Thomas Bidwell and Amos Frye

Thomas Bidwell, studying at St. John’s College in New York, says he wrote often to his brother John, but got few letters in return. Unfortunately, what few letters John Bidwell did write have been lost, so all the news we have of Rancho Chico is second-hand. This letter tells us of an exciting incident that happened in the summer of 1852, when John Bidwell went on an expedition to recover stolen cattle.

St. John’s College  Sept 26 /52

Dear Brother,

Your letter dated San Francisco Apr. 7 reached me yesterday morning. This is only the 2nd or 3rd that I have received from you since I left California. I have written very often notwithstanding.

I have of late felt very uneasy about you. About the 1st of Sept. it was stated in the Herald that the Indians from the mountains above your house had come down to drive off some of your cattle, that you had mustered what men you could, pursued them, killed a good number, & recovered your cattle again, but that Frye was killed. Is all this true? Poor Frye! he was a good fellow.


Nevada Journal 10 July 1852

Free-Vintage-Chicken-Graphics-GraphicsFairyFrom your letter I learn that Barber is still with you. I suppose his ardor for the welfare and increase of the chickens & sheep is not cooled. You must by this time have an immense number of fowls. Did the two pigeons that Capt. Sutter gave me, do well?

There is no news of any importance afloat that will not reach you much sooner by other means than by letter.

The last news I had from home – all were in good health, except mother who it seems is gradually declining, as it is quite natural that she should at her age – for she is not far this side of 80.

Wesly [husband of their sister Laurinda] built a very good house. He did talk of coming on to N. York to see this part of the country however he has not yet come.

Write soon, I am very busy and have not much time to write and even when I have I find it a dry tasteless job. What can you expect from a college? A place above all others most destitute of news.

My respects to all with whom I was acquainted especially Barber, Frye (if alive).

Anxiously awaiting another letter from you

I remain ever your most affectionate Brother, T. J. Bidwell

Amos E. Frye was born in 1808 or 1809, making him ten years older than John Bidwell. He had traveled with the Bidwell-Bartleson Party in 1841, but had turned back when they reached the Rocky Mountains. He was a valuable and respected employee, as Thomas Bidwell mentioned in other letters.

Frye was the first man buried in Chico Cemetery. The exact location of his grave is unknown, but is probably somewhere along the southwestern border of the cemetery.

According to newspaper reports, he was part of Bidwell’s expedition to arrest two Indian men who had stolen five head of valuable cattle. As the group lay in wait at dawn, someone fired a gun, and the element of surprise was lost. In the ensuing battle Amos Frye lost his life, as did eleven Indians. Many years later Bidwell told his wife Annie that Frye was “shot in artery and died instantly . . . had to bring him on a horse & he was the 1st man buried in Chico Cemetery.”

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Brother Tom Goes East

Thomas Bidwell was only in California about six months. In the Spring of 1850 he decided that he wanted to return to college and resume his studies at St. John’s College in New York, now Fordham University.

Here are two letters to his brother John: one from San Francisco when he is looking for passage that he can afford, and one written a month later from Chagres on the eastern side of the Isthmus of Panama, while waiting for a ship.

Thomas isn’t kidding when he says that the price of a ticket on the steamship Oregon is “very high.” According to the website Measuring Worth, $275 in 1850 would be worth $3397 today.  Maybe comparable to traveling first class by air to Europe? (I have never flown first class, so I don’t know. Expensive, anyway.) The Oregon was the ship that brought John and Thomas Bidwell to California; it was a top-of-the-line ship.

Thomas includes news of Miss Helen Crosby, who has married Samuel J. Hensley. Miss Crosby and Hensley were also on the Oregon coming to California, and the two men were rivals for the lady’s affections. Click the links to learn more of those stories.


