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Nancy Kelsey: California's 1st Female Pioneer Arrives Barefoot and Pregnant and Becomes the "Betsy Ross of CA"

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
November 6, 2023 3:02 am

Nancy Kelsey: California's 1st Female Pioneer Arrives Barefoot and Pregnant and Becomes the "Betsy Ross of CA"

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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November 6, 2023 3:02 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, when the lure of a new life on the farthest edge of the frontier beckoned to Ben Kelsey, Nancy was determined to be at her husband’s side. Together they braved hunger, disaster, illness, betrayal, and death. Nancy Kelsey and her family would play a crucial role in California and American history, becoming the first wave of a great tide that would transform a nation.

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Avocados from Mexico, always good. And we continue here with our American stories. And our next story is about a remarkable woman who played a crucial role in the settlement of the American West, Nancy Kelsey. Roger McGrath is the author of Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes, Violence on the Frontier, a US Marine and former history professor at UCLA. Dr. McGrath has appeared on numerous History Channel documentaries, and he's a regular contributor here for us at Our American Stories.

Here's Roger McGrath with the story of Nancy Kelsey. Nancy Kelsey was the first woman to cross overland to California. She did so carrying her baby daughter and an otherwise all-male party of pioneers that crossed the Great Basin and the Sierra Nevada mountains with no maps or guides, and walked barefoot into California in 1841, the first of a tide of immigrants that would sweep California into the United States. She also became known as the Betsy Ross of California for making the flag raised by the American rebels at Sonoma in 1846.

She would give birth to 10 children and survive unimaginable hardships. She was a pioneer woman who was emblematic of the spirit, drive, and strength that animated Americans on the frontiers of the Old West. William and Sarah Roberts welcomed the birth of their daughter Nancy on August 1, 1823. Sarah is only 17 years old, but that is not unusual in the Scotch-Irish frontier settlements in Barron County, Kentucky. Nancy is born only 30 years after the first whites settled in Barron County, but her parents pick up in 1826 and move west to Jackson County, Missouri in the far western part of that state.

They settle among fellow pioneers from Kentucky. Nancy is reared on the family farm in Jackson County, and in 1838, 15-year-old Nancy marries 25-year-old Ben Kelsey, also a native of Barron County, Kentucky. Here's Cecilia Holland sharing anecdotes from her scrupulously researched book about Nancy Kelsey. An ordinary woman, the remarkable story of the first American woman in California.

On October 25, 1838, a girl of 15 rode eagerly through the blazing Missouri autumn to her wedding. She was a tall, pretty girl with long dark hair and dark eyes and a wide humorous mouth, her face shaped with the high cheekbones and strong jaw of her Scotch-Irish heritage. Her hands on the reins were strong and capable, and she rode astride.

No pampered sheltered city flower. She had been working since her childhood. She could milk a cow, skin a deer, plant a field, drive a team of oxen, load and shoot a rifle.

She had made the dress she was wearing. The child of pioneers bred to courage and risk. She had grown up in the wilderness only a few miles from the great Missouri River that in 1838 was the border of the settled United States. Her name was Nancy Roberts, and West Ring was in her blood. In marrying so young and marrying whom she did, she was choosing a westering life.

One that would take her across the unmapped continent and change American history. Ben and Nancy have a daughter, Martha Ann, in 1839, and in 1841, a son who dies eight days after birth. During May 1841, the Kelsey's joined some 60 other members of the Western Immigration Society to attempt the first pioneer crossing to California.

The group will go down in history as the Bartleson Bidwell Party. Here's Nancy Leake. Nancy is a librarian who writes biographies of California pioneers for children. She's the author of Nancy Kelsey Comes Over the Mountain.

She's the author of Nancy Kelsey Comes Over the Mountain, the true story of the first American woman in California. This is 1841. People in Missouri, where they were living, were just beginning to hear about California. For a very few years, the Oregon Trail had been open, and some people were going to Oregon, but nobody had yet gone to California. That was part of Mexico. But there was an American there, Dr. John Marsh.

He wrote some letters that were published in the newspapers extolling the wonders of California. And also, they heard from fur trappers who had been to California, and they said, you know, it's empty. There's hardly anybody there. Of course, they weren't counting the Native Americans. It was just empty land, free for the taking. Fertile soil, plenty of game, the hunting and fishing would be good, good weather, and above all, it had a healthy climate.

