In 1840 Bidwell took a holiday in St. Louis. When he returned home he discovered that a local claim-jumper had stolen his farm. The man's reputation for violence was so bad that the authorities of Platte County were unwilling to enforce Bidwell's land rights. Disillusioned by these events, Bidwell decided to leave Missouri. After reading a book by Antoine Robidoux he began to consider the prospect of emigrating to California. As Bidwell explained at the time: "his description of the country made it seem like paradise". Bidwell was also inspired by the stories of how men such as John Sutter, John Marsh and Thomas Oliver Larkin had made a success of living near the mouth of the Sacramento River.
Bidwell now established the Western Emigration Society and published news that he intended to take a large wagon train to California. The idea was very popular and soon the society had the names of 500 people who wanted to take part in this momentous event. Missouri shopkeepers, fearing a rapid decline in customers, decided to mount a campaign against the idea. Local newspapers published stories about the dangers of travelling overland to California. Also, a great deal of publicity was given to Travels in the Great Western Prairies, a book by Thomas Farnham. In the book Farnham described in detail the hardships people would face on the journey.
As a result of this campaign only a small group turned up to leave Sapling Grove on 9th May, 1841. This included Josiah Belden and Charles Weber. This was to be the first ever wagon train taking people from the Missouri River to California. The Bidwell expedition included only five women. Bidwell later admitted that the party included no one who had ever been to California: "Our ignorance of the route was complete. We knew that California lay west, and that was the extent of our knowledge." So when Bidwell heard a group of missionaries, led by Pierre-Jean De Smet, and guided by the experienced Tom Fitzpatrick, were also intending to travel to Fort Hall, it was decided to wait until they arrived at Sapling Grove. Fitzpatrick agreed to take Bidwell's party to Fort Hall. Bidwell later claimed that was a most important factor in the the party's survival: "it was well we did (wait for Fitzpatrick), for other wise probably not one of us would ever have reached California, because of our inexperience".
The combined party left Sapling Grove on 12th May, 1841. As Frank McLynn pointed out: "The missionaries' four carts formed the vanguard, each drawn by two mules hitched in tandem. The main party consisted of eight wagons drawn either by mules or horses. In the rear were the slowest-moving vehicles - six wagons drawn by oxen." They followed the Sante Fe Trail for two days before branching off on a faint path created by fur traders who had already made the journey to Fort Laramie.
On 16th May, 1841, De Smet wrote in his journal: "I hope that the journey will end well; it has begun badly. One of our wagons was burned on the steamboat; a horse ran away and was never found; a second fell ill, which I was obliged to exchange for another at a loss. Some of the mules took fright and ran off, leaving their wagons; others, with wagons, have been stalled in the mud. We have faced perilous situations in crossing steep declivities, deep ravines, marshes and rivers."
The journey became even more difficult after crossing the Kansas River. The long grass interspersed with trees, resulted in most of the families abandoned the heavy furniture they were trying to transport in their wagons. Father Nicolas Point wrote that the "terrain between Westport and the Platte is one of those endless undulations which bear a perfect resemblance to those of the sea when it is agitated by a storm." Point also recorded that on a single day the party killed a dozen rattlesnakes with their whips without leaving the trail.
On 4th June, one of the party, Nicholas Dawson, went out hunting alone and was captured by a group of Cheyenne braves. They removed his clothes and stole his mule, rifle and handgun. Dawson was then released and chased back to the wagon train. Tom Fitzpatrick went out to meet the Cheyenne and after negotiating the return of the mule and rifle, they smoked a peace pipe together.
Nine days later the wagon train experienced its first death. As John Bidwell explained: "A young man by the name of Shotwell, while in the act of taking a gun out of the wagon, drew up the muzzle towards him in such a manner that it went off and shot him in the heart. He lived about an hour and died in full possession of his senses."
On 22nd June the travellers reached Fort Laramie in Wyoming. The Methodist preacher, Joseph Williams, was shocked when he saw that the mountain men had Native American "wives". He also recorded that he disapproved of Fitzpatrick's attitude towards religion: "Our leader, Fitzpatrick, is a wicked worldly man, and is much opposed to missionaries going among the Indians. He has some intelligence, but is deistical in his principles."
The wagon train left the fort two days later. They travelled along the south bank of the North Platte River until they reached the dreaded North Fork crossing. It was too deep for fording so so they had a great deal of difficulty reaching the other side. However, the pioneers got across with the loss of just one drowned mule.
In July the travellers had difficulty finding enough buffalo to kill. The difficult terrain meant that the wagon train was travelling at a slower pace. The journey from Fort Laramie to Soda Springs in Idaho, took forty-eight days to cover the 560 miles, an average of twelve miles a day. There was a short pause at Soda Springs for hunting.
On 11th August the two groups went their separate ways. Pierre-Jean De Smet and Tom Fitzpatrick heading north to Fort Hall, whereas the John Bidwell party continued on the route to California. Only thirty-three people elected to go with Bidwell. Fitzpatrick tried to convince Bidwell to abandon his trip to California and proceed instead to Oregon. Smet later recorded: "They started purely with the design of seeking their fortune in California... and pursued their enterprise with the constancy which is characteristic of Americans."
Bidwell sent four men to Fort Hall to seek advice on how to get to California. Frank McLynn, the author of Wagons West: The Epic Story of America's Overland Trails (2002) has pointed out: "The best intelligence available from Fort Hall was that the California-bound emigrants should go north of the Salt Lake before swinging due west, but should not proceed too far north for fear of running into a maze of rugged canyons, precipices and gulches; on the other hand, if they went too far south, they were likely to end by dying of thirst in the trackless desert."
