“[Bidwell] has always been in sight as a patriarch of the old style, steadfast upright, towering in massive grandeur of character amid his fellow pioneers like a Sequoia amid its companion firs and pines. And so I think his name will stand in history – a benevolent master builder – the Washington of California.” – John Muir, 1905
John Bidwell’s early years set the stage for his later prominence in California history. Born August 5, 1819 in Chautauqua, NY, he was the second of five children by Abram and Clarissa Bidwell. His father also had seven children from an earlier marriage. John did not make contact with any of these half-siblings until after the Gold Rush. Abram scrapped out a living as a farmer and kept his family moving on the frontier of American westward expansion. By 1836, the family resided in Greenville in far western Ohio. In that year John travelled hundreds of miles on his own in order to attend school, where he trained to become a teacher. By 1839 he desired to see the great prairies of the Midwest and set off again. He eventually settled, began farming, and continued to teach school in newly established Platte County, Missouri. His life was turned upside-down, however, when, while away from home, his property was claim jumped. With no support from his neighbors and being too young for recourse under the law, John began looking for a new home.
First Overland Group to California
Fortunately for John, by 1840 information was just beginning to trickle into Missouri about the distant and isolated Mexican province of California. The glowing reports of the region generated great interest among the Americans. John and several hundred people pledged to set out for California in the next spring. However, when spring arrived, enthusiasm for the trip had been dampened and the final party only consisted of around sixty-nine members. John was elected secretary of the group and would become a de facto leader for the group that would become known as the Bidwell-Bartleson Party. Leaving in May of 1841, for the first half of the journey the party was guided by an experienced mountain man named Thomas “Brokenhand” Fitzpatrick. At Soda Springs the group split. Half the party chose to follow the more established trail to Oregon, while John and thirty-one others chose to continue to California. With no guide and only vague directions they set off into the uncharted Great Basin region of modern day Utah and Nevada. They abandoned their wagons shortly after passing the Great Salt Lake, but still managed to find their way to the Humboldt River and eventually to the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. They managed to make their way over the mountains, crossing near Sonora Pass. Finally, on November 4, 1841, after nearly six months of traveling, the expedition reached the ranch of John Marsh located near the base of Mount Diablo. The party had become the first organized group of American immigrant to cross overland into California. Their success and the reports they sent back east inspired other groups to follow. John and many of his companions would go on to play pivotal roles in the events taking place over the next sixty years, and the Bidwell-Bartleson Party proved to be a spark which helped initiate the overwhelming American presence in California.
The Dynamic Final Years of Mexican Rule
After arriving in Mexican California, John Bidwell soon established himself among the important figures in the region and became intimately involved in the events unfolding during this dynamic period. Soon after arriving John made his way north to John Sutter’s newly settled community located at the junction of the Sacramento and American rivers. He was enthusiastically received by Sutter and hired to spend the next fourteen months on the coast disassembling Fort Ross and transferring its property to Sutter’s Fort. He would remain in employ of Sutter on-an-off, in various capacities until the Gold Rush in 1848. This included managing Sutter’s personal ranch, known as Hock Farm, acting as bookkeeper, and taking charge of the fort in Sutter’s absence. John also travelled extensively throughout the Sacramento Valley region. This experience led to John making several important maps of the region and aiding immigrants in locating and securing land grants from the Mexican government. Especially due to his association with Sutter, he also became involved in the various political turmoil that plagued the province at that time. He also became closely associated with most of the important figures during this period, including Mariano Vallejo, José Castro, Manuel Micheltorena; Pío Pico, Peter Lassen, Thomas O. Larkin, Kit Carson, and John Frémont.
In June of 1846, John was at Sutter’s Fort when restless American immigrants attacked Sonoma and launched what became known as the Bear Flag Revolt. John soon travelled to Sonoma and even drafted the group’s “constitution.” This has sometimes been called the shortest constitution on record, reading simply, “The undersigned hereby agree to organize for the purpose of gaining and maintaining the independence of California.” However, the so-called “Bear Flag Republic” was short lived, as official news of the outbreak of the Mexican-American War reached California less than a month after the capture of Sonoma. John and most of the other Bear Flaggers joined with the American forces in the region, in what became known as the California Battalion. Commissioned as a second lieutenant, John marched into Southern California where he was placed in charge of Mission San Luis Rey, attained the rank of Major, served as quartermaster, took part in the retaking of Los Angeles, and fought in the battles of San Gabriel and the Mesa. By February 1847, the fighting had evaporated and John returned to the Sacramento Valley to pursue a future as a rancher.
During his first six years in the region, John established himself among the influential figures who were making and shaping the new California. He had become an important witness and participant to the important events setting the stage for a new era. Most importantly, none of his other contemporaries in pre-statehood California would go on to have as long and deep an influence in the development of the state over the next sixty years.
The Gold Rush Ignites
The fates of John Bidwell and California would be changed forever with the discovery of Gold. The ensuing Gold Rush would launch California to international prominence and accelerated its development. John played an important role in this process and would become one of the lucky beneficiaries whom the Gold Rush provided the opportunity for greatness.
