John Bidwell: The Most Interesting Man You’ve Never Heard Of

I am the director/communications specialist for a historical documentary about John Bidwell, one of California’s leading pioneers and founder of Chico, California. It’s long but here is an excerpt from a 10-page Cal Humanities Grant I wrote about a week ago:

Photo Courtesy of Meriam Library Special Collections

John Bidwell ca 1840

This project will produce a 27-minute documentary film about the life of John Bidwell, a
remarkable figure in 19th century America. Bidwell was integral to California’s history, but has since faded from recent memory. His incredible story is the personification of California’s transitional period between the past and present. Anchored in Chico, California in the Northern Sacramento Valley and resonating throughout local and regional communities, John Bidwell’s life defined much of present-day Californian values, jurisprudence and economy. This project will reintroduce John Bidwell to contemporary
California, demonstrating how his story is also our own. The finished film will include interviews with professors, historians and Mechoopda Maidu leaders (native inhabitants of Chico, California) on their knowledge and opinions of John Bidwell. We will be using high-definition RED cameras provided by California State University Chico’s Advanced Laboratory for Visual Anthropology (ALVA) program, who has ties with PBS. It will also include an original film score written, performed and mastered by local Chico State graduates of its fine music program. Our inevitable goal upon the film’s completion will be to show it at local venues, film festivals and hopefully air it on PBS.
The story of John Bidwell is one of great importance to the Chico community and would be to the people of California as a whole if they knew about him. If only one person could serve as the embodiment of California history, it would be John Bidwell. This one man lived such an amazing life in 19th Century California that it almost seems impossible that it actually happened. This documentary will follow the life of one of California’s leading founders through his adventure West on the first overland wagon emigration. Upon his arrival in California, Bidwell became a Mexican citizen, as well as John Sutter’s right-hand man at Sutter’s Ranch before and during the Gold Rush. He served in the Bear Flag Revolt and then in the Mexican American War. He then struck it rich gold mining on the Feather River and used his money to start an agricultural empire and establish the City of Chico.

Photo courtesy of Meriam Library Special Collections

John Bidwell ca 1860

Bidwell did not share the chauvinism common to many of his contemporaries. He treated both California Indians and Chinese immigrants with the same regard as he had for any other person, judging men by their works and deeds, not their color or creed. He was part of the first State Legislature and brought back California’s statehood papers from Washington D.C. He was a state politician, philanthropist, educator and even a Civil War General; California was part of the Union during the Civil War. He donated land for the Chico Normal School, which eventually became the land that California State University, Chico now occupies. Bidwell was in favor of state and national parks and was close friends with John Muir. He favored the Women’s Suffrage and Temperance movements and was even the Prohibition Party’s candidate for President in 1892. Simply by following the footsteps of John Bidwell, the audience will gain a first hand account of California’s amazing past.

John Bidwell’s accomplishments were well-known during his time due to his societal status and wealth, even though he was decently modest about his successes. He had the chance to name Chico after himself as the “City of Bidwell,” like so many other pioneers had done during that time, but he kept it the way it was. After his death in 1900 at age 80, which was caused by a heart attack from chopping up a fallen tree, his legacy as a founding cornerstone of California somehow drifted into the past. His fame later gave way to his legacy as the founder of Chico, and then simply as the owner of a large, pink Victorian mansion in Chico that is now Bidwell Mansion State Historic Park. To this day, hundreds of Chico State students and Chicoans walk, stroll and ride their bikes right past Bidwell Mansion, unaware of the unbelievable history it contains.

Photo courtesy of Meriam Library Special Collections

Bidwell Mansion in Chico, California, ca 1890

Audiences will learn about the gold-miner/farmer that founded the City of Chico, as well as the progressive pioneer that helped found their state and jumpstart its agricultural economy. The need for this project is simple:  we all need to know where we come from, and history answers that. Telling the story of John Bidwell’s life is the simplest way to explain how California became a state through the eyes of someone who lived history, as well as someone who made history. This man needs to be remembered. Not for his sake, but for ours. Californians need to know that their state evolved from a complicated and diverse landscape, filled with thousands of native cultures that have been marred by Spanish conquistadores and American gold-seekers. Furthermore, the audience needs to know that there were people back then who came seeking fortune, but not at the blatant expense of others. People of this nature were few and far between, but John Bidwell was one of them.

Photo courtesy of Meriam Library Special Collections

John Bidwell ca 1895

The impact this documentary intends is threefold:

1) To help Chicoans realize that their founder was much more than just someone who built a mansion.

2) To teach Californians a forgotten aspect of their history.

3) To create an attention-grabbing, engaging film with original music that will actually provide Californians of all ages knowledge that they will retain.

Stay tuned for preview videos, links and information. There is a lot more to come!


About tashtr3

Currently, I'm a Marketing Specialist/Social Media Coordinator for the University of California's department of Agriculture and Natural Resources. I'm a freelance writer in my spare time. I'm a graduate of CSU, Chico with a major in journalism and a minor in photographic studies. I'm all these things, and more!
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