And that was one of the problems people in Missouri had. Ben Kelsey had gotten ill a lot, probably malaria, a lot of chills and fevers, and people were always looking for a healthier climate. And Ben Kelsey had what his wife said was an adventurous disposition.

In other words, he couldn't sit still, and he always wanted to be trying a new place. Although they are tough, hardy and ornery, the members of the party know nothing about the Far West. Our ignorance of the route was complete, said John Pitwell.

We knew that California lay west, and that was the extent of our knowledge. Another member of the party produces a map, which shows two large rivers running westward from the Great Salt Lake to California. He suggests they take long tools for constructing boats so they can float downstream to California on the second half of their journey. When Nancy Kelsey is asked why she is willing to undertake a journey across half a continent to California, she replies, where my husband goes, I go. I can better endure the hardships of the journey than the anxieties for an absent husband. The party are willing but woefully ignorant pioneers has the good fortune to fall in with a group of Jesuit missionaries led by the six-foot eight-inch Belgian-born but American educated Father Pierre Jean de Smet.

The black ropes are being guided and schooled in frontier survival by one of the greatest of all American mountain men, Irish-born Tom Fitzpatrick and several of his beaver trapping partners. Here again is Cecilia Holland. East, in the settled United States, opinion was divided. Some people believe that hardy men could cross the continent but mere women and children would never survive. It was tantamount to murder to take a woman on such a trip. That some missionary women made it was God's providence. In any case, the west was worth nothing. A desert littered with rocks infested with Indians. Other people claimed that the trip was a lark, a mere matter of following the sun.

No matter. They were leaving the United States and somewhere out there California lay and a new life. On May 18, 1841, the combined party leaves Sapling Grove just south of present-day Kansas City. On June 1, the pioneers, mountain men and missionaries, cross the Platte River in central Nebraska and three weeks later they reach Fort Laramie in Wyoming. By now a 20-year veteran of the high plains and the Rockies, Fitzpatrick smooths the way for them and the party is making excellent time.

Here again is Nancy Leek. At first I imagined this trip was kind of like a nice summer camping trip. Going along the Platte River, it's not crowded yet. Plenty of grass for their oxen and other animals. There is one incident where there's a young man in the group named Nicholas Dawson and he goes out hunting and he meets up with a band of Cheyenne Indians who take everything he has. His rifle, his pistol, his knife, his clothing. They take everything and he comes running back into camp. Nancy thought this was hilarious because she says how you would have laughed if you had seen him come running back into camp.

He was entirely naked. They had taken everything. Well, Tom Fitzpatrick goes out and talks to the Indians and he gets almost everything back. But ever after that, Nicholas Dawson was known as Cheyenne Dawson.

Fitzpatrick guides them through South Pass during the middle of July and by August 10 they reach Soda Springs in Southeastern Idaho. And when we come back we'll continue with the story of Nancy Kelsey, a remarkable woman who played a key role in the settlement of the west. Where my husband goes, where my husband goes, I go, she said. And by the way, so many people thought it was tantamount to murder to take a woman, let alone her children.

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Here again is Cecilia Holland, author of An Ordinary Woman, the remarkable story of the first American woman in California. One evening as the settlers were camping by the water, Fitzpatrick came in among them in great excitement. A drove of buffalo was headed straight toward them. He got all the men out with their guns to build fires between the camp and the oncoming tide. Anne wrapped tight in her arms, Nancy and the other women bundled together sleepless through the den. All night long, the men fed the fires and shut off their guns, splitting the onrushing buffalo into two streams that thundered by on either side of the camp in a continuous hours long stampede. One cannot nowadays describe the rush and wildness of the thing, Bidwell said much later. In the morning, the camp was an island in a great sea of woolly round bodies.

The sky was a milky shroud of dust. The buffalo trampling down into the river to drink had fouled the water so that the people could not stomach it. Now a decision has to be made. Fitzpatrick is taking the missionaries to the Pacific Northwest. Here again is Nancy Leake, author of Nancy Kelsey Comes Over the Mountain, the true story of the first American woman in California. Tom Fitzpatrick, the trail guide tells them, you do not want to attempt this. That territory has barely been explored.

