Western Short Story
"Complete" Ignorance
Dennis Goodwin


Western Short Story

John Bidwell and His Adventurous Friends Know Everything About California as They Head Out to the Glorious Land…Except How to Get There

The patchwork collection of enthusiastic young adventurers stood proud and strong on the brink of history. They were more than ready to take their place as the first overland emigrant party to enter California. As they set out in May of 1841 from Sapling Grove, Missouri, their heads were swimming with images of the glorious land. They knew California was a place of perennial spring and boundless fertility. They knew wild game roamed freely and luscious oranges hung for the picking. And they also knew that neither disease nor disputes among settlers had yet marred the virgin landscape.

Yes, they knew all they needed to know about the golden land. Well, they knew almost all they needed to know. Actually there was one little detail they hadn't quite worked out yet...how to get there. Many years later, their organizer, John Bidwell, would summarize their situation. "Our ignorance of the route," he noted, "was complete. We only knew that California lay west…"

Fortunately for their unbridled enthusiasm, the excited pioneers-to-be were also ignorant of the hardships that lurked ahead on their six-month excursion. Before they would see the free-roaming wild game or taste the luscious oranges, they would see near-starvation and have a potent taste of torturous desert days and frigid mountain nights. The seed of adventure that produced this rigorous journey began to germinate in John Bidwell's mind during his twentieth year. "I conceived a desire," he remembered, "to see the great prairies of the West.…" In the spring of 1839, he set out on foot from western Ohio toward Cincinnati. He was fortunate enough to hitch a ride most of the way on a produce wagon. From Cincinnati, he made his way down the Ohio River by steamboat to the Mississippi.

Bidwell then struck out to the southwest and eventually arrived at the Platte Purchase settlement in Missouri. The area suited him perfectly. "The imagination could not conceive of a finer country," he recalled, "lovely, rolling, and fertile...peace and contentment reigned." This spot, he decided, would be his lifelong home. He began teaching school and settling in. Fate, however, had no intention of letting Bidwell settle in. While he was away on a trip to St. Louis to purchase supplies, a man jumped his claim and moved into the cabin he had built. Unfortunately, Bidwell had no legal power to oust the jumper. The law clearly stated that in order to stake claim to the land, a person had to be either a "man of family" or twenty-one years of age. He was neither. Disgusted, he resolved to head elsewhere when spring arrived.

Fate stepped in again, right on schedule. A Frenchman named Joseph Roubidoux told Bidwell he had been to California and had found it to be an ideal land. He described the countless herds of wild horses, the free-roaming game and the wide-open fertile valleys. Roubidoux also said there was hardly any sign of the fever that had spread across Missouri. He told Bidwell there had been only one man in California who had ever had a chill. "It was a matter of so much wonderment to the people of Monterey," he added, "that they went eighteen miles into the country to see him shake."

Bidwell rounded up potential emigrants and invited Roubidoux to speak to them. Roubidoux filled the gathering with dreams of the virgin country and endless opportunities, just as he had done with Bidwell. The group members decided to recruit others and meet on May 9th at Sapling Grove "armed and equipped to cross the Rocky Mountains to California."

During the next few months, the size of the group swelled as a positive article about California, written by a Doctor John Marsh, was printed in the area papers. Then it dwindled as another article appeared which told of scorching desert heat and unfriendly attitudes of the native Californians. That letter was gleefully reprinted in area papers by the Platte County merchants. From the beginning, they felt the emigrant movement was "the most unheard of, foolish, wild-goose chase that ever entered into the brain of man..."

When May 9th arrived, Bidwell and a few others excitedly headed for Sapling Grove. On arriving, they found only one wagon ahead of them. Throughout the next few days, one or two wagons pulled in each day. Five days after Bidwell's arrival, the party numbered sixty-nine. As the enthusiastic group members began to quiz each other, a startling realization fell over them - none of the sixty-nine knew which path to take.

Undaunted, the little party selected a captain. Although Bidwell would have been a logical choice, a man named John Bartleson was chosen. "He wasn't the best man for the job," Bidwell observed, "but we were given to understand that if he was not elected captain he would not go." Bartleson had seven or eight men with him and the group didn't want to lose them.

Once again, destiny played a winning card for them. One of the last members to arrive said he had passed a company of missionaries who had hired an experienced Rocky Mountaineer to guide them to the Flathead Indian nation. Their destination was Fort Hall in the present-day state of Idaho. The missionary's guide turned out to be the veteran mountain man, Captain Thomas "Broken Hand" Fitzpatrick.

