Miss Crosby’s Blue Umbrella

On September 9, 1850, John Bidwell was present when President Millard Fillmore signed the bill, passed by the Senate and the House, that made California the 31st state of the Union. Bidwell had been in Washington since May, advancing the cause of California. Now with that goal accomplished, he lost no time in starting back to California. Bearing the precious admission papers, he traveled to New York where he boarded the steamship Oregon on September 13th, 1850.

Before John Bidwell left California, Elisha O. Crosby had asked him to escort his wife and daughter on their trip to join him. Crosby had come overland to California with the Chiles Party in 1848, leaving his wife and teenage daughter in New York. He had done well in the Gold Rush and served in the California Senate with John Bidwell. He trusted Bidwell to bring his family safely to join him in California.

Those admission papers seem to have worried Bidwell. What if he lost them, or what if they were stolen? How could he keep them safe? Not trusting them to his own luggage, he gave them for safe-keeping to Mrs. Crosby, and she in turn entrusted them to her daughter, Mary Helen.

Or maybe it wasn’t so much that he was worried about the documents. Maybe he just wanted to impress Miss Crosby, and give himself a reason to ingratiate himself with her. At any rate, she guarded the papers closely. She kept them under her pillow at night, and stowed them inside her blue silk umbrella as the party crossed the Isthmus of Panama. In spite of the tropical rains, it is said she never opened her umbrella, but kept it tightly rolled the entire time.

Throughout the voyage, John Bidwell paid courtly attention to 19-year-old Helen Crosby. She was probably a pretty young lady, although no portrait exists from 1950.

Mary Helen Crosby Hensley in 1871.

Mary Helen Crosby Hensley in 1871.

But he was not the only suitor on the ship. Samuel J. Hensley, another California pioneer, also had his eye on the young lady, and she favored Hensley. They were married on April 7, 1851.

No doubt John Bidwell was disappointed at the time. Young ladies of quality were in short supply in early California. But in the end he was probably happy he waited for Annie.

More on Miss Crosby and her umbrella to come . . .

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A Little Map of Chico

July 5th, 1867: You desire to know where is my home “in town or country?” I live not in but adjacent to the town of Chico — as follows:

DSCN3501So wrote John to Annie after he returned from Washington to Chico, and he drew her a little map so she could visualize his home. At that time he was still living in his adobe house. Construction on the mansion was going forward, but he doesn’t say whether the “Residence” is his new or his old house. What he labels as “Square” is now a triangle, sliced through where the Esplanade joins Broadway.

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California Diversity Goes a Long Way Back

HN000800a copy

Magazine illustration of mining on the Sacramento River. Image courtesy of the Bancroft Library.

One more excerpt from John Bidwell’s letter to Miss E. Boyd:

Here the sun’s rays come blistering down the deep and narrow gorge where seats together all the nations of the earth. . . . There’s nothing here to please the eye or gladden the heart but Gold. The Yankee, the Mexican, the Spaniard, Poruguese, Chinese, Malays, N. Zealanders, Sandwich Islands, Chillanians, Peruvians, besides various Tribes of Indians tame and wild, civilized and barbarous. I have seen that I know of at this moment. These with some other nations are all toiling after this wondrous stuff.

Men (and a few women) had flocked to the goldfields from around the world, and any ship that docked in San Francisco after word of the gold discovery got out was soon deserted of all its sailors, no matter where they were from.

Almost the only group John Bidwell doesn’t mention are African-Americans, but they were there too, and he would have met them. Some were brought as slaves by their Southern masters, and many came as free blacks to try their luck in the goldfields.

For a look at the African-American experience in California, an excellent book is Hurry Freedom, by Jerry Stanley. Although written for younger readers (like my own book), it is a good overview for any reader. It focuses on the experience of Mifflin Gibbs (1823-1915)  born in Pennsylvania, who had a successful boot store in San Francisco and founded the city’s first black newspaper. Gibbs led the black community in an unsuccessful struggle to get the California legislature to recognize equal rights for African-Americans. hurryfreedom

Gibbs finally gave up and migrated to Canada during the Fraser River gold rush. After the Civil War he returned to the United States, studied law, and served as a judge and as U.S. consul to Madagascar.

