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Bidwell family papers

Call Number: MS 79

Scope and Contents

Bidwell Family Papers

The Bidwell Family Papers, dating from the 1750s, encompass nearly two hundred years and six generations of Bidwells and their relatives. The two principal figures in the collection are Barnabas Bidwell (1763-1833), lawyer and politician in Massachusetts and later Kingston, Ontario, Upper Canada, and his son, Marshall Spring Bidwell (1799-1872), lawyer and politician in Kingston and later in New York City.

The papers have been arranged into three series: Barnabas Bidwell, Marshall Spring Bidwell, and the Correspondence and Personal Papers of Other Bidwell and Related Families.

The first series, Barnabas Bidwell, consists of two archive boxes and contains correspondence and writings by and about Barnabas Bidwell, as well as certificates, legal documents, and papers relating to his financial situation. The greatest part of Bidwell's correspondence is the exchange of letters between Bidwell and his wife, Mary Gray Bidwell. His letters from February 1802 to March 1805, are written from Boston where he served as a state senator. Of special interest are the letters written during the years he served in the U.S. House of Representatives (November 1805-February 1807), which contain descriptions of life in Washington, D.C. during Jefferson's second presidential term as well as descriptions of Washington society, members of Congress (including John Randolph), and the manners and customs of the Tunisian delegation. In addition there is an on-going discussion of Aaron Burr's intrigues in the West as details of his operations became known to members of the President's circle. Bidwell also commented on congressional business and impending legislation, i.e., Indian treaties and arrangements, relations with Great Britain and Spain, and the debate on prohibition of the slave trade in which he played an active role. In June 1807, Bidwell was appointed attorney general of Massachusetts, and his letters to his wife (until her death in February 1808) include discussions of his specific duties and activities.

This series also contains letters and official court papers which document in detail the circumstances surrounding the deficit (discovered in 1810) in the accounts of the Berkshire County Treasury, a post which Bidwell had held for nineteen years. The addition of papers and correspondence collected by Mrs. Charles A. Bidwell, a twentieth century kinswoman, mitigates considerably, however, the judgment made against Barnabas Bidwell in standard historical accounts of the incident. Bidwell's statement in his own defense may be found in his correspondence.

Series II, Marshall Spring Bidwell (1799-1872), consists of two boxes, containing the family and business correspondence of Marshall S. Bidwell. Much of the business correspondence concerns Canadian property owned by the Bidwells. In the closing years of his life, Marshall Spring Bidwell made numerous inquiries about the genealogy and history of the Bidwell family (these have been filed in Series III, under History and Genealogy). Among the notable correspondents in Series II is Samuel Wells Williams, an American missionary to China and a member of Commodore Perry's first and second expeditions to Japan (1853-1854). William's correspondence renders a first-hand account of these expeditions and records his impressions and conclusions. There is also correspondence pertaining to the Canadian Rebellion of December 1837 and to the circumstances which forced Marshall S. Bidwell to leave Canada. This correspondence describes Bidwell's efforts to obtain permission to re-enter the country and includes an exchange of letters with the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, Sir Francis B. Head, who forced Bidwell to leave, and Charles Poulett Thomson, Head's successor. In addition, this series contains Marshall S. Bidwell's printed "Explanation to Friends," which explains his reasons for leaving Canada, the published explanation presented by his enemies, and newspaper clippings pertinent to the events of 1837 and 1838. The events of Bidwell's life and professional career as a lawyer have been described in several memorial tributes published upon his death in 1872.

One large segment of this series consists of Marshall S. Bidwell's degrees, certificates, licenses, deeds, mortgages, wills, and property records. Finally, there are legal papers of others, for the most part original grants of land and early deeds to property subsequently owned by the Bidwells. The original Canadian land grants from the Crown, mentioned above, date from the 1790's to the early 1800's.

Series III, Correspondence and Personal Papers of Other Bidwell and Related Families, is the largest series in the collection and is divided into three subsections:

Bidwell Family, General

Bidwell Family, Individual Members

Correspondence, Writings, and Photographs of Others

"Bidwell Family, General" contains genealogical and historical materials on the Bidwell and related families, materials on (Tyringham) Monterey, Massachusetts, the Bidwell ancestral home, and those materials which cannot be assigned to any particular family member. There are genealogical and historical materials on the Bidwells in England as well as in early Connecticut, and the descendants of Rev. Adonijah Bidwell (1716-1784) have been recorded down to the early years of the twentieth century. Family record books, correspondence and genealogical tables made up the bulk of this section. Some of this information, however, is in the form of published works; for example, "Bidwell and Allied Families," American Ancestry, Vol. IX (Joel Munsell's Sons: Albany, 1894). Historical data has been compiled on the following families related to the Bidwells by marriage: Dench, Devotion, Gibbs, Gray, Hart, Jackson, Orton, Partridge, Spring, Taylor, Warren, Welsh, and Willcox.

