This time we explore the legacies of John and Annie Bidwell quite close to home. Annie gets a bad rap for her missionary “maternalism” toward local Native Americans—their “improvement” being one of her causes, right up there with Temperance and women’s suffrage. Improving the Mechoopda meant eradicating all traditional ways and introducing education—book learning, but also new practical skills—and of course Christianity. Instead of a dance house, the Mechoopda village soon had a Christian chapel. And a brass band. And a school. Annie may have stood just four-feet-eight inches tall, but her intentions were mighty.
Yet there was more to it than mere missionary zeal. There was also John Bidwell’s “secret,” which was no secret at all among the Mechoopda and not much of a secret otherwise. In 1847, before the gold rush, before he became a wealthy landowner, John Bidwell married Nupanni, daughter of Mechoopda head man Lukiyan. He also fathered children with at least two other native women. Annie knew about her husband’s past, which prepared her for some of what was to come—such as, when she arrived at the mansion, the refusal of the poised young woman she took to be the housekeeper to turn over the keys. “Me number one wife, you number two. I keep the keys,” Nupanni reportedly said. To her credit, Annie didn’t argue.
Fired up as she was by the Holy Spirit, she was determined to uplift and improve, especially women and children. But for many years she made no progress. Whenever she showed up the Mechoopda women would either vanish or politely turn their backs as if they didn’t see her.
It wasn’t until Annie offered to teach them to sew that anything changed. In no time at all the women were accomplished seamstresses and could sing as well as speak English, though they preferred to chat—and play jokes on Annie—in their own language. “No one not possessed of their confidence has any idea of their sense of humor,” Annie observed.
For all her do-gooderism, Annie had deep, familial affection for Mechoopda villagers. She left them the village in her will, with the intention that every family have property and a wood frame house. Young people who wanted it got training, including college education, to help them make their way. She left cash gifts.
It’s also fair to say Annie took particular interest in John Bidwell’s descendants, for good and ill—pretty good in the case of daughter Amanda, whose talented children Maggie and Elmer she openly adored, and not so great in the case of son George, who she personally pursued all the way into court on child abuse charges, for getting his five-year-old son Luther “dead drunk.” George’s defense attorney got him off by convincing two Chico jury members that George’s prosecution was actually persecution, because Annie Bidwell “could not beat religion into George’s head and could not otherwise punish him.” George beat the rap but in the end he left the community.
Such deep grief, yet so much joy too. And undying drama. Like a family.
For a more thorough introduction to these complicated relationships, spend time on the Mechoopda Chico Rancheria website and also dip into Annie Kennedy Bidwell: An Intimate Biography by Lois H. McDonald.