John’s involvement with the Gold Rush began even before the great rush began. In 1847, while still assisting as clerk for his mentor John Sutter, Bidwell prepared the contract between Sutter and James Marshall for the construction of a saw mill on the South Fork of the American River at a site known as Coloma. The operation, which John described as “wild”, would prove providential when on January 24, 1848 Marshall discovered the first flakes of gold in the tailrace of the still-under-construction mill. Marshall and Sutter tried to keep news of the discovery a secret, but soon word was beginning to trickle throughout the region. John first learned of the discovery nearly a month later when he arrived at Sutter’s Fort on February 29 while on his way to Sonoma. He left several days later and later claimed to have been the first person to bring authentic news of the gold discovery to San Francisco. Soon after this gold fever would set in throughout California. By the end of the year news had reached the eastern states, and 1849 would bring the first great wave of the Gold Rush.
Bidwell’s early knowledge of the discovery, his advantageous location at that time, and his extensive knowledge of region’s geography combined to allow John to profit enormously from the Gold Rush before the area became flooded with tens of thousands of newly arrived gold seekers. While returning to his ranch in April, John paused the night on the Feather River. Thinking about the similarities between the Feather and American Rivers, he took his tin cup and washed some of the sand. He found that, “every cupful took out small particles of gold.” Emboldened by this discovery, he and several companions set out to explore further up the Feather River. On July 4, 1848 he discovered a rich claim at what became known as Bidwell’s Bar, several miles upstream of today’s Oroville. This discovery was the first major find outside of the American River claims and helped spread the Gold Rush throughout the Mother Lode region. Bidwell’s Bar would become a boomtown and served as the county seat of Butte County.
John Bidwell profited immensely from the Gold Rush, and used this to launch his later agricultural success. His gold mining operation proved extremely rich. He mined two seasons on the Feather River. He later remembered that at one time he was taking out around $1500 per day, and that in one summer he had made over $30,000 in profit. John did mining himself, but he also employed Indians who he would pay for the gold they could find. While others around him impressed Indians into mining and worked them like slaves, John found many Indians willing to work voluntarily in exchange for good treatment and goods like such as textiles and sugar. John also partnered with his friend George McKinstry and opened a successful trading post, which supplied miners, at a healthy profit, with food, mining equipment, liquor, and comfort goods. John did not romanticize gold mining, and just as the Gold Rush was gaining full speed he took his gold profits and shifted his focus towards agriculture. In July 1849 he purchased Rancho del Arroyo Chico from McKinstry. He spent the remainder of the Gold Rush making a fortune selling food to the mines and establishing his ranch as one of the greatest in California.
Making California Grow
Bidwell had long understood the latent potential for agriculture in California and spent the rest of his life championing the development and progress of California’s vital agricultural economy. His purchase of Rancho del Arroyo Chico provided him over 20,000 acres of rich, productive soil in the heart of the Sacramento Valley. Over the next sixty years he developed a diverse array of agricultural operations that served as an example for farms across the state. These included extensive wheat fields, a famous flour mill, and thousands of fruit trees. He pioneered a number of crops that have since become important California staples such as raisins, almonds, and walnuts, as well as experimenting with more exotic foods such as Egyptian Corn and Cassava Melons. At one time he could claim to be growing over 400 different varieties of crops on Rancho Chico. His operations made a great deal of money, and their renown lured visitors from all over the world to Chico. While his ranch inspired the development farms throughout the state, John served in important roles in agricultural societies and political lobbying.
After nearly sixty years of actively leading the industry and of Rancho Chico serving as an example for others to emulate, John could reflect on the amazing growth of California agriculture from limited cattle ranching of the Mexican period to the expansive, technologically modern, and highly profitable world leader it had become by his death in 1900.
Annie came from a very different background than her husband, but served as the key inspiration and partner for the rest of his life, as well as becoming an important historical figure in her own right. Annie Ellicott Kennedy was born June 30, 1839 in Meadville, Pennsylvania. The second of four children, she came from a close-knit family with deep roots in the young United States. Not related to the famous Kennedy family of the 20th Century, her family had a celebrated history in the development of the new country and enjoyed their position as members of the nation’s high society. Her father rose to prominence as a statistician and took charge of the United States Census in 1850 and 1860, turning the department into the modern statistical entity it is today. Annie grew up in Washington D.C., attending finishing school and becoming involved in important social movements sweeping the country. As a teenager she converted to Presbyterianism, she embraced temperance and championed for prohibition, and she volunteered as a nurse when the Civil War broke out.
By her mid-20’s she had not married and it seemed as if she would instead dedicate herself to a life of service and activism. That changed in 1865 when John Bidwell arrived in Washington D.C. to serve a two year term in the House of Representatives. While serving on the Committee on Agriculture, John began working with Annie’s father Joseph. John eventually visited the rest of the family at dinner and soon became a frequent guest in the Kennedy home. After an extended courtship they were married at the family’s home on April 16, 1868. Annie’s influence set John on a new direction in life. She encouraged him in becoming a Christian and giving up alcohol.
They returned to Chico and began a new life together in California. Annie easily immersed herself in the important social circles of her new home. At their mansion in Chico they hosted important figures in the era’s politics, society, and social causes. These included friendships with such figures as John Muir and Susan B. Anthony. Her most enduring passion was for the welfare of the local Mechoopda Indians that lived on Rancho Chico. Upon her arrival in 1868, she could look out her back door and find the entire Mechoopda village laid out before her. She began by teaching tribal members reading, writing, and sewing. Soon she forged close personal bonds with members, leading religious services, funding further educational opportunities, and advocating for Indian rights. Upon her death, Annie left land and money in trust for the continued care of the tribe. The Mechoopda Tribe continues to exist in Chico, a living legacy of their ancestors and the vision of Annie Bidwell.