Heritage Day at John Marsh’s Rancho

John Marsh in 1852

John Marsh in 1852

John Marsh’s letters were a prime motivator in getting John Bidwell to California. Marsh, already living in California, wrote to Missouri newspapers and extolled the attractions of his new home. That, plus the tales told by Antoine Robidoux, convinced John Bidwell to start up the Western Emigration Society and gather folks to go with him to a place 2000 miles away.

At the end of their trek the Bidwell-Bartleson party of exhausted pioneers were welcomed by John Marsh himself, who fed them and told them what their next moves should be (get a passport, find a job.)  At the time Marsh was living on a Mexican land grant in an adobe house. That house is long gone, but Marsh’s later house is still standing, although in desperate needed of restoration.

The John Marsh Historic Trust has taken on the task of restoring the house, and Marsh Creek State Park is the newest state park in California. Together the trust members and state parks crews are working to renovate the house and someday open it to the public.

On Saturday, October 11, the John Marsh Historic Trust is hosting a FREE Heritage Day at the rancho with tours, booths, Native American dancing, roping and riding, speakers (including me), and lots of activities for the kids. This is a great opportunity to get a rare look at California history at a state park that is not yet open to the public (except on this one special day).

The park is located just south of Brentwood, near Mt. Diablo. Here’s a picture of the house I took about a year ago. You can find better photos at http://www.johnmarshhouse.com.

John Marsh's Stone House

John Marsh’s Stone House

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Pity the Poor Pioneer Woman

On his 1841 trek to California, John Bidwell traveled with several members of the Kelsey family. He never forgot the trials on the trail of Mrs. Samuel Kelsey, wife of the oldest of four Kelsey brothers on the trip.

I remember Mrs. Samuel Kelsey; I pitied her. We had traveled all day and everybody was tired. It was hard work to get a fire built, but she managed to and was frying some bacon and tried to make some coffee. She had, I think, five children, the smallest of which could barely stand alone.

They were all standing about, crying at the top of their voices for something to eat. Just at that time the coffee upset and it went into the bacon and put out the fire. She threw up her hands and hollered out loud enough for the whole camp to hear:

“I wish to the Lord I had never got married!”


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Sherman and Bidwell

General William Tecumseh Sherman

General William Tecumseh Sherman

I am currently reading Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman, by Robert L. O’Connell. I recommend it to all you Civil War buffs out there, as well as anyone who wants to read a well-written biography of a great American.

The author notes that the two decades between 1820 and 1840 seem to have been crucial in forming the American character. Alexis de Tocqueville toured the United States in 1830 and proclaimed the emergence of Homo democraticus, a new kind of creature “whose passion for equality and self-interest was tempered only by his ability to join fellow citizens in all manner of mutual associations for pragmatic benefit.”

William Tecumseh Sherman was born in 1820, and John Bidwell in 1819. Both of them, in their own ways, epitomized this new man: “exuberant, optimistic, egalitarian, and opinionated–ready to take any situation in hand and shape it to their own advantage.”

This certainly describes Bidwell, who prided himself on his self-possession and ability to handle any situation. We sometimes forget that he had a sense of humor and a love of his fellow-man. He was forward-looking and confident, with a belief in America as a place where any man with gumption and the will to work could succeed.

Two admirable men: Bidwell and Sherman, each a great American success. To read about their first meeting, check out this blog entry.

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Ever Been to Nataqua?

lassenbookI’ve been reading about Peter Lassen in Legendary Truths by Ken Johnston. I recommend the book to anyone who wants a detailed account of Lassen’s life and the development of the Lassen Trail. Johnston dispels many old myths about Lassen as a pathfinder and the viability of the Lassen Trail as a route to the goldfields of California.

Although we usually think of Lassen as living at his Mexican land grant, Rancho Bosquejo, on Deer Creek in Tehama County, that is not where he ended his life. In 1855 he moved to Honey Lake Valley, near Susanville, where he successfully prospected for gold.

His gold find resulted in an influx of miners into the region, with the usual subsequent problems of land ownership and disputed claims. In April 1856 Lassen met with his partner Isadore Meyerowitz and eighteen other settlers at the cabin of Isaac Roop to draw up laws for their area.

Being in a sparsely settled region, far beyond the urban centers of Sacramento and San Francisco, these pioneers did not believe that they were in either the state of California or in Nevada (which at the time was part of Utah Territory.)  Not only that, they didn’t want to pay taxes to California. So they headed up a movement to create a new territory, which they called Nataqua.

Where did they get the name Nataqua? Ken Johnston says that it was a “local Indian word said to mean “Woman.””  Of course, this doesn’t explain why they wanted to name their new territory “Woman,” but maybe it was actually the name of someone’s native wife.

Pater Lassen was elected chairman or president of the committee meeting, and Isaac Roop was secretary. The committee declared Nataqua Territory to be 240 miles long and 155 miles wide, with coordinates that included most of northwest Nevada and a strip of northeast California. They intended Honey Lake Valley and Susanville to be part of the new territory, although the designated coordinates actually left them outside the bounds of Nataqua.

