Discovering John Bidwell: Two Chico State Historians on the Trail of a Pioneer


General John Bidwell left an indelible mark on California history: founder of Chico, agricultural innovator, university benefactor, friend of John Sutter and John Muir, presidential and gubernatorial candidate.

Yet, for every fact remembered about Bidwell, another likely has been forgotten. Who, for instance, recalls Bidwell the Bermuda grass booster, the father of the California casaba melon? How many people know he played a role in one of the country's earliest battles to protect the environment?

That could change with the publication of John Bidwell's California: Observations and Reflections of a Pioneer, 1841-1900, which will be the first new book in fifty years on Chico's first citizen. Chico State history professors Michael Gillis and Michael Magliari have spent five years on the project.

Compared to the amount of material in existence and in light of Bidwell's prominent role in the state's early history, relatively little has been written about him, a discovery that surprised the two historians when they embarked on the project.

"I assumed everything on Bidwell had been done," Gillis said. "One of the exciting things about the project was uncovering so much new material. There was more out there than anyone thought.

The last book on Bidwell--written in the 1940s by a man who personally knew Annie Bidwell, a jealous guardian of the family reputationwas an "authorized" history. The authors believe John Bidwell's California will become the standard text for people who want an unbiased look at the man and his times.

To keep from diluting the book's impact, the authors are keeping a lid on their bigger discoveries. But they're eager to share some of the smaller ones, for instance the Bidwell and Bermuda grass connection. Bidwell sold the Bermuda grass seed in his stores in Chico and Oroville, and records suggest he may have been the first person to import this tenacious species into California. It may not seem like much of an accomplishment, but in fact Bermuda grass has an unsung role in the Central Valley.

"Bermuda grass played a major role in the settlement of Northern California, and we know Bidwell promoted planting it as a way to shore up the levees," Gillis said. "Floods were a real problem for the early settlers, and Bermuda grass was a cheap and efficient way to keep levees from eroding."

Magliari said researching Bidwell's life dovetailed with his larger interests in early California agriculture and politics. Bidwell--with his wealth and influence and his keen interest in experimenting with new crops (including the casaba melon, which he introduced)--was a leader on both fronts.

"Bidwell has always reminded me of a local or regional version of Thomas Jefferson," Magliari said. "You could call him the sage of Chico Creek. He was interested in everything--science, technology, politics, agriculture. Someone could write an entire book on just his agricultural interests."

Among other things, the authors want to present a picture of Bidwell before he became the dour-faced, somewhat disillusioned prohibitionist who stares out at passersby from the Perche No! mural on Second Street.

Bidwell's California will show a man who (at the elbow of his good friend Muir) could be thrilled by a patch of mountain wildflowers, a prankster who enjoyed serving his guests grasshopper pancakes (a Maidu specialty) and watching their faces when, afterward, he shared the recipe.

"In the minds of many people Bidwell is stamped in time at about age sixty," Gillis said. "He'd gone through some fundamental changes by that time. One of the great things about the diary he kept on his trip to California is it shows him as wide-eyed young man on the adventure of a lifetime. When his group encounters Indians, he doesn't describe them as threatening, but what they wore. Most people would have been cowering in their wagons; he was out measuring trees."

One of Gillis's passions is the overland exodus of settlers to California that began in the 1840s. After several trips to the Great Basin, he believes he may know the exact route the Bidwell-Bartleson party took from Missouri in 1841. Seasoned mountain man Broken-hand Fitzpatrick led the group of sixty along the Oregon Trail to Soda Springs, Idaho. There the party splintered when half of the members chose Oregon over California.

"The California group felt their way across Nevada along a route blazed by Joseph Walker," Gillis said. "They were traveling without maps... Bidwell carried along a book on celestial navigation."

"Bidwell matured a lot in the six months he spent on the trail... his leadership qualities really emerged," said Gillis. "He downplayed his own role in his diary. He could have created a mythology of himself as the leader, but he didn't. He gave a lot of the credit to one of the other men in the group, Benjamin Kelsey."

By 1875, Bidwell's writings show a changed, somewhat sour man whose youthful idealism had dimmed. His views become more conservative, his demeanor more straightlaced, and he adopts a patrician taste for white linen suits. Other citizens of Chico begin to resent his wealth and influence. As the area becomes more settled, Bidwell prophetically questions whether pioneers like himself brought progress or problems to the promised land.

