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Sunday, February 20, 2000

Pioneer McMahan experienced risky times

Jerry Bowen

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Much has been written about the wagon trains and the thousands who fell under the spell of the Gold Rush. But there were those that paved the way, so to speak, for the ‘49ers. One of the more notable early wagon trains was that of the Bidwell-Bartleson party. It can be said their journey marked the beginning of the settlement of the far West.

In May 1841, a party of 69 people left Sapling Grove, Mo., bound for the West. John Bartleson was the captain; Talbot H. Green, president; and John Bidwell, secretary.

They were joined by a band of missionaries led by Father Pierre and their guide, Thomas Fitzpatrick. He led the combined group from the Kansas River to the Bear River via Fort Laramie, Wyo. Their route took them past Independence Rock, Wyo., and crossed over the divide between the Green and Bear rivers to Soda Springs, Idaho.

At this juncture, about half the party turned northward on the Oregon Trail. Considering it far too dangerous, Fitzpatrick attempted to persuade the others to give up the California project but to no avail.

Green McMahan and his cousin Nelson McMahan were among those bound for California. Without the benefit of a guide, the party endured severe hardship, eventually abandoning their wagons upon reaching the Sierra Nevadas.

The Bidwell-Bartleson party was the first to arrive at the John Marsh Ranch near the base of Mount Diablo in November 1841. Dr. Marsh had been sending letters East to encourage emigration, but it soon became evident the good doctor was motivated by profit rather than goodwill.

As a result of the difficulties, the decision to move on was made. Bidwell, Green McMahan and two others set out for Sutter’s Fort. The eight-day journey was made in the rain across flooded country, three days of which were without food. Graciously received by Sutter, McMahan stayed at the fort from the fall of 1842 until the following spring. He moved on to Putah Creek in Solano County and took employment on the ranch of John Wolfskill.

Hearing of the “immense advantages” in Oregon, McMahan joined 41 other men in May 1843. They bought and drove 1,250 head of cattle, 600 horses and mules, and nearly 300 sheep to Oregon with the intention of settling there.

The journey was not without its hazards. American Indians killed several of their horses and a mule at the head of the Sacramento Valley, shot a horse with an arrow near Shasta Butte and stole 25 horses as the party was descending the Siskiyou Mountains.

Arriving at the Oregon border offered no respite. Once again under attack, they lost several more head of stock to American Indians. In all it took the party a grueling 75 days to reach the Willamette Valley.

The account says they reached Oregon about the time the immigrants began to arrive, and the remaining stock was sold at a profit.

McMahan expressed his displeasure with the cold, rainy climate of Oregon and of his decision to return to California in a letter to Dr. Marsh. On Sunday, June 8, 1845, the McMahan-Clyman party, consisting of 39 men, one woman and three children, started for California from the present-day site of Oregon City. Arriving at Cache Creek, McMahan encountered his former boss, John Wolfskill. To celebrate the reunion, Wolfskill had a cow butchered in honor of the occasion, and a fine feast ensued.

In May 1846, McMahan and young Calvin Griffith, age 16, were cutting wood in Napa Valley when they encountered a grizzly bear with cubs. Reacting to the danger in time, Griffith escaped, but McMahan was left to his fate. He attempted to fend off the beast with an ax, but the enraged animal knocked it out of his hand. Mauled and bitten, he feigned death.

The sow covered her “kill” with leaves and left. McMahan struggled to his feet and began to climb the nearest tree, but the bear returned before he could reach safety. She pulled him from the tree, mangling his wrist and tearing the flesh from his chest.

Again he feigned death; again the beast turned away. Being near a creek bank, McMahan dropped over the edge and made his way to the other side. A rescue party headed by Griffith found him in serious condition, crawling on his hands and knees after finally escaping from the bear. During his recuperation he was confined to a room for several months in the home of George Yount - Yountville’s founder - in Napa County.

McMahan enrolled for service in the Mexican War at Sonoma on Oct. 6, 1846, for a period of six months. He served as a private in Company D, under the command of Capt. Sears in Fremont’s California Mounted Riflemen Battalion. He served for only a short time, as the wounds made by the bear had not healed and were so painful he was forced to give it up.

Shortly after his release from the army, McMahan purchased 160 acres on Putah Creek, in Solano County from John Wolfskill, and in March 1859, purchased an adjacent 1,366 acres from Wolfskill for the sum of $10,933.

In the ‘60s, when the Wolfskill brothers began to grow wheat, they divided their interests in the ranch, and McMahan helped John Wolfskill construct a fence around his property. In a single year they built 21 miles of fence at a cost of $10,000. Wolfskill constructed an adobe on McMahan’s land in payment for his help.

On March 7, 1860, he married Mrs. Lavenia Ellen Clarke Yount, the widow of John Burnette Yount (George Yount’s nephew), who was killed three years before. Later he bought into Lake County’s Bartlett Springs in March 1877. Ever the entrepreneur, he bought more land around Bartlett Springs and developed it into one of the area’s most popular destinations for health and relaxation.

McMahan suffered a stroke in fall 1884 and died in November of that same year. He was buried in the Sacramento City Cemetery. The funeral was conducted by the Sacramento Association of California Pioneers, of which he long had been a member. The Nov. 23 issue of the Woodland Daily Democrat paid the following tribute:

“... With Mr. McMahan’s death there passes away another of those heroic landmarks who became conspicuous in laying the foundation of California’s unrivaled progress and prosperity ...”