Our American Stories and Me


I’m on the radio!

And you can listen to me right here!

You can hear me (and a couple of other people) talking about real pioneer woman Nancy Kelsey on Our American Stories. In addition to true stories from American history, this syndicated radio program covers business, sports, and contemporary stories of American heroes.

The nearest radio station that carries Our American Stories is KSAC 105.5 FM in Sacramento. But you can also tune in online at Our American Network or subscribe to their podcast.

I enjoyed researching and recording my part of the program. I have to thank Steve Michaels for recording me in his fabulous studio, and Nick Anderson for putting me in touch with Steve. I know some wonderful people.

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The First Newspapers in California

On November 11, 1848, the last issue of the first newspaper to appear in California was published.  The Californian had begun life in August 1846 under the editorship of Walter Colton and Robert Semple in Monterey. By the fall of 1848, with gold fever rampant, it became impossible to continue printing the paper. Everybody was running off to the goldfields: as Colton wrote in Three Years in California: “the blacksmith dropped his hammer, the carpenter his plane, the mason his trowel, the farmer his sickle, the baker his loaf, and the tapster his bottle.”

In the last issue, the Californian (under another editor and printed in San Francisco), gave a brief history of the newspaper, like a ship now “deserted by master and mate.” It ended on a hopeful note, insisting that the paper would continue, but the editor himself had been “called abroad” (to the goldfields?) and this was the last issue.


The Californian would be resurrected by Edward Kemble and combined with the California Star (which he bought from Sam Brannan), to become the Weekly Alta California. Kemble was only twenty years old, but he was already an experienced newspaperman, having grown up in the business under his father, an editor in Troy, New York. At the age of 18 he had come with Sam Brannan (and a printing press) on the ship Brooklyn to California with a ship-load of Mormon emigrant refugees.


Edward C. Kemble, A History of California Newspapers, 1846-1858.

Since he now had two printing presses, Kemble took one of them and went to Sacramento to start another newspaper, the Placer Times. The first issue appeared on April 28, 1849.


November 11th is not only the last date for the Californian, it was also Kemble’s birthday in 1828. So “Happy Birthday” to Edward Kemble. Anyone researching California Gold Rush history owes a great debt to Kemble and his newspapers.


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Chivalry vs. Tammany

   Gwin and Broderick

Political power in California was in the hands the Democratic Party during the 1850s. Or at least, that’s the way it started out. The opposing party, the Whigs, were fading nationally, and in California, where the majority of men were engaged in mining and other working class jobs, the Democrats ruled.

And yet, the Democratic Party had a fatal flaw, a crack that ran through the heart of its solid hold on power. Slavery divided the party in California, just as it did the Northern and Southern states. In California, the party divided into two factions, popularly known as the Chivalry and the Tammany (or Free Soil) wings.


Sacramento Daily Union 10 September 1857

The Chivalry was the party of southerners, slaveholders, and anyone else who was pro-slavery.  It also included men who were not from the South or pro-slavery, but opposed the Tammany tactics of David C. Broderick, the boss of San Francisco. William M. Gwin, U.S. Senator, was the leader of the Chivalry.

(Were their slaves in California? Yes, there were. Although forbidden by the California Constitution, some southerners brought slaves with them during the Gold Rush, and it would take time and effort to eradicate slavery from the state.)

The “Chivs,” also called “Rose-water Democrats,” had a great deal of power in the party, but they were hated by those adamantly opposed to seeing slavery imported into California, or the state divided into a slave-holding half, and a free half.


Sacramento Daily Union 10 September 1857

David C. Broderick led the Tammany wing. Its other nickname, the “Hard-Fisted Democrats,” gives you an idea of what kind of men they were. Broderick had been schooled in politics under Boss Tweed in New York City. He ruled in San Francisco, and had in his hand numerous lucrative patronage jobs. He wasn’t going to let a bunch of “Rose-water Democrats” call the shots.

Since Broderick’s group also allied themselves with the short-lived Free Soil Party, they were often referred to as Free Soilers. The Free Soil Party in the East was comprised of former Northern Democrats and Whigs, who sought to ban slavery in all the newly-acquired territory in the West. As Free Soilers, David Broderick and his crew were not so much interested in the rights of slaves and African-Americans as they were in free soil for white men.

