwell-Bartleson Party had brought the horses to the Indians–-emaciated to be sure, but the Indians didn’t have to go down to the valley to get them.

The men noticed that each morning, after they left camp, Indians would descend on the spot where they camped and go through whatever was left behind. The men suspected their old Indian guide of duplicity, and when he left them, they were positive that his scheme all along had been to lead them to their deaths in the mountains and take everything they had. This conviction led to the only violent encounter the Company had with Native Americans.  Bidwell continues:

As we left this place one of the men, G. Cook, remained concealed to see if the old pilot was among the Indians, who always rushed in as soon as we left our encampments to pick up such things as were left. The old gentleman was at the head of this band, and as he had undoubtedly led us into this place to perish, his crime merited death — a rifle ball laid him dead in his tracks.

Bidwell here writes with the conviction of a justified victim, but in later accounts he seems to look back with regret. In 1877, when Bidwell dictated his recollections for Hubert Howe Bancroft, he says that Grove Cook remained behind “unknown to the others.” They heard a shot, and Cook told his story when he rejoined the group, but “we never knew whether the Indian was killed or not.” Perhaps Bidwell was trying to soften the incident.

We proceeded S. about 6 miles. As we ascended out of the ravine, we discovered the high mountains we had passed were covered with new snow for more than a half mile down their summits.

They were lucky to have escaped the snow. Rain at their elevation meant snow higher up, from whence they had descended. They narrowly escaped the fate of the Donner Party five years later.

Red Slate Mountain in the Sierra Nevada
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October 26, 1841 — Horses and Mules

Tuesday, 26th. Went S. about 3 miles and camped in a deep ravine. It was urged by some that we should kill our horses and mules — dry what meat we could carry and start on foot to find the way out of the mountains.

Some of the men still had horses or mules to ride, but as often as not they had to walk anyway because of the rocky terrain. The animals were becoming an encumbrance.

Nicholas “Cheyenne” Dawson recalled one time when they were following an Indian guide down a mountain.

We followed the Indian, and he led us along shelves of rock which overhung vast precipices. Here and there great rocks projected over the path and frequently a pack would strike against one of these rocks and over the precipice would go pack and animal, and be lost to us entirely. We all went on foot, leading our animals.

Once, I remember, when I was struggling along trying to keep Monte from going over, I looked back and saw Mrs. Kelsey a little way behind me, with her child in her arms, barefoot I think, and leading her horse — a sight I shall never forget. As we neared the stream and were passing the last projecting rock, old Monte struck the rock and would have gone over had I not braced myself and held him hard.

Cheyenne Dawson and Nancy Kelsey. Illustration by Steve Ferchaud.
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October 25, 1841 — Mule Meat

Monday, 25th. Went about 6 miles and found it impossible to proceed. Went back about 2 miles and encamped — dug holes in the ground to deposit such things as we could dispense with. Did not do it, discovering the Indians were watching us, among them was the old, rascally pilot.

As they came down in elevation, they encountered more and more Indians. The natives were wary of these interlopers — some of them had experience of the missions and had escaped to return to the mountains.

Although most of the men did not cache their belongings, one man did. “Cheyenne” Dawson recalled:

Green, whose pack of lead which he clung to most solicitously, had been growing heavier for his weakened animal, took Grove Cook with him, and going off into some gulch secreted or cached it.

Talbot H. Green had with him a heavy bundle of “lead,” which in spite of its weight he refused to abandon until they were in the Sierras. Later he and Cook, with an Indian guide, would go back to find it. Green and his lead were not what they seemed, and you can read all about it in The Sensational Saga of Talbot H. Green.

The Company was on short rations. They had killed their last ox three days before. Game was amazingly scarce in the mountains. They shot a wildcat and a few squirrels, but never any deer. They tried eating acorns, but the bitter tannin in the untreated acorns made them sick.

Years later Bidwell could still vividly recall how he longed for good food, especially bread.

Some of the meat of one of the mules had been saved in case of an emergency for it was evident the meat of the last ox would soon be consumed. When it was gone, most if not all of us refused to touch the mule meat for some time. I was always so fond of bread that I could not imagine how any one could live without it. How the people in the Rocky Mountains [the trappers] had been able to live on meat alone was to me a mystery.

