First Wagon Train West in 1841

Sierra Clubb, guest writer


“She only cares about herself,” I heard a voice declare in a low tone as I passed through the crowd.

“She has a terrible temper,”

“She will never become anything great,” That comment rung through my head over and over. I ran through the crowd, the condemnation making me angry. If I heard another voice of censure, I would strike him in the face. How dare they judge me?

Looking back, I remember the teacher, Mrs. Alice, informing the class that William Henry Harrison, the new president who had only been in office for a month, died of pneumonia and the vice president, John Tyler, replaced him. Then she talked about the U.S. Election of 1840. I stood up and emphatically announced that my father had voted for Marten Van Buren and this wouldn’t have happened if he had won. Mrs. Alice slapped her ruler on her desk and ordered me to sit down. After school, Mrs. Alice’s sixteen-year-old daughter, Clara, strode up to me as I sat beside a tree. “William Henry Harrison is my mother’s stepbrother’s cousin’s sister-in-law’s uncle. Don’t you ever dare to speak up in class again.” The next thing I remember was wrestling with her in a mud puddle, throwing punches after she told me I don’t know how to act because I don’t have a mother.

That night I had a nightmare about what happened when I was six years old. After being unconscious for several days, my mother lost her life to cancer. I never got to say goodbye to my own mother. My father is just as bitter as I am about it and never speaks with me or my little brother about anything.

My name is Hazel Anne Bidwell; I am seventeen years old. My little brother’s name is Hubert Felix Bidwell, and he is four years younger than me. I like to be alone most of the time. I have a boyfriend named Henry Louis Bartleson, and he is one year older than me. I met Henry when I was two years old. When I became sixteen, we began a relationship and we plan to get married when I turn twenty-two because that is when most couples get married. I have no friends because no one likes me. Girls are mean to me, and I repay them with the same treatment. Boys ignore me, but that is fine because I have Henry. I don’t know why other people don’t like me, but I don’t care because they’re annoying.

* * *

“Gather what you need and pack the Conestoga wagon. We are leaving everything else here,” my father emphatically stated. I had no idea what he was talking about, but he seemed serious.

After packing the wagon, I asked my father where we were going. He explained that since he lost his job due to high unemployment rate caused by the Panic of 1837, we could use a fresh start. Father talked to our small town doctor, Marcus Whitman, he told my father that he “longed to become a missionary . . . to the Indian nations of the Oregon Country . . . Whitman had traveled west the previous year . . . He had walked the length of the great land route that ran from Missouri to Oregon’s Columbia River , a distance of nearly 2,000 miles, and he had returned ready to go west to stay . . .” (McNeese).

Marcus Whitman challenged my father to take a wagon train out west. My father and his former co-worker, John Bartleson, planned to travel west together and lead the train. Neither had traveled west, but they were bold and wanted to accomplish this mission. And Henry will be going too!

* * *

The wagon lurched to a stop and we set up camp in a circle. I’m glad I brought mypalomino , Kizzi, to ride when I get tired of sitting in the wagon. Sitting around the fire that we built, Henry came and sat next to me. His attractive appearance caught the eye of many girls but he didn’t bother to notice them. While we were talking, I noticed a young girl, maybe fourteen years old, intently watching us. When I glanced at her, she quickly reverted her eyes back to her fragile-looking parents. I watched this girl, she seemed timid yet strong at the same time. She looked happy but also seemed to be hiding a secret emotion. I pondered what her name might be. I didn’t venture any farther than that, I don’t like stepping out of my comfort zone.

* * *

I am tired. Tired of the dust. Tired of the jostling wagon. Tired of the blistering horse back rides. Tired of seeing nothing but grass in all directions. Just tired of everything. It has been a month of traveling. We are “traveling roughly 12 to 15 miles a day” (First), and the progress is slow.

I’ve been watching the girl I saw at by the fire that first night. She’s been watching me too. But we try to not let the other notice. I heard her parents call her name a few times. I don’t know her full name, only her first, Hattie. I like that name.

One night, I drank the last of the water we had saved from the most recent river we passed through. Hubert walked up. “I’m thirsty” he whined.

“There’s none left.”

“Are you gonna let me die of thirst? How could you be so selfish?!”

“Stop! You’re so annoying! I never asked for a little brother,” I scowled, “If you must be in the same family as me, then at least leave me alone!” I shouted in his face. He punched my stomach and ran away crying. Suddenly, I looked up and saw that Hattie watching the whole scene. This time, she did not look away when I glanced at her. I might have glared. Instead of a judgmental look, she revealed a gentle smile. She got up, poured some of her own water into two bowls, and walked toward me. I quickly stared at the dirty ground.

