Politics and John Bidwell

It’s an election year again and the day to cast your vote for president (and other offices) is just around the corner. The two major parties have put forth their candidates and many people are not happy with the choices before them.

Let’s forget about those two for a moment and take a look at another presidential candidate — Chico’s own John Bidwell. What were his political views? Which party did he support?

John Bidwell

Most people in Chico know that John Bidwell was the Prohibitionist candidate for U.S. president in 1892. (It’s no surprise that he lost to Grover Cleveland.)  But Bidwell was active in politics long before the Prohibition Party came along. What was John Bidwell before he was a Prohibitionist?

Democrat?  Republican?  Some obscure special interest third party?  How about all three?

Yes, indeed.  Good old steady John Bidwell was all of those, and he tried to become governor of California on each one of those political tickets. Who knew?

John Bidwell was not the type to lightly change his allegiance, but as politics in California and in the United States changed over the course of the 19th century, he changed too.  From “incorrigible” Democrat (as he described himself), to staunch Republican, to Anti-Monopolist, to Prohibitionist (with a nudge from Annie), Bidwell served his state and pursued his ambitions. In subsequent entries during this election year I’ll explore Bidwell’s political career and we’ll see what kind of politician he was.

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On the Trail — September 25, 1841

Saturday, 25th. The creek became perfectly dry and its banks rose to high perpendicular precipices, so that there was no other road than the dry bed of the stream. Having come about 15 miles, we encamped in a place affording a little grass and water, where we could see nothing but the sky. But the men who ascended the precipice to see what was in the prospect ahead said that in about a mile we would come to a valley–this was delightful news.

Traversing the stony dry creek bed made the animals “tender-footed and sore,” a new worry to add to their many others. But the report of the scouts who climbed up the the top of the cliff gave them heart.  There was a valley and a river ahead, and it might be Mary’s River.

They continued on, day after day, through difficult country, still not sure that they were on Mary’s River. They averaged 15-20 miles a day — good progress — but in doubt every step of the way. By September 30th they had spent more than a week on this stream (probably the South Fork of the Humboldt River) that led northward, and they had been told that Mary’s River ran west southwest. Just imagine their anxiety!

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On the Trail — September 23-24, 1841

Thursday, 23d. We could see no termination of the valley, nore any signs of Mary’s river. We therefore concluded that we were too far south, and passed over the mouintains to the north, where we struck a small stream running toward the NW. On this we encamped and found plenty of grass, a few fish were caught, some of which were trout, which led us to the conclusion that this was a branch of Mary’s river.

Friday, 24th. As we descended the stream it rapidly increased in size, and proved to be the branch of a larger stream. The country was desolate and barren, excepting immediately on the streams, where grew a few willows and cottonwoods.


They were still searching for Mary’s River (the Humboldt), the river that would be their lifeline across the desert.  The prospect was gloomy; this canyon was leading them directly north, not west or south. The advice they had gotten from Fort Hall warned:

“You must not go too far north; if you do you will get into difficult canyons that lead towards the Columbia River, where you may become bewildered and wander about and perish.”

Could they be too far north, when just days before they had been too far south?

But the report of the scouts who climbed up the the top of the cliff gave them heart.  There was a valley and a river ahead, and it might be Mary’s River.

I surmise that they were on one of the creeks that flows out of the Ruby Mountains north to the Humboldt River, about halfway between present day Elko and Wells. Or possibly they were on a stream that would take them to the South Fork of the Humboldt, and thence north to the river.

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On the Trail — September 22, 1841

Wednesday, 22nd.  This morning 80 or 90 Indians were seen coming full speed from the W. Many had horses–one was sent about a half a mile in advance from the rest–so we ought also to have done, but Capt. B. was perfectly ignorant of Indian customs, and the whole band of savages were suffered to come directly up to us, and almost surround our camp, when Mr. B. Kelsey showed by forcible gestures they would be allowed to proceed no farther. The Indians were well armed with guns and bows and arrows. The only words I recollect hearing Capt. Bartleson say were “let them gratify their curiosity!!”

This incident further sunk Bartleson’s reputation in John Bidwell’s eyes. The custom on the plains was for parties meeting for the first time to send out “ambassadors” to check each other out and find out what the other party’s intentions were. Did they want to trade? Did they need help? Or were they looking for trouble? Bartleson, by carelessly ignoring this custom, was endangering the entire company.

The Indians, as it turned out, were Shoshones, and friendly, although obviously capable of inflicting damage if they so chose. “Besides,” says Bidwell, “they were not a little acquainted with warfare, for they undoubtedly visited the Buffalo Country (having many robes) which requires much bravery to contend with the Blackfeet and Chiennes, who continually guard their buffalo in the region of the Rocky mountains.”

The Indians did want to trade, and offered a dressed buckskin for a handful of ammunition. They then rode on either side of the Bidwell-Bartleson Party for several hours, until they gradually dropped off and went their way.

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On the Trail — September 21, 1841

Once Bidwell had rejoined his companions, they rested up for a day. Then on the 20th they traveled through some rough terrain — the Ruby Mountains — still looking for Mary’s River, as the Humboldt was then known. Two of the men went out hunting and returned with meat.