"He sees the transition," said Magliari. "Blue stem grasses eight feet high have disappeared through overgrazing. He talks about the inefficiency of agriculture. In one letter, he recalls how areas that once supported thousands of elk can't support a hundred cattle... He's concerned about the productivity of the land."

Concern for the land led Bidwell to the anti-hydraulic mining movement in the 1880s. The movement pitted farmers and early conservationists against miners who were washing away entire Sierra hillsides in their quest for gold, in the process burying farmland and salmon streams under blankets of suffocating silt. When a Marysville-area farmer named Woodruff brought charges in federal court against the North Bloomfield Mining Co., operators of Grass Valley's Malakoff Diggings, Bidwell backed Woodruff.

Woodruff v. North Bloomfield, a landmark environmental case, ended hydraulic mining in the United States. "Bidwell was brought in as an expert witness about conditions before the Gold Rush," said Magliari. "He testified about crystal clear streams teeming with fish."

Some of their discoveries deflate enduring local myths about Bidwell. He did not, for instance, enslave the local Indians, though certainly he usurped Mechoopda territory when he purchased Rancho Chico from the Dickey brothers, the original holders of the Mexican land grant to the area. He did not reroute Chico Creek to flow past his residence, and contrary to a celebrated early Chico love story, he did not build his opulent Esplanade mansion for Annie.

"The mansion was underway in 1865," said Gillis. "He didn't meet Annie for three more years."

Setting the record straight about the mansion needn't tarnish the John and Annie love story. By all accounts, Bidwell was devoted to his wife and missed her terribly when she was away. His long, rambling letters to her--hundreds of boxes of which are preserved at the California State Library in Sacramento--are a record of daily life on the ranch, an archive the two researchers found invaluable.

"Annie was very close to her family," said Gillis, "and after the transcontinental railroad was finished in 1869, she would return to the East every other year for extended stays. Whenever they were separated, John would write to her faithfully every night. His last task of the day, he would say, was to write to Annie--not postcards, mind you, but four-to-five-page letters of what was happening on the ranch, what their church group was up to, the latest gossip. Sometimes he would write letters in advance and mail them before she left so she would have one waiting at every station."

As for Annie, "She didn't keep up, but how many people could?" Gillis said.

One enduring story about Bidwell that Magliari and Gillis can't confirm concerns whether Annie was the first woman in Bidwell's life. There is an old Mechoopda story that Bidwell took a common-law Maidu wife with whom he may have had a daughter. The woman, Nopani, later became part of his household staff, and Bidwell seems to have taken an interest in the welfare of her daughter, Amanda. Annie may have known about the relationship, but in true Victorian fashion it was never openly discussed.

"He tells Annie in one letter that Amanda is doing well, raising the question of why he would be talking about the daughter of one of his servants," said Gillis. It's easier, he said, to believe Bidwell would have taken a native wife than to believe he remained celibate into his forties when he met and married Annie. In addition, it was fairly common to cement trade and social relations between whites and native inhabitants through marriage.

Modern historical scholarship seldom is kind to figures like Bidwell. Rarely, under close scrutiny, do the lives of prominent pioneers match the myths painstakingly constructed around them. At the start of the project, the authors expected Bidwell, too, to tumble from his pedestal. In fact, he measures up to his outsized image surprisingly well. Though their research puts a few dents in the Bidwell armor, he still emerges as a remarkable figure, a man guided by strict moral principles who was ahead of his time in many ways. Magliari and Gilliswho by now probably know him better than anyone--say they admire, even like, Bidwell.

In May, while wrapping up the final chapter on life at Rancho Chico, the authors signed a publishing contract with Arthur Clark Publishing of Spokane, Washington. The California Historical Society, which will pick up a portion of the printing costs, will be listed as a co-publisher. The book is aimed at both scholarly and popular western history markets.

Five years of research into Bidwell's life has seeped into other areas of the authors' lives in expected ways--the material they've compiled has enriched the history classes they teach--and sometimes unexpected ways. Gillis, his voice assuming a confessional tone, said Bidwell has appeared in his dreams.

"I heard his voice," said Gillis. "He was talking to me, telling me things. I had to quit for a while." The admission brings a ribbing from his partner. Said Magliari, "Make sure people know Gillis is the one having visions."

MC


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