Demystifying a legend
Local historian rattles a skeleton in John Bidwell’s closet—the Indian Treaty of 1851
In the summer of 1851, around 300 Maidu Indians gathered in the front yard of John Bidwell’s log cabin, near the spot in what is now Chico where his mansion sits today. They were there to see what would happen to their way of life now that white settlers were encroaching on their territories.
The Maidu hoped to determine whether they should rise up against the foreigners or make a pact with them, based on what the white strangers had promised at a treaty meeting Bidwell held on July 21, a meeting he would later regret.
In fact, Chico’s founder went so far as to omit every account of the meeting in his diaries and memoirs, which is why it has taken local historian Michele Shover more than 20 years to dig up Bidwell’s buried history.
Last Friday, Chico State’s Department of Political Science hosted Shover, a professor emerita in the department, at a forum to disclose her years of research on Bidwell and his participation in the Indian Treaty of 1851.
Shover, one of Chico’s foremost historians, has produced numerous publications exploring Butte County’s colorful history, including studies of its small African-American population, the women of Chico’s past, as well as the anti-Chinese campaign of 1877.
As she began her speech, the audience of around 50 fell silent, waiting for Chico’s turbulent history to unfold before them.
Bidwell had no choice about the treaty, she said, but he played the cards he was dealt. He furnished the treaty meeting with translators to allow it to flow as smoothly as possible, even though it would lead him to one of the lowest points in his life in Chico.
The treaty’s purpose was to legitimize the government seizure of California Indian lands after the conquest of Mexico, Shover explained.
The Native Americans had no concept of money in the settlers’ sense, and there were worries about corruption on the part of the white bureaucrats, so the treaty included a system of Indian reservations set up throughout the state, where recompense could come in the form of provisions and education, she said. This was a prevalent method of handling Indian affairs at that time throughout America.
“With reservations they believed that they could protect the helpless Indians that were trying to adjust,” Shover said. “They could contain the dangerous Indians who were determined to get revenge for their losses, they could open more land to settlement, and hoped to acculturate Indians on the reservations.”
The treaty stated that the mountain and valley Maidu would live together on a large reservation that comprised much of the foothill land east of present-day Chico. There superintendents would guarantee their safety and education.
This posed a problem in itself because there was a deep rivalry between the mountain and valley Maidu. The mountain Indians were lean, quick, aggressive and suited to their rough environment. The valley Indians, however, lived on fertile ground with plenty of food. Shover described them as “the aristocracy of the tribe.”
The two had fought each other for ages, and neither trespassed on the other’s grounds without strict negotiations.
“You can imagine that there was a certain amount of tension, a great deal of curiosity between the two groups,” she said. “They were hostile and tense, but they were also related by intermarriage.”
For Bidwell, the treaty offered opportunities to have more Indian labor available, but it ended up leading the valley Indians who were already working for him, the Mechoopda Maidu, away toward the potential reservation. Ranching wasn’t fun for them. They were used to living a more leisurely hunting-and-gathering lifestyle, and they wanted a “Bidwell-free environment,” Shover said.
When Bidwell heard of his workers’ decision to leave, he was shocked and embarrassed, but resilient. To this day, Mechoopda oral history tells that Bidwell promised his workers everything stated in the treaty, all of the provisions and downtime they would receive on the reservation, if they remained working for him. So they stayed.
The treaty was signed, but as time passed Bidwell didn’t follow through with the promised changes to the circumstances his Mechoopda workers were living under. Bidwell did intend to fulfill his promises to them, Shover said, but not anytime soon. He had bigger things to worry about, like his failing Indian trading posts that he set up through the treaty. So the Mechoopda turned on him and left.
Bidwell was losing money and workers because of the treaty, so he secretly began writing senators and political officials back east, convincing them that the treaty was a lost cause. He did everything in his power to ensure the defeat of the treaty in the U.S. Senate, which is what eventually happened.
According to legendsofamerica.com, Indians throughout California were robbed of their reservation land by California politicians secretly telling Congress to reject the 18 Indian treaties signed in 1851, leaving California natives stranded in an increasingly aggressive white society.
With a combination of the short window before the treaties and the white settlers’ near genocide of Indians, by 1870 California had lost close to 120,000 of its Native Americans.
The treaties, which would have repaid the Indians to a certain extent for their loss of land and the hardships they endured during the American conquest, were nullified because state politicians, including Bidwell, weren’t profiting from them.
Shover’s years of research have apparently uncovered a John Bidwell that he didn’t want the future to know. A local legend has become a little more human.