The materials devoted to Tyringham, now called Monterey, Massachusetts, includes the town records of births and deaths for the years 1750-1783 and 1807-1866, historical sketches describing the earliest settlers and the Congregational Church from 1750 to 1900, and several descriptions and photographs of the old cemetery, known as "the cemetery of the cross-eyed angels."

The "Bidwell Family, Individual Members," includes the correspondence, writings, notebooks, diaries, legal documents, clippings and photographs of some forty Bidwell family members. See: Appendix I for the individuals involved; See: Appendix II in order to place the individual in the larger family structure (Appendix II is not yet available in the online version of the finding aid, but is available in the repository). The Bidwell correspondence of the 1860's contains letters of two men who may be of historical interest. The first is Thomas Bidwell Orton (1844-1867), who served in Company E of the 28th regiment of the Connecticut Volunteers and later in the 150th regiment of the Ohio National Guard. Accounts of his service in the Civil War, 1862-1864, are to be found in letters to the Orton family and to Marshall Spring Bidwell, Jr. The second, Lawson Bennett Bidwell (1833-1922), was the civil engineer in charge of the construction of the eastern division of the Union Pacific Railroad in Kansas. His letters to his father, Lawson Dench Bidwell, and to Marshall Spring Bidwell, Jr., cover the years 1863 to 1864.

Three correspondents reflect the history of American missionaries abroad in the nineteenth century:

1. Mercy Partridge Whitney, missionary to Hawaii: to Clara E. Bidwell for 1828, to Marshall Spring Bidwell, Jr., for 1864; and to Barnabas Bidwell for 1828

2. W. Wells Williams, missionary to China; To Marshall Spring Bidwell for 1853-1854

3. Leonard W. Kip, Jr., missionary to China: To Marshall Spring Bidwell, Jr. during the years 1857 to 1877.

There are a few eighteenth and nineteenth century sermons, notably those of John Devotion and Adonijah Bidwell, and an interesting diary kept by John Welsh Bidwell, M.D., a surgeon on a government train, who traveled from New York to California in 1849. A much later diary, kept by Clara E. Bidwell, records her travels in Europe from 1878-1880.

An important part of Series III is the correspondence of Marshall Spring Bidwell, Jr. (1835-1877), the grandson of Barnabas Bidwell. His writings include a half-dozen articles published in Riverside Magazine (a publication for children), contributions to local newspapers, unpublished essays, and the Mountain Gem, a magazine-newsletter prepared for family and friends. Bidwell's articles are written with humor and cover a wide variety of subjects. "Leaflets for the Scrapbook," "Drug Store Notes," and "A Venerable Relic," are related to his occupation as a pharmacist. Among his many notebooks is one which contains the nineteenth century pharmacist's remedies, complete with ingredients, exact measurements, and an index. In his notebooks, Bidwell collected monograms, letter seals and other materials which, unlikely to be preserved by historians, retain the flavor of the period.

See also: The Brewer Family Papers, which are closely related to this collection and contain the papers of the Brewer branch of the Bidwell family, notably those of Rev. Josiah Brewer (1796-1872). David Josiah Brewer (1837-1910) is the grandson of Theodosia Bidwell (1766-1841); his sister, Henrietta W. Brewer, married Lawson Bennett Bidwell.


  • 1750-1952
  • Majority of material found within 1782 - 1915


Conditions Governing Access

The entire collection is available on microfilm. Patrons must use HM 189 instead of originals.

Existence and Location of Copies

Entire collection is also available on microfilm (8,767 frames on 9 reels, 35mm.) from Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library, at cost. Order no. HM 189.

Additional information not yet available in the online version of the finding aid exists in the repository. Contact Manuscripts and Archives for assistance.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright status for collection materials is unknown, though much of the material in this collection is likely in the public domain. Transmission or reproduction of materials protected by U.S. Copyright Law (Title 17, U.S.C.) beyond that allowed by fair use requires the written permission of the copyright owners. Works not in the public domain cannot be commercially exploited without permission of the copyright owners. Responