The Establishment of the California Trail

Nancy Kelsey, pioneer Californian and Bartleson-Bidwell group member.

A group of settlers from Missouri was the first to split off from others continuing on the Oregon Trail to follow its dreams in California. The group, with thirty-two men, one woman, and a baby, had to abandon its wagons in Nevada, its horses were stolen by Indians, and it had only a slight idea where it was—the California Trail had not been identified and they had no guide, maps, or guidebooks. One member of the group later recalled: "Our ignorance of the route was complete. We knew that California lay west, and that was the extent of our knowledge."

They crossed Sonora Pass on foot and followed the Stanislaus River down into the Great Valley, not even knowing that they had reached California. All thirty-four members of the group arrived safely.

Twenty-seven-year-old Charles M. Weber (1814–1881), who later founded Stockton, was one of the so-called Bartleson-Bidwell group. Although his first trip through what was to become San Joaquin County was under dire circumstances, one wonders if he recognized the richness of this area. It was very similar to the Landstuhl Swamps near his home in southwest Germany, from which rich farmland had been reclaimed.

Four members of the group were Kelseys: brothers Andrew and Benjamin, and Ben's wife Nancy and their baby Martha Ann. The Kelsey family was involved in many notable events in early California. Kelseyville in Lake County and Kelsey's Diggings (Kelsey) in El Dorado County are named for them.

Although Ben Kelsey may have really led the group over the Sierra, John Bidwell's name was attached to it after he gained prominence and wrote an account of the journey. Bidwell (1819–1900), was a twenty-one-year-old school teacher on the trip west, but he later founded an agricultural empire and the City of Chico in Butte County and served as a U.S. senator. Bidwell recalled:

[W]e saw timber to the north of us, evidently bordering a stream running west. It turned out to be the stream that we followed down [out of] the mountains—the Stanislaus River. As soon as we came in sight of the bottom land of the stream we saw an abundance of antelopes and sandhill cranes. We killed two of each the first evening. Wild grapes also abounded. The next day we killed fifteen deer and antelopes, jerked the meat and got ready to go on….

We were really almost down to tidewater and did not know it. Some thought it was five hundred miles yet to California. But all thought we had to cross at least that range of mountains in sight to the west before entering the promised land, and how many [ranges] beyond no man could tell. Nearly all thought it best to press on lest snows might overtake us in the mountains before us, as they had already nearly done on the mountains behind us—the Sierra [Nevada].

It was now about the first of November. Our party set forth bearing northwest, aiming for a…gap north of a high mountain in the chain west of us. That mountain was found to be Mount Diablo….

[J]udging from the timber we saw, we concluded there was a river to the west…. The timber proved to be along what is now known as the San Joaquin River. …[We] found ourselves two days later at Dr. Marsh's ranch, and there we learned that we were really in California and our journey [was] at an end. After six months we had now arrived at the first [American] settlement in California, [on] November 4, 1841.

Thus the California Trail was initiated….

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