Fort Bidwell, at the head of Upper Alkali Lake in Surprise Valley, was a military post established at this site in 1865. Here, cavalrymen were stationed to protect pioneer settlers from marauding Native Americans that inhabited the area. The fort also encouraged commerce and local businesses such as sawmills, stores, and hotels to spring up nearby. In fact, Fort Bidwell General Store was built in 1874 of stone from Bidwell Canyon and remains one of the longest continuously operating stores in the state of California. And for worshipers, the Fort Bidwell Church, erected in 1885, still holds services today.
In 1893, Fort Bidwell was abandoned as a military outpost, then converted into a government boarding school for Native American children being forced into Americanization. This building was used for the school until 1930, after which its contents were largely torn down. The military graveyard and the 200 acres that were once used as farmland for the school are all that remains of the original fort. A stone schoolhouse erected in 1917 still stands at the end of Main Street.
The site can be found near the Fort Bidwell Community Center, located at the west end of Bridge Street in Fort Bidwell.
Fort Bidwell was named after General John Bidwell, who was known across California and the nation as an important pioneer, farmer, soldier, statesman, politician, prohibitionist and philanthropist. He is most famous for leading one of the first emigrant parties, known as the Bartleson-Bidwell Party, along the California Trail (spanning from the Missouri River to California) in 1841. When the California Gold Rush began in 1848, Fort Bidwell City was already established in the Gold Country. John Bidwell is also known for founding the city of Chico.
Native Americans continue to use the farmland and live in the area to this day. To learn more about the impact of Fort Bidwell on the local culture, attend the annual Mount Bidwell California Indian Day Celebration & Fort Bidwell Indian Boarding School Reunion in early October, which honors Native American Elders that were forcibly taken from their families at a young age, and then sent to the Fort Bidwell Indian Boarding School. The celebration also acknowledges California Indian Day with a parade and community potluck.
Through Modoc County, the northeastern corner of California and the Sierra Nevada mountains, thousands of early emigrants traveled in search of newly discovered gold during the Gold Rush of the mid 1800s. Prior to settlement, this region was inhabited only by Paiute, Pit River (“Achumawi”), and Modoc North American people. As settlers flocked to California, battles with the Modoc over territory and resources stained this area’s history in bloody conflict. The Modoc War (1872–1873), fought here, was the last of the Native American Wars to occur in California.