The meanest man in California

The other thing I wanted to see at the Bancroft was the manuscript of Bidwell’s 1877 dictation for Hubert Howe Bancroft, in which Bidwell recounts his experiences during his 1841 journey to California, the Mexican War, and the Gold Rush. I had looked at it on microfilm, but the microfilm is hard to read and doesn’t copy very well. So I wanted to see the original and check a couple pages.

It turns out that there is a transcript of the manuscript, so I requested a photocopy, and it came in the mail today. The transcript does contain some errors, but as long as you keep that in mind, it is certainly easier to read than the microfilm.

Here is an interesting excerpt:

Here Bidwell stopped dictating and told me [the scribe S. S. Boynton] the story of his return to Marsh’s ranch. He said Marsh was dead and gone and he didn’t know that it was best to tell the real facts in all instances. [At the time of dictation Marsh had been dead for 21 years, but Bidwell may have felt it was improper to speak ill of the dead.]

As he told it to me he returned to the place wet, tired, and hungry [and] told Marsh he must stay all night but could start for Sutter’s next day. Marsh received him very coldly, gave him a piece of dried beef saying his cook was sick. While cooking the meat on the coals Marsh’s cook carried in the Doctor’s supper consisting of antelope meat, beans, tortillas, etc. Bidwell expressed deep feeling about Marsh but refused to let me take any more notes. (p. 43)

No wonder Marsh’s treatment still rankled after all those years! After Bidwell’s arduous trek over the Sierra Nevada, a trip to San Jose where he spent three days in jail, and his return to Marsh’s ranch in the November rains, Marsh’s insensitive behavior and callous lies were like a slap in the face to Bidwell. It’s no surprise that when he sent news of his trip back to friends in Missouri, he called Marsh “the meanest man in California.”

About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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