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Summer in California

After telling Miss Boyd about the beauties of a California spring, John Bidwell went on to describe the changes of summer.

. . . hold now — let time speed but one month. The fragrant and beautiful flowers are dead, the waving grass and oats are dried, a hot suffocating breath attends you to the shaded stream where you propose to cool and refresh yourself, but here too has the scene changed in your absence — perchance you see the spot — while the grapes are still hanging from the boughs and are full of richness, but the stream where you thought to quaff a good measure of clear cold water is dried up, a few stagnant pools is all that remains. The foliage even from the trees has been crisped by the burning sun, and thus it will continue for six long months, not a cloud to dim the intensity of the midday sun — not a shower to reanimate thirsty drying nature.

That certainly describes a California Central Valley summer — six long months of hot weather and no rain. And he didn’t like it. He suffered from the heat and dreamed of returning to the States. He made his plans, but never carried them out.

Who was Miss Boyd? Evidently she was someone he wanted to impress, because his language in letters and diaries is rarely this poetical and flowery. Maybe he hoped to win her heart and hand if he returned to the States. She was someone whose family he had known in Missouri, but other than that I don’t know who she was. She probably married someone else, wrote him a “Dear John,” and that was the end of his efforts.

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John Bidwell Waxes Poetical in the Spring

In 1851 John Bidwell wrote to a young lady of his acquaintance, “My Friend Miss E. Boyd,” describing his life in the goldfields of California. Here is his description of springtime in the Central Valley:

For miles and hundreds of miles up the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers the soil is as rich I suppose as any I ever saw, for miles you might travel following the course of either river in the early Spring and beautiful flowers fairly paint the landscape in their rich and varied profusion, broad prairies covered with wild oats & peas would often be along your road. Occasionally you would be obliged to cross some small creek; these are (many of them) well shaded with oak trees, & many an oaken bough sustains loads of grapes, green yet, but in a few weeks their rich purple would tempt your appetite after a better meal than you would be likely to get here . . .


The wildflowers may be mostly gone from the valley floor, replaced by roads and orchards and houses, but you can still enjoy a California spring as Bidwell saw it. Just go as soon as you can to North Table Mountain Ecological Reserve, here in Butte County, and enjoy the vista of lupines, goldfields, yellow carpet, bluedicks, red maids, owl clover, meadowfoam, and monkey flower. The small creek is there, the oak trees, and the cattle. Enjoy it while you can, for it will soon be gone until another spring.

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Bidwell Campaign Song

Campaign button for the 1892 Prohibition Party national election.

Campaign button for the 1892 Prohibition Party national election.

As long as we are on the topic of political campaign songs, here’s another one. This is from Bidwell’s run for president on the Prohibition Party ticket in 1892. Bidwell’s vice-presidential running mate was James B. Cranfill of Texas. This song, which was written for the campaign in California, promotes A. M. Hough, who was the Prohibition Party gubernatorial candidate. He was Bidwell’s running mate in 1890, when Bidwell was the Prohibition candidate for governor.

Be prepared; they liked their songs lengthy back then:

With General Bidwell at the Front, by D.C. R.

With General Bidwell at the front, and A.M. Hough beside,

We’ll make the fight–see if we don’t– Whatever ill betide.

But ill will  not betide us long, we’re growing grandly great;

Our men are marching, thousands strong, to vote and save the state.

Hurrah for Bidwell and for Hough!

And Prohibition too;

Our nominees are good enough,

They’re stalwart, strong, and true.

We aim to save our golden state, fronting the calm west sea.

From shame, from ruin doubly great, for truth and purity.

We aim to save, alas! the need, the rum-invaded home;

Save from the spoiler”s cruel greed, Secure from base to dome.                            Hurrah for Bidwell, etc.

