Town Founders

The original road into Bidwell passed in the foreground of the Hobart house shown in the circa 1900 photo above. The 1856 road to the new Bidwell Suspension bridge is seen behind the house at about the center of the roof line. John Bendle purchased this house in 1859 from Hobart. The orange tree is the darker tree visible on the right side of the road near the upper left corner of the photo.

John Bidwell was not the driving force behind the establishment of the town of Bidwell. His discovery of gold at the location in July of 1848 placed his name and the resulting mining camp at Bidwell’s Bar prominently on the pages of gold rush history. However, after about 1850 he was no longer involved with the mining community at his namesake location. After his initial gold discovery he bartered with local natives to do mining for him. He and business partner George McKinstry Jr. established a store at Bidwell’s Bar to supply the needs of the influx of miners. John Bidwell’s interests were in farming and not mining. In July of 1849, he purchased a one-half interest in Rancho del Arroyo from McKinstry Jr. During the following years he made other consolidating purchases. By May of 1852, he had completed acquisition of an extensive amount of property in what became his landholdings in the present-day Chico area. John Bidwell then focused on the development of his agriculture interests. He also became increasingly active in state and national politics. He was a major contributor to the development of Butte County and the State of California.

Establishing the Butte County Seat of Government

In 1850 the first California government was established and the state was divided into twenty-seven counties with proposed county seat locations identified. John Bidwell was involved in this government formation. The two areas specified for the Butte County were Butte City, little more than a shipping dock on the Sacramento River, and a second location was Chico, basically the Bidwell Rancho. By 1850, areas such as Bidwell’s Bar, Forbestown, Hamilton and Oroville, were larger and more developed than either of the locations specified by the state law. The Butte County residents succeeded in forcing an election. After much infighting between the cities and some political trickery, Hamilton became the county seat much to the surprise and disgruntlement of the residents of both Bidwell’s Bar and Oroville.

The Town Founders of Bidwell at Bidwell’s Bar

The four individual who became the town founders were at Bidwell’s Bar during the first election and were ready to take action when a second opportunity for designation of the county seat occurred. They were from diverse backgrounds but had a common desire to get the county seat relocated. That opportunity developed in 1851 when a dispute involving a Mexican Land Grant placed the ownership of the land at the Hamilton location, and the county facilities, in jeopardy. This conflict became the starting point for Joseph E. N. Lewis, Randal and his son, William W. Hobart, and A. B. Newcomb, to get the county seat relocated to their chosen town.

Joseph Edward Newton Lewis (aka. Jos. E. N. or J.E.N.) Lewis was twenty-three years old when he arrived at Bidwell’s Bar on October 10, 1849. He was one of the officers in the Charleston Mining Company from Jefferson County Virginia. The company disbanded upon arriving in California and Lewis joined a smaller mining group. Lewis’ group was successful in their mining activities at Bidwell's Bar.

Lewis had graduated as an attorney in 1847, but had not started a law practice before arriving at Bidwell’s Bar. It did not take long for Lewis to make the transition from miner into the legal and political professions. He was a candidate for District Attorney of Butte County at the June 10, 1850 election: The first county elections in the state. Lewis received 311 votes to his opponent James M. Burt’s 547. Not a bad showing for only being in the county for eight months!

At age forty-five, Alphonso B. Newcomb was older than most of those involved in the gold rush. After a five-month wagon trip from Iowa, he arrived at Bidwell’s Bar in September 1850, accompanied by his wife and young daughter. Newcomb had served as a cabin boy on a merchant vessel and worked for the Hudson Bay Company. He had traveled extensively in the northwest while working for the fur company. He established a business in Michigan before relocating to Iowa City, Iowa where he was involved in clearing property for the development of a dam and grist-mill.

The Hobart family history indicates that Randal Hobart and his son, William came to California in 1849, and the remainder of the family arrived in 1854. The 1850 Federal Census indicates Randal Hobart was fifty years old and his son William was eighteen. Randal Hobart was a minister who could support his family as a skilled carpenter and also use those skills to construct or improve the churches he served. In Vermont and Michigan he was a town Magistrate and Register of Deeds. He also appears to have been involved in the underground-railroad, providing safe houses for slaves fleeing to the northern states. The elder Hobart was about twice the age of the majority of the gold rush participants, and had demonstrated a variety of talents and public service when he arrived at Bidwell’s Bar. Young William Hobart learned about a life of public service by watching and working with his father, and in his adult life served in Butte County government.

The controversy that results in the relocation opportunityThe unscripted sequence of events that resulted in J.E.N. Lewis, an attorney, A. B. Newcomb, a merchant and rancher, Randal Hobart, a minister and public servant, and his son, to work together to relocate the county seat, developed over a three year period.

In 1851, Alonzo W. Adams, a Butte County Senator got into political trouble by mishandling receipts of the miner’s taxes he was collecting. This occurred before he was elected to the representative position, but it caused him to face the choice of legal action or resigning. He resigned and in a special election J. E. N. Lewis was elected to fill the remaining one-year of Adam’s term. Because of his interest in local issues and as a state representative, Lewis was well aware of the legal issues facing the county facilities at Hamilton. The senatorial action Lewis took, that had the biggest impact on Butte County, occurred on March 22, 1852, when he presented a petition “from citizens of Butte County, praying for the removal of the County Seat of said County from Hamilton”. The petition was referred to a standing committee and Lewis was added as member of the committee.