It's deserts, it's mountains, it's desolate. And so they they say, all right, we'll go to Oregon, it's too dangerous to go to California. But Ben Kelsey is not the kind of man to change his mind. He's going to California. And wherever he goes, his wife is going to go with him. That's the way she was.

Wherever my husband goes, I go with him. 34 of the Bartison-Bidwell party are determined to push on to California. Among them is the 18 year old Nancy Kelsey and her now two babies.

Martha Ann is in front of her and another one inside of her. Fitzpatrick draws the pioneers a map in the dirt, warning that if they miss Mary's River, known as the Humboldt River today, they will die long before reaching California. In mid-August, without guide or compass, they turn their horses and wagons south and follow the Bear River into Utah.

They reach the great Salt Lake on August 30. They skirt the northern shore of the lake and in the blazing desert to the west are forced to abandon their wagons and pack everything on horses and mules. Desperate now, they turned east and cut as straight across country as they could to find the Bear River again before they all died of thirst. The weaker animals straggled behind and they had to let them lag. The oxen drawing the two Kelsey wagons were trudging along so slow even Ann could out walk them. The ground was white with salt and the wagon wheels crunched out trails as if in snow.

Salt spangled the blades of grass that straggled up from the crested ground. Ann cried for water and Nancy gave her the last in the canteen. She looked at Ben driving the oxen wondering when he had drunk last.

Her own mouth was so dry it hurt and her lips cracked and she tasted wisps of blood. Carrying her baby in front of her, Nancy Kelsey rides horseback. California is hundreds of miles away. The party stumbles upon the headwaters of the Humboldt River and follows its course southwestward across Nevada. Biothes occasionally block the river Biothes occasionally block their path and when they do Nancy holds her baby tightly in her arms. Everyone knew how Indians stole children.

At one place the Indians surrounded us armed with bows and arrows said Nancy but my husband leveled his gun at the chief and made him order his Indians out of arrow range. The pioneers reached the sink of the Humboldt near present-day Lovelock early in October and then begin a grueling trek across 40-mile desert to the Carson River. Along the way they have to abandon their wagons. Their oxen are exhausted and they're starting to eat their oxen. They've eaten most of the food they'd packed in the wagons so there's not much point in pulling these wagons through the sand anymore. So they abandon the wagons, pack everything on their animals, continue along the Humboldt River and then eventually the river sinks into the sand. And they are facing the Sierra Nevada mountains and that is just a wall of rock and they're exhausted, they're starving. The whole party had considered turning around and going back to Fort Hull in Idaho but that wasn't really an option. They knew they didn't have the food, they didn't have the supplies to make the trip back. They were going to have to go over the Sierra Nevada. As they begin their climb John Bidwell looks up the eastern face of the Sierra Nevada and describes what he sees as naked mountains whose summits still retain the snows of perhaps a thousand years. The climb is slow and arduous and breathing becomes difficult. There's no established trail to follow. Boulders and fallen trees block their path.

Streams must be crossed and re-crossed. On October 18 they reach Sonora Pass at an elevation of nearly 10,000 feet. Peaks on either side of the pass are another 2,000 feet higher. Fortunately a heavy snowfall has not yet blanketed the Sierras. Now they have to pioneer a route down the steep and deep canyons on the western side of the Sierras into the San Joaquin Valley. They have little or no food. Their clothes, blankets and diapers are in tatters and their shoes have long worn away. She says, of course we did not know where we were. The party scattered here to find the best way to descend the mountains.

I was left with my babe alone and as I sat there on my horse and listened to the sighing and moaning of the winds through the pines it seemed the loneliest spot in the world. The descent was so abrupt that an Indian who had come to us on the mountain was allowed to leave my horse for part of the way. At one place an old man of the party, his name was George Henshaw, became so exhausted that they had to threaten to shoot him before he would proceed. At another place four pack animals fell over a bluff and we never tried to recover them. They had gone so far it was no use to think of it. We were then out of proportion to the hunt. We were then out of provisions as we had eaten all our cattle. At this point Nicholas Dawson says once, I remember, when I was struggling along trying to keep Monty, that's the name of his mule, trying to keep Monty from going over I looked back and saw Mrs. Kelsey a little way behind me with her child in her arms, barefooted and leading her horse, a sight I shall never forget.

