Nancy Kelsey, the First White Woman to Cross Utah

Lyndia Carter
History Blazer, November 1996

“Where my husband goes I can go. I can better stand the hardships of the journey than the anxieties for an absent husband.” With those words Nancy Kelsey began a journey across country no white woman had ever made. With her baby on her hip, Nancy, who had just turned 18 a few days earlier, became the first woman, other than Native Americans, to walk on Utah soil. The year was 1841 and the Kelsey clan, often on the move, once again had itching feet. A letter from a Dr. Marsh in California praising the new land excited many Missourians yearning for a great adventure. However, when spring came only a small group gathered at Sapling Grove near Weston, Missouri, to actually make the trip. Among them were several members of the extended Kelsey family, including Nancy, her husband Ben, and their daughter Martha Ann. Known as the Bartleson-Bidwell company, this group followed dim traces of the new Oregon Trail. Tom “Broken-Hand” Fitzpatrick, famous mountain man, was their guide as far as Soda Springs, Idaho. Then they were on their own. Seven long, weary months would pass before they arrived at Sutter’s Fort in California. Nancy would also earn the distinction of being the first white woman to cross the Sierra Nevada.

After crossing South Pass in Wyoming, some families in the company began to worry about going to California. No one knew the route, and wagon trains had never gone there before. Oregon, at the end of a known road and more settled every year, sounded safer. By the time they reached Soda Springs, all the families had decided to abandon the California dream–all, that is, but Ben and Nancy. Nancy bid farewell to her in-laws and became the only woman among the 31 men who turned south into the unknown country that was to eventually become Utah. Surely it was rash for a woman to venture on so perilous a journey, but that did not seem to occur to Nancy. Most of the young men were adventurous and willing to take risks, but this was no ordinary lark for a young woman in 1841.

The travelers knew absolutely nothing of the terrain ahead. In fact, they were so ignorant of western geography that some had brought boat-building equipment so that when they came upon the Great Salt Lake they could build a boat and float down its outlet to the ocean! The advice they got from Fort Hall, where some of the men had gone for provisions, was no better than their own strange notions. No one knew the territory well enough to be their guide. The people at the post could only tell them to be careful not to turn west too soon or they would become lost and perhaps perish in the canyons and chasms below the Snake River and not to go too far south or they would perish of thirst on the salty desert. The small party continued south along the Bear River. They had heard from mountain men about Cache Valley and hoped to stop and hunt there, but somehow they went right through it without realizing where they were. They continued on through the “gates” of the Bear River and then had to take a long detour to find a place to cross the salty, undrinkable Malad River whose banks were impossibly steep for wagons. After finally reaching a place to ford, they again turned south toward the Great Salt Lake. They could see nothing before them “but extensive arid plains, glimmering with heat and salt,” wrote John Bidwell. They were desperate for water. As Nancy and the men skirted the northern end of the Great Salt Lake, the only feed for the animals was coated with salt, and water at the few springs was also somewhat salty. In their search for good water they camped on a hill on August 23 and got their first full view of the Great Salt Lake to the south. The location offered little water, however, and their animals strayed off in search of something to drink and had to be rounded up.

On August 24 they camped near numerous springs, a bit salty, but drinkable. The salt clung in lumps to the grass, and the travelers gathered lumps ranging from the size of a pea to a hen’s egg. Following an old Indian trail they hoped would lead to water, they fought their way through sage and wormwood but found no water, though they searched until ten o’clock at night. In the morning light, they continued on toward a green spot five miles away in a small canyon. To Nancy’s great joy the water and grass were excellent. For 10 days the immigrants rested there while scouts tried to locate a route to the Humboldt River. Friendly Native Americans came to this campsite to trade. Although the scouts had not yet returned, the party moved on because their oxen had eaten all the grass. Slowly they moved southwest around the northern end of the Great Salt Lake. It was early September, but the weather had turned very cold with ice freezing in their water buckets. At last, on September 9, the scouts rode into camp with word that Mary’s River, now called the Humboldt, was only five days away.

The Kelseys’ oxen, weaker by the day, had difficulty pulling the wagons. The weather warmed, and Ben decided the wagons must be left. At what was likely Owl Spring, about eight miles west of Lucin, Nancy parted with her wagon home. Ben fashioned packs for the horses to carry food and other necessities, and the young couple trudged on. They camped on Pilot Creek and on September 14 passed out of Utah’s domain around the southern end of the Pilot Range and into Nevada. Nancy’s adventurous journey continued across Nevada and over the Sierra Nevada. Hunger dogged every step, and the specter of winter loomed over the mountains. Tattered, exhausted, and with nothing but their lives, they at last arrived at Sutter’s Fort in December. Fellow traveler Joseph Chiles later wrote of the indomitable 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.”

Sources: Charles Kelly, Salt Desert Trails (Salt Lake City: Western Epics, 1969); Dale L. Morgan, The Great Salt Lake (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1975); Doyce B. Nunis, Jr., ed., The Bidwell-Bartleson Party: 1841 California Emigrant Adventure (Santa Cruz, CA: Western Tanager Press, 1991).