When our flour began to give out, the idea of doing without bread was painful to me, and by great economy my mess managed to eke out their flour a short time longer than the others. It was bad enough to have poor beef, but when brought to it we longed for fat beef and thought with it we might possibly live without bread. But when poor mule meat stared us in the face, we said if we could only have beef, no matter how poor, we could live. (1877 Dictation)

The Lone Prospector, by Alburtus Del Orient Browere, 1853. Courtesy of the Oakland Museum

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October 24, 1841 — Abandoned Horses

Saturday, 24th. Concluded the Co. had gone north. I travelled E., found no trail — traveled S. — came to the place where I left the Company yesterday morning, having made a long quadrangle in the mts., 8 by 10 miles — took the trail of the Company. They had with great difficulty descended to the river, [I] saw where they staid last night. Distance about 6 miles. Ascended on the S. side of the creek a high precipice. I overtook them; they had traveled today 10 miles.

They had hired an Indian pilot who had led them into the worst place he could find and absconded. 5 horses and mules had given out; they were left. I learned likewise that two hunter (A. Kelsey and Jones) started shortly after I did, and had not returned; part of a horse was saved to eat.

The Company was making very slow progress, and it must have felt like no progress at all. They feared they might wander about in the canyons for weeks until the snows caught them and they perished.

While Bidwell was off on his his detour to the grove of sequoias, the rest of the company had hired an old Indian to pilot them out of the mountains. They were sure that he had led them “into the worst place he could find” and left them there. They suspected the Indians of wanting their horses for food.

Before Bidwell caught up with his companions late on the 24th, they abandoned five of their horses and mules. On his way back to join the group, Bidwell came upon the Indians cutting the beasts up for meat.

Many [animals] gave out and had to be left, the men carrying on their backs what they could of the burdens and leaving the rest. And here I witnessed a most horrible sight. For many miles the Indians were cutting the animals to pieces and carrying away the meat, poor as it was, for food. Late in the night I overtook the company. (1877 Dictation)

The Sierra Nevadas, by Albert Bierstadt. Hard to admire the scenery when you are lost and starving.
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October 23, 1841 — Big Trees

Friday, 23rd. Having no more meat than would last us 3 days, it was necessary to use all possible exertions to kill game, which was exceedingly scarce. For this purpose I started alone, very early in the morning, to keep some distance before the Company, who had concluded to continue as near as possible to the creek on the N. side. I went about 4 miles -–met the Indian who came to us last night — obtained a little provision made of acorns — got an Indian boy to pilot me to his house. He took me down the most rugged path in all nature — arrived on the banks of a river at least 3/4 of a mile perpendicular from where I started with him — found no more provision, continued down the river — oak in abundance, buckeye, and a kind of maple.

The mountains, which walled in the stream, were so steep that it was with great difficulty I scaled them — having in one place come within an inch of falling from a craggy cliff down a precipice nearly a fourth of a mile perpendicular. 4 long hours I labored before I reached the summit — proceeded directly to intercept the trail of the Company. Mts. covered with the largest and tallest pines, firs, &c., thick copses of hazel &c. — travelled till dark over hills, dales, crags, rocks, &c., found no trail — lay down and slept.

You would think that Bidwell would take someone else with him, but he doesn’t seem to have heard of the buddy system. His idea was to range around looking for game to shoot, then intersect the trail of the Company and rejoin them further along. Needless to say, he never found any game, and the others weren’t doing much better. In Echoes of the Past he says:

When we killed our last ox [on the 22nd] we shot and ate crows or anything we could kill, and one man shot a wildcat. We could eat anything.

Although he found no game, he did make a fascinating discovery. Many years later he wrote:

Just at dark I came to an enormous fallen tree and tried to go around the top, but the place was too brushy, so I went around the butt, which seemed to me to be about twenty or twenty-five feet above my head. This I suppose to have been one of the fallen trees in the Calaveras Grove of Sequoia gigantea or mammoth trees, as I have since been there, and to my own satisfaction identified the lay of the land and the tree. Hence I concluded that I must have been the first white man who ever saw the Sequoia gigantea, of which I told Fremont when he came to California in 1844. (Echoes of the Past)

He didn’t know that Joseph Walker had seen those trees before him in 1833. This place is now Calaveras Big Trees State Park. For more about John Bidwell and the big trees, including a letter from Bidwell to John Muir about his discovery, click here.

The roots of the big tree that John Bidwell slept under.
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