Learn about the emigrant party who started it all, the Bidwell-Bartleson party, at the California Trail Interpretive Center. As the first overland party to travel to California, this brave group of westward-bound emigrants blazed a new trail – the California Trail – to make history. Eventually, several party members went on to become famous beyond the trail.
Forging a New Path
The Bidwell-Bartleson party started out on May 18th, 1841 and joined forces with a group of Jesuit priests and renowned mountain man, Thomas “Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick. Following the path of the Oregon trail initially, the parties separated at Soda Springs in Idaho. The Jesuit priests and Fitzpatrick split off to Oregon, and the 34 California trail pioneers followed vague directions and carried on with determination to reach California. The party was now made of up 32 men, and 18-year-old Nancy Kelsey and her infant daughter.
There was no established trail, and barely any guidance for these brave emigrants. We would not know the path they had taken today, or the sights they encountered had it not been for the meticulously kept diary of John Bidwell. He wrote upon reaching Soda Springs, “The water is strongly impregnated with soda, and wherever it gushes out of the ground a sediment is deposited, of a reddish color, which petrifies and forms around the springs large mounds of porous rock, some of which are no less than fifty feet high.” The party saw many other now-famous sights. Nancy Kelsey is credited as being the first white woman to see Utah. Some of the landmarks included:
- Soda Springs
- The Great Salt Lake
- Bonneville Salt Flats
- Donnell Reservoir (Stanislaus River)
- Giant Sequoias of Calaveras
The Bidwell-Bartleson party met adversity as they forged this future wagon trail – sometimes nearly depleting their water supplies, running low on food, and eventually abandoning wagons to continue on foot and horseback. On November 4th the group finally arrived at the ranch of John Marsh, exhausted, nearly starving, and at the cusp of winter. After recovering their strength and restocking supplies, the party split up to their final destinations within California.
Bright Spots in History
The American emigrants went on to make their additional marks in the fabric of history. John Bidwell went on to work for John Sutter at Sutter’s Fort (now Sacramento) and became an established leader as a general, congressman, and senator. Not much is known about “Captain” John Bartleson, other than he demanded to lead the group and would not continue until everyone agreed, branding himself captain of the expedition. Benjamin Kelsey, the husband of Nancy Kelsey, was known for his bravery and pioneering spirit.
Capture the Spirit of Adventure
Visit the California Trail Interpretive Center and capture the spirit of adventure that inspired the Bidwell-Bartleson party. See replicas of the wagons they traveled in and follow their progress with interactive exhibits and activities. The history of the trail is waiting for you!