© 2008 Utah Humanities Council
In 1841, a small group of emigrants set out from Sapling Grove, Missouri, to begin a new life in the Far West. Scholars still disagree about how many were actually in the party, but we know the original company, headed by John Bartleson, numbered between 60 and 70 members, and included a new mother by the name of Nancy Kelsey. Kelsey (only 18 years old at the time) and her infant daughter Ann were the first white females to cross the Great Basin.
The emigrant trail up the Platte River to the Far West was still relatively new in 1841, and the Bartleson party had no firsthand knowledge of the way. Luckily, shortly after leaving Missouri they fell in with a group of Jesuit missionaries guided by mountain man Thomas “Broken Hand” Fitzpatrick. The Bartleson party traveled with the missionaries as far as present-day Soda Springs, Idaho. There Fitzpatrick, the Jesuits, and around half of the original company from Missouri chose to continue on to the Oregon Country via Fort Hall on the Snake River, while the other half of the Bartleson party decided to head southwest toward California. This second group was completely on its own. With no guide, the emigrants had only stories of the route and sketchy advice to aid them.
Following the Bear River down its course to the Great Salt Lake, the party skirted the lake’s northern shores, and eventually curved southward across the blazing desert toward Pilot Peak north of modern-day Wendover. Here they abandoned some of their wagons; the rest they abandoned some days later, opting to pack their food and belongings on horses and mules across another stretch of desert to the Humboldt River. Once on the Humboldt, the road was easier. Following the river southwest across what is now Nevada, the emigrants finally reached the Sierra Nevada Range. Crossing the mountains at Sonora Pass the company finally straggled into the California lowlands, after 6 months on the trail from Missouri.
According to historians, the Bartleson party achieved a number of firsts. Not only were they the first pioneers to cross northern Utah in wagons, but they were also the first emigrant company to cross the Great Basin and the Sierra Nevadas. They were also the first planned overland party to emigrate to California.
See David L. Bigler, Forgotten Kingdom: The Mormon Theocracy in the American West, 1847-1896 (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1998), 32-33; Richard D, Poll, ed,, Utah’s History (Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 1989), 71-72; Peter H. DeLafosse, ed., Trailing the Pioneers: A Guide to Utah’s Emigrant Trails, 1829-1869 (Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press and Utah Crossroads, Oregon-California Trails Association, 1994), 33-53; Charles Kelly, Salt Desert Trails (Salt Lake City: Western Epics, 1996). 12-18; Michael S. Durham, Desert Between the Mountains: Mormons, Miners, Padres, Mountain Men, and the Opening of the Great Basin, 1772-1869 (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997), 73-76; and Thomas G. Alexander, Utah: The Right Place, 2d ed. (Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith, 2003), 70.