Peter Lassen is generally considered to be the first governor of Nataqua Territory, although he was actually only elected as surveyor. On his death in 1859 Isaac Roop took over as the purported governor. In 1861 the territory of Nevada was created, but the border between California and Nevada was a matter of dispute and it wasn’t until a survey was done in 1863 that the uncertain border was clarified and Nataqua Territory quietly went away into the mists of history.


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Sierra Stories

index If you enjoy stories about California history, then this book is for you: Sierra Stories: Tales of Dreamers, Schemers, Bigots and Rogues, by Gary Noy. I saw the author last night at Lyon Books; he brings the Sierra Nevada to life with stories about the people and their “magnificent peculiarities.”

Some of these personalities you have probably heard of, like Lola Montez, the exotic “Spanish” dancer (born in Ireland), the artist Albert Bierstadt, whose paintings of the Sierra were more beautiful than the original, and the photographer Eadweard Muybridge, famous for his “moving pictures” photos and for shooting his wife’s lover. But most of them are forgotten today, ones like beloved soprano Kate Hayes, the “Swan of Erin” and Okei Ito, founder of the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Company.

Each chapter is short, but packed with entertaining information, and each chapter ends with another little related story, making for 64 stories all told. Gary Noy selected these 64 from some 300 stories he has collected over the years as he roamed the byways of the Sierra Nevada and delved into the archives of California history.

flumerideIt is impossible to pick a favorite story, but one of the best is the tale of “The Ultimate Thrill” of riding the Bonanza V flume near Virginia City at a speed so fast that it seemed to “annihilate time and space.”

Pick this book up and you will enjoy every chapter.

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Devil’s Gate

Devil's Gate from the Independence Rock side. Photo from www.independencerock.org

Devil’s Gate. Photo from http://www.independencerock.org

The Devil’s Gate is a picturesque feature a few miles south of Independence Rock. John Bidwell doesn’t mention it. He only says:

Tuesday, 6th. . . .  Went upstream about 8 miles and encamped on Sweet Water.

Which means they would have camped near Devil’s Gate. But it is impossible to get wagons through the narrow passage. Luckily just to the left is an easy way around the end of the rock formation.



Wednesday, 7th. As we journeyed, the mountains were high and naked; passed a pond that was nearly dried up, perfectly white with Glauber Salts.

A bed of "Glauber salts" near Devil's Gate.

A bed of “Glauber salts” near Devil’s Gate.







Father DeSmet, in describing the Sweetwater River, says:

But suddenly changing its course, we see it or rather hear it rushing impetuously through a long cleft in a chain of mountains. These mountains, which harmonize well with the torrent, exhibit the most picturesque scenes; travelers have named this spot the Devil’s Entrance. In my opinion they should have rather named it Heaven’s Avenue, for if it resembles hell on account of the frightful disorder which frowns around it, it is still a mere passage, and should rather be compared to the way to heaven on account of the scene to which it leads.

I imagine Father DeSmet had the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:14 in mind: “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way that leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.”

Travelers on the Oregon Trail often remarked on this unusual cut in the rock as they passed around it. Some would wade on foot or ride their horses through the Gate, just for the fun of it, while the wagons went around to the south.

Today the Devil’s Gate is on private land. The LDS Church has a Visitor’s Center on the south side of the Gate. The Mormon Handcart Historic Site at Martin’s Cove commemorates the two pioneer handcart companies that were trapped here by bad weather in October and November 1856. An interpretive display just off the freeway tells the story of the Oregon Trail and the handcart companies.

Devil's Gate.

Devil’s Gate from the Martin’s Cove side.

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Independence Rock

Independence Rock

Independence Rock

On July 5th John Bidwell wrote:

Monday, 5th. The hills continued to increase in height. After travelling 16 miles we encamped at a noted place called Independence Rock. This is a huge isolated rock covering an area, perhaps half a square mile, and rising in shape of an irregular obtuse mound to the height of 100 feet.

Father DeSmet wondered how the feature acquired such a “pompous name,” and thought it might be because of its isolated situation. But he was told that:

It was called so because the first travellers who thought of giving it a name, arrived at it on the very day when the people of the United States celebrate the anniversary of their emancipation from Great Britain.

As Bidwell wrote:

It took its name from the celebration of the 4th of July at this place by Capt. Wm. Sublette, and it now bears many names of the early travellers to these regions.

Sublette, fur trapper and mountain man, gave the rock its name in 1830, as he led 81 men and 10 wagons to the Wind River to hunt for furs and trade with the Indians. It became, as Father DeSmet called it, the “Great Register of the Desert,” as countless trappers, traders, emigrants, and missionaries carved or painted their names on the rock. IMGP4860

Today you can visit Independence Rock, walk the path around its base, even climb on it. (Watch out for mosquitoes–Wyoming mosquitoes are big and mean and I have the bites to prove it.) Hunt for names—the earliest I spotted was from 1890, but a careful search should turn up earlier ones. Many pioneers carved their names on the rock, but others only painted them with tar or grease, and those names have faded away.

IMGP4855Enjoy the adventure! (Mosquitoes and all.)

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