Steamship Oregon

San Francisco  Apr. 24 / 51

My Dear Brother

I reached this city yesterday evening (Wednesday) in safety. As yet I know not on what ship I shall sail as the price of tickets is very high ($275) to Panama on the Oregon, there are some other craft that go cheaper – I don’t know whether I shall go to San Jose or not, the passage there & back by stage is ($40) by steamboat ($30) which would take about ½ of the ($10) that I was to collect of Maj. D.

I may get a few dollars of Mr. Wilson and may not, he says it is doubtful – so I shall either have to take a poor but cheap boat, or a steerage passage, or return until better times, perhaps the latter.

Hensley is married to Miss Helen Crosby. W. says she married him to escape the importunities of Maj. H. and the persecutions of her mother! Hensley loves her so devotedly that he cannot bear to see her extend to others the ordinary civilities of a lady!

I am glad they are married – affections as pure and disinterested as yours, never would have met with a due requital from that family. I hope you will marry one that marries you not your bulls nor bullion.

Dr. Conkling & Mr. Wilson send their compliments. Remember me to the capt. of the Dana when you see him. He gave me a free passage to Sac. city. My compliments to all without exception.

I shall remain ever your affectionate brother,    Thos. J. Bidwell

Halfway through his trip Thomas writes again to his brother. They are stuck in Chagres, “a filthy disgusting hole” of a town, until they can get another ship to take them up the eastern seaboard.

We think of the Civil War beginning ten years later with the seizure of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, but the troubles started much earlier than that. South Carolina frequently threatened to secede from the Union, and 1851 was just one of the years before the Civil War began that South Carolina was talking disunion and the federal government was discussing the blockading of her ports.

Chagres, May 31st, 1851

Dr Brother, We reached this point in safety about 5 days ago. We had a very pleasant though a very long trip. We were 25 days from San Francisco to Panama. I hope we shall not be obliged to wait here long for it is a filthy disgusting hole. We must however in all probability wait until the 8th of June as several of the ships that formerly plied between this port and N. York have been chartered for the purpose of blockading Charleston and Savanna. Dr. Jones, an old acquaintance of yours sailed in company with us from San Francisco. He has with him about 150 or 200 lbs. of gold dust, but his riches are very far from rendering him respectable. He is proud, cross, peevish, fretful, petulant, suspicious etc. etc. etc.

Present my compliments to Mr. Frye, Barber, Morford and in short to all those with whom I am acquainted. Do Barber’s disasters lay any complaints? (eggs) My Coyote is well. Farewell for the present I shall write soon after reaching N. York.

I shall expect to hear from you as often as practicable.

Yours affectionately, Tho. J. Bidwell

Peevish petulant Dr. Jones had plenty to worry about, carrying that much gold. In 1850 gold was worth about $20 an ounce, and there are twelve troy ounces to a pound of gold. With 150 pounds, Dr. Jones has some $36,000 — at a time when a pair of shoes sold for a dollar.

I don’t know the story behind Barber’s egg-laying “disasters.” I especially would like to know what “My Coyote” was. Not a live pet, I guess, but what?


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Of Cattle and Mules and Potter and Cats!

An “uncertain state of affairs” on Rancho Chico — the price of beef is low, old Mr. Potter is sick and near death, too many of the former employees were nothing but a “gang of loafers and idlers,” the cooking is “miserably done,” and Thomas Bidwell is in desperate need of some cats to keep down the mice population. Read on!

Chico Jan. 6th 1851

Dr. Brother,

I received yours of Dec. 20 a few days ago. Thus far I have acted in strict accordance with your directions. I have sold several head of cattle at tolerable prices from $120. to $160. The price of beef is at present very low in the mines. It sells for from 20 to 35 cts. Mr. Frye has proved a most useful man to the ranch and is deserving both of commendation and reward. He thinks that the hog speculation would be altogether too uncertain to engage in. There will in all probability be “a rush” towards the Scott River mines [Siskiyou County] in the Spring and as mules are selling pretty low at Marysville Mr. Frye thinks it would be a good investment to buy a few. He has accordingly gone down to purchase a few.

