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The Bidwell Diaries: Volume 1, John Bidwell
Transcription of John Bidwell's diaries from 1864-1900. Stored on a searchable CD-ROM.

The John Bidwell Diaries

Comments by Michael J. Gillis

Department of History


October 2001

The diaries of John Bidwell are of great importance to those interested in the history of California and the West, and in particular the founding and development of Chico. Arriving in California in 1841 as a member of the Bidwell-Bartleson Party, Bidwell became a faithful chronicler of early California. His diaries record people, places and events beginning in 1864 and continue up to his death in 1900.

It should be noted that there are some small gaps in John Bidwell’s diaries, which for the serious researcher may be filled in by correspondence and other papers to be found in the California State Library and other repositories. The diaries here cover the years 1864, 1867, 1869-1899, and 1900. The 1866 diary holds only six pages of diary entries but it also contains a remarkable dictation transcribed by Annie Bidwell. Lois McDonald came across this text during her research and felt it should be included as part of the CD publication since it was entered into a diary, and perhaps more importantly, it is another valuable primary source describing the life and times of John Bidwell. Topics discussed in this early John Bidwell dictation include his overland journey in 1841, his working for Sutter at the Russian settlement at Fort Ross, the visits of John Fremont, the Mexican War, and the discovery of gold in California.

This is the first publication of these diaries. Prior to this, researchers had usually to travel to either the California State Library to examine the originals or to the Bidwell Mansion Visitors Center where bound copies are held. Other Bidwell documents including his Echoes of the Past and the two unpublished dictations (1877 and 1898) held at the Bancroft Library cover only a small portion of the diaries. To have the full, unedited diaries of John Bidwell opens avenues of research only hinted at in the other documents.

Remarkably, the method and structure of his diary entries change little over the decades. At the end of each day, Bidwell would take out his diary and jot down the activities of the day. He recorded the places he visited, the people he met, the major events of the day, and finally the weather conditions. His diary went on the road with him as well. Whether he was on horseback in the Sierra Nevada, campaigning for governor (where the brevity of his entries spoke to the pressure on his time), or on a ship heading for England, he always made his diary entries. Rarely does one find omissions in the entries and these occur when he was so ill that he physically could not write. Otherwise, this is as complete a diary as one can find for an early California pioneer.

These diaries cover a remarkable array of topics and are still, for the most part, virtually unplowed ground. Few historians have had time or inclination to take on the task of reading over 12,000 handwritten pages. Those who have used these diaries, however, have discovered a treasure chest of information. The native peoples of California, the Bear Flag Revolt and the Mexican War, mining, agriculture, politics, and the problem with Chinese immigrants - all appear in the Bidwell diaries.

Bidwell’s entries on agriculture are some of the first to describe the wheat culture in northern California. Later, as the farmers of the northern section moved toward fruit and nut production, Bidwell recorded this development, often including in his diary descriptions of plant diseases and pest infestations. Bidwell’s Rancho Chico was for a time one of the most important experimental farms west of the Mississippi River. His experiments conducted for the U.S. Department of Agriculture ranged from growing Asian Casaba melons to planting mulberry trees in an attempt to begin a silk production facility in California. At one time his 22,000-acre ranch supported over 400 different crops and his diary entries often discuss the success and failure of these experiments. For those interested in the history of California agriculture, these diaries are essential to understanding its development.

John Bidwell’s diaries also throw light on one of the most controversial topics in California history - the treatment of its native peoples. Suffice it to say that Bidwell was out of step with most other Californians when it came to the Indians. He condemned the state-sponsored murder of Indians, spoke out against the legislation and provided a haven for the local Maidu tribe. At the same time, Bidwell relied on Indian labor to operate his ranch and was roundly criticized for his supposed ill treatment of his workers. His diary contains pointed criticisms against named federal Indian agents and reveals his frustrations while working with people who knew little of the nature of California Indians.

John Bidwell’s varied political activies are documented as well. His diaries reveal strong personal feelings as regards his political opponents. In general, he viewed politics as being fatally corrupted by big money, monopolists, political cabals, and the liquor industry. His unwillingness to pay bribes, buy votes, and bow down to district party officials doomed his political career. However his political experiences are fodder for some of his most revealing diary entries.

Besides the major topics mentioned briefly above, there is a day-to-day rhythm that the readers will enjoy. Brief episodes about family, friends, Presbyterian Church associates and employees fill the diaries with a homespun twist. Bidwell’s concern about the moral propriety of the telephone, pleasure at the sight of salmon running up Chico Creek, the whereabouts of a lost dog, and the arrival of unexpected guests all combine to make the diaries good reading.

Events are recorded that seem out of place and time. A reported “airship” with human voices coming from it above Chico turns out to be a hot air balloon blown off course. Bidwell is shown an x-ray machine while on one of his frequent visits to San Francisco. Mrs. Bidwell’s doctor’s recommendation of champagne as a medication forced Bidwell to inquire into the sanity of the doctor. Numerous earthquakes that shook Chico are recorded, snowstorms that blanketed it, and fires that destroyed parts of it.

Taken as a whole these diaries offer historians and others a wonderful launching point, throwing light on numerous topics. Much that is new is revealed about 18th Century California, Chico and John Bidwell as a man. That it is why they are so important. The complete diaries are now made available to the public. Historians and others may be grateful to Shirley Connolly, Lois McDonald and the Bidwell Mansion Association for the significant contribution they have made to this field of study. --from The Bidwell Diaries, Vol. 1, John Bidwell

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"John and Annie Bidwell's Diaries are now available on CD-ROM. Bidwell came to California in 1841 with the Bidwell-Bartleson Party. He was one of the earliest Argonauts to find gold on the Feather River at what became known a Bidwell's Bar. Making his initial fortune there he eventually founded a ranch on the site of what would become Chico. He later was a U.S. Senator from California and an unsuccessful candidate for President.

"Bidwell started keeping a diary in 1864 and, for the most part, wrote daily until his death in 1901. However for reasons unknown, he wrote little in the year 1866. His wife, Annie, actually finished his diary for the year 1901. She had been keeping a diary since 1882, although much more intermittently until 1911. Several years are missing and in some years she wrote few entries, often appending them to the end of another year. Both diaries chronicle people, places and events in Butte County, California, and to some degree the national scene. Indeed, these diaries are a window into Butte County during the time in which they were written.

"These CDs provide information to historians that was only available on a limited basis. Heretofore, historical researchers had to visit the California State Library in Sacramento to read the originals of John and Annie Bidwells' diaries or travel to the Bidwell Mansion Visitors Center in Chico where bound, although not entirely complete, copies are held.

"Lois McDonald, Ridge historian and former editor of Tales of the Paradise Ridge, spearheaded the effort to publish these valuable research tools. In typed form, John Bidwell's diaries are about 2000 pages long and Annie's nearly 1200 pages. The number of pages in the much smaller, original diaries is uncounted. Initial transcribing of the diaries on was done under a Federal Green Thumb grant. Unfortunately, during transcription language and punctuation were 'cleaned up' to some degree. To insure that the diaries were in as original form as possible, Lois went back to the originals in the State Library and restored the Bidwells' language and style of writing, editing only where clarity was involved. She also annotated the diaries to help historians identify many of the characters. Larry Jackson at Heidelberg Graphics of Chico then digitized Lois' work to CD-ROMs.

"CD-ROMs of both John and Annie Bidwells' diaries are available at the Bidwell Mansion Visitors Center. The price is $24.95 for each in either Windows or Mac format." --Tales of the Paradise Ridge

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