The churches are at last awake,–alive to high emprise;

It is a fight they too must make; or basely compromise;

They’ve prayed too long, God’s will be done, whilst voting the reverse;

Their votes and prayers should both be one against the dreadful curse.                   Hurrah for Bidwell, etc.

The workingmen, the farmers, and  those who for daily wage

Toil hard;’ are banding in  one band their sorrows to assuage:–

They see with us the corporate greed deserves a killing blow,

And so, to satisfy their need, their ballots they’ll bestow.                                      Hurrah for Bidwell, etc.

The Rep’s they fence the liquor in and make it pay a tax;

They think high license is no sin their morals are so lax.

They’re “hand in glove” with the base trade for pelf and party gain,–

Fair promises they’ve often made, which we’ve believed in vain.                  Hurrah for Bidwell, etc.

The Dem’s also! are just as bad;–or worse, perhaps than they;

Free whisky is with them a fad– free whisky night and day;

They have and hold their lofty “Jinks” and shout for liberty;

But soon will come a change, me thinks! we’ll all be glad to see.          Hurrah for Bidwell, etc.

Hurrah! Hurrah! once more hurrah! and then hurrah again;

Hurrah for order and for law, clean politics and men;–

Hurrah for peace, at home, abroad; through all our vast domain–

The home redeemed, the rum outlawed never to rule again.          Hurrah for Bidwell, etc.

I’ve got to say, this is not the most inspiring campaign song that I can  imagine. “Our  nominees are good enough”? “Soon will come a change methinks”? I wonder just how singable this song was, and whether it did the job of rousing the troops.

The printed copy I have of this doesn’t indicate the tune. These kind of songs were usually written to fit some well-known tune like “Yankee Doodle” or “Rosin the Bow.” These lyrics would fit the sailing song “A Wet Sheet and a Flowing Sea,” which was better known then than now.

Campaign songs in our modern age have fallen on hard times. You don’t hear very many, and they don’t often have original lyrics, like this one does. For a comparison, check out The Republican Campaign Songster for 1860. It has over forty songs extolling Lincoln, freedom, and abolition.


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“The Farmer of Chico” in Politics

Back in the day when political campaign songs were numerous and popular, the following song appeared in the Sacramento Bee on August 4, 1875. It is not complimentary to John Bidwell. In 1875 Bidwell was the candidate for governor of the People’s Independent Party, also known as the Anti-Monopoly Party, which stood against the Big Four railroad barons and their control of politics in California. Both the Democrats and Republicans hit back against Bidwell. They portrayed him as a greedy land baron ruling over an agrarian empire, exploiting his workers and keeping the small farmer at bay.

You can find the tune for “Joe Bowers” at https://maxhunter.missouristate.edu/songinformation.aspx?ID=54  Here is the entire newspaper article:

The Farmer of Chi-co

Tune : “Joe Bowers”

The following was sung at the meeting of the Republicans of the Tenth Ward of the Twelfth Senatorial District, San Francisco, last week:

It’s of an ancient farmer, who had a ranch in Butte

He raised a heap of wheat and corn and garden-sass* and fruit,

His cattle ranged a thousand hills and filled the plain below,

And he lived in regal splendor, this farmer of Chico.


This antiquated farmer was a gallant pioneer,

He boldly came the plains across and early landed here;

He roughed it with the Indians and Mexicans also,

And then they called him General John, the farmer of Chico.


In forty-five, or thereabouts, the land was very low,

And farmer John obtained a grant of forty miles or so,

But how he got the title, I don’t pretend to know,

But the finest farm in Butte is the Ranch of El Chico.


Some twenty thousand acres he still retains today,

And joins the Independent cry of “No Monopoly!”

A little farm may do for men with little means to show,

But leagues alone will satisfy the farmer of Chico.


And now this ancient farmer is making quite a stir,

He wants to get the people to make him Governor—

But when the votes are counted, the answer will be “No

Sir!” we do not want for Governor the farmer of Chico.

* garden-sass: vegetables

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