So it gets complicated. The nicknames (and worse) flew about like chicken feathers — “Bone-and-Sinew Democrats,” “Piano Democrats,” “Bogus Democrats,” “LeCompton” and “Anti-LeCompton Democrats,” The Democratic Party was not united, and that would spell trouble for the party when upstart rivals came on the scene, as we will soon see.


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David C. Broderick

Continuing my series on 19th century California politics–

William M. Gwin was not the only man to come to California with political ambitions. David C. Broderick, another Democrat, came for the same reasons. But Broderick was was a Democrat of a different stripe.

Gwin aspired to be a Southern gentleman, but without a landed inheritance to sustain him. He got ahead by closely allying himself with Andrew Jackson and learning how to maneuver himself in the political world, acquiring land and slaves in the process.

broderickDavid Broderick, the son of Irish immigrants, was raised in New York City. Like his father, he was a stonecutter, but he wanted to get ahead in the world. He read and studied ravenously and passed the bar. He joined the Democratic Party and became a protegee of the Tammany Hall gang, assiduously climbing the hierarchy of the party. He ran for Congress in 1846, but his brashness lost him the support of his party and he was beaten to the Whig candidate.

Deciding he needed a fresh start, he joined the Gold Rush to California and arrived about the same time as his rival, Gwin. He wasn’t interested in mining, either. He could see that San Francisco was ripe with political opportunity.

He made the acquaintance of Colonel Jonathan Drake Stevenson, another New Yorker, who hired him to help run a private mint. San Francisco was in dire need of coinage (imagine how troublesome it was to pay for everything with pinched of gold dust), and there was no law against a private concern issuing money.

It turned out to be a gold mine, literally, for Broderick, because every five dollar gold piece had only four dollars worth of gold in it, and every ten dollar coin had only eight. What a way to make a fortune! Soon Broderick was buying land and getting into politics. At the same time he organized a volunteer fire company, gathering about him other Irishmen and New Yorkers. He was clever, quick, and fearless, and a natural-born leader. In a few months he rose to such prominence that in January 1850 he was elected to the state senate to fill a vacancy left by the resignation of another senator.

He was elected president of the Senate in April 1851, and then became lieutenant governor when Governor Peter Burnett resigned and John McDougal moved up to become governor. He was staunchly opposed to slavery and those, like Gwin, who supported it. His roots were in the working class and everything he did was to defend the rights of the working man.



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What Is It About Tunnels?

subway cave

Subway Cave, a lava tube near Lassen Volcanic National Park. Nothing to do with the tunnels in this post.

Does every town in California, or the nation, have stories about secret tunnels under the buildings and under the streets? I know Chico does — maybe your town does too.


Stansbury House in Chico

Just last week a fellow I know said he knew the man who used to be the caretaker at Stansbury House. The man’s name was Tom, and Tom took him down into the cellar and showed him the tunnel that the Chinese used to get to Dr. Stansbury. This sounded bogus to me, but I have never been in the basement of the Stansbury House, so how would I know?

I mentioned it to John Gallardo, who has been the caretaker at Stansbury House for many years. He told me that there are no tunnels under Stansbury House and there was never a caretaker named Tom.

And when you think about it: Where would that tunnel go? Dr. Stansbury didn’t live next door to Chinatown, not the old one and not the new one. How many blocks would that tunnel have to run?

My friend Sandy Hill told me that when she was going to Chico High School, she heard stories that John Bidwell had a tunnel from his Mansion to the creek so he could sneak out and go the Indian village.

Guess what? No tunnels running under the lawn at Bidwell Mansion either. At one time the Indian village (or rancheria) was quite close to the mansion, but Annie was upset with the wailings she heard during a two-day funeral, and so in March 1869 (a year after Annie arrived) Bidwell had the rancheria moved a mile away. That would have made for a very long tunnel!

More plausible are the stories of tunnels under the buildings of downtown Chico. In many cities the old buildings have basements, and often these basements were connected, one building to another. That would facilitate moving goods, going from building to building out of the weather, and maybe more clandestine activities.  Basements could be used for opium dens, gambling dens, and speakeasies.


Underground opium den in San Francisco, 1906. Image courtesy of Bancroft Library and Calisphere.

