John Bidwell | Early Pioneering | Across the Plains | California in the Forties | The Discovery of Gold |

John Bidwell
Early Pioneering

In the spring of 1839--living at the time in the western part of Ohio--being then in my twentieth year, I conceived a desire to see the great prairies of the West, especially those most frequently spoken of, Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri. Emigration from the East was tending westward, and settlers had already begun to invade those rich fields.

Starting on foot to Cincinnati, ninety miles distant, I fortunately got a chance to ride most of the way on a wagon loaded with produce. My outfit consisted of about $75, the clothes I wore, and a few others in a knapsack, which I carried in the usual way strapped upon my shoulders, for in those days travelers did not have valises and trunks. Though traveling was considered dangerous, I had nothing more formidable than a pocket knife. From Cincinnati I went down the Ohio River by steamboat to the Mississippi River, up the Mississippi to St. Louis, and thence to Burlington, in what was then the territory of Iowa.1 Those were bustling days on the western rivers, which were then the chief highways of travel. The scene at the boat landing I recall a s particularly lively and picturesque. Many passengers would save a lot by helping to "wood the boat," i.e., by carrying wood down the bank and throwing it down on the boat, a special ticket being issued on that condition. It was very interesting to see the long line of passengers coming up the gang-plank, each with two or three sticks of wood on his shoulders. An anecdote is told of an Irishman who boarded a western steamer and wanted to know the fare to St. Louis, and being told, asked: "What do you charge for 150 pounds of freight?" Upon learning the price, a small amount, he announced that he would go as freight. "All right," said the captain, "put him down in the hold and lay some flour barrels on him to keep him down."

In 1839 Burlington had perhaps not over 200 inhabitants, though it was the capital of Iowa Territory. After consultation with the governor, Robert Lucas,2 of Ohio, I concluded to go into the interior and select a tract of land on the Iowa River. In those days one was permitted to take up 160 acres, and where practicable it was usual to take part timber and part prairie. After working awhile in putting up a log house--until all the people in the neighborhood became ill with fever and ague--I concluded to move on and strike out to the south and southwest into Missouri. I traveled across country, sometimes by the sun, without road or trail. There were houses and settlements, but they were scattered; sometimes one would have to go twenty miles to find a place to stay at night. The principal game was the prairie hen; the prairie wolf also abounded. Continuing southwest and passing through Huntsville, I struck the Missouri River near Keytesville, Chariton County. Thence I continued up the north side of the river till the westernmost settlement was reached; this was in Platte County. The Platte Purchase, as it was called, had been recently bought from the Indians, and was newly but thickly settled, on account of its proximity to navigation, its fine timber, good water and unsurpassed fertility.

On the route I traveled I cannot recall seeing an emigrant wagon in Missouri. The western movement which subsequently filled Missouri and other western states and overflowed into the adjoining territories, had then hardly begun, except as to Platte County. The contest in Congress over the Platte Purchase,3 which by increasing the area of Missouri gave more territory to slavery, called wide attention to that charming region. The anti-slavery sentiment even at that date ran quite high. This was, I believe, the first addition to slave territory after the Missouri Compromise. But slavery won. The rush that followed in the space of one or two years filled the most desirable part of the Purchase to overflowing. The imagination could not conceive a finer country--lovely, rolling, and fertile, wonderfully productive, beautifully arranged for settlement, part prairie and part timber. The land was unsurveyed. Every settler had aimed to locate half a mile from his neighbor, and there was as yet no conflict. Peace and contentment reigned. Nearly every place seemed to have a beautiful spring of clear cold water. The hills and prairies and the level places were alike covered with a black and fertile soil. I cannot recall seeing an acre of poor ground in Platte County. Of course there was intense longing on the part of the people of Missouri to have the Indians removed and a corresponding desire, as soon as the purchase was consummated, to get possession of the beautiful land. It was in some sense, perhaps, a kind of Oklahoma movement. Another feature was the abundance of wild honey-bees. Every tree that had a hollow in it seemed to be a bee tree, and every hollow was full of rich, golden honey. A singular fact which I learned from old hunters was that the honey-bee was never found more than seventy or eighty miles in advance of the white settlements on the frontier. On this attractive land I set my affections, intending to make it my home.