Tuesday, 21st.  Hunters returned; many antelope were seen and 2 or 3 killed. About 10 o’clock a.m. as we were coasting along the mountain in a W. direction, we came to some hot springs, which were to me a great curiosity. Within the circumference of a mile there were perhaps 20 springs, the most of which were extremely beautiful, the water being so transparent we could see the smallest thing 20 or 30 feet deep. The rocks which walled the springs, and the beautifully white sediment lodged among them, reflected the sun’s rays in such a manner as to exhibit the most splendid combination of colors, blue, green, red, etc. I ever witnessed.

The water in most of them was boiling hot. There was one, however, more beautiful than the rest; it really appeared more like a work of art than nature. It was about 4 feet in diameter, round as a circle, and deeper than we could see–the cavity looked like a well cut in a solid rock, its walls being smooth and perpendicular. Just as I was viewing this curiosity, some hunters came up with some meat. We all partook, putting it into the hot spring, where it cooked perfectly done in 10 minutes—this is no fish story!


Ruby Valley Hot Springs

George R. Stewart, in The California Trail, writes: “One sure point is marked by the hot springs which they passed on September 21 and which Bidwell described in some detail. These beautiful springs still bubble out near the base of the Ruby Mountains, just as they did when Bidwell saw them.”

They must have been at the Ruby Valley Hot Springs, which can still be visited, but which are in a very remote area. This Travel Nevada site has information and pictures, and is also the source of the photo of one of the springs.

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On the Trail — September 18, 1841

The night of September 17th, Bidwell’s two oxen, carrying packs, got lost.ox-team

Saturday, 18th. Morning found us on the east side of a mountain not far from its base but there were no signs of water; the lost oxen not having come up, I, in company with another young man, went in search of them while the company went on, promising to stop as soon as they found water. I went back about 10 miles, but found nothing of their trail–the sun was in a melting mood–the young man became discouraged and in spite of all my entreaties returned to the company.

The young man who went with John Bidwell to search for the oxen was “Cheyenne” Dawson. Under the hot summer sun he gave up, saying that there were plenty of cattle in California. Which was true, but Bidwell had to go on — without his oxen he had nothing.

Water in the company was in very short supply. Before they left on their search they were each given about a half cup (4 oz.) of water. This was all they had until the next day.

About an hour after [Dawson departed] I found the trail of the oxen which bore directly north. After pursuing it some distance, I discovered fresh moccasin tracks upon the trail, and there began to be high grass, which made me mistrust the Indians had got the oxen. But my horse was good and my rifle ready. . . . But what made me most anxious to find the oxen was the prospect of our wanting them for beef. We had already killed 4 oxen and there were but 13 remaining, including the lost ones, and the Co. was now killing an ox every two or three days.

After 10 miles of following their tracks, Bidwell found the oxen where they had stopped to lay down in the grass. He got them up and moving, hastening to rejoin the company. They had promised to stop and wait for him when they found water.

I traveled all night,and at early dawn came to where there was plenty of water and where the company had taken their dinner the day before, but they had failed to stop for me according to promise.

Bidwell was decidedly miffed at this. He figured that he had been abandoned by his companions. He searched in ever widening circles until he saw three men who were coming to find him.

It was a great relief. I felt indignant that the party had not stopped for me – not the less so when I learned that Captain Bartleson had said, when they started back to find me, that they “would be in better business to go ahead and look for a road.” He had not forgotten certain comments of mine of his qualities as a student of Indian character.

Obviously there was no love lost between those two. Bidwell, who considered himself a good judge of character and a man of “self-possession,” looked on Bartleson as a hot-headed ignoramus. Bartleson would do nothing in the future to change that assessment.

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A Memorable Encounter on the Trail

Thursday, 16th. All hands were busy making pack saddles and getting ready to pack. While thus engaged an Indian, well advanced in years, came out of the mountains to our camp. He told us by signs that the Great Spirit had spoken to him to go down upon the plains in the morning, and on the E. side of the mts. he would find some strange people, who would give him a great many things. Accordingly he had come. We gave him all such things as we had intended to throw away; whenever he received anything which he thought useful to him, he paused and looking steadfastly at the sun, addressed him in a loud voice, marking out his course in the sky, as he advanced in his invocation, which took him  about 2 minutes to perform. As he received quite a number of articles, it took him a considerable part of the day to repeat his blessings. No Persian, in appearance, could be more sincere.

Nearly every man who left an account of the trip remarked upon this Indian. Dawson notes: “We signed to our aged host that the wagons and everything abandoned were his, all his, and left him circumscribing the heavens — the happiest, richest, most religious man I ever saw.”

Jimmy John said,”One old Indian in particular appeared to be very thankful for every thing he received if any one gave him a present. He would hold it up between him and the sun and say over it a long preamble.”

The Company divested itself of extra clothing, cooking equipment, tools, empty containers — anything non-essential. One thing that John Bidwell did not leave behind however were his two books. He had an astronomy manual titled The Geography of the Heavens and a large celestial atlas that went with it. He carried these all the way to California and kept them all his life. astronomybook


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