Close to Annie
Local historian’s biography takes readers inside Mrs. Bidwell’s private life
Lois McDonald’s new biography of Annie Bidwell, the wife of Chico’s founder, is subtitled “An Intimate History,” which is an unusual and, indeed, provocative description for a book about a very proper upper-class Victorian-era woman. The word “intimate” seems to promise revelations, the lifting of covers off old secrets. What sorts of intimacies, one wonders, does the book reveal?
Surprisingly personal intimacies, actually, and many of them—about her marriage and her family, especially. For example, McDonald begins one of her chapters, titled “The give and take of a successful marriage,” by recounting a conversation she once overhead while working as a volunteer at the Bidwell Mansion State Historic Park. Two young women, seasonal guides, were talking.
“Do you think that the Bidwells were—well, do you think they had sex?”
“I wonder myself. And they didn’t have any children. I’ve wondered about that.”
Well, golly gee, who hasn’t? We’ve taken the tour. We’ve seen the bed. We’ve stared at the dour faces in the stiff photos and on the mural downtown. Did John and Annie Bidwell ever have fun?
If “fun” is a word that can rightly be applied to a Victorian-era marriage between a temperance crusader and a no-nonsense businessman whose idea of a good time was tending his nursery stock or putting up a drying shed, then yes, they had fun. One of the many pleasures of reading Annie Kennedy Bidwell: An Intimate History is learning how much John and Annie Bidwell enjoyed each other.
They never talked or wrote about their physical intimacy, of course. That just wasn’t done in their world. But the letters occasioned by their many separations are filled with endearments and expressions of “ardent attachment,” and they often signed off by giving each other “one of ‘our’ kisses.”
In one letter John, after first worrying that his remarks “lay in the area of ‘poor taste,'” described to Annie “his lying in bed naked on hot nights with the windows open to the breeze.” It would have been carrying things too far for him to add, “Wish you were here, sweetie,” but the suggestion is there.
The chapter in which all this appears begins on page 260 of Annie Kennedy Bidwell: An Intimate History. By then we’ve already read of Annie’s mother’s spiritual crises and bouts of depression, her brother Joe Kennedy’s alcoholism and possible homosexuality and mysterious drowning death, her beloved sister Sallie’s heartbreaking failed romance, John Bidwell’s passionate courtship confession of his sins, her father’s assassination on a Washington, D.C., street corner—one revelation after another.
With its emphasis on the Bidwells’ marriage, their almost constant dealings with relatives in Chico and on the East Coast, the challenge Annie faced in running a huge household with numerous servants and entertaining frequent and many house guests, their relationships with the people of Chico and her efforts to “uplift” the Indians of the rancho, the book makes a wonderful companion piece to John Bidwell & California: The Life and Writings of a Pioneer 1841-1900, by Michael Magliari and Michael Gillis, published last year.
Where that book is a careful appraisal of Bidwell’s political and business accomplishments, McDonald’s is a chatty, even gossipy portrait with a slew of characters and numerous telling anecdotes about Annie’s crisis-prone family, the Bidwells’ many famous friends and their sometimes rocky relations with the good citizens of Chico. “I wrote the kind of book that women like to read—that I like to read,” McDonald says with a laugh.
Lois McDonald is a lanky, lively woman with close-cropped silver hair who looks at least 15 years younger than her 84 years. She lives in a small, brown wood-frame house set back in the woods off the Upper Skyway above Magalia. A five-digit address on a mailbox is all that marks the entrance to her driveway, which is actually a short country lane that cuts gently among pine trees and dogwoods. Firewood is stacked neatly outside the house.
Inside, the living room is cozy and unpretentious. Warmth radiates from a fire in the wood heater on this crisp fall day. The latest New Yorker sits on the coffee table. Books and artwork, including a large Janet Turner “Snowy Owl” print, line two of the walls. Opposite them, huge windows look out on the sumptuous greenery of the pines and wild ivy.
McDonald and her late husband Archie, who taught at Chico State University, moved to this house in 1962. Here they reared four children, three of hers from a previous marriage, one of his. He died just a few years ago, and now she shares the house with her daughter, an attorney in Chico.
McDonald is one of those talented and dedicated amateur historians without whose work much local history would not be recorded. Professionally she’s been a teacher and a social worker, but researching and writing local history have been much more than a hobby for more than 40 years. She’s written four books and innumerable articles and been active in a number of historical associations (please see sidebar, page 16). “To be perfectly honest about this, I do it because it’s fun,” she says brightly.
She works in a small, comfortably cluttered office in her home, where numerous metal filing cabinets and historical books compete for space with her desk and computer.
This biography of Annie Bidwell is easily her most ambitious effort to date. She’s been working on it for more than eight years, she says, beginning by editing the transcriptions of handwritten pages from John’s and Annie’s diaries done many years ago by a Green Thumb volunteer—"a Herculean task,” she calls the transcriptions—for compilation on a compact disc.