“My name’s Hattie,” she approached, smiling.

“Hazel,” I replied coldly.

“I used to have a little brother too. He died three years ago of an unknown illness at the age of seven. I miss him.” She handed me a bowl of water.

“I don’t think I could miss mine,” I stated flatly as I drank from the bowl.

“This one is for your little brother. May I help you find him?” She innocently asked as she handed me the second bowl.

“I don’t want to go looking for him.”

“I will go with you. It will give us a chance to talk.”

“Aallriigghhtt.” I let out a long sigh.

It’s been three months since we left. Hattie is the best friend I ever had. Sometimes I wonder if she sometimes gets tired of my pessimistic moods. She radiates with joy and laughter, always finding a way to make me smile.

* * *

My father and Henry’s father have decided to split the wagon train into two groups: My father will lead one group to California, and John Bartleson will lead the other to Oregon. Then it hit me… I would be separated from Henry! I ran to find Henry and hugged him tight. Hattie walked up and I hugged her and cried. Then the thought crossed my mind. Which group would Hattie be going with? I asked her through my sobbing. “There, there, Hazel. I am staying with you.” She declared comfortingly. I hugged her tighter, Henry was crying now too.

Five months passed after we split groups. Many lost their wagons and a handful of pioneers lost their lives. Many of the adults who are still alive have become weak and frail, and may never reach our destination.

* * *

Six months. Hattie does her best to distract me from missing Henry. This morning, I saw a faint outline of a huge mountain range in front of us. My father told me that we were going through theSierra Nevada Mountains. Hattie and I jumped for joy! Seeing new and interesting geographical features was going to be exciting! Little did we know that in these mountains, a terrible tragedy would occur.

As we slowly descended down the first mountain peek, we realized that our Conestoga wagons were not built for such steep, rough terrain. Hattie and I were riding Kizzi, because we believe it’s safer on horseback than in the wagons. We were having a good time when suddenly we heard a dreadful scraping noise. We looked up and saw one of the wagons sliding down the mountain. I abruptly noticed two heads frantically moving around inside the wagon. Stunned, I watched as the wagon tumbled down the mountain tearing down trees in its path. Behind me, I heard Hattie scream in terror. Then I realized…they were her parents.

We both stared in shock and disbelief. My father jumped on a horse and hastily rode down to the wagon now resting on a small platform on the side of the mountain. A few others followed. My father rode back up and sorrowfully proclaimed Hattie’s parents dead. Hattie continued to stare in shock.

“Hattie!” I tried to wake her out of it.

No reply

“Hattie! I’m here for you.”


“Please talk to me Hattie!”

The dazed creature remained silent.

For two weeks she did not move, eat, or do anything for herself. I took care of her hoping that she would be herself again soon. The next Saturday, as I braided her hair and sang “Buffalo Gals” by Dan Crow, Hattie began to cry.

“Hattie! You’re back! I’m so glad to have my best friend back!”

“Hazel, I…my parents…”

I held her in my arms and whispered softly, “I’m going to take care of you, it will be alright. Trust me. We are almost to California. My father said that we can adopt you and you can be my sister. So I’ll always be here for you.” She hugged me tight while sobbing uncontrollably. I felt

something I’ve never felt before…pity…EMPATHY even. I did not know why I felt it but I knew I was going to help her in every way I can.

* * *

We just arrived in Tuolumne County, California! “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” (First). I was ecstatic to be one of the first five woman to travel west in a wagon train. Now I started to notice people around me who struggled with many different things and for the first time in my life I wanted to help them. Hattie is eating and doing things for herself again. I’m proud of her.

After we built our village and set up a mail system between the west and the east, our town got word that Congress passed the Preemption Act of 1841 stating “that squatters be allowed to preempt lands” (Preemption). That meant that after a few years, we would own the land we built our houses on! We decided we wouldn’t own any slaves because we didn’t want the Amistad Slave Revolt to happen all over again.

I dreamt that someday I would see Henry again. A couple years later, after church ended and everyone was bustling out of the doors, I felt a hand grasp my shoulder and a familiar voice declare my name gently but confidently. I turned around. It was Henry!

Works Cited

“First Wagon Train to California in 1841.” Family Tree, web.                                    March 26 2017.

McNeese, Tim. The Oregon Trail. Chelsea, 2009.

“Preemption Act”, web. April 11 2017.


“Panic of 1837” America’s Library, web. April 3 2017.

Powell, John. The 19th Century. Salem Press, 2017.

“Top names of 1800s”Social Security Administration. web. March 24 2017.

“United States Presidential Election of 1840” Encyclopedia Britannica,                   web. April 4 2017.