For over 150 years, Chico has grown from a plot of land initially inhabited by the Mechoopda Maidu Tribe to a thriving city home to over 90,000 residents. This would not have been possible without the help of John and his wife, Annie Bidwell.
The entire timeline of John Bidwell is long, and frankly, a tad boring. So I’ll spare you the minor details, and get straight to the juicy bits. Bidwell was one of the first American immigrants to make the journey to California in 1841, that at the time was still owned by Mexico. During his early years in CA, Bidwell gained popularity and power, thanks to some very important friends, one of them being John Sutter. Bidwell not only made relationships with those already living in the Sunshine State but with other immigrants traveling to California to start a new life.
He traveled up and down the state to create maps for immigrants; he also helped these warry travelers obtain grants from the Mexican government. Although John Bidwell had seemingly already reached financial success in his short time in California, he struck gold in 1848, literally.
The Gold Rush was what really put California on the map, and is responsible for the economic development of the state. For the tens of thousands of miners hoping to get in on some of this fortune, many failed and left with nearly nothing. This was not the case for Bidwell. At one point during his mining at Feather River, Bidwell would find $1,500 worth of gold in one a single day, making $30,000 in one season, which is more than $800,000 today. Now, with his newfound money, Bidwell had the opportunity to “make money moves”.
In 1849 and 1851 Bidwell made two separate purchases to a man named William Dickey for the property of Rancho Arroyo Chico. After a long, and rather confusing legal battle that would baffle anyone who doesn’t have a degree in Political Science, the claim for the land was at last passed by the Supreme Court, and later signed by President James Buchanan in 1860. Chico was now officially considered “founded”. It wasn’t until 1872 when Chico became “incorporated” meaning that it can elect government officials. The following year, Chico had its first election, consisting of 217 votes.
At the same time, the friction between Native Americans and white settlers were hitting a peak. But instead of forcing the native Mechoopda tribe to pack up their things and leave, Bidwell realized their potential. They lived three and a half miles from what is now considered downtown Chico, and knew the land better than anyone else, especially in comparison to the white man. Noticing the tribes basketing skills, and the abundant amount of food and animals at their disposal, Bidwell created a friendship with the tribe. After purchasing the Rancho del Arroyo Chico, many of the Mechoopda tribe moved to Bidwell’s ranch to work for Bidwell, creating a rare symbiotic relationship between settlers and natives.
John Bidwell was a man of many trades, one of them being an amateur botanist. Seeing California’s agricultural potential for quite some time, Bidwell used his 20,000 acres of rich, fertile soil to plant, plant, plant! Planting thousands of fruit trees, and award-winning wheat farms, he also pioneered some of California’s infamous crops of today including raisins, almonds, and walnuts. As well as many foreign crops like Egyptian corn and melons. All in all, Bidwell planted over 400 different types of crops at his ranch.
Not only was John Bidwell a man of the land, he was someone who deeply valued higher education. In 1880, Bidwell donated eight acres of land to a teacher’s college called Chico State Normal School, which was later changed to California State University Chico.
After his death in 1900 the responsibility for many of John’s visions was left to his wife, Annie Bidwell. She not only was an important figure in Chico’s social light but like her husband, Annie Bidwell found importance in education and establishing strong relationships with the Mechoopda tribe. She taught many how to read and write, and was a huge advocate for Native American rights. The glorious mansion her and her husband built was home for to a number of Mechoopda natives.
Since the Bidwell’s bared no children, Annie chose to donate her mansion to the Chico Normal School, where it became a dorm, then later office until it was established as a state park.
She also left land and money for the Mechoopda tribe to ensure their well being after she passed. Arguably the most notable impact she made on the city of Chico was in 1905 when Annie Bidwell decided to donate nearly 2,000 acres of absolutely beautiful land to the city of Chico on one condition, that it would be used as a park for the public to visit and explore for free. This land is now known as Upper and Lower Bidwell Park.
There would simply be no Chico CA without John Bidwell, and it certainly would not be the same today if it weren’t for Annie Bidwell who donated much of their land, and property to the people. So, every time you take a walk through One Mile, stroll through campus, or drive through Highway 99, take a second to thank the Bidwells for all the work they did to make this city as amazing as it is today.
Information was gathered from The Bidwell Mansion Association, Bidwellmansion.com, and friendsofbidwellpark.org