First Wagon Train to California in 1841

It was 1840 and the young United States in its most recent U. S. Federal Census showed a population of 17,063,353, which was up 33% from the 1830 census. The states of Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York and Virginia each have a population greater than one million citizens. As had been a tradition among Americans people still wanted to move western, onto new lands and frontiers, to claim their share of America.

It was April 4, 1841 when newly elected President William Henry Harrison was sworn into office only one month before on March 4, died of pneumonia. His time of one month is the shortest in history and his death in office the first for a president of the United States. Vice President John Tyler became the new U. S. President.

There was a young man, John Bidwell, a native of New York, who also continued to move westward and new opportunities. Bidwell at age 21 along with Capt. John Bartleson organized the Western Emigration Society and led the first wagon train of pioneers across the Rocky Mountains. On May 1, 1841 this group headed west out of Missouri. There were 69 adults, with only 5 woman and a couple children. None of them, including Bidwell and Bartleson had ever been to California.

As this group, traveling roughly 12 to 15 miles a day in their Conestoga wagons with their oxen, horses and mules made it to Soda Springs, Idaho, the group broke into two groups. Half wanted to travel to Williamette Valley, Oregon, the other half to California. Capt Bartleson took the Oregon group and John Bidwell led the California group.

With Bidwell were only 33 people and they all suffered desperate hardship after having to abandon their wagons to cover the rough terrain, lack of clear water and near starvation, crossing the Sierra Nevada Mountains before arriving in the area of Tuolumne County on November 4, 1841. It was estimated that only 100 white Americans even lived in California before the wagon train led by Bidwell arrived. Most of the new settlers lived along Sullivan Creek.

If you think you might have ancestors who some of the earliest pioneers to the Tuolumne County in California, visit their web sites by the historical society or the local genealogical society.

A second group of about one hundred people left Missouri, led by Dr. Elijah White, in 1842, bound for Oregon. With successful arrivals people were encouraged to travel west. In May 22, 1843 what was called The Great Migration, the largest migration of pioneers, some 1,000 settlers left from Elm Grove, Missouri. They were guided by Dr. Marcus Whitman. With them for the journey to Oregon they had 100 wagons with a herd of 5,000 cattle. Traveling along the Platte River, by October 1843 they reached the Williamette Valley in Oregon, having traveled 2,000 miles. The population of the Willamette Valley was increased by 875 new settlers. For the next 20 years there was an annual trip to Oregon.

If you have ancestors among those earliest travelers to Oregon in wagon trains this site of the Williamette Valley Genealogy Society can be of assistance.

It would be a few years before masses would travel to California, not until the California Gold Strike of January 1848 which would then bring some 130,000 people over the California Trail.

Photo: John Bidwell, wagon train leader in 1841.

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