Nancy Kelsey By: Sue Eckhoff, Grundy County Heritage Museum
May 17, 2013
Nancy Kelsey was eighteen years old when she became the first white woman to cross the Sierra Nevada’s. She made the long trip overland barefoot, and with a one year old baby on her hip. Nancy was born in Barren County, Kentucky in 1823. She married Benjamin Kelsey when she was fifteen. She had fallen in love with his adventurous spirit and from the day of their wedding she could not imagine life without him. At age seventeen, Nancy agreed to follow Benjamin to a strange new land, rumored to be a place where a “poor man could prosper”. Nancy Benjamin and their daughter, Ann, arrived in Spalding Grove, Kansas in time to join the first organized group of settlers traveling to California by land. Nancy was apprehensive about the trip but they left on May 12, 1841. The wagon train was led by John Bidwell, who was a New York School teacher, and John Bartleson, a land speculator and wagon master. By July the part of emigrants made it to Fort Laramie, Wyoming. The party had experienced very little trouble on this portion of the journey, but the difficulties they faced from Wyoming into California more than made up for that. While resting near the Platte River one of the members of their group was taken captive by the Indians. He was later released but the Indians never strayed far from the group. The constant presence of Indians made the livestock nervous, and terrified Nancy. Benjamin, realizing his wife’s fear, stayed close by her side. Eventually her fears were realized for in August the party was completely lost. They knew they were supposed to be near the Humbolt River but it was nowhere in sight. Food was scarce and the animals were too exhausted to pull the wagons. Still the party pushed on, abandoning their wagons one by one, and slaughtering their oxen for food. On September 7, 1841 the group finally found the Humboldt River, but could not locate the road that would lead to the Truckee River. In October the weather turned cold and the party came face to face with several high peaks. Crossing was a struggle, and at one time Nancy and her baby were left alone for half a day, and her being so afraid of Indians. Nancy was, however an inspiration to her fellow travelers. Many of them kept journals, making notes about her bravery and the fact that her baby was never sick a day of the trip. One journal entry about Nancy read “She bore the fatigues of the journey with so much heroism, patience and kindness that there still exists warmth in every heart for the mother and her child”. Nancy’s traveling pioneer days did not end once she made it over the mountains. After five months, Benjamin moved his family to Oregon, and then back again in 1847, where Ben made enough in gold that he bought Nancy a lake ranch. Again though, Ben had the itch to wander, and they settled in Eureka. Nancy thought they would stay put, but Ben came down with tuberculosis and they had to travel to a higher climate. In 1874 they ended up back in California where Ben built a cabin high up in the Cuyama Mountains in San Diego. Nancy died of cancer in 1896. Her grave, in Santa Barbara, is marked only by a rock with the simple inscription “Kelsey”.
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