And he thought well if she can do it I guess I can do it and they kept going. Nancy recalled, we lived on roasted acorns for two days. My husband came very near dying with cramps and it was suggested to leave him but I said I would never do that.

At one place I was so weak I could hardly stand. Oh Nancy Kelsey had a right to be exhausted. She was not only carrying her daughter but she was also five months pregnant. And you've been listening to the story of Nancy Kelsey and you've been listening to Roger McGrath tell it and again there's no finer storyteller in the country when it comes to stories about the American West and the American frontier. And there's no more important story to tell than Nancy Kelsey's, the first woman to move to California. And this is back before an interstate, back before anything. This is just well not long after the Lewis and Clark expedition, one of the great, great stories in American history. Stephen Ambrose of course chronicled it in Undaunted Courage and I believe it was Ambrose's finest work. When we come back, this remarkable story of a woman pioneer, a woman adventurer, her name Nancy Kelsey.

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They soon realize their mistaken notion. And on November 4, 1841, after a half year on the trail, the Bioneers arrive at the Mount Diablo Ranch of an American settler, Dr. John Marsh. He regularly sent letters to the east, urging Americans to settle in California, hoping a growing number of Americans would cause California to go the way of Texas. The six month journey to Marsh's Ranch makes Nancy Kelsey the first woman to cross overland to California from the United States. Throughout the journey, she was an inspiration to the men. Her cheerful nature and kind heart brought many array of sunshine through the clouds that gathered around the company of so many weary travelers, said fellow pioneer Joseph Childs. Here again is Nancy Leek. In many ways, she was just an ordinary pioneer woman, but those pioneer women were remarkable women. They could handle any situation and do it with good humor and a lot of grit. Joseph Childs, who was also a member of the Bidwell Bartleson party, said she bore the fatigues of the journey with so much heroism, patience, and kindness that there still exists a warmth in every heart for the mother and her child.

They were always forming silver linings with every dark cloud that assailed them. The Kelsey's built a log cabin in the Napa Valley, a mile south of today's Calistoga. In February 1842, Nancy gives birth to Sarah Jane, who lives only one week before dying. Nancy has two little graves now, bookmarking each end of the journey.

But as she has done before, Nancy Kelsey stoically endures. Meanwhile, Ben is making money hunting and trapping, and with the proceeds buying cattle. During the spring of 1843, Ben decides to drive a hundred head of cattle north to American settlements in Oregon's Willamette Valley. He is joined by his brother Andy and three other men. Although pregnant, Nancy goes along.

Five-year-old Martha Ann goes as well. At a crossing of the Sacramento River, while the men were busy driving the cattle, Indians raid the Kelsey's camp. Nancy yells for help, and Nicholas Dawson is the first to arrive.

Because of his enormous size, Dawson is known as Bear. Bear came and shot one of the Indians within a few feet of me, said Nancy. Then he compelled the rest of them to help with the cattle crossing. Several weeks later, while camp near Mount Shasta, the Kelsey's have Indian trouble again. During the night, Indians shoot several of the party's horses, and the next day, after a mile on the trail, there is a pitched battle. Nancy is in the midst of it, sitting on her horse and holding her daughter. There are several more Indian attacks before they reach the safety of the American settlements in the northern portion of the Willamette Valley. After selling their cattle and purchasing supplies at Fort Vancouver, they begin their return trip. En route, Nancy gives birth to another daughter, Margaret.

Near Mount Shasta, they have another pitched battle with a large group of Indian warriors. While the arrows were flying into camp, said Nancy, I took one baby and hit my child in the brush. I returned and took the other child and hit that child also.

The moon was shining brightly. Each time the men fired their guns, I heard an Indian fall into the river. As I hit the little ones, I wondered if I'd ever see daylight again.

Think of it. We had only five men, and there were possibly 100 Indians. Once back in the Napa Valley, the Kelsey's prosper, again hunting, trapping, and grazing cattle and horses. In April 1846, Nancy gives birth to a son, Andrew. Two months later, on June 14, American settlers in Northern California revolt against Mexican rule by taking control of Sonoma and declaring establishment of the Bear Flag Republic.

