Up The Road: The Bidwells And John Muir

Aug 23, 2017

We head up the road this week to continue exploring the legacies of John and Annie Bidwell, Chico’s founders and immensely generous benefactors, fascinating, far-sighted people who were fortunate to have found each other. Their immediate community often opposed them and their principles. John Bidwell brought in soldiers from San Francisco to stay on his ranch for more than a year to protect the Mechoopda from vigilante attacks, for example, and later Annie was denounced by the Presbyterian minister, in the church she’d built and financed, for her support of women’s right to vote. (John Bidwell was so incensed he made a point of cutting off all financial support to the church.) But they had each other, and a wide if far-flung circle of like-minded friends and supporters.

In portraits the Bidwells seem very proper and old-fashioned. They were certainly proper, by all accounts, but far from old-fashioned. Annie Bidwell in black dress, 1903; John Bidwell portrait, 1885
Credit Photos used with the permission of California State University, Chico, Meriam Library Special Collections

People are often surprised to learn that the Bidwells were intimate friends of John Muir, naturalist, wilderness advocate, and founder of the Sierra Club. Muir described Bidwell as “a patriarch of the old style, steadfast upright, towering in massive grandeur of character amid his fellow pioneers like a Sequoia amid its companion firs and pines. And so I think his name will stand in history—a benevolent master builder—the Washington of California.”

Though Muir’s affection and admiration are clear enough, his comment also captures a key difference between the two. Muir was an advocate for nature in its own right—nature as the miraculous creation of a living God—and he wanted it left alone, protected from humanity’s utilitarian tendencies. John Bidwell was more of a grand gardener, his main mission to improve upon nature for practical benefit. Casaba melons, for example, were a Bidwell creation—not more flavorful than other melons but with better keeping qualities. Eventually Muir too became a farmer, growing fruit on his ranch in Martinez. But that ranch was never his home, he said, only a good place to get out of the rain. His home was the Sierra Nevada.

John and Annie Bidwell in front of their camping tent
Credit Photo used with the permission of California State University, Chico, Meriam Library Special Collections

The Bidwells met John Muir in 1877, on an exploratory trip Muir led to Mount Shasta and Lassen Peak for famed botanists Asa Gray of Harvard and Sir Joseph Hooker of London’s Kew Gardens, who had been invited to augment the United States Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories. Botanical adventure of the highest order, because few scientists—and none of their stature—had explored the area. Given that California had, and has, more unique species than most places on earth, that it exists, ecologically, as an island in both space and time—well, just imagine the excitement. Perhaps especially for Annie, amateur botanist. The trip sparked a lifelong correspondence and warm friendship between John Muir and Annie Bidwell.

Following their “wild ramble,” though Gray and Hooker only had time for Shasta, Muir stayed with the Bidwells. He got the grand ranch tour—which took days on horseback—great food and good rest. He hankered to return home by river, so Bidwell had his crew build a small boat. For five days Muir rowed, paddled and floated down a Sacramento River we wouldn’t recognize: even in mid-October, rapids reached all the way to Colusa, where the river meandered and slowed, becoming “lake-like.” As he painted the picture, in a letter to the Bidwells and Annie’s sister Sallie: “The river is very crooked, becoming more and more so in its lower course, flowing in grand lingering deliberation, now south, now north, east and west with fine un-American indirectness.”