How did John Bidwell, teacher and farmer, make the decision to become one of the first emigrants to the western United States on the California Trail? At the California Trail Interpretive Center, we love bringing the stories of early American pioneers to life. Learn more about Bidwell and his adventures with us.

Who Was John Bidwell?

Influenced by accounts of emigrants like John Sutter, and fur trapper Antoine Robidoux, Bidwell had a heart for adventures. He was originally a schoolteacher and farmer in a small town along the banks of Ohio.

In 1840, after returning home from a vacation in Missouri, he found his farmland stolen. He also found no chance of repercussion by local authorities. John decided it was finally time to realize his own vision of paradise living out west.

One Of The First Emigrants West

Soon after, Bidwell established the Western Emigration Society. The group planned to leave Sapling Grove in the Kansas Territory on May 9th, 1941. John realized that, even though they had a good-sized campaign, they knew very little about how to actually reach their intended destination.

“Our ignorance of the route was complete. We knew that California lay west, and that was the extent of our knowledge.”

The Bidwell-Bartleson Party

In the end, led by John Bartleson, with Bidwell as clerk, the Bidwell-Bartleson left Sapling Creek on May 12th with a more experienced group. This party of Jesuit missionaries was led by Pierre-Jean De Smet and guide Tom F “Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick.

The journey was perilous and racked with misfortune. Burned wagons, runaway pack animals, difficult to cross terrain, and frequent food and water shortages – for example.

“On a single day the party killed a dozen rattlesnakes with their whips without leaving the trail.” – Father Nicolas Point

The slow, 560 mile trek from Ft. Laramie, WY to Soda Springs, ID alone took about a month and a half. The Bidwell and DeSmett parties parted ways at Soda Springs.

Unwelcome Arrivals

On November 4th, 33 of the 69 original Bidwell-Bartleson party members finally arrived at John Marsh’s California fort. They were the first American emigrant party to enter California from the eastern part of the country. Finding the proprietor inhospitable, they parted in search of work. Eventually, Bidwell connected with John Sutter who had been alerted of their approaching party and traveled to meet them.

From Gold Rush To Government

According to Bidwell, Sutter “received us with open arms and in a princely fashion, for he was a man of the most polite address and the most courteous manners, a man who could shine in any society.” After working a little over a year for John Sutter, Bidwell found gold. He owned a ranch in Rancho Chico and later became an active government presence in California.

5 Fun Facts

  • Bidwell served in the Mexican-American War as an officer under Captain John Frémont.
  • He was elected to the California Senate in 1849 and ran for governor in 1875.
  • Nancy Kelsey, first woman to cross the Sierras to California and the “Betsey Ross” of California was a member of the Bidwell-Bartleson Party.
  • Starved, the group was grateful to be given a toffee-apple like substance by a party of Shoshone. It was a mixture of honey and insects, grasshoppers, locusts, and crickets.
  • At the foot of the Pequop Mountains, Bidwell’s party abandoned their wagons. This choice kept them from becoming the first wagon train to reach California.

Learn More, Visit Us In Elko, NV

Learn more about the intrepid adventurers that led the western expansion of the United States when you visit us at the California Trail Interpretive Center in Elko, NV. Contact us today to get the latest information about open dates, upcoming events, and scheduled guests speakers.

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