Considering the uncertain state of affairs here I did not think proper to send to the mountains to get out timber for either a bridge or house, so that I discharged the two young men of whom I wrote – of all the gang of loafers and idlers that Stout left here not one remains except Charley Haskell who is doing pretty well. He is employed at $75.00 pr. month. I have here a vaquero at $50.00 pr. month and that is all. If you could hire a cook and get rid of the Alfreds I think you would do well. You would save at least $1500.00 a year. Besides they do nothing but cook and that is so miserably done that I am ashamed to charge for meals.

The man with whom I bargained for the cattle has not returned as he promised. Perhaps he was “gasing” – the boys are all happy and content.

We have just got through branding and marking the wild cattle. There are I think about 125 head in all.

I have done nothing towards fitting up the house for the accommodation of travelers; in fact I have not the means. Mr. Potter is now sick and very low. It is thought he can scarcely recover. He is insane a great deal of the time. He is afflicted with the Iresipelis [Erysipelas].

cats-20Bring home a few cats if you please. The mice are actually worse here than the rats ever were at Sac. City! They, like some of our neighbors, are bent on our ruin – nothing is safe from them – not even our noses at night.

Let this touch your heart my dear brother, and induce you to bring home one cat at least (pregnant if possible) i.e. (in a family way).

Yours ever,  Thos. J. Bidwell

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Another Brother to Brother Letter

Here is another letter from Thomas Bidwell to his brother. John Bidwell was still in San Francisco, recuperating from an illness. Thomas says he has been sick too — probably both of them suffered from malaria contracted while crossing the Isthmus of Panama.

The “opportunity offered” was someone going southward to carry the letter. There was no regular postal service to Rancho Chico in 1850. A letter would have to be posted in Sacramento.

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Chico Farm Dec. 27th / 50

An opportunity offered and I avail myself of it to send you a little note. I reached home yesterday evening having made the trip down and back in 5 days.

I cannot say that I am either well or sick from the time you left until about the 15 inst. I was confined to my bed. Now I ride a little about on the ranch.

Before you come home, purchase if you can bring them, a pair of morocco shoes for Mrs. Alfred No. 7, also a pr of Morocco slippers No. 6 (small size), a few pairs of pants would sell well I think.

We want clothing for the boys. Shall I get out timber for a house? Let me know if you can before you return. Maj. McKinstry cut quite a swell while he was here. He says that he shall hold you responsible for all the stock that has been on the ranch with the brand B, including particularly the cattle sold by Stout which have not been accounted for.

Yours ever,  Thos. J. Bidwell

He is asking again for “clothing for the boys.” Bidwell supplied shirts, trousers, and shoes to his Indian workers to use while at work. They could wear whatever they wanted at other times, but for work they needed the protection of Western clothing.

The house he is thinking of building is the two-story adobe. In 1850 all Bidwell had was a log cabin, and that must have been inadequate. It would burn down from an Indian attack in 1852.

John Bidwell and George McKinstry had been business partners in 1848-49, supplying goods to the miners at Bidwell’s Bar. They don’t seem to have gotten along very well after that. They argued over which cattle on the ranch belonged to whom, as evidenced by this letter six weeks later from McKinstry to Bidwell.

Sacramento City  Feby 18th ‘51

Sir,  I hereby give you notice that if you continue to kill or sell the stock (and appropriate to yourself the proceeds thereof) on the Ranch “Arroyo Chico” situated in Butte County, of which stock I am the one half owner I shall hold you personally responsible for the value of the same.

Very Respectfully Yours,  McKinstry

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News from Rancho Chico 1850


Photo of a daguerreotype taken of Rafael in New York in 1850

John Bidwell returned from the East Coast on October 16, 1850, accompanied by his brother Thomas, his old trail mate Amos Frye, and the Maidu boy, Rafael.  He must have gone as soon as possible to Rancho Chico to see how it was doing. He left Thomas, Frye, and Rafael there to carry on, while he went back to San Francisco on business.

