Meeting Major Bidwell


Edward W. McIlhany, portrait by Thomas Moore, painted in Onion Valley 1850. Now in the Oakland Museum.

In the spring of 1849 a company of young men, eager to reach the goldfields, set out from Virginia. Almost 80 years later, one of those men, Edward Washington McIlhany, set down his Recollections of a ’49er. His book was first published in 1908, and republished in 2006 in a beautiful new edition edited by Scott Lawson. director of the Plumas County Museum.

In the fall of 1849, as Ed McIlhany and friends made their way up the valley en route to the Shasta mines, they stopped for several days at Rancho Chico. Here is his account of that stay:

We started on up the river and finally reached Major Bidwell’s Ranch, one of the finest ranches in California. We found him a very intelligent, hospitable, and a fine looking man. We remained at his ranch several days also, gaining a great deal of information. Bidwell gave us an account of his mining first in ’48 at a mining camp called Bidwell’s Bar, named after him, as he discovered the camp. It was on the Feather River that emptied into the Sacramento River.

He told us that he thought we would be disappointed in the mines, but as we had started we would not be satisfied until we got there, not being very far from his place. He advised us that if we were not satisfied there to go to Bidwell’s Bar, as it was very rich and was not worked out. Mr. Bidwell owned thousands of acres of land gotten from a Mexican grant. He had an Indian village not far from his residence built of adobe houses, trees set out in the village and ditches through the village to carry pure water from the mountains. Forty Indian men in this village worked for him in his mine by which he made a great deal of money.

John Bidwell had achieved the rank of major in the California Battalion during the Mexican War. In 1847 he settled on Little Butte Creek on a portion the Farwell Grant, and in July 1849 he bought a half-interest in Rancho Chico from his business partner George McKinstrey.

Bidwell promptly built a cabin on the north side of Chico Creek right where the Oregon Road forded the creek. This became a landmark for travelers to the Shasta mines and beyond, where they could camp out, get a meal, feed and water their stock, and learn something of California from an “old-timer” like John Bidwell.

More about McIlhany and Bidwell next time.

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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1 Response to Meeting Major Bidwell

  1. Pingback: California As I Saw It | goldfields

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