General John Bidwell, Christian
“I was afraid that when I arrived in California, my business and politics would so engross my mind that I could not fix my mind on the Saviour. But I am most happy to say that such is not the case. In fact it seems to be coming more easy for me. At night I pray ’till I fall asleep. In the morning I wake before day and then is my best time. I try to repose all my trust in my Maker.” - John Bidwell in a letter to his fiance, Annie Kennedy
The secularist progressives who guard the legacy of Chico’s founder are not going to bring this up very often, but anyone who digs a little will be struck by the depth of John Bidwell’s Christian faith and piety. Bidwell’s much touted “enlightened” conduct – such as his humane treatment of the Indians, his defense of Chinese immigrants against nativist violence, and his staunch anti-slavery views – derived not from lofty political theories but from his belief in Jesus Christ. True, he was also a prohibitionist and an advocate of women’s suffrage, but that came with Presbyterianism in those days, so we ought to cut him a little slack. Bidwell so strongly desired that Chico become a city of faith that he donated one city block to each of the Christian traditions represented in the population.
They say “it takes one to know one”, and John Bidwell knew the measure of a good man. On his way to California he journeyed with the legendary Catholic missionary, Fr. Pierre-Jean De Smet, S.J., of whom he wrote:
“He was genial, of fine presence, and one of the saintliest men I have ever known, and I cannot wonder that the Indians were made to believe him divinely protected. He was a man of great kindness and great affability under all circumstances; nothing seemed to disturb his temper… Sometimes a cart would go over, breaking everything in it to pieces; and at such times Father de Smet would be just the same – beaming with good humor.”
One of John Bidwell’s biographers, Nancy Leek, works at the library here in town. A generous soul, she shares her knowledge of northern California history, free of charge, on her blog “Goldfields”. I’m putting her book on my Christmas list.