John Bidwell reconsidered

He was aloof, had few friends and failed in many of his ventures, but he was still the greatest early California pioneer, say the authors of a new biography of Chico’s founder

This photo of John Bidwell was taken in 1840, a year before his epic journey in the first overland convoy to California. Though just 21 at the time, he already was showing the fierce determination and steely intelligence of his adult life.

This photo of John Bidwell was taken in 1840, a year before his epic journey in the first overland convoy to California. Though just 21 at the time, he already was showing the fierce determination and steely intelligence of his adult life.

Courtesy Of Meriam Library

At the moment of his death, on April 4, 1900, John Bidwell was hard at work, clearing brush from a section of the scenic drive he’d created along Chico Creek, an avenue to which he’d given the idyllic name Vallombrosa.

His wife Annie had driven with him in the buggy and dropped him off to join a work crew there. The last thing he said to her as she was leaving was, “I feel like a young boy!” Sometime later, cross-cut saw in hand, he keeled over, the victim of a heart attack or stroke. He was 80 years old.

It’s a tale that amazes but doesn’t in the least surprise Michael F. Magliari and Michael J. Gillis, the Chico State University history teachers who have authored a new biography of Bidwell and anthology of his writings, John Bidwell and California: The Life and Writings of a Pioneer 1841-1900 (Arthur H. Clark Co., $39.95).

To them John Bidwell was a man of prodigious energy and ambition who began making significant accomplishments at a very young age and did not stop until that fateful day in 1900. As remarkable as it was for a wealthy 80-year-old man to join his workers in clearing brush, it was typical of Bidwell. As Magliari puts it, “You get the idea there was never a wasted moment in John Bidwell’s life.”

This energy and ambition were what led him, as a youth of only 22 years, to organize the very first overland convoy to California, the Bidwell-Bartleson Party of 1841. As the book reveals, this was an immensely dangerous journey through uncharted lands, culminating in the almost overwhelming challenge posed by the towering Sierra Nevada.

But it succeeded, and Bidwell went on to play a huge role in early California, first as John Sutter’s able right-hand man and an early explorer and charter of Northern California, then as the owner of Rancho Chico and an agricultural pioneer, as a leader in the statehood movement and a general in the state militia, and as one of California’s most important early politicians. To read John Bidwell and California is to be constantly astonished by the variety and extent of Bidwell’s undertakings and accomplishments, many of which put him in great danger, whether from Indians, raging waters, armed soldiers, grizzly bears or hostile anti-Chinese mobs.

When he wasn’t working on projects or otherwise active, he was writing prolifically, producing “a voluminous body of published and unpublished work treating just about every imaginable aspect of life in California between 1841 and the turn of the century,” as the biography notes. He also kept a meticulous diary for 35 years and wrote thousands of letters to correspondents all over the state, nation and world, including John Muir, John Sutter, the suffragists Susan B. Anthony and Frances Willard, President Rutherford Hayes and many and various scientific luminaries.

Most of all, he wrote at great length to Annie every day whenever they were separated, including her annual month-long visit to her family in Washington, D.C. (As the authors note, at her insistence they enjoyed what may have been the first bicoastal marriage in U.S. history, made possible by the recent completion of the transcontinental railroad.)

Gillis and Magliari’s book began, 10 years ago, as an anthology of Bidwell’s writings. Such was the sheer quantity of material that nobody had ever gone through it all. Gillis started the project, but when it began getting big, he asked Magliari, an expert on California history, to join him.

They organized the selections by topics, focusing on the most significant issues, such as Bidwell’s role in the Gold Rush, his political efforts, his influence on agriculture, and his handling of conflicts involving the Indians and Chinese.

Each section was to be primarily excerpts from Bidwell’s writings with a brief introduction, but gradually the authors realized that more contextual information was needed. The introductions began to take the shape of full-fledged chapters in what eventually became both a biography and an anthology.

There had been no biography of Bidwell since 1942, when Rockwell Hunt published John Bidwell: Prince of California Pioneers. Professor Hunt was a well regarded historian, he’d known Bidwell personally and was the first to gain access to his private papers. His book is a marvel of research, Magliari and Gillis write, but as its title suggests Hunt was hardly objective in his assessment of Bidwell. The book is “more hagiography than biography,” they write, and “is now badly out of step with the concerns and style of contemporary historical scholarship.”

More recent studies, notably by local historians Michele Shover and Lois McDonald and Ohio State University professor Barbara Edmondson, have uncovered a “more troubled and complex John Bidwell” and forced recognition that, for all his accomplishments, Bidwell also suffered many failures, financial and otherwise.

Shover, for example, was the first to note that, “rather than being appreciated and revered by grateful local townspeople, … Bidwell endured a tense and rocky relationship with many Chico denizens who envied his wealth, feared his power, deprecated his philanthropy, resented his aloof personality, and scorned his moral rigidity.”

