History of John Bidwell
Chico is a beautiful place. Just like the other hundreds of towns in the US that call themselves “The City of Trees”, its beauty shines especially true in Spring and Autumn, when the leaves come in lush and green, and when they darken and fall like snow. Visit the parks, downtown, or the various biking and hiking trails and you can see for yourself Chico in all it’s glory. But it wasn’t always the town you see today.
No, first a man had to bring Chico here from across the country with his own bare hands. Okay, not quite bring it here with his own bare hands, but claim the land, develop it, and ultimately incorporate a city. That man- the founder of Chico, California- was John Bidwell.
Born in 1819 in Chautauqua County, New York, John Bidwell spent his youth traveling with his family across many states in the US. From around 1836, Bidwell attended the Kingsville Academy of Kingsville, Ohio. Later, he would become it’s principle administrator. Eventually, enrollment dwindled due to the growth of public schooling. The institution shut down and Bidwell moved on.
Onward, to Chico!
He made his way to California and in 1841 led the Bartleson-Bidwell emigrant party along the California Trail, one of the earliest to make it that far. John Sutter, another regional celebrity, later employed him as a business manager. In 1844, they took the law into their own hands and together chased insurrectionists Jose Castro and Juan Bautista Alvarado as far as Los Angeles. However, at some point they were arrested. Released shortly thereafter, they went their separate ways.
Around this time, Bidwell begins searching for gold and finds a profitable claim in Feather River even before the start of the California Gold Rush. He became a naturalized Mexican citizen to acquire a large land grant in Rancho Los Ulpinos from which to mine the gold, then sold it to settle a new ranch at Rancho Arroyo Chico along Chico Creek. I think you can already tell what happens there.
Major/General John Bidwell
Before that though, he joined the burgeoning Mexican-American War (on the American side, to be clear), working his way up to the rank of Major. After the war, he would become a Brigadier General in the California Militia. In 1849, he was elected to the California Senate. Initially he was a party Democrat, but then switched sides and became a Republican. He was one of the official signatories to inform Abraham Lincoln that he’d become the official candidate of the Republican Party for President of the United States of America. Bidwell served the Senate from 1865 to 1867, during which time he also found spare time to fight Native Americans in the Snake War.
During this period, but only for a short while, it happens that John Bidwell was a member of the Freemasons. For those who aren’t aware, the Freemasons are a somewhat secretive group made up these days of mostly business professionals. Many paranoids have attributed too much to their secretive meetings, though these conspiracies are often as fascinating as they are fake. However, by 1867, John had left the Freemasons, stating in a letter to his wife that membership was “pointless”, perhaps himself realizing he would not get to do anything wicked cool like cast fire magic or whatever.
In 1860, John began plotting the site for what would later become Chico, CA. His crops and orchards up and down the valley brought him great wealth, which he used to develop the land that would later grow into the city.
In 1868- shortly after completion of Bidwell Mansion- John, age 49, married Annie Kennedy, 20 years his younger. She was a suffragist and a prohibitionist, led by her deep conviction as a Presbyterian. She would come to form diplomatic ties with the local Mechoopda tribe and later served as a liaison between them and the settlers of Chico. Diplomacy and society were part of daily life to the Bidwells, and Annie and John often used their eponymous mansion to entertain many prestigious guests including Susan B Anthony and President Rutherford B Hayes.
By 1872, Chico was officially incorporated and thus the town of Chico was finally born. In 1875, Bidwell ran for Governor of California on the Anti-Monopoly Party ticket. He was a strong advocate of temperance and prohibition, even going so far as to preside over the Prohibition Party convention in California in 1888. He was even the Prohibition Party candidate for President of the United States. He was relatively popular as a prohibitionist, but he was not successful in his campaign for president.
(To those who are familiar with the town of Chico, Bidwell’s legacy as a prohibitionist may seem a bit of a stark contrast to how popular alcohol is here today. Times do change, don’t they.)
John Bidwell passed of a heart attack in 1900, while working his farm just as he ever did. Perhaps no more proper way to go for a rancher. But he did not go without leaving a notable legacy across the state. Annie Bidwell, in 1905, donated 2,500 acres of land that would later become Bidwell Park, which has grown further into one of the largest public parks in America. She later also donated their mansion and the land around it too. Without the Bidwell’s great charity, Chico just wouldn’t be the same place.
Bidwell Mansion and Bidwell Mural
Today, you can tour John and Annie’s mansion at 525 Esplanade, just outside downtown Chico. There is also a large mural depicting John Bidwell and Annie Kennedy which you can find at 201 Broadway, in the parking lot of Crush and Jamba Juice. We hope you enjoyed this short history of John Bidwell. We plan to do one on Annie too so check in later for more.
And Cheers to the Bidwells, from the grateful auto mechanics at Tedious Repairs!
If you’d like to learn more about Chico’s local history, let us know in the comments. You can even share ideas with us and we may explore them further for everyone else to enjoy. We really do take suggestions so just leave a comment, and don’t forget to check in next week!
MORE ABOUT THE BIDWELL LEGACY
- Bidwell Mansion Timeline: https://bidwellmansionpark.com/history/bidwell-mansion-timeline/
- Bidwell Mansion Association: https://www.bidwellmansionassociation.com/john-bidwell.html
- About Bidwell Park: https://chico.ca.us/amenities/about-bidwell-park
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