While Lewis was serving in the Senate, county Judge Moses Bean resigned and the Governor appointed George W. Schluts to fill the remainder of Bean's term. However, after serving a short time, Schluts abandoned the position. A Butte Record article of November 19, 1853, identified who would then fill the position.

County Judge – We are gratified to hear the general satisfaction expressed by all parties, at the appointment by the Governor, of our esteemed townsman, Mr. Randal Hobart, to the office of Judge, of this county.

Assignment to this responsible position was a pattern repeated often by Randal Hobart. He was the GO TO guy of his era, over time filling a variety of positions in county government when they were vacated by the incumbent. He generally did not seek such political offices, rather filling the need until others were elected to the position. For example, in this situation, he did not seek election to the position. Instead, J.E.N. Lewis decided not to seek election to the senate but to the Butte County Judge position and was elected in 1853. Lewis served in that capacity from 1854 to 1857. The land title issues at Hamilton had become so troublesome the state decided to relocate the county seat. The state passed an Act on March 19, 1853 establishing the conditions to be met for relocation of the county seat to “the Town of Bidwell at Bidwell’s Bar on August 10, 1853.” It specified the residents of Bidwell’s Bar would be required to provide a building suitable for the courthouse and county offices at no expense to the county.

By July 5, 1853, four month’s after the act was passed, Randal Hobart had used his surveying skills to survey, plot and record a map of the future town of Bidwell. The first Butte county newspaper did not start publication until November and personal journals or other records have not been located to provide the details of the local citizens involvement, how funds were raised, or who did the actual courthouse construction. Did the fours signers of the deed totally fund and construct the facilities? One unconfirmed source indicated the cost to build the courthouse was $6,000. Lewis undoubtedly was involves in formulating the needed legal document. Newcomb was serving as the second postmaster at Bidwell’s Bar, operating a tavern and a partner with Joseph Gluckauf of a major general merchandise store. They and other business interests would benefit from the business generate if the town was the county seat. Randal Hobart and most likely his son could have utilized Randal’s carpentry skills to either physical build the structure or supervise such work. Whatever the method used to accomplish the needed work the result was that on August 1, 1853, a deed for a parcel of land involving a one-hundred-fifty by one-hundred thirty-four foot, one-quarter acre of land, a two story courthouse and attached jail was deeded to the County of Butte for County use. These facilities were deeded to the county at no cost, to meet the conditions of the state Act. The deed was accepted and the town of Bidwell at Bidwell’s Bar became the County Seat effective August 10, 1853.

The four individuals who took action to get the county seat relocated continued to serve the developing town. J.E.N. Lewis was elected was Judge of the Court of Sessions (County Judge) on October 1853 and assumed his duties in April of 1854. He continued in that position during the time Bidwell was the county seat from 1853 to September of 1856; when he relocated to the new county seat in Oroville for the balance of his term. After leaving the judge position he opened a private law practice in Oroville and remained there until his death in 1869. He was the principle owner of the Bidwell Bridge Company that built and operated the suspension bridge. Lewis was the man responsible for obtaining and directing the original orange tree be planted near the bridge at Bidwell.

A. B. Newcomb had demonstrated organizational and business skills before arriving at Bidwell’s Bar and continued to utilize those skills. He served as the second postmaster of the Bidwell’s Bar Post Office from November 1851 to October of 1853. He was a business partner with Joseph Gluckauf in one of the major stores in Bidwell. On August 2, 1854 a fire destroyed a major portion of the town. The town started rebuilding immediately and was largely rebuilt by December of 1855. After the fire, Newcomb dissolved his local business partnership and moved north of Bidwell to the Berry Creek area. His Berry Creek ranch included a sawmill and became well know for its abundant farm garden and recreation retreat for the valley citizens. He continued to be involved in the community, serving as Justice of the Peace for the Bidwell Township, County Road Commissioner, and was a charter member of the Accepted and Free Masons when that lodge was established at Bidwell in 1854. In 1858, he sold his property and traveled extensively before returning to Solon, Iowa. In that area he continued to be active in his new community becoming mayor of the newly formed town. He died in 1882, having dedicated a significant portion of his life to the betterment of several locations where he lived.

Randal Hobart may have filled as large a variety of county positions as anyone in early Butte County history. He certainly seemed to be the individual that state and local leaders turned to when there was an urgent need to fill a critical position. In 1853 he filled the vacated County Judge position. Therefore, he was the county judge during the traumatic transition of the county seat from Hamilton to Bidwell. He served as Justice of the peace in 1852, 1853 and 1855. He was the public administrator for the county in 1854 and 1855. In 1855 he also served as a Road District Two supervisor. In 1856 he served as Justice of the Peace in the Bidwell Township.

Reverend Hobart maintained his standing as a minister not only in the church, but also in the community. The newspaper records that Rev. Hobart opened the ceremonies of the Bidwell July 4, 1855 program with a prayer. Later the same year the Democratic Party representatives in Butte County held a conference at Bidwell. Randal Hobart served as Chairman and conducted the meeting. By 1860, Randal Hobart had moved to the Chico area and focused on his ministerial interests. He died in 1867, contributing greatly to the town and county he had chosen as his home.

There is not a clear record of how involved William Hobart was with his father during his early years at Bidwell. However, he clearly learned community service from his father and served in several county positions during his adult life.

Many other individuals, ranging from unknown miners to well known leaders in the community, contributed to the growth and vitality of the short-lived county seat at the town of Bidwell. However, shortly after John Bidwell’s initial gold discovery, it was a group of four individuals who ignited the spark who gave the town a second life and added another dimension to the gold rush town.