Here is a letter from Frye about matters at the ranch, along with a note from Thomas listing some items they need. I find these letters and lists so interesting — they give almost the only picture we have of the life they were leading and the everyday items they needed.

Note that in the following letter, Frye is writing from Nicolaus Altgeier’s ferry station on the Feather River. There Rafael, who acted frequently as a messenger, caught up with him with a note from Bidwell. I don’t know who Mr. Brown was.

Frye includes a note from brother Thomas listing some items they could use: candle molds, shoes for the “boys” (the Indian workers), and items to sell in the Rancho Chico store. Combs, pipes, leggings, and “machines.” In these letters, a “machine” is a gold-washing machine, i.e., a cradle or a sluice box.

Nicholas  Nov. 13th, 1850

John Bidwell, Esqr.

Sir yours pr Raffell [Rafael] was rec’d this morning and note the same as for the money it can’t be got of Mr. Blake for reasons Nicholas can’t pay him. I shall leave for the Rancho this eve with the boys your brother was not well when I left. Slite fever was all there was. Some four or five sick at the House.

I will be there soon to assist your brother the cattle I got up all safe and no loss.

Mr. Brown has come in jest above your House with abt (1000) one thousand head of cattle is a building a house [?] you will see by this they are agreeing to give you a trial for the [grain ?] Enclosed is a memorandum for some things your Brother sends for

Respectfully yours, Amos E. Frye


A gold-washing machine, or cradle

1 pr. candle moulds for ourselves, wicking

Shoes for the boys

To sell            good buckskin gloves,




a few fine combs

and if you can buy a pulley and rope cheap I wish you would do it, for when we butcher we have need of such a thing.

I send this fearing lest you should not receive the letter which I sent you, in which I mention the same things.

Though I am better at present my fever seems loath to leave me.

Yours ever, Thos. Bidwell

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Brother to Brother

John Bidwell 1850

John Bidwell in 1850

John Bidwell spent the summer and fall of 1850 in New York City and Washington, D.C., waiting for Congress to pass the bill that would make California a state of the Union. Once that was accomplished, he took the statehood papers and boarded a steamship to return to California. With him went his younger brother, Thomas. (Unfortunately, I don’t know of any photograph of Thomas.)

Thomas J. Bidwell was twenty-eight years old, two years younger than John. He had been teaching at a school for boys in Westchester, New York, but big brother John persuaded him to come to California. John Bidwell desperately needed a trustworthy man on his ranch, especially since he would be returning to the legislature in San Jose and would not be able to spend much time at Rancho Chico.

Several letters that Thomas sent to John in December 1850 give a good idea of the difficulties the young man was facing.

Dr. Brother

I have just hired a vaquero so that you need trouble yourself no more about it. I could not do without one. I have no one here now but Charley Haskell.

Yours in haste,  Thos. J. Bidwell

In the following letter Thomas mentions Amos Frye. Frye had crossed the plains in 1841 with the Bidwell-Bartleson Party, and John Bidwell ran into him again when he went back east. Maybe he talked him into coming back to California too. Potter owned land on the south side of Chico Creek that Bidwell would later acquire.

I don’t know who the Alfred family were, but they seem to be bad news.

Sacramento City, Dec. 25, 1850

Dearest Brother

You may be astonished to receive a letter from me dated Sac. etc. but having heard nothing from you since yours by Mr. Frye, I feared lest you might be very sick and in need of me. If ever you were needed at the ranch it is now. Brown has over 2000 head of stock on the ranch which gives us a great deal of trouble. Old Potter is playing the very devil. He has made several rodeos [?] of the wild cattle without notifying me at all and in separating his stock from ours, he has taken all the yearlings and branded them with his iron. I have forbidden him to meddle with the stock again without my knowledge & consent. I have sent away Fenston & the two Robinsons! and hired two first-rate young men. Stout has returned and gone up on the Feather River to mine. Mariano returned with him and staid with me a few days, but I have sent him away and if I had my way not one soul that Stout left would remain. And I believe you will soon have to send the Alfred family off unless you are resigned to let your house become a whore house.

