John Bidwell, Storekeeper

A great many people have crowded upon this stream since you left. About 300 people have arrived from Oregon inpressly [sic] for Gold digging.  I have heard of the arrival of several companies from the States – and have seen some of the people among whom was Mr. Farwell, formerly in this country.

In case nothing has transpired since you left to prevent starting a trading post at some point on your return, and you have not made other engagements, I think Mr. Farwell would answer the purpose.

John Bidwell to George McKinstry, 30 September 1848

John Bidwell had discovered gold on the Feather River in June 1848 and by September “a great many people” had crowded on the stream, even before most Americans could get there in 1849. He was doing well at mining, using a crew of local Indians, but he could see that he could do even better with a trading post to sell goods to the miners.

Luckily for the historian, John Bidwell saved a ledger from his store, and he saved a folder full of receipts from his buying trips to Sacramento. These sources give us a good idea of what the miners were eating, what tools and clothing and medicines they could purchase, and what the prices were like.

Bidwell started by bringing beef cattle and flour up to Bidwell’s Bar to sell.

I have been up to my Ranch, moved camp down to the bend of Feather river with a quantity of meat and coarse flour, and have come down to take up the things that were sent up in the canoe. Tomorrow I shall land in the “diggings”.

John Bidwell to George McKinstry, 19 June 1848

I don’t know exactly what was “sent up by canoe,” but this was the beginning of his trading post at Bidwell’s Bar. It would make him a rich man.

“Diggings” or “diggins” was such a novel word he put it in quotation marks. His Ranch was not Rancho Chico, but a farm he had started in 1845 on Little Butte Creek. He bought cattle from Theodore Cordua at New Mecklenburg (Marysville) for $25 a head. That’s probably where he bought the flour as well. Cordua had a large ranch, which produced so much more food than he could use, that in 1847 he built a schooner to ship his produce to Mexico or Hawaii. The Gold Rush would solve that problem, but bring a new crop of troubles to Mr. Cordua.

In the next few posts I will explore Bidwell’s shopping trips to Sutter’s Fort and beyond, look at what the miners were buying from Bidwell’s store, and compare some prices. We will never know just how much money Bidwell made as a storekeeper, but we will get an idea of what it cost to be a gold miner.

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 John Bidwell, Storekeeper

  1. Chalres Smay says:

    Nancy,
    Like your post and am so glad you located the Bidwell receipts and store book. The data you have found helps me fill in a blank I had in the first six years of Bidwell Bar. Knew Bidwell-McKinstry had a store there but no details.However I am a bit confused by the June19, 1848 letter from Bidwell to Mckinstry. It is not clear to me just where he is going at that point, almost sounds like it lower on the river that Bidwell’s Bar. I did not think John Bidwell, made the gold discovery at Bidwell untill July 4th or so. Perhaps I have that wrong. Woud have to do some searching to find wher I go that idea. I think one of the earlier letters 21 May 1848 might even indicate Bidwell was thinking about selling goods to miners a Coloma. Perhaps you can get me straightened out on this. However, he certainly quickly realized there was $$ to be make by means other than mining. I look forward to the information you find related to the price and supply items. I hope is it ok for me to ask questions? I need to get the time line straingt in my understanding. I just wnat to learn all I can. Chuck

    • nancyleek says:

      Mansfield says, “The date of the discovery of gold at Bidwell Bar is generally given as July 4, 1848.” but I think he is wrong. Based on Bidwell’s letters, I think it was more like mid-June. Bidwell never gives the exact date himself.

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