My husband says he saw this kind of tunnel and room arrangement under an old building in downtown Bakersfield many years ago. He was told the room had been a Chinese opium den, and that may well be true.

If anyone has an authentic story about spooky basements and tunnels in Chico, I’d like to hear it. Just don’t tell me about a tunnel that runs under Chico Creek, so that John Bidwell could go to a saloon and get a drink without Annie knowing.


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A California Welcome — November 4, 1841

On this date 178 years ago, John Bidwell and most of the rest of the Bidwell-Bartleson Party reached the home of John Marsh near Mount Diablo.  At last they knew for sure that they were in California. The long journey was finished and a new chapter of adventure would begin.

Thursday, 4th. Left the river in good season and departing gradually from its timber came into large marshes of bulrushes. We saw large herds of elk and wild horses grazing upon the plain. . . . Finally we arrived at Marsh’s house, which is built of unburnt bricks, small and has no fireplace — wanting a floor and covered with bulrushes. In fact it was not what I expected to find; a hog was killed for the company. We had nothing else but beef; the latter was used as bread, the former as meat.

After the skimpy rations of the past few months, the men hungered for fat meat, and the pork was welcome, even if it came in a beef and pork “sandwich.” Bidwell might have been hoping for bread too. He liked bread and missed it. But he had no complaints about the food Marsh gave them that first night.


John Marsh in 1852

Considering the glowing reports of California that Marsh had sent back east, Bidwell was surprised at the primitive conditions he was living in. A small adobe house with a dirt floor and no fireplace -– hardly what Bidwell had envisioned. He was accustomed to cooking over a fireplace indoors, but in California the cooking was generally done outside in the courtyard.

Dr. Marsh welcomed the company. “He seemed delighted to see us and was very communicative and even enthusiastic.” He had known a few of the men in the company back in Missouri. Now, their journey ended, they sat around telling their stories and exchanging news.

The long, tough journey was over, but the adventure would continue. John Bidwell was now embarking on a new life, the life of a Californian. He would spend the next 59 years in his new home state.

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William Gwin in California

WMGwinWilliam M. Gwin got everything he wanted out of California, and he got it quickly.

Gwin arrived in San Francisco in June of 1849 and immediately jumped into the whirlwind of California politics. California at the time was under a military governor, but in effect there was no government and no legal system. Forty-niners were clamoring for representative government and American laws. Gwin had come to give them what they wanted.

Governor Bennett Riley had just called for a constitutional convention the day before Gwin arrived on the steamship.  The election of delegates would be held on the first of August. Gwin stumped around the mining camps in support of the election and then put his name on the ballot in San Francisco.

He was elected to the constitutional convention and took a ship to Monterey.  Other shipboard delegates were irritated by his “haughty and dictatorial attitude.” He was a boastful know-it-all, and that did not sit well with men who had been in California more than three months. But he did know his stuff when it came to politics and men deferred to his judgement.

mexicanwarresultsBetween the first of September and the thirteenth of October, the 48 delegates met in Colton Hall and hammered out a constitution for California. One of their jobs was to set the boundaries of California. We are so used to California as it looks today that we don’t think it might have been otherwise, but Gwin wanted California to consist of all the vast lands taken from Mexican in the Mexican War, except for Texas. Finally the men decided that the Sierra Nevada range would make a natural eastern boundary for the state.

As soon as the convention was over, Gwin went back to San Francisco to campaign for a seat in the state senate. He got that too, and when he went to the meeting of the legislature in mid-December in San Jose, the first order of business was to elect two U.S. senators. A seat in the U.S. Senate — that had been Gwin sole aim in coming to California and now it was within his grasp.

As he candidly wrote to his brother in 1864, he was “determined not to make money, but to devote all my energies to obtaining and maintaining political power.” (Not to worry — he made money too with a productive gold mine and through political jobbing.)

Dashing John C. Fremont, “The Pathfinder,” was easily the first choice for senator. Gwin had two other rivals for the other seat, but he managed to get elected on the third ballot. Then he and Fremont drew straws to see who would get the long term (six years) and who would get the short (two years). Gwin won that too. The lucky man was “in like Gwin.”

In January Fremont and Gwin left San Francisco for Washington D.C. to present their credentials to the U.S. Senate. Of course, California was not yet a state, so they couldn’t take their seats just yet. But how long could it take?








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