John Bidwell is the gold discoverer that might have been.
If he had been just a little bit more lucky, or perhaps a bit more persistent, he would have discovered gold in 1843 or’44 or ’45. And then I guess we would all be rooting for the San Francisco Forty-Fivers. (It doesn’t have the same ring to it, does it?)
Bidwell first heard of gold in California when he was managing John Sutter’s Hock Farm near Marysville in 1843-44. One of the workers, Pablo Gutierrez, told him that he had seen signs of gold on the Bear River. Before coming to California Gutierrez had worked in the gold mines of Mexico and knew the signs of gold when he saw them.
Bidwell and Pablo traveled several miles up into the mountains where Pablo said they would find gold.
“Can you show me some?” said Bidwell.
“No,” said Pablo, “I need a batea.”
“What is a batea?” asked Bidwell. Pablo tried to describe it, in Spanish of course. Bidwell couldn’t picture what it could be. Pablo tried again and again to explain the batea, until Bidwell decided it must be some complicated piece of machinery.
“Pablo, where can you get it?” “Down in Mexico,” answered Pablo.
Bidwell promised to pay his expenses if he would go to Mexico and get one. “But Pablo,” he instructed, “say nothing to anybody else about this gold discovery. We will get the batea and find the gold when you return.”
But, it never happened.
War intervened—first the short-lived rebellion called the Micheltorena War, and then the Bear Flag Revolt and the Mexican War. When the Mexican government sent up a new governor—Manual Micheltorena–in 1845, the Californios rebelled against him. They wanted one of their own to be governor.
John Sutter wanted to stay on the good side of the governor and the Mexican government, so he recruited a troop of soldiers, mostly Indians, and he and Bidwell rode southward to take part in the bloodless Second Battle of Cahuenga Pass. Poor Pablo Gutierrez was not so lucky, and lost his life when he was captured by the opposing Californio rebels. Some time later Bidwell discovered that a batea was not a complicated machine, but nothing more than a wooden bowl for washing gold.
So for want of a wooden bowl, the Gold Rush was delayed for another 4 years.