On my birthday, which was the first day of August, 1841, we camped on the summit of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Fifty-five years later, Nancy was confused where she spent her birthday. She celebrated her birthday at the summit of the Rocky Mountains, not the Sierra Nevada’s. They made their crossing by way of the Sonora Pass and by way of the Stanislaus River into the San Joaquin Valley.  

We did not know where we were. The party scattered to find the best way to descend the mountains. I was left with my baby alone and, as I sat there on my horse, and listened to the sighing and the moaning of the winds through the pines. It seemed the loneliest spot in the world.

The descent, when we found it, was so abrupt that an Indian, who had come to us in the mountains, was allowed to lead my horse for part of the way.

At one place an old man in the party became so exhausted or unwilling to move they had to threaten to shoot him before he would proceed. At another place four of the pack animals fell over a bluff. We never even tried to recover them (meat from the dead animals or the provisions they carried) because they were so far down it was no use to think of it.

We were out of provisions as we had eaten all our cattle. I walked bare-footed until my feet were blistered. For two days, I had nothing to eat but acorns. My husband came near to dying of cramps and someone suggested we leave him. I protested. I said, ‘I will never leave him as long as there is life.’ We killed a horse and stayed over until the next day when Ben was able to go on.

The four Kelsey brothers were Ben, Andrew, Samuel, and Isiah. Ben and Sam were part of the Bloody Island Massacre (Future episode).

My husband’s brother (Andrew Kelsey) and a man named Jones (Thomas Jones) had strayed from our party while we were in the mountains and they had gone scouting for a way down. We thought they were dead. We found their packs so we believed they were still alive after all. Later, after we got to Dr. Marsh’s ranch, this proved correct. There was no food and I got so weak I lay on the ground while my husband went out to hunt. He killed a deer.

When we got to the San Joaquin Valley it was a dry plain. There was hardly any grass for our horses and mules. I found out later California had no rain for eighteen months. After we traveled for two days, Charley Hopper killed two coyotes. They were cooked and we shared them.

As we neared Dr. Marsh’s ranch (near Martinez), who should come to us but Tom Jones and one of the Indians. I said earlier we thought he had died looking for a way down from the mountains. Tom and the Indians had some farina for me and they led us to the ranch, where we finally arrived at our destination on November 4, 1841… but as I tell this story it was fifty-five years ago.

Nancy Kelsey and the party suffered as they crossed the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The Sonora Pass is nearly ten thousand feet high. Today, with modern roads, it is difficult. With nothing to guide them, weary, hungry and travel-worn, crossing the ‘California Trail’ nearly expended all their energies and resources on what had been a three-thousand-mile journey to reach California. What is even more remarkable is how clearly and accurately (Bidwell’s account bears out her story) Nancy Kelsey was able to recall those events in her life at the age of seventy years, when she was suffering from cancer.


                          Next Week: Fighting Indians

                         Lake County History. $32. (includes. Tax & Shipping)

                          Pal Publishing, PO Box 6, Upper Lake, Ca 95485

                          For more of Gene’s books see Website: genepaleno.com

Gene Paleno

Gene runs his life at a full sprint. In his ninety-three years he's dug ditches, painted signs, played semi-pro football, worked as a taxicab driver, an insurance agent, and a school teacher. He's been a technical artist, a marketing director, and a business owner. He served in World War II, raised four children, and was married to the love of his life for fifty years. He's an accomplished oil painter and skilled in ceramics. He's written fifteen books, including the definitive Lake County History, and doesn't show any signs of slowing down.

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