First party to make overland journey to California left NEJC 175 years ago today

The mosaic mural of a wagon train party at The Village Shops.
The mosaic mural of a wagon train party at The Village Shops.

On May 12, 1841, a group of more than 60 men, women and children convened at a campground along the Turkey Creek in present-day Overland Park, just a few minutes from the city’s downtown. Led by a seasoned trader named John Bartleson and a 21-year-old teacher from Weston named John Bidwell, the group set out west with an audacious goal: to establish a trail for wagon trains to California.

Though emigrants had been traveling the well-established trail to Oregon for decades, no group had made a successful journey to California. The Bartleson–Bidwell Party followed the Oregon Trail to Caribou County, Idaho, where roughly half of the travelers split off, deciding to take the established route to Oregon instead of taking the risk of the unknown.

The remaining party of 34 — 32 men, one woman and one infant — soldiered on, following the north edge of the Great Salt Lake west. The stresses of the desert ultimately forced the group to abandon their wagons in eastern Nevada, but by making it to the border, they became the first group ever to make it across Utah via a wagon train. Eventually, the group and their remaining animals found what is today the Humbolt River, which provided relief from the rigors of desert travel. They reached the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, successfully traversed them, and ultimately ended up in present day Contra Costa County on November 4, 1841. The nearly six-month journey crossed 2,008 miles.

Today, 175 years later, northeast Johnson County residents can still find the site of the group’s departure. In 2004, the city of Overland Park renamed the neighborhood park just a few hundred yards from the departure point “Sapling Grove Park” in recognition of the name the campground had from its inception in the 1820s.

Here’s a map of the park’s location:

Sapling Grove Park is just a few minutes from downtown Overland Park.
Sapling Grove Park is just a few minutes from downtown Overland Park.