At last the Western Emigration Society was on the move. Fitzpatrick led the group past Westport, now called Kansas City. From there, they headed northwest over the prairie toward the Platte River. As they rolled along the yet-unnamed Oregon Trail, they realized how sensible they had been to wait for Fitzpatrick to lead them. All was going smoothly with their venture. Fitzpatrick's knowledge of the frontier likely saved their lives one night as they camped on the south fork of the Platte River. For days, they had traveled past immense buffalo herds heading toward the Platte for water. As they camped, the ground began to tremble from the buffalo's thundering onrush.

Fitzpatrick instructed them to set up fires a good distance from the wagons to turn the buffalo away from the campsite. The lead buffalo must have room to maneuver, he explained. If not, the pressure of the thousands of animals from behind would prevent them from veering around the wagons. Had they not diverted the herd, Bidwell judged "wagons, animals and emigrants would have been trodden under their feet."

The thundering buffalo herd was not the only taste of danger the Platte River served them. During one scorching afternoon, a heavy rainstorm suddenly broke the stillness. On the tail of the rain, hailstones "as large as a turkey's egg" hammered the wagons. Before the icy volley subsided, it had blanketed the prairie with hail four inches deep. The very next day, nature again turned on them. A menacing waterspout suddenly emerged, sucking water from the Platte. The society members were now becoming seasoned to frontier dangers. They quickly threw themselves against the sides of the wagons to prevent them from overturning. The swirling mass passed within a quarter of a mile. "Had it struck us," Bidwell solemnly recalled, "it would doubtless have demolished us."

As the Western Emigration Society rolled on, Fitzpatrick continued to skillfully guide them further and further west. They took the north fork of the Platte River across present-day Nebraska and Wyoming. The days mounted into weeks as they passed one after another of the landmarks which would become so familiar to thousands of later pioneers. The group members sighted Chimney Rock from almost fifty miles away. "It was nearly square," Bidwell recalled later in his life, "and I think it must have been fifty feet higher than now…" A large portion had apparently collapsed or weathered during the years following their journey. Scott's Bluffs, he wrote, were "washed and broken into all sorts of fantastic forms by the rains and storms of ages..."

The pioneers-in-training followed their trusted guide along the Sweetwater River past the Wind River mountain range. They crossed the Rocky Mountains at the South Pass. As they proceeded, a sobering realization must have penetrated their thoughts. Fitzpatrick, the veteran mountaineer who had led them safely through one hazard after another, would soon be turning northwest. After all, the missionaries had hired him to take them to Idaho, not California.

The point of separation was Soda Springs in present-day Idaho. As Bidwell and the others arrived, the wild beauty of the setting temporarily lulled their anxieties. Rolling hills blanketed with fir and cedar framed Bear River and the periodically gushing "Steamboat Springs." The tranquil effects of the scenery, however, would soon wear off. A decision had to be made by each group member. Would he or she continue in the safety of Fitzpatrick's group to Fort Hall or follow the original California dream. Thirty-two decided to stick to that dream.

This time, Bidwell and the remaining thirty-one were not the only ones unaware of the best route. Fitzpatrick himself was not much better informed. He had heard though, that some trappers had trekked west and northwest of Salt Lake looking for beaver. So he suggested that four of the party accompany him to Fort Hall to consult with anyone who might know a logical starting path. The remaining twenty-eight said their thankful goodbyes to Fitzpatrick and the missionaries. They then headed down the west side of Bear River into country that was, as Bidwell put it, "a veritable terra incognita."

The men who had ventured to Fort Hall caught up with the main party about ten days later. Although the directions they had obtained were far from specific, they at least provided general boundaries. The men learned they should strike out west from Salt Lake - which had already been given that name by area trappers. Veering too far south, they had been told, would lead them to a desolate country with no grass for the animals. If they swerved too far north, they would run into "broken country and steep canyons." The only landmark the pioneers at Fort Hall could provide was Mary's River, which flowed to the southwest. If the party could locate the river, they could probably follow it a long way toward California.

As the group continued, the ground was becoming so soft the animals could hardly plow through it. They persevered throughout the frigid night, unaware that they were actually heading directly toward Salt Lake. As the wagon wheels plowed through the salt flats, the night winds drove the crystals like snow across a frozen lake. Turning east in a desperate attempt to search for water, they arrived at Bear River shortly after daybreak. As the parched travelers tasted the precious water, they found it was nearly undrinkable. They were still too close to Salt Lake. "It would not quench thirst," Bidwell remembered, "but it did save life."