On my arrival, my money being all spent, I was obliged to accept the first thing that offered, and I began teaching school in the country about five miles from the town of Weston, which was located on the north side of the Missouri River and about four miles above Fort Leavenworth in Kansas Territory. Possibly some may suppose it did not take much education to teach a country school at that period in Missouri. The rapid settlement of that new region had brought together people of all classes and conditions, and had thrown into juxtaposition almost every phase of intelligence as well as illiteracy. But there was no lack of self-reliance or native shrewdness in any class, and I must say I learned to have a high esteem for the people, among whom I found warm and life-long friends.

But even in Missouri there were draw-backs. Rattlesnakes and copperheads were abundant. One man, it was said, found a place to suit him, but on alighting from his horse so many snakes greeted him that he decided to go farther. At his second attempt, finding more snakes instead of fewer, he left the country altogether. I taught school there in all about a year. My arrival was in June, 1839, and in the fall of that year the surveyors came on to lay out the country; the lines ran every way, sometimes through a man's house, sometimes through his barn, so that there was much confusion and trouble about boundaries, etc. By the favor of certain men, and by paying a small amount for a little piece of fence here and a small clearing there, I got a claim, and proposed to make it my home, and have my father remove there from Ohio.

In the following summer, 1840, the weather was very hot, so that during the vacation I could do but little work on my place, and needing some supplies--books, clothes, etc.--I concluded to take a trip to St. Louis, which I did by way of the Missouri River. The distance was 600 miles by water; the down trip occupied two days, and was one of the most delightful experiences of my life. But returning, the river being low and full of snags, and the steamboat heavily laden--the boats were generally lightly loaded going down--we were continually getting on sand-bars, and were delayed nearly a month.

This trip proved to be the turning point in my life, for while I was gone a man had "jumped" my land. Generally in such cases public sentiment was against the jumper, and it was decidedly so in my case. But the scoundrel held on. He was a bully--had killed a man in Callaway County--and everybody seemed afraid of him. Influential friends of mine tried to persuade him to let me have eighty acres, half of the claim. But he was stubborn, and said that all he wanted was just what the law allowed him. Unfortunately for me, he had the legal advantage. I had worked some now and then on the place, but had not actually lived on it. The law required a certain residence, and that the preemptor should be twenty-one years of age or a man of family. I was neither, and could do nothing. Naturally all I had earned had been spent upon the land, and when it was taken I lost about everything I had. There being no possibility of getting another claim to suit me, I resolved to go elsewhere when spring should open.


1. Iowa Territory was set off from Wisconsin Territory by an act of Congress passed June 12, 1838.

2. Robert Lucas, who had been governor of Ohio from 1832 to 1836 was in 1838 appointed the first governor of Iowa Territory. Temporarily the capital was fixed at Burlington, which was, of course, on the eastern border of Iowa. Before long a permanent seat of government was selected farther west to which the name Iowa City was given. The state government was removed thither in 1841. The stone capitol building which was erected for its accommodation is still in use as the administrative center of the State University of Iowa. Burlington, which had been successively the capital of Wisconsin and of Iowa has always remained one of the flourishing cities of the latter state.

3. The western boundary of Missouri when admitted to statehood was a due north and south line drawn through Kansas City, the triangle of land which is enclosed by this line on the east, the Missouri River on the west, and the northern boundary of the state on the north, being then a reservation of the Sauk and Fox Indians. It was later desired to extinguish the native title and add this land to the state of Missouri. Since, however, it lay north of the parallel of 36° 30' and Missouri was a slave state, to do so involved an infringement of the Missouri Compromise restriction of 1820. In 1836 Congress passed a bill, notwithstanding, providing for the purchase, and in 1837 it was formally annexed to the state. Out of the Platte Purchase, as it was commonly called, six counties were eventually carved.

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