The authors of a new biography of Bidwell, Michael J. Gillis (left) and Michael F. Magliari, are shown on the front porch of Bidwell Mansion.

Photo By Tom Angel

There were numerous conflicts through the years—over Civil War loyalties, water diversions from Chico Creek, Bidwell’s protection of the Mechoopda Indians and his hiring of Chinese workers. “Indeed, Bidwell’s patronage of these two marginalized groups subjected him to death threats and violent acts against his property each time Chico’s constantly simmering race relations reached the boiling point.”

Their book, say Gillis and Magliari, is far from being the “last word” on John Bidwell. Because it’s organized by topics, anything that didn’t fit into one of the topics didn’t make it into the book. There’s little about Annie Bidwell, for example. As Magliari explains, “The topics we chose tended to exclude her. If we’d done other topics, such as Bidwell’s personal values, she would have become more prominent.”

The authors hope someone eventually writes a biography of Annie Bidwell. Their bibliography, the most thorough to date, should be helpful. “Much of the material we came across just didn’t end up in the book,” Gillis explains. “There are still lots of avenues to explore.”

Meanwhile, John Bidwell and California can take its place not only as the definitive collection of Bidwell’s writings, but also as the best study of the man himself. On the topics it addresses—his overland trip and early explorations, the development of Rancho Chico, his influence on agriculture and ventures into politics, and his relations with the Indians and Chinese and, by extension, his fellow Chicoans—it’s indispensable reading for anyone interested in local or California history. And the excerpts from Bidwell’s own writings give full evidence of the amazingly wide-ranging intellectual curiosity he possessed.

I personally came away from the book with a much deeper understanding of the history of my town and a richer sense of Bidwell’s enduring presence in it.

I sat down with Gillis and Magliari recently to talk about John Bidwell and their book. This is an edited version of our conversation.

The Greatest Pioneer
CN&R: You write that ‘of all the American pioneers who settled in California before the Gold Rush, none enjoyed more subsequent fame and success than John Bidwell, and none made as great a contribution to the state’s economic, political and cultural development during the late nineteenth century.” What about some of the others, such as Peter Lassen and John Sutter?

Gillis: Of course, John Bidwell knew Peter Lassen very well. He thought Lassen was a wonderful man, but he just said, ‘You know, this is a guy who will get lost going around a tree.”

One time they were coming back from [exploring] the North Valley here, and their Indian guide suggested they go a certain way, and Lassen said, ‘No, I’m going to go this way” and ‘Why would you follow an Indian?” Of course, [Bidwell and his group] immediately found themselves back at [Sutter’s] Hock Farm [near Marysville], and Lassen showed up two or three days later covered with mosquito bites and refusing to talk with anyone, just as angry as could be because he had once again gotten lost.

Lassen has a great publicity machine. The Danes love this guy. He’s gotten much more press than he deserves.

Magliari: And yet he’s got the county and the mountain and the national park named after him. People assume Lassen did a lot more than Bidwell. Similarly, because Sutter’s Fort is right there in the middle of Sacramento and such a tourist attraction, people assume Sutter did a lot more than Bidwell, but it’s not even close.

Gillis: The Gold Rush essentially finished off Sutter. People started pouring in; all his workers were gone. Once the Gold Rush was on, Sutter became almost a bystander. … I think that’s one of the differences between Bidwell and the other pioneers. Bidwell’s influence continued to grow, and his interests continued to spread.

Magliari: And he sustained his success so much longer [than others].

The Farmer and the Townsfolk
CN&R: The secret of his success, as I learned from your book, is that he saw that the future of California lay in agriculture. Could he rightly be called the father of California agriculture?

Magliari: He’d have as good a claim as anybody. He was certainly one of the leading guys pushing that diversification, that whole shift to specialty crops.

This painting (ca. 1850) by Natalie Bixby shows President Millard Fillmore (right) presenting John Bidwell with a document making California a state. In the ceremony, which took place in Washington, D.C., Bidwell is holding a cane, symbolic of the Native Americans signing of documents. It was Bidwell who, weeks later, delivered the news of statehood to jubilant Californians in San Francisco.

Courtesy Of Meriam Library

Gillis: And he was willing to experiment. Experiments cost money, and often they fail. But he was willing to make the transition from stock raising to wheat raising, and once that began to fail he moved to specialty crops, and in came the almonds, the walnuts, the peaches and other things.

Magliari: You wouldn’t call him the founding father of modern California agriculture, but he was definitely one of the founding fathers.

Gillis: The U.S. government recognized immediately that he was willing to experiment, so constantly plants were arriving here as seeds from all over the world, and he would experiment with them. He was willing to try anything. I would have loved to have been here at the peak of agriculture at Rancho Chico. This must have been just a museum of all different kinds of plants and trees and vegetables.

