Scaling the Sierras

The first organized American pioneers to cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains into California was the Bartleson-Bidwell Party in 1841, but to do so they had to abandon their wagons in what today is Nevada.  Gold had not been discovered, so this group taking a courageous step into the unknown consisted of Catholic missionaries, settlers seeking better opportunities (including the large Kelsey clan from Kentucky) and rough, resourceful adventurers.  Some were headed for Oregon, others were set on California.  Their guide was an experienced frontiersman who was only going as far west as present-day Idaho.  If they had a map at all, it was scrabbled together from the bare-bones guidelines of previous expeditions by trappers and missionaries who had established a trail of sorts to Oregon toward the end of the 1830s.  Most had read the glowing reports about California written by Dr. John Marsh to friends in Missouri and his sketchy advice describing a route across the Sierras, which he had never traveled.  Their journey was hard and perilous.  At Soda Springs (Idaho) the larger party split, with 32 men, Nancy Kelsey, and her two year old daughter Martha Ann determined for California.  Half starved and desperate, they somehow missed the Truckee River Pass, crossing near present-day Sonora Pass where they followed the Stanislaus River west to Dr. John Marsh’s ranch near Mt. Diablo.  Several months later Nancy and Benjamin Kelsey settled in the Napa Valley.  John Bidwell became Captain John Sutter’s right hand man in the Sacramento Valley and ultimately the founder of Chico, California.


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