These diaries, along with Annie’s and John’s many letters to each other—they wrote almost daily when they were apart, which with her regular visits to her family back east was often—form the basis for this history. With the exception of those dealing with highly sensitive family topics, which were destroyed or in some cases carefully scissored to remove the questionable parts, the Bidwells saved most of their letters in a camphor closet and, later, in a steel vault. They “had a sense that [the letters] would be of interest to posterity,” McDonald suggests.
McDonald draws upon many other sources, as well, from the Bidwell collections in the California State Library in Sacramento and the Bancroft Library in Berkeley and the numerous books and articles written about them, to personal interviews and correspondence with family members and other historians.
What emerges is a vivid, multidimensional portrait of a sometimes confoundingly complex woman for whom being the wife and partner of a great man and a central figure in a large and prominent family brought many challenges, some of them extremely painful, as well as great and satisfying rewards, though not always the ones she sought.
Annie Bidwell, as Lois McDonald makes clear, was a woman of strong, even rigid principles whose imperious nature—Bidwell had invited her to come to Chico and be his “queen,” and she took on the role almost literally—often was resented by Chico townsfolk. But she also had a warmly loving side when it came to her beloved husband, family members, children, animals and the Indians who lived on the ranch.
Most of all, for John Bidwell she was exactly the kind of classy, well-bred woman who could run a large household efficiently and give him the polished social veneer his ambitions required. They were a superb match, as this book shows, and Annie was as important to John’s success as a wife could be.
The broad outline of Annie Bidwell’s life is familiar to many Chicoans: how she was the daughter of a prominent Washington, D.C., government official; how Bidwell courted her there while serving in Congress and won her hand; how she came to wild and wooly Chico and became a civilizing presence not only in his life, but also in the community and among the Indians of the ranch; how she crusaded against drink and for women’s suffrage; and how after his death she gave Bidwell Park to the city.
Few of us know much more about her, however—for example, that she grew up in far western Pennsylvania, in a little town named Meadville, where her father owned a farm, and didn’t move to the nation’s capital until she was 10. And we know little about her family, which was full of interesting and in some cases troubled characters. McDonald’s book does a good job of expanding and coloring in the outline, giving us a full and rich sense of the forces and people—notably her parents, Joseph and Catherine Kennedy, her brothers Joey and John and sister Sallie—at work in influencing Annie’s life.
The family moved to Washington so Annie’s father, a scholarly man active in the Whig Party, could become director of the U.S. Census for 1850. He was successful in the work and stayed on to manage the 1860 Census. Annie and her sister both attended Mrs. Burr’s private finishing school for young ladies, where she learned the arts that later would serve her so well in Chico.
As a teenager, Annie began to develop strong religious beliefs. Her parents were nominal Episcopalians, but she gravitated toward the more rigorous Presbyterian Church, with its emphasis on personal redemption through confession of sins. She was active in doing social work through the YWCA in Washington, and during the Civil War she went to local hospitals to lend comfort to wounded Union soldiers.
She also became an adamant teetotaler, to the mild consternation of her father, who enjoyed an occasional glass of wine with his dinner.
Like all the members of her family, she was tiny, just 4 feet 8 inches tall. Why Bidwell, who at 6 feet plus towered over her, was attracted to her (or she to him, for that matter) is an enduring mystery, but he certainly was—and almost immediately upon meeting her.
As McDonald reveals, however, Bidwell had to make a dramatic confession to her before he could ask her to marry him. This was in 1866, shortly after he’d returned from a trip to Europe. One Sunday evening following church services, after he walked Annie home, they stopped at her door.
“He begged her to talk with him on the steps before going in,” McDonald writes, “then burst forth with passionate confession of his sins and his despair at the prospect of being able to win her understanding and forgiveness.”
If John was worried that Annie would reject him, he needn’t have been, McDonald writes. She was delighted to be the source and cause of his redemption, and indeed, as Annie later revealed, her “future seems to have taken a direction from which she did not swerve from that Sabbath evening on her parents’ doorstep.”
What, then, did John confess to Annie? Here McDonald makes the most remarkable and potentially controversial revelation in her book: That Bidwell had enjoyed “liaisons with at least two Indian women” and that “children … had resulted.”
If that’s the case—and McDonald subsequently proves it to my satisfaction—one can only imagine the relief John Bidwell felt when Annie not only didn’t reject him, but also agreed to marry him and come to Chico. Those women and children, after all, were very real, and they lived on his ranch right outside his mansion.
“When I think about John’s life, how he lived as a single man in Chico for nearly 20 years before Annie’s arrival, what could he have confessed other than that?” McDonald says.
She notes that among the Mechoopda it was common knowledge that Amanda Wilson (who later married Holai Lafonso, chief of the ranch’s tribelet) and George Clements were Bidwell’s children, as enthnographer Craig Bates, who interviewed many members of the tribe, confirmed to McDonald in a letter.
Annie also knew that a young Indian woman named Nopanny, who was introduced to her as a housekeeper right after Annie’s arrival in Chico, had been John’s lover, though neither of the children was hers. Annie was under the impression that Nopanny had come to deliver the household keys, which she held in her hand. When Annie asked for them, however, Nopanny replied, “No. No keys. Me number one wife. You number two. I keep the keys.”
