John Bidwell

An American pioneer and agriculturist, John Bidwell (1819-1900) was instrumental in the settlement of California and remained active in its politics for half a century.

John Bidwell was born in Chautauqua County, N.Y., on Aug. 5, 1819. When he was 10 years old, the family moved to Pennsylvania; 2 years later they settled in Drake County, Ohio. At 17 Bidwell wanted an education so badly that he walked 300 miles to enter Kingsville Academy; after receiving his education he taught school until 1839.

Bidwell decided to seek his fortune in the West and spent time in Missouri and Kansas before joining a wagon train bound for Oregon in 1841. At Fort Hall, in Idaho, half the group, Bidwell among them, decided to go instead to California—making the first major overland trek to California.

In the Mexican province of California, Bidwell worked for John A. Sutter for 3 years before being naturalized and receiving a land grant, Rancho Chico (north of Sacramento), of 22,000 acres. Bidwell was early active in politics, and during the Bear Flag Revolt he served on the committee that drafted a declaration of independence from Mexico. In the Mexican War he advanced to the rank of brevet major.

In 1848 he prospected briefly, discovering gold on the Feather River, but the following year his title to Rancho Chico was confirmed, and thereafter he devoted himself to ranching and farming, gaining a reputation as his state's foremost agriculturist.

Although Bidwell was elected in 1849 to the California constitutional convention, he was notified too late to serve. He was also elected to the state senate that year as a Democrat, and in 1854 and 1860 he was vice president of the state Democratic convention.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Bidwell took a strong unionist stance, for which in 1863 he was made a brigadier general in the state militia. He also switched his political alliance to the Union party and on that ticket was elected to Congress in 1864. After the war he became a Republican and was that party's unsuccessful candidate for governor in 1867.

Gradually Bidwell was converted to fringe parties, running unsuccessfully for governor in 1875 on the AntiMonopoly ticket and in 1890 on the Prohibition ticket. In 1892 he was the Prohibition party candidate for president, receiving a scant 264,133 votes nationally.

His last years were spent at Rancho Chico, where he employed Native Americans and attempted to direct them in the ways of the white man's civilization. Bidwell served on the state board of regents for the University of California, and he donated the land for Chico Normal School, a teacher-training institution.

Bidwell died at Rancho Chico on April 4, 1900. His widow later donated 1,900 acres of the estate as a natural park for the state.

Further Reading on John Bidwell

Bidwell wrote extensively about his early experiences in California in A Journey to California (1842; repr. 1937) and Echoes of the Past (1914; abr. repr. 1962, entitled In California before the Gold Rush). Biographies of Bidwell include C. C. Royce, John Bidwell, Pioneer, Statesman, Philanthropist (1906); Rockwell D. Hunt, John Bidwell (1942); and Frank L. Beals, The Rush for Gold (1946).

Additional Biography Sources

The Bidwell-Bartleson party: 1841 California emigrant adventure: the documents and memoirs of the Overland pioneers, Santa Cruz, Calif.: Western Tanager Press, 1991.

Ripples along Chico Creek: perspectives on people and time, Chico, Calif.: Butte County Branch, National League of American Pen Women, 1992.