The Ballad of John Bidwell

I have been looking through a Butte County history curriculum binder developed by the Butte County Office of Education for 3rd grade teachers, and I came across a catchy little item. It’s “The Ballad of John Bidwell”, written by the 3rd and 4th grade students of Canyon View School (which was in Magalia). I will append a few footnotes, but other than that, without further ado, here it is: (Use whatever tune you like to sing along.)

John Bidwell lived on an eastern farm
And dreamed of open spaces.
Injun Joe*, a trapper came
To tell of far-off places.

He stayed at home until eighteen
And then he started west.
He found out in St. Louis
That Missouri land was best.

He made his money teaching school.
One day he went to town
And while he was buying farming tools**
A claim-jumper stole his ground.

He heard of California
And decided he would go
Although the way was still unknown
And wagon wheels move slow.

In ’41 the wagons left,
Led by a famous scout.
Across the Rockies steep they went***
With hearts both bold and stout.

The scout then had to leave them
With their wagons pointed west.
He said, “There is no trail at all, boys,
You’ll have to do your best.”

They reached the Great Salt Basin
And had to circle south.
There was no buffalo for food
And all around was drought.†

They left their wagons far behind —
The way was much too steep —
The trail they made too narrow,
And the canyons far too deep.

Bartelson, their captain,
Was a double-crossing man.
He stole the meat, and rode away,
Shouting, “Get there if you can.”

They crossed the High Sierras
And didn’t even know.!
How surprised they were to see
The valley far below.

Then down they walked to Dr. Marsh
From out of the mountains wild —
A thirty†† hungry, happy men;
One woman and a child.

John went on to Sutter’s Fort,
His journey at an end.
He worked for Sutter several years
And was his closest friend.

He didn’t have the fever
Of those who came to seek
For fortune. He only wanted gold
For a ranch on Chico Creek.

The American River was rich with soil
But Bidwell said, “I’d rather
Try my luck on another stream,
I’ll travel up the Feather.”

With friends he went up towards the hills.
He hadn’t traveled far
Until he panned out gold before
At a place now Bidwell Bar.

He bought 22,000 acres
With gold that he had panned.‡
He knew the country’s future
Was in its fertile land.

He went to Washington, D.C.
To help build up the state.
He brought back plants and trees, and planned
To make the Valley great.

He married pretty Annie
Who was a faithful wife.
She loved the Chico Indians
And helped them all her life.

And now, if you have read this far, here are a few notes.
*Injun Joe. It’s unfortunate that this occurs in the very first stanza, since it is not only objectionable, but inaccurate. Bidwell heard about California from a French-Canadian trapper, Antoine Robidoux, who had a more famous brother, Joseph, but they did not (as far as I can ascertain) have any Native blood, although many trappers did.

** and books!

*** The scout was Thomas Fitzpatrick, who knew the trail well enough to guide them to the South Pass, where the Rockies are not steep.

drought. A note in the original says “they didn’t know this word.” I’m guessing that the teacher helped them find a word that (sort of) rhymed with “south.”

†† thirty-two, actually.

‡ with considerable help from the Mechoopda Indians whom he hired!

I’m glad Annie made it into the last stanza. I am impressed with how much these students knew about John Bidwell.

I am not sure when the binder materials were created — sometime before 1993, which is the date on an order form in the binder. I wonder if anyone uses this anymore?


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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2 Responses to The Ballad of John Bidwell

  1. Don Reh says:

    I’m looking for a mention of John Bidwell’s ancestors/relatives in the Sacramento area. Is there someone in his family tree, that corresponds with Bidwell, C. H. S.? Do you know where his tree is posted?

    • nancyleek says:

      Henry C. Bidwell, the son of John Bidwell’s half-brother Daniel, spent some time in Butte and Plumas counties. That’s the closest I can come. Your best bet is to contact the Bidwell Family Association If anyone knows, they do.

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