Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Nancy Kelsey – First White Woman in California

By Anna Kathryn Lanier

I learned about Nancy Kelsey in With Great Hope, a book by Joann Chartier and Chris Enss. If you have not heard of or read any of Chris Enss’ books, I highly recommend you look her up.  Her website is She has multiple books out about Women of the West and other Western themes.

Nancy Kelsey

Nancy was born in Kentucky in 1823. She married Benjamin Kelsey when she was only 15 years old and by the time she was 17, she was a mother.  Benjamin heard of the land in the west where a ‘poor man could prosper’ and Nancy agreed to go with him, saying “Where my husband goes, I go.   I can better endure the hardships of the journey than the anxieties for an absent husband.”  The young family arrived in Spalding Grove, Kansas just in time to join up with the first organized group of Americans traveling to California.  The train was led by John Bidwell and John Barlteson. “We numbered thirty-three all told and I was the only woman. I had a baby to take care of, too,” Nancy told the San Francisco Examiner in 1893. 

Fear of the unknown and worry over the health of her daughter filled Nancy as the group started out on their arduous journey May 12, 1841. By July they had arrived at Fort Laramie in Wyoming. Without guide or compass, the group did well on their first thousand or so miles of the trip. Unfortunately, this good luck didn't last.  Nancy relayed in her interview:

“Our first mishap was on the Platte River, where a young man named Dawson was capture by Indians and stripped of his clothing. They let him go then and then followed him so that, without his knowing it, he acted as guide to our camp.  The redskins surrounded our camp and remained all night, but when daylight showed them our strength they went away.”

By August, the group was searching for the Humboldt River, near which was the road to the Truckee River.  The draft animals were weakened from thirst and hunger and the group began to dump the heaviest wagons. Eventually, all wagons were abandoned. As they searched for the way to California, they were forced to eat the oxen, often after the animals had collapsed from exhaustion. 

On September 7, they finally located the Humboldt, but the road continued to elude them.  Nancy, who often carried her daughter on her hip as they walked, held her tightly, praying for food, water and shelter for Ann from the relentless sun.  By October, the last of their animals had been eaten…the entire group was on foot.  Nancy often went shoeless to relieve her blisters. 

At last, they reached the escarpment of the Sierra Nevada.  Nancy relayed the struggle to cross the mountains, “We crossed the Sierra Nevada at the head waters of San Joaquin River. We camped on the summit. It was my eighteenth birthday. We had a difficult time to find a way down the mountains. At one time I was left alone for nearly half a day, and as I was afraid of the Indians, I sat all the while with my baby on my lap. It seemed to me while I was there alone that the moaning of the winds through the pines was the loneliest sound I had ever heard.”

Bidwell’s diary tells the story, too.  “Having come about 12 miles, a horrid precipice bid us stop—we obeyed and encamped. Men went in different directions to see if there was any possibility of extricating ourselves from this place without going back but could see no prospect of a termination of mts., mts., mountains.” 

Finally a place was found to descend.  It was steep and rocky and at one point, four pack animals fell over the edge, taking with them what was left of the provisions.  Benjamin (Nancy’s husband), too, nearly died from ‘the cramps.’ It was suggested that he be left behind, but Nancy refused.  They slaughtered a horse to eat and her beloved husband recovered enough to continue onward.

With great fortitude, the group finally reached the San Joaquin Valley around November 1.  There, they found an abundance of food: fowl, deer, and antelope.  After going hungry for so long, to the point of starvation at times, the party rejoiced.    Within a few days, they had reached John Marsh’s house and feasted again on fat pork and flour tortillas.

Nancy was sorely disappointed that her husband didn't settle down and make a home for her and Ann.  After just five months in California, he moved the family to Oregon.  This trip was just as harrowing as their first journey.   They drove their cattle up the east side of the Sacramento River for some forty miles before crossing it.  “The men were all trying to drive the stock into the river and I was left alone in the camp,” she wrote, “when several nude Indians came in and I as I thought they intended to steal I stepped to a tree where the guns were. As they approached me I warned them away.  My husband saw from where he was that the Indians were in the camp and sent one of the men…to protect me.  He was a reckless young man, and as he rode up he ordered the Indians to go, but they drew their bows on him and reversed the order.  Then he drew his pistol and killed one of them and the rest fled.  The Indian fell within six feet of me.”

From Oregon Benjamin moved his family to the Napa Valley, San Joaquin plains and Mendocino.  In 1848, he went to investigate the gold claim.  After a ten day trip, he returned with over one thousand dollars. On his next trip, he took sheep to sell off for mutton and came back with sixteen thousand dollars.  He bought a ranch for Nancy and his two daughters in Kelseyville, a town the couple helped build.

Nancy thought they were finally settled and she was happy with her home, but it was short-lived.  In just a few months, Benjamin sold the ranch and moved the family to Eureka and Arcata, where they were among the first settlers.  After once again settling in, Benjamin came down with tuberculosis and the family moved to Texas for his health.  It was here that she encountered her worst fear, as she told the San Francisco Examiner:

“In 1861 we were attacked by Comanche Indians. The men were out hunting turkeys, and a neighboring woman and her children and I and mine were alone.  I discovered the Indians approaching our camp, which was situated in a brushy place. I loaded the guns we had and suggested that all hide themselves.  The two oldest girls ran and hid and a sixteen-year-old boy went along to a hiding-place.  The women and the smaller children secreted ourselves in a small cave.

“They succeeded in catching my girl because her dress got tangled in the brush.  She was twelve years old.  We found her the next day, but oh the anxiety I felt during that long night.  Yes, we found her, and my anguish was horrible when I discovered that she had been scalped and was partially deranged.  My husband and seventeen men followed the Indians three hundred miles, but never caught up with them.”

In 1884, the family returned to California and Benjamin built Nancy a cabin near San Diego.  He died in 1888 in Los Angles.  The daughter that was scalped died when she was 18 of complications from her earlier injuries.  Nancy died when she was 73, in 1896 of cancer.  She was not only the first American woman to cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains, but she “enjoyed riches and suffered the pangs of poverty.  I have seen U.S. Grant when he was little known; I have baked bread for General Fremont and talked to Kit Carson. I have run from bear and killed most all other kinds of smaller game.”

Of her trip in 1841, one of the fellow travelers wrote of Nancy, “Her cheerful nature and kind heart brought many a ray of sunshine through clouds that gathered round a company of so many weary travelers. She bore the fatigue of the journey with so much heroism, patience, and kindness that there still exists a warmth in every heart for the mother and child, that were always forming silvery linings for every dark cloud that assailed them.”

Nancy is buried in Santa Barbara, California. There is a small stone marking the grave, simply inscribed with KELSEY.


Copyright ©2011-12 Anna Kathryn Lanier

Anna Kathryn Lanier


  1. I love this post...I had no idea! I can feel her pain at her daughter's tragedy.

  2. What a story. And what a woman. Don't you just want to rant and rail against that husband who would not settle down? Some are just born with that wanderlust, I suppose, but my goodness, how much can a person endure? Poor Nancy. Although, if one believes her last words on paper, she made the best of every situations. It all sounds like torture to me. Pure torture, and that husband should have been shot.
    Whoa...where did that come from? It makes me angry to realize the men had the visions, and the women followed along.
    Well, the West wouldn't have been settled then, would it?
    Great post, Anna Kathryn...just wonderful.


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