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Echoes of the Past by General John Bidwell
Reproduction of biographical reminiscences by John Bidwell published in the Century Illustrated Magazine 1890-91.

The biographical reminiscences that make up this book were written by John Bidwell in September 1889. He was in New York City at the time and staying at a little hotel, The Everett House, when he was approached by Robert Underwood Johnson, the highly respected and influential editor and publisher of the nation's leading periodical publication the Century Illustrated Magazine. They had lunch together that first day and Johnson tried to persuade Bidwell to write some stories about his life for use in the magazine.

Bidwell declined. He said he was honored by the request, but that even at age 70 he was too busy with other things. Moreover, he was confident that people would not be interested in reading about his life. Johnson assured him, however, that there was a very large audience for a series of articles about his adventures in 1841 -- crossing the plains, the Rocky Mountains, the deserts of Utah and Nevada, and the Sierra Nevada, as well as his years in California before the American takeover. Moreover, to make the task easy and quick, Bidwell could dictate his story to a trained stenographer who would take it all down in shorthand and then transcribe it for subsequent revision and approval.

Bidwell was still dubious, but he ageed to visit the editorial offices of Century Magazine the very next morning, meet the staff there, and then join Johnson on a drive through Central Park complete with a visit to Grant's Monument, which had just been constructed. (Bidwell had first met Ulysses S. Grant in 1864 when he carried dispatches to the commanding general of Union Forces at the battlefront near Gold Harbor. Thereafter, Bidwell and Grant had remained friendly. They corresponded. They met at various social events. And in 1868, along with President Andrew Johnson, William Tucumseh Sherman and other leading figures of the time, Grant attended Bidwell's wedding to Annie Ellicott Kennedy in Washington, D.C.)

Wednesday, September 4, 1889, was a beautiful day in New York City. And Robert Underwood Johnson was an intelligent, well informed, extraordinarily gracious host. Bidwell himself described the drive through Central Park as "grand." Before it was over he agreed to spend some time dictating his memoirs to one of Century Magazine's expert stenographers.

And so we are indebted to the enterprising editor of Century Magazine for these autobiographical essays by John Bidwell. They constitute a valuable addition to the literature of westward expansion and especially of the early American movement into California. The fact that they were written by a man of Bidwell's stature lends additional interest and since many of the illustrations were done by Frederick Remington, one of the most famous artists of the Old West, it seems appropriate that a facsimile edition of Echoes of the Past should be produced and kept in print as part of the interpretive program of Bidwell Mansion State Historical Park. What the reader sees here, therefore, are the very same illustrations, the same type and page layouts, that readers of Century Magazine enjoyed in 1890 and 1891.

One must be aware, however, of the extraordinarily dry and understated manner of Bidwell's narration. He does not dramatize his story or dwell on the emotional overtones and undertones of the situations he describes. Instead, he absolutely avoids purple prose or self congratulation, and tries t let the facts speak for themselves. In fact, his own feats of moral or physical courage are apt to be stated in such mater-of-fact terms that the casual reader may overlook them entirely. He says so little, for example, about the hardships of his crossing the Sierra Nevada, that one only realizes the severity of his situation when he tells us that on one of the last days and lacking any other food, he ate the "lights and the windpipe" of a coyote for breakfast.

He is, moreover, a very gentle critic of his fellow man. He quietly asserts and then documents the fact, for example, that Captain Bartleson was an unreliable leader and eventually abandoned the expedition entirely -- not once but three times. Bidwell is very terse about all this. He does not describe, for example, his leadership in organizing the expedition, or explain that he might well have been elected to lead it except that he was then only twenty-one years of age

In fact, reading these narratives, it is impossible to tell that the youthful adventurer of 1841 has become (by many) a famous and accomplished man, a public figure of statewide and national reputation. Of course, many of his readers in 1890 and 1819 were aware of his role in contemporary affairs. The modern reader, on the other hand, might benefit from further background.

By his own account, Bidwell was first and foremost a farmer. He fervently believed that agriculture was the cornerstone of the good life, and he tried diligently to live the life of his dreams. As part of his vision he founded the city of Chico close to his ranch, and he made Rancho del Arroyo Chico into a model of scientific agriculture. In many ways he was a leader and pioneer in California agriculture.

But along with farming, Bidwell was constantly drawn into public affairs and even into electoral politics. For months in 1846 he served in the U.S. Army -- reaching the rank of major -- as the United States took control of California. In 1849, he was named as a delegate to California's Constitutional Convention in Monterey, though he was away in the mountains and did not receive notice in time to attend. In November 1849 he was elected to California's first legislature as one of sixteen state senators. He ran unsuccessfully for re-election in 1855, but in 1865 after serving as a brigadier general in the California militia during the Civil War, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

On his return to California in 1867 he was generally expected to become governor of California. That he was denied his party's nomination is eloquent testimony to special interest fear of his unswerving idealism, his outspoken anti-monopoly stand, and his allegiance to other public interest reforms such as the secret ballot, public regulation of public utilities, and women's suffrage. (Reforms we take for granted today.

In 1875 and again in 1890, Bidwell was a third party candidate for governor -- largely in order to publicize and promote the reform measures in which he believed. In fact, his 1890 campaign had hardly concluded when these articles (written a full year earlier) appeared in the pages of Century Magazine. His speeches during that campaign, particularly his eloquence on the subject of temperance and other basic reforms, led directly to his nomination for president of the United States in 1892 as the candidate of the Prohibition Party. He received 264,000 votes, one of the strongest in American history for a third party candidate.

No doubt these articles played some role in establishing Bidwell as a kind of folk hero. At the very least, these articles helped remind a new generation that Bidwell was indeed a fine example of the American pioneer spirit and living proof that a man could go west, could follow the frontier and be a pioneer in every sense of the word and at the same time rise to social and political prominence in this land of the brave and free. --from foreword by Joseph H. Engbeck, Jr., California Department of Parks and Recreation

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Echoes of the Past by General John Bidwell

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