Magliari: All the variety, and also the aesthetic value that went along. Everything had to be nicely presented and organized. Bidwell was constantly going beyond just making Rancho Chico a model farm, with his ornamental gardens and laying out roads such as Vallombrosa. It was one of the avenues he laid out that were open to the public. It was kind of like Bidwell Park before it was a park. It was open to the public—when he wasn’t feuding with the public. We have a couple of instances when he closed it off, when things got tense here in town.

CN&R: And they often got tense, didn’t they?

Magliari: This town has a surprisingly violent racial history. Every decade, from the Gold Rush to Bidwell’s death, there’s a violent cycle of racial tension. In the 1850s and ‘60s it was the Indians, and then in the’70s, ‘80s and ‘90s there were three very hot episodes of anti-Chinese activity, complete with violence and arson.

CN&R: I liked that quotation you gave from Michele Shover, that in his relations with the town Bidwell must have felt ‘like Dr. Frankenstein confronting his creature.”

Magliari: I think the townspeople always recognized what he’d done for the town—he’d founded it, he’d laid it out, he’d donated land for the park downtown and free land for all the churches and all that, but I think there’s also resentment that comes with that kind of obligation.

And then of course Bidwell’s employment practices caused constant political conflict—the employment and protection of Indians in the 1850s and ‘60s and then the Chinese issue put him at odds with the town. Bidwell was the biggest single employer in town [so his employment practices had an impact].

CN&R: He seemed to be caught in a lose-lose situation regarding the Indians. To everyone else, it was either exterminate them altogether or send them off to reservations. He reluctantly went along with the reservation model after trying for a long time to create safe havens for Indians in various communities around the state, but it didn’t work.

Magliari: It did work for the Mechoopda on his land. He was able to make it work where he had control. But he couldn’t even make it work with the rest of the Maidu in the county.

[To deal with Indian raids,] Bidwell did have to make some devil’s bargains with [vicious Indian hunters such as Hiram Good] during a couple of years. But I think it’s clear from his actions that he preferred working with federal troops to try to keep a lid on. The Civil War gave him an excuse to bring in troops. I think if he’d had those troops available [in later years], he never would have worked with the likes of Hi Good or local militias or posses.

CN&R: He was always aware that the Indians had good reason to be angry. Their land had been stolen from them, and they’d been dispossessed.

Gillis: My guess is that he always had sympathy for those who were being abused by outsiders.

Annie’s Influence
CN&R: Let’s talk about politics. It was interesting to me that at one point you mentioned that his getting married to Annie was the worst thing that could have happened to his political career. Why?

John and Annie Bidwell in a photo taken on the front lawn of Bidwell Mansion in 1895, five years before his death. Because he towered over her by nearly a foot and a half, they were never photographed standing together, and in seated photos she was usually propped up on pillows.

Courtesy Of Meriam Library

Magliari: The courtship of Annie Kennedy involved this simultaneous religious-conversion experience. She expected him to be a church-going Christian. He was a really sound, moral guy, but he didn’t consider himself a Christian and wasn’t a churchgoer. So he was wrestling with his conscience, trying to please Annie, and his political advisers and allies were urging him to, well, do what he had to do to win [the nomination for governor] at the 1867 Republican convention in Sacramento.

Gillis: It was the simple things: He wouldn’t set up a room with alcohol and women and cigars, and who wants to vote for a guy who isn’t providing free booze, cigars and women?

Magliari: Or deal? He wouldn’t make promises for the vote, the jobs, the patronage, any of the standard kind of deals, suddenly he wouldn’t do them. James Carville would have gone nuts trying to handle Bidwell. He was unadvisable, really, while he was going through this conversion experience. The timing was just absolutely the worst, and he lost.

He probably would have won that year. The Union [Republican] Party still had the upper hand, Bidwell was a very popular guy, he had the right credentials on the railroad [he opposed the Big Four’s monopoly] and on the Civil War, everything. He was a pioneer, well regarded, people knew he was honest. He probably would have won for sure. The guy who they ended up nominating went on and blew it.

I think that really ate at him. He ran four times, and that was his best shot, the closest he came. When you see the lingering hatred of [the man who defeated him, George C.] Gorham and the Big Four, the railroads—that was a lifelong grudge. His moral rigidity just clobbered him.

CN&R: What did Annie give John that was helpful to him?

Gillis: She loved him. She may have been the first person who ever truly loved him. I don’t think his parents had that much affection for him. Once these two hooked up together, she became precious. That’s what he always called her, ‘Precious.” And she held up a mirror to him and said, ‘Look John, this is what you can be.” She was almost a moral compass to him. They were absolutely devoted to each other.

Magliari: She was definitely the one confidante that he had. In all the letters he writes, he doesn’t confide in anybody like he does with her.

