Kudos to Nancy Leek for bringing Chico's founder to life. "John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer" ($20 in paperback from ANCHR) is aimed specifically at the young adult audience, but it also found your friendly columnist standing and cheering.
The book is available at Lyon Books in Chico, at Bidwell Mansion, Made in Chico, and Teachers Book Connection, or from ANCHR (The Association for Northern California Historical Research), www.csuchico.edu/anchr. You can also write the author at email@example.com or visit her blog at nancyleek.wordpress.com.
Leek is children's librarian at the Orland Free Library and she and her husband Jim reside in Chico. Her words are beautifully crafted. She wears her research lightly and develops a strong narrative line with John, and later John and his wife Annie, at the center. Her choice quotations from Bidwell's journals and other writings reveal a man of his time but also a man who could little abide the harsh treatment of the native Mechoopda and the emigrant Chinese.
Replete with period photographs, the story opens with John, at seven, walking fourteen miles to see a new steamboat launched on Lake Erie. Throughout the rest of his life he pushed into new territories. Bidwell, writes Leek, "came to California in 1841, an event that he considered a 'mere accident.' . . . He never thought he would find himself taking apart a Russian fort or supervising Indians at a Spanish mission. He never expected to discover gold or bring a new state into the Union or rise to the rank of general."
Though too honest to be good at electioneering, in 1880 he and Annie were visited by President Rutherford B. Hayes and his wife. And "the Bidwells became great friends with John Muir. ... In 1877 Bidwell took Muir" and several scientists "on expeditions to explore Mt. Shasta and Mt. Lassen. Muir stayed with the Bidwells for two months" and "found it hard to leave his friends in Chico and their 'cool fruity home.'"
"John Bidwell not only saw history," Leek writes, "he lived it and created it. By the end of the century he could say, 'The history of California lies like a map before me. Somewhat confused it may be, but I have seen it all.'"