Leaving the area, the group headed northwest through miles of barren salt plains. After a blistering day and steaming night with no water, they discovered an antelope trail. Several of the veteran hunters knew that animal tracks would eventually lead them to fresh water. As they had predicted, the tracks ultimately steered them to an area abundant with fresh water and grass. Although the party was acutely aware that precious time was passing, they rested and let the animals graze. As they did, two men scouted ahead to find a route around Salt Lake. They returned to guide the party on a southwest course which finally eluded the huge salt-encrusted barrier.

They trudged on for two or three days - a full day and night of that without water. Suddenly, the landscape altered radically. Towering mountain crags ascended hundreds of feet overhead. At the foot of the mountains lie abundant grass and drinkable water. Again they rested while the animals ate their fill. Once more, scouts headed out to find a pass across the range. This time the news they brought was both good and bad. They felt they might have discovered a pass through the mountain range, but it would likely not accommodate the wagons. After considerable dissension in the ranks, the group eventually decided to leave the wagons behind and pack their supplies on the oxen, mules and horses.

The fatigued travelers ventured on through land that was becoming increasingly more barren. They recalled the simple directions the scouts had received at Fort Hall - if they strayed too far south they would find a wasted country without grass. Apparently they had done just that. The terrain prevented them from turning west, so they headed north across a range of mountains. Again the fortunate party found water. They camped near a small stream and followed it the next day into a canyon with towering walls several hundred feet high. As they proceeded, the canyon floor transformed into a maze of huge boulders. They trudged on wearily with no place for them or their animals to lie down and rest.

The canyon led the exhausted party directly north. The directions from Fort Hall again echoed through their minds - if they veered too far north they would find broken country and steep canyons where they could become hopelessly lost. They simply had to somehow turn west. Early one morning, several scouts scaled the canyon wall for a better view. This time the news they brought down was good. The country looked much better three or four miles ahead. Suddenly the weary travelers caught their second wind. "Even the animals seemed to take courage," Bidwell recalled. By one o'clock that afternoon they had not only located more hospitable territory but had found the only landmark the Fort Hall scouts had been able to give them - Mary's River.

Mary's River, nowadays called the Humboldt, would lead the weary party on a southwestern journey for days. As they traveled farther, they ran across numerous Indians. They also noticed a great many tule marshes. The top of the tule reed was coated with honeydew - which was usually covered with insects feasting on the sweet nectar. The friendly Indians offered Bidwell and the rest, pressed balls of the honeydew, which was apparently the local delicacy. "At first," Bidwell recorded, "we greatly relished this Indian food." Their appetites rapidly diminished, however, when they discovered the main ingredient in the tasty treat was not the honeydew, but the insects.

Their arduous journey was definitely not over, but the sight of the friendly Indians and the refreshing river refueled their spirits. As they made their way along the Humboldt River, they approached a mountain range. Aware they must be getting close to California, several of the party felt they should leave the animals behind and "rush on into California." Fortunately, calmer heads prevailed and they kept the animals for potential food. Their decision proved to be a life-saving one. "When we killed our last ox," Bidwell would later record, "we shot and ate crows or anything we could kill, and one man shot a wildcat."

Once more, good fortune stepped in. They eventually approached the edge of the San Joaquin Valley. "But we did not even know that we were in California," Bidwell remembered. They entered the valley in the evening, sleeping as night fell. The next morning, they arose to view rich timberland to the north. As they reached the wooded area, they found not only the fresh water of the Stanislaus River, but abundant game and wild grapes. None of the party, however, realized they had actually reached their promised land. "Some thought it was five hundred miles yet to California," Bidwell recalled.

After another day's travel, two advanced scouts encountered a lone Indian wearing a cloth jacket. He plainly spoke the name, "Marsh." The scouts realized he must know Doctor John Marsh, who had written the letter that had helped to encourage their efforts. One of the scouts followed him to Marsh's ranch while the other returned to guide the rest of the party there. Two days later, on November 4, 1841, the exhausted but proud little party of the Western Emigration Society stood in the first settlement in California. Despite their unfamiliarity with the path, they had become the first emigrant party to reach that state. Their courage, stamina and resolve, much like their previous ignorance of the route, had apparently been "complete."