John Bidwell

A gutsy guy

I recently went on a Native American Historical Walk on the Chico State campus. I’d heard and read a little about the history of Chico and John and Annie Bidwell, but not much. I ran across the party line just after we moved here, namely that John Bidwell, a brave soldier and noble human being, pretty much created Chico out of the wilderness, planting thousands of trees and being nice to the Indians in the process.

John was a goon in the Mexican-American war and rose to the rank of major; he was a Major goon. Later he became a General goon in the California militia. A school principal in his late teens, he was an early invader on the California Trail, a lucky gold miner, and the recipient of large land grants near what is now Chico. He was also a politician—California senator, U.S. congressman, and Prohibition Party candidate for president.

The talk on the walk was mostly the usual litany of aggression against Native Americans in every way possible. For a while the Indians weren’t disappearing fast enough to satisfy state government so, as a capitalist institution, it began paying for Native American scalps as a way of encouraging people to kill them, social engineering with a vengeance.

When John Bidwell bought Rancho Arroyo Chico the thousands of people who lived there were more or less part of the deal, and he used them as workers on his ranch. He doesn’t seem to have been without compassion for Native Americans and was rumored to have had an Indian wife and child before Annie showed up, which seems reasonable if unproven.

John Bidwell was smart and gutsy, and he didn’t miss many chances to increase his fortune and power. He got the local Native Americans to opt out of the Federal Indian Treaty of 1851 and to stay and work for him rather than move to the reservation where they were being promised provisions from the federal government. He didn’t come through with what he’d promised, though, and he wrote to national politicians opposing the treaty, which was never ratified by the U.S. Senate or the California Legislature, leaving the Mechoopda Maidu and other California Indians in the trick bag. Many tribes are still not officially recognized and miss out on the rights and privileges that go along with that recognition.

John Bidwell also introduced buffalo grass and casaba melons to California and was influential in the anti-hydraulic-mining movement. I was prepared to judge Bidwell harshly, but I don’t think I will. He was just quite a guy.