I have bargained for 40 yoke of oxen and shall go after them in about 8 days do come home before that time of you can. We have sown about 20 acres of wheat, am now building a corral. Mr. Frye renders great service to the ranch.

I would come to see you but I hear that you are recovering from your illness. I have much to tell you only come and give me a chance. I can say nothing of our Friends here, for I have seen no one except Grant.

Come, come as soon as you can. I shall leave for home next Thursday.

If possible procure the necessary garden seeds, sweet potatoes, yams, etc. etc.

Yours affectionately,  Thomas J. Bidwell

P.S. McKinstry has sold his interest in the ranch to his brother Maj. Mc, who is now at the ranch. He wishes a division of the land & stock.

In 1850 Bidwell owned half of Rancho Chico and his former partner in business, George McKinstry, owned the other half. George sold his half to his brother Justus McKinstry, who would sell it to Bidwell in 1851.

In the following letter, “boys” refers to the Indian workers on the ranch.

Sac. City Dec. 26th 1850

Dear Brother

I am very sorry to return to the ranch without seeing you, but Mr. Crosby thought I could be of no material service to you even should I come to see you, so that I think it best to “vamos” back to the ranch before it rains again.

The boys are in want of pantaloons and I cannot find any small enough in Sac. City. I have borrowed one hundred dollars of Mr. Tarr & I hope it will neither break your heart nor your fortune. Try and bring home a few hundred dollars with you if you can.

I shall start at 9 o’clock for Nicolaus and hope to reach home in 3 days. I came in 2. – (not in two)  I hope your sickness is not what is called love sickness, if so I should fear much that you would never recover from so severe an attack. O shake it off and live an old bachelor.

My having locked horns with old man Potter may alarm you a little; fear nothing, it has restored something like order to the ranch. All our yearlings, 8 months & six months calves however are now marked & branded with P’s mark and brand. Your band of wild cattle has dwindled down to about 150! I have done nothing more than to put a stop to open theft.

Come & see—

Adieu until we meet again—

Your affectionate bro.,   Thos. J. Bidwell

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Don Roberto Livermore

DSCF9192Robert Livermore, Englishman, runaway sailor, Mexican land grantee and early Californian, is buried in old Mission San José.

The grave marker was found  when the wooden church that replaced the original adobe building (destroyed in an earthquake in 1868) was torn down in 1981 to make way for the reconstructed Mission San José. It reads:

“Here lies Mr. Robert Livermore, born in England in the year 1799 and died in California March 14, 1858, leaving behind a large family mourning his death.”

My granddaughter and I were surprised and delighted to see his grave, since she lives in Livermore, but had no idea how the city got its name.

What an adventurous life he lived!

DSCF9200Robert Livermore was born in Essex, England in 1799, and at the age of 15 he was apprenticed to a stone mason. He must not have cared for that work, because he ran away to sea the following year. He served in both the U.S. Navy and the British Navy, as well as on a merchant vessel that brought him to California in 1822, where he jumped ship.

He took to life in California with gusto. He worked on various ranchos until he was able to build up a cattle herd and acquire Rancho Las Positas in what is now the Livermore Valley. In 1838 he married Josefa Higuera Molina and built an adobe house on Las Positas creek. During the Gold Rush he prospered by raising and selling beef cattle and accommodating gold seekers on their way to the mines. He seems to have been liked and admired by all who knew him.

Joshua Neal, who worked for Livermore from 1851 until his death in 1858, wrote of him, “Many of the immigrants will remember his kindness of heart and hospitality to all, for he was continually assisting those in need. His orders to his vaqueros were to be on the lookout for coming immigrants, and as soon as discovered, to go up to them and ascertain their needs.”

RIP, Don Roberto.

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