Gillis: He had lots of acquaintances, but I don’t think he had many friends.

CN&R: She led him toward a very progressive attitude toward women and suffrage.

Magliari: That was the one progressive pull she had. With the Native Americans, things got much more heavy handed in terms of the cultural program.

CN&R: He was content to let them be Indians…

Magliari: Right. When she came along, the whole assimilation business began. It was a real turning point. And also the shift on the temperance issue. He went from a guy who’d always been supportive of moderation but was still willing to grow wine grapes and manufacture wine to this hard-line prohibition.

But she did pull him in the direction of women’s suffrage. They both tied women’s suffrage with promoting prohibition. If women voted, there’d be a better chance of getting prohibition approved.

Gillis: There’s one letter we always get a kick out of, because he’s talking about how he’s struggling to become a good Christian, and then the next line is, ‘But my business!” It’s like, ‘You want me to become a good Christian, but I’ve got to deal with these business problems, too.”

A view looking north from where Main Street currently merges with the Esplanade, taken ca. 1854. Bidwell’s pre-mansion home is on the left, his flouring mill on the right.

Compiled By Meriam Library

CN&R: You mention that Michele Shover argues that Bidwell didn’t build the mansion for Annie, but rather as a ‘deliberate declaration of elitist separatism,” in her words. Do you agree with that?

Gillis: He began it before he even met her.

Magliari: That’s where her argument is persuasive. It’s clear that it was not built for Annie. He wanted to be governor of California. He wanted a home to match the status he was aspiring for. What’s also interesting, though, is that he built that mansion but he didn’t move [the Indian village of] Mikchopdo [which was just a hundred yards away]. The village didn’t get moved until Annie arrived.

Gillis: The juxtaposition of the buildings must have been so unusual, a huge mansion next to huts and a sweat lodge. But I don’t think he saw it that way. Those were his neighbors.

Bidwell’s Legacy
CN&R: What ultimately do you want people to come away from this book thinking about Bidwell? What kind of regard do you want them, especially Chicoans, to have for him?

Gillis: What we usually think of Bidwell is almost like that two-dimensional painting downtown, but what I want people to know is that he’s a pretty complicated guy. But he’s a moral person. I mean, we looked for dirt. We turned over every rock hoping to find something just to make him, well, more interesting. But there was nothing there that we could really nail him with. He’s a classic 19th-century person who made his own way in life, was successful and brought a lot of other people along with him. He was enormously intellectually curious, and that’s something people aren’t familiar with.

Magliari: Bidwell deserves the admiration and his status as a great man, so to speak, for all his achievements. But we want to have a three-dimensional view of the guy on the bureau, you know. He had an awareness of his flaws and his human characteristics and complications, the fact that he made mistakes, made compromises—he was a very human character.

I definitely want people to have more of an appreciation of the complications of the racial politics of the time and an awareness that Bidwell didn’t have the total control people assume. People have this idea that his word was law in Chico and anything that happened—if Hi Good murdered Indians—it must have been with Bidwell’s approval.

But Bidwell couldn’t tell Chico what to do or how to behave. He had to maneuver. He had to make deals and compromises. I want people to be aware of the obstacles he faced in achieving what he did.

Gillis: He was a self-made man. Nothing was given to him. Everything he got he got with his own hard work. He had a tough upbringing, and everything he achieved he achieved with his own efforts. It’s almost a classic American story.

Magliari: I came away from the project admiring Bidwell more than when I started, and I thought it was going to be just the opposite.

Gillis: I think we would have found him fascinating in person, but perhaps not too appealing.

CN&R: A little overbearing…

Gillis: Overbearing, self-confident, impatient. He couldn’t stand fools.

Magliari: He held people up to high standards, no doubt about it. But he held himself up to the same standards. One of the stories we liked was about his discouragement with his half-brother Daniel, one of the Bidwells who came out when they discovered a relative had made it big here. Bidwell set him up on 500 acres where the Miller mansion is today, on the other side of Sandy Gulch. You get the impression from Bidwell’s letters that Daniel was kind of ne’er-do-well half-brother. He’s constantly complaining about Daniel’s stock running into Bidwell’s crops and fields…

Gillis: And his fences aren’t very good and he doesn’t close his gate.

Magliari: Bidwell was one of those guys who felt you could tell the character of a farmer by the state of his fences. Daniel’s fences were always in disrepair.

Gillis: Didn’t John tell Annie one time, ‘I can’t believe he’s my half-brother"? [Laughter.]

Magliari: I think a lot of people got the Daniel Bidwell treatment from John Bidwell.

Readers can purchase John Bidwell and California at the Bidwell Mansion Visitor Center, the Associated Students Bookstore at Chico State, Barnes & Noble in Chico and Paradise Coin & Gift, or by calling the publisher toll-free at 1-800-842-9286.