“It was in Annie’s eternal favor,” McDonald writes, “that she could face the woman with whom Bidwell had confessed a close relationship, not with anger and resentment but with understanding.”
And, in fact, Annie took special interest in John’s offspring and especially their children, his grandchildren, seeing that they were educated and cared-for, though she never gave a hint pubicly that she knew of their consanguinity with her husband.
Annie was fond of children, though she and John had none of their own, and children were often present in the mansion. For one thing, her younger brother Johnny lived in Chico with his wife Cora and their two sons, Guy and Joseph, and the boys were frequent guests at the house, even more so after their father’s early death.
The Bidwells’ mansion was a busy place. Guests of all kinds came and went, some staying for weeks or even months at a time. Relatives from back east, visiting ministers, various evangelists, Women’s Christian Temperance Union luminaries such as Frances Willard, Prohibitionists and suffrage activists all were taken in, if not always enthusiastically welcomed, at the mansion. For anyone of importance visiting Chico, it was the place to stay. “Annie was very good about taking in such friends,” McDonald says.
The guests needed tending to, of course—beds made, clothes washed, food prepared. This required a large staff of maids and cooks, and overseeing them was Annie’s job. When she was gone, the servants sometimes rebelled, got lazy or started fighting with each other, as John often lamented in his letters to her, urging her to return soon.
Annie was also an excellent hostess with a knack for putting on large banquets, which she did often, right down to preparing the menu, which usually ran to several courses.
That kept her busy, as did her other projects, such as establishing a Presbyterian church (now the Bidwell Memorial Presbyterian Church), educating the Indian children on the ranch, teaching their mothers various domestic crafts, such as sewing, to augment their already extensive handicraft skills, and sharing with them her deep Christian faith.
From today’s perspective this last might seem to be cultural imperialism. John Bidwell himself was even concerned about it, believing that the Indians had a highly developed set of religious practices and beliefs that served them just fine.
But, as McDonald makes clear, the Indians came to like Annie very much. She was kind to them, and “They came to accept her as a generous benefactor,” McDonald says. “They knew how to say the right thing to her. She got a response from them that she never got from the town—a feeling of being loved.”
It was sometimes hard to be the “queen” of Chico. The Bidwells were generous “royalty,” but any kind of royalty is sure to be resented in a democratic society. Besides, John was an impatient man who didn’t suffer fools gladly, and Annie was a woman who, if not to the manor born, often acted as if she was.
Because the Bidwells gave so generously to Chico, they expected much in return—deference, to be sure, but also a degree of control and influence in local affairs that sometimes wasn’t warranted or appreciated.
Annie could be downright stubborn when it came to her pet causes, especially her abhorrence of drinking. McDonald recounts the lengths she went to in an effort to put the kibosh on the annual German picnic, “organized for the local German families and featuring the music, food, and beer identified with that country.” First Annie denied them the use of the Bidwell Picnic Grove; then she tried to see that no other place was available for them.
“It was childish for her to do everything she could to thwart them,” McDonald says, but it was also fairly typical of a woman who was “so passionate about her causes that anything that came along that would distract from that was intolerable.”
This passionate idealism left little room for a sense of humor, McDonald says. “Annie never saw anything that was funny,” she says. “It was too bad.”
Did John have a sense of humor? “Yes, he did,” she replies. “He did see the ridiculous in certain things.”
As much as she admires and is fascinated by Annie, McDonald says, “I don’t think I would have liked her. I probably shouldn’t say that, but it’s true.”
She says she identifies with Annie Meriam, a faculty wife at the Chico Normal School and the mother of the late Ted Meriam, a former mayor of Chico and long-time town leader. Meriam kept a diary, and in it she noted that, while the Bidwells were adulated publicly, they—and especially Annie—were the target of “soft-spoken snidery,” in McDonald’s words, behind their backs.
For a while after she arrived in Chico in 1903, Annie Meriam worked for Mrs. Bidwell, and she found her to be a demanding boss. “I think Annie Meriam felt that Annie Bidwell felt she owned the time of young faculty women,” McDonald says. “She once wrote in her diary, ‘Usually you did not say no to Mrs. Bidwell.'”
Was Annie Bidwell happy? McDonald believes she was. “Annie’s life story is both dramatic and romantic, and on the whole a happy one in spite of the tragic deaths of her older brother and father,” she writes. “She never faltered from the course she felt her God had set for her, whether handling relationships within the Kennedy family or keeping secret those personal relationships of her husband prior to his confession and repentance made to her alone.”
Even Annie Meriam, who’d found Mrs. Bidwell so difficult, wrote in her diary that she “really was quite a remarkable woman.”
As McDonald writes in conclusion, “…it took grit to live in a community for forty years that never really made her feel at home.
“Most will agree that Annie Kennedy Bidwell left Chico a richer community and its history more interesting through the happenstance of her residence here. Surely none can doubt that she made John Bidwell a far happier man than had she not come into his life."