Edwin Bryant 1846

Edwin Bryant's diary can be viewed in and downloaded from the collections of the Library of Congress.


The following biographical introduction is from the Pewee Valley Historical Society.


Edwin H. Bryant was born in 1805 in Pelham, Massachusetts. Already an established journalist – he had founded the Literary Cadet in Providence, RI and edited the New York Examiner in Rochester, NY – he arrived in Kentucky in December 1830 to ply his trade at the Louisville Journal with George D. Prentice. That relationship was destined to be short-lived, because the Journal couldn’t afford two editors. Within five months, Bryant moved to Lexington, where he helped establish the Lexington Observer, Kentucky Reporter and Lexington Intelligencer.


In 1844, he returned to Louisville to help Walter Haldeman with his fledgling paper, the Daily Dime (the forerunner of the Louisville Courier). Again, however, the relationship was short-lived. In poor health, he left Louisville on April 18, 1846 to head West for California’s more salubrious climes.


In Independence, Missouri, he met up with William H. Russell, and the two men joined a large wagon train that included the Donner Party. The Donners were following the route proposed in Lansford W. Hastings' Emigrants Guide to Oregon and California, which stated, "The most direct route, for the California emigrants, would be to leave the Oregon route, about two hundred miles east from Fort Hall; thence bearing west southwest, to the Salt Lake; and thence continuing down to the bay of San Francisco, by the route just described."


On June 27, the wagon train camped at Fort Bernard, where a mountain man named James Clyman warned the Donners to avoid the Hastings’ cutoff and stick to the main road. While the Donner party tragically decided not to heed Clyman’s advice, Bryant, Russell and seven other men did. The traded their wagons and horses for mules and reached Sutter’s Fort on September 1, 1846.


Bryant stayed in California until June 1847, venturing as far south as San Diego and returning to San Francisco, where he was appointed the second alcade (mayor) of the city by General Stephen W. Kearney. During the five months he served as alcade, Bryant arranged to sell 450 publicly-owned waterfront lots to private buyers. He purchased 14 for himself for $4,000 and sold them in 1849 for $100,000. Today, there is a street named for him in downtown San Francisco.


During his travels, he kept a journal, and after returning East with Gen. Kearny’s party, wrote a book entitled 

What I Saw in California, published by D. Appleton and Co. in early 1848. The book included a sensational account of the Donner Party, as well as valuable information about the route and necessary supplies and provisions. When gold was discovered in California, D. Appleton and Co. rushed to reprint the book, adding supplementary maps and information about the gold discovery and mines. The book became a best seller and was considered one of the most reliable overland guides available.


Bryant revisited California in 1849 and then returned to Kentucky to settle in Pewee Valley, where he lived at “Oak Lea” and “hosted many a gay party,” according to Smith's "Land of the Little Colonel." His California real estate investments, as well as royalties and speaking engagements from What I Saw in California, provided ample funds for a life of leisure.

Explore excerpts from Edwin's diary by following the trail across the CTIC plaza. Begin at the east end of the plaza next to the parking lot. Tap a number on the map to read an excerpt from Edwin's diary and learn more about that location.