A Sketch of California Life in the Waverley Magazine, 1856

After reading the article on Chico in the Waverley Magazine, Nelson Blake wrote “I don’t understand it and await an explanation from you.” I don’t know if he ever got his explanation from John Bidwell, since Bidwell’s letters to Blake were lost long ago.

Fullscreen capture 1252018 100728 AMThe article Nelson Blake saw is titled Sketches of California Life — No. VI, by R. H. Howard. It begins:

One day we proposed to visit Bidwell’s garden and vineyard and did so. John Bidwell, the owner of this “ranch,” I understand, has been in this country some sixteen years. At any rate he has been here long enough to have his name become identified with all the principle localities in this section. The famous “Bidwell’s Bar” is well know to all who are “posted” in regard to the geography of this state.

The author, R. H. Howard, does not propose “to give the particulars in an agricultural point of view” (I wish he had!) but only to relate one or two incidents that have “rested upon my mind with no little weight.” These consist of: meeting Bidwell’s brother from Vermont (the author’s home state), the death and funeral of the miller, and the death of an ox. Pretty slim pickings.

The brother in question, although the author of the piece does not name him, was Daniel Bidwell, who came to Chico with his family around 1855. Daniel had a wife, three (I think) sons, and a sixteen-year-old daughter, Mary, who caught the eye of the reporter. She was “as fine a specimen of womanhood as one of as much pride as myself could ask to represent that branch of indigenous products of his home state.” (You can see how wordy this fellow is.)

“I was also much interested, during this visit, in a young man, there laboring at the time under a severe attack of the delirium tremens.” The unnamed young man, “Bidwell’s miller and a native of New York,” dies and is buried, accompanied by much more verbiage about the “mournful occasion” and “this strife and struggle and sacrifice for gain,” — but no details.

But, says Nelson Blake in his letter, “you told me that he died from wounds received in an Indian skirmish.” What Indian skirmish? Who is he referring to? It can’t be Amos Frye, who did indeed die in that way, because Frye died in 1852, while Blake was still residing at Rancho Chico. I don’t know of such an incident in 1855 or ’56, although there was an Indian attempt on Bidwell’s life in early 1856. Evidently I am going to have to do more research.

The death of the miller calls forth from the author sad reflections on the mutability of life, and ‘yet another lesson” — “That to steer clear of the treacherous quicksands that everywhere begirt us, especially in this country, you must shun every species of intemperance as you would the veritable precursor of ruin and death.” I have the notion that the Waverley was enlisted in the cause of Temperance.

The last incident from this visit that “rested upon [the author’s] mind with no little weight,” is the death of an ox.

I was down, the other day, to where the Little Butte creek sinks on the prairie. The Little Butte on one side, and a succession of sloughs on the other, gradually curving, come at length together forming a peninsula covered with oak timber.

There he spies an ox that had apparently just died. As he studies the scene, another ox approaches to investigate and then sends up a anguished howl in mourning. Soon all the cattle “join their full sonorous voices in the chorus, by lowing and bellowing and screaming — chanting a requiem full of power and pathos to their departed companion and friend.” Another meditative paragraph follows, ending with the thought, “And where will my journey end?”


Rancho Chico in the 1850s, with Bidwell’s Store, adobe house and hotel, and flour mill.

I wish, before his journey’s end, he had given his readers a fuller picture of life at Rancho Chico.




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 A Sketch of California Life in the Waverley Magazine, 1856

  1. Jeannette says:

    I am in the middle of reading Kevin Starr’s “Americans and the California Dream” vol 1 and just finished a chapter on Josiah Royce who I think would have strongly echoed your desire for this, and other writers, to have given a fuller picture of the lives of people, what they did to survive and grow, as individuals. families and communities.

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