In Sonoma, on that fateful day, is Nancy Kelsey holding Andrew in her arms. She watches as the American Ribbles raise the Bear Flag with its humped back grizzly and lone star. She has reason to be proud of the new flag.

She made it using a three-by-five piece of cloth and a strip of red flannel from her petticoat. She will soon be called the Betsy Ross of California. Her husband, Ben, is a prominent Bear Flagger. He later gets into a dispute with John C. Fremont and gives him a tongue-lashing when Fremont assumes command of the Rebels. The Kelsey's were known for their use of wicked and blasphemous language, said Nancy. Made a mule skinner blush.

Here again is Cecilia Holland. On July 8th, the U.S. Navy seized Monterey without firing a shot. The Mexican dons fled. A day later, the Bear Flag came down that flagpole in Sonoma and the stars and stripes went up. On the whole, the Bears showed more skill and foresight than one might expect. After all, the Bears were ordinary people, not government sanctioned heroes.

Thanks to Ben and Nancy Kelsey, they founded California and it became American. When Ben later falls sick with malaria, Nancy rides hell-bent for Sonoma in medicine en route in an Indian known locally as Chief Augustine, tries to lasso her and drag her off the horse. Although Nancy was without her pistol, she manages to escape and continue her wild ride to town. She returns with the medicine and tells Ben of the attempted horse theft in her narrow escape. Ben explodes with rage and bolts out of his sick bed. Now he is the one on the back of a galloping horse.

He tracks down Chief Augustine and kills him with a pistol shot. Nancy continues to have children. Mary Ellen in 1848, Nancy Rose in 1851, William in 1854, Georgia Ann in 1859, and Samuel in 1861. When Samuel was born, she was 38.

She had been pregnant or nursing for more than 20 years and for a good deal of it, she had been on the trail. The year Samuel was born, the family travels across the Southwest. We drifted into Texas, said Nancy, and were attacked by the Comanche. The men went hunting turkey and a neighbor woman and myself were alone with our children. When I discovered the Indians approaching our camp, I loaded the guns and suggested we hide. The oldest two girls ran and hid in the brush and the 16-year-old looked out for himself by hiding alone. We and the smaller children hid in the cave.

I heard the Indians above, but they did not discover us. After they pillaged the camp, they found the girls and succeeded in catching Mary Ellen. Poor girl.

She was only 13 and even now I can hear her screams when they scalped her. The Comanches leave Mary Ellen for dead, but Nancy and the other girls find her still clinging to life. Nancy staunches the bleeding and stitches Mary Ellen's head wounds. The girl survives, but said Nancy. She was demented after that and died in Fresno five years later from the injuries she had received. In 1879, Nancy's son Samuel dies in an accident during the harvest. And in 1889, her husband Ben dies. But his legacy survives to this very day. His name is everywhere in California.

Kelseyville on Clear Lake, the forgotten hamlet of Kelsey in Eldorado County, the Kelsey Trail, the Kelsey River, Kelsey Canyon, Kelsey Creek. After Ben's death, Nancy settles on a ranch in the Cuyama Valley northeast of Santa Barbara. She rages cattle and chickens, administers herbal remedies to sick neighbors, delivers babies, and once rides 100 miles in one 24-hour period on a mission of mercy. Nancy dies of skin cancer at the age of 73 in 1896 and is buried on a ranch in oak-studded Cottonwood Canyon. The native daughters of the Golden West marked her grave with a plaque. Each year, an equestrian group conducts a three-day 150-mile ride through the Cuyama Valley, perhaps not up to Nancy Kelsey's one-day effort, but a feat of endurance nonetheless. On the third day, the riders stop at the Pioneer's gravesite and pay tribute to the Betsy Ross of California and the first woman to cross the continent to what would become the Golden State.

And thanks to Roger McGrath, as always, and he's the author of Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes, Violence on the Front End, Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes, Violence on the Frontier, Nancy Kelsey's Story, a fundamental part of American history, here on Our American Stories. Jingle Ball. Learn more at AvocadosfromMexico.com. Avocados from Mexico. Always good. Add your team to your Uber account today. Available in select locations. See app for details. View PVI's disclosures at kraken.com slash legal slash disclosures.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-11-06 05:01:26 / 2023-11-06 05:14:37 / 13

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