In 1848 things were happening in California. John Bidwell had been quietly and steadily developing a ranch on Butte Creek. He was also still doing occasional jobs for John Sutter — drawing up contracts, surveying, laying out lots in Sutterville.
Then gold was discovered and the world rushed in.
The big rush would come in 1849, but already in 1848 the Californians, plus men from Mexico and Oregon, were flocking to the hills to get rich. The quiet life was over.
John Bidwell made an expedition to the Feather River with some friends in the summer of 1848 and he found “the color,” as they used to say. He would spend the summer of ’48 and ’49 prospecting for gold, hiring Indian workers to sift the sands of the Feather River, and setting up a trading post to supply other miners. One of his partners in these ventures was George McKinstry, who had come to California in 1846 with a printed copy of John Bidwell’s 1841 journal as his guidebook.
Several letters from Bidwell to McKinstry are in the California State Library, and they shed light on life in the goldfields. This first one predates Bidwell’s own gold discovery. Instead he is at New Helvetia, as Sutter’s land holdings were called, and he has been busy surveying Sutter’s new project of Sutterville.
New Helvetia, 21st May, 1848
Having been confused by the continual arrival of Gold Diggers from all quarters, which made my room, in spite of my determination, a little too public, I made a hasty finish of the map.
I made an index to the map in which you will see lots 2 & 3 of Block 48, and 6&7 of B.59 marked with your name.
This is followed by more instructions about lots. Then he continues:
Mr. Leese is on his way here to enter into the mining business, and wishes me to join him, and form a company – but I have declined on acct. of reasons which I did not state to him.
I foresee the great struggles which are going to be in the mining regions which impresses me with the importance of finding if possible, a more retired place above.
To this end in your absence I shall make every endeavor: We ought to make early arrangements for cattle for beef, because every thing in the provision line is about to command an exorbitant price, and unless we guard in time against it we shall lose a great deal.
I have the key to your room behind the picture in the S.W. corner if the hall.
The form book is in the lower drawer of the bureau.
Yours etc. J. Bidwell
Bidwell is thinking about the money to be made from miners — they are going to want beef and other provisions.
Mr. Leese is Jacob P. Leese, early (1834) settler in California, San Francisco merchant, and husband of the sister of General Vallejo. Evidently Bidwell had plans of his own.
I like that little note about where to find the key.