The wagon train had difficulty finding water to drink. The water they found in the Great Salt Lake area was brackish and had a bad smell of sulphur. The only way the liquid was drinkable was when it was brewed into strong coffee. Even the horses would only drink it in this way. Food was also a problem and on 5th September they decided to kill an ox and to abandon the wagon it was pulling.
The next stage of their journey involved crossing the Nevada desert. After two days they reached Rabbit Hole Spring. Following the trails created by Native Americans they eventually arrived at Mountain Spring near Pilot Peak. It was here that two more wagons were abandoned and the oxen pulling the loads were killed and eaten. For the next three days, the six remaining wagons moved south, across Silver Zone Pass and the Goshute Valley.
On the 15th September the decision was taken to abandon the wagons at the foot of the Pequop Mountains. As Frank McLynn has pointed out: "The reasoning was clear: they could get on faster, could negotiate rough and hilly country more easily, and would they have meat on the hoof in the form of the oxen, now surplus to pulling requirements. Naturally, they would no longer be able to claim that they were the first wagon train to reach California, but by now survival was the issue. Equipment and supplies were unloaded and packed on the backs of mules and oxen. Unused to loads, the oxen become skittish and bucked the packs off." One of the party wrote that: "Bidwell and Kelsey were to miss the wagons most, for their team were oxen, and an ox is not easy to pack or to stay packed."
After passing some hot springs at the foot of Ruby Mountains on 21st September, they came to Mary's River (later renamed the Humboldt River). One traveller called it "the meanest, muddiest, filthiest, stream imaginable". They followed its south fork northwards to the Humboldt Sink, a marshy area, where the river disappeared into the desert. They were only able to kill the odd antelope or jackrabbit. They were now so short of food they began to kill the pack animals. They met a party of Shoshone who gave them food that reminded them of toffee apples. However, the pioneers lost their appetite for this food when they discovered it was a mixure of honey and crushed up locusts, crickets and grasshoppers.
On 18th October the Bidwell party reached the Walker River at the eastern foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Over the next few days they lost four animals while crossing the mountains. On 22nd October the pioneers killed the last of their oxen. One of the party, Josiah Belden, claimed that for the last twenty days he lived on nothing but acorns. They eventually reached the summit close to Sonora Pass and were close to starvation when they found the Stanislaus River in California. By the end of the month they reached the San Joaquin Valley. A member of the Miwok tribe told them Marsh's Fort was close-by.
Of the 69 people in Bidwell's party who set out from Sapling Grove, only 33 people reached Marsh's Fort on 4th November. However, the party became the first emigrants to travel overland from Missouri to the Pacific coast. Cheyenne Dawson wrote: "We had expected to find civilization, with big fields, fine houses, churches, schools, etc. Instead, we found houses resembling unburnt brick kilns, with no floors, no chimneys, and with the openings for doors and windows closed by shutters instead of glass."
According to Frank McLynn, the author of Wagons West: The Epic Story of America's Overland Trails (2002) four of the party, Bidwell, Josiah Belden, Charles Weber and Robert Thomas, all eventually became millionaires. "Robert Thomas became the proprietor of the huge Tehama Ranch in Tehama County. Charles Weber made a fortune and founded the city of Stockton, and Josiah Belden, the first mayor of San Jose, was another who became extremely wealthy."
John Marsh, the owner of Marsh's Fort, provided them with pork and beef tortillas. When he gave them with a bill for five dollars each next morning they decided they could not afford another night of Marsh's hospitality and left the fort in search of work. Bidwell estimated that there was only about one hundred white natives of the United States in California in 1841.
Soon after arriving in California Bidwell met John Sutter: "Sutter received us with open arms and in a princely fashion, for he was a man of the most polite address and the most courteous manners, a man who could shine in any society. Moreover, our coming was not unexpected to him. It will be remembered that in the Sierra Nevada one of our men named Jimmy John became separated from the main party. It seems that he came on into California, and, diverging into the north, found his way down to Sutter’s settlement... Through this man Sutter heard that our company of thirty men were already somewhere in California. He immediately loaded two mules with provisions taken out of his private stores, and sent two men with them in search of us."
Bidwell went to work for Sutter: "The first employment I had in California was in Sutter’s service, about two months after our arrival at Marsh's. He engaged me to go to Bodega and Fort Ross and to stay there until he could finish removing the property which he had bought from the Russians. I remained there fourteen months, until everything was removed; they I came up into the Sacramento Valley and took charge for Sutter of his Hock Farm (so named from a large Indian village on the place), remaining there a little more than a year."
Bidwell discovered gold on the banks of the Feather River during the Californian Gold Rush in 1848. The following year he purchased the 22,000 acre Rancho Chico north of Sacramento. This was a great success and Bidwell became the best-known agriculturist in California.
Bidwell became involved in politics and served in the California Senate. Initially a member of the Democratic Party he was a Republican Party member of Congress from 1865 to 1867. He married the deeply religious, Annie Kennedy, on 16th April, 1868. Annie supported women's suffrage and prohibition. After their marriage they lived in the Bidwell Mansion in Chico. The home was the base for their political activities and guests included Susan B. Anthony, Frances Willard, Ulysses S. Grant, Andrew Johnson, Rutherford B. Hayes and William T. Sherman.
Bidwell joined the Anti-Monopoly Party and in 1875 Bidwell ran for Governor of California. He was fully committed to the temperance movement and in 1892 was the presidential candidate of the Prohibition Party. The Democrat candidate, Grover Cleveland, won the election with 5,556,918 votes, whereas Bidwell could only manage 264,133.
An advocate of the transcontinental railroad and a supporter of Native American rights, Bidwell published his autobiography, Echoes of the Past, just before his death on 4th April, 1900.