Miss Crosby’s Blue Umbrella

On September 9, 1850, John Bidwell was present when President Millard Fillmore signed the bill, passed by the Senate and the House, that made California the 31st state of the Union. Bidwell had been in Washington since May, advancing the cause of California. Now with that goal accomplished, he lost no time in starting back to California. Bearing the precious admission papers, he traveled to New York where he boarded the steamship Oregon on September 13th, 1850.

Before John Bidwell left California, Elisha O. Crosby had asked him to escort his wife and daughter on their trip to join him. Crosby had come overland to California with the Chiles Party in 1848, leaving his wife and teenage daughter in New York. He had done well in the Gold Rush and served in the California Senate with John Bidwell. He trusted Bidwell to bring his family safely to join him in California.

Those admission papers seem to have worried Bidwell. What if he lost them, or what if they were stolen? How could he keep them safe? Not trusting them to his own luggage, he gave them for safe-keeping to Mrs. Crosby, and she in turn entrusted them to her daughter, Mary Helen.

Or maybe it wasn’t so much that he was worried about the documents. Maybe he just wanted to impress Miss Crosby, and give himself a reason to ingratiate himself with her. At any rate, she guarded the papers closely. She kept them under her pillow at night, and stowed them inside her blue silk umbrella as the party crossed the Isthmus of Panama. In spite of the tropical rains, it is said she never opened her umbrella, but kept it tightly rolled the entire time.

Throughout the voyage, John Bidwell paid courtly attention to 19-year-old Helen Crosby. She was probably a pretty young lady, although no portrait exists from 1850.

Mary Helen Crosby Hensley in 1871.

Mary Helen Crosby Hensley in 1871.

But he was not the only suitor on the ship. Samuel J. Hensley, another California pioneer, also had his eye on the young lady, and she favored Hensley. They were married on April 7, 1851.

No doubt John Bidwell was disappointed at the time. Young ladies of quality were in short supply in early California. But in the end he was probably happy he waited for Annie.

More on Miss Crosby and her umbrella to come . . .

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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