Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Bartleson-Bidwell Emigrant Party Enter Idaho, Headed for California [otd 08/08]

John Bidwell, 1840.
Meriam Library, Chico State University.
On August 8, 1841, the group generally referred to as the Bartelson-Bidwell emigrant party entered what would one day become the state of Idaho. By most accounts, John Bidwell had been the driving force behind this first larger movement of settlers to the West.

John was born in 1819, in New York state. Later, the family moved west as far as Ohio. John himself continued further west, and 1840 found him teaching school in Missouri. Unhappy with his prospects there, Bidwell listened with great interest to stories of California told by Frenchman Antoine Robidoux.

Bidwell later wrote, “His description of California was in the superlative degree favorable, so much so that I resolved if possible to see that wonderful land.”

As a result, sixty-nine emigrants headed west in May 1941. The “captain” of the train was one John Bartleson, who had campaigned for the position and refused to go unless he got it. Bidwell apparently didn’t care, he just wanted to get on with it.

In his later account, Bidwell wrote, “Our ignorance of the route was complete. We knew that California lay west, and that was the extent of our knowledge.”

Fortunately, they learned that a party including Roman Catholic Father Pierre-Jean de Smet [blog, Jan 31] was also starting west. Their guide was experienced Mountain Man Thomas “Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick. Since larger parties were generally safer, de Smet and Fitzpatrick let the Missouri group join them.

Bidwell said the presence of the “old mountaineer” was particularly important when the train’s “easily excited” people first encountered Indians. Without Fizpatrick’s experience and knowledge, Bidwell felt, “the result would certainly have been disastrous.”
Father de Smet. Library of Congress.

The travelers followed what would become the primary route of the Oregon Trail in southeast Idaho. By the time they reached Soda Springs, only sixty-four emigrants remained: one had accidently shot and killed himself, one stopped along the way, and three turned back.

Fitzpatrick and de Smet planned to head north from Soda Springs, following a path that would take them to Fort Hall. Although the emigrants had only crude maps to go by, they were sure the Fort Hall route would not get them to California. They did know from missionary reports that the more northerly track would take them to Oregon.

Thus, half the party decided to visit the fort and take the known trail to Oregon. They were the largest emigrant party to trek across Idaho to that time. The other thirty-two pioneers, including Bidwell, held to their original goal. Fitzpatrick could offer only second- or third-hand information about how they might get to California.

The Bidwell group turned south along the Bear River, having sent four men to Fort Hall to learn what they could. Bidwell wrote, “We were now thrown entirely upon our own resources. All the country beyond was to us a veritable terra incognita.”

Despite their profound ignorance, they did win through to California, although they almost starved along the way. Bidwell later played a prominent role in California history.
References: [B&W]
John Bidwell, “The First Emigrant Train to California,” Century Magazine, New York (1890).
David L. Bigler, “Bartelson-Bidwell Party” Utah History Encyclopedia, Utah History to Go.
“Site Report - Cache Valley (1822-1884),” Reference Series No. 610, Idaho State Historical Society (December 1981).


  1. This is the best website to learn about bidwell!!!

  2. While I'm pleased by the compliment, I rather hope that it's not entirely true. The folks at Chico State have a lot more material about Bidwell, whereas I focused on his Idaho connection. The URL for one overview article is http://www.csuchico.edu/pub/inside/archive/97_09_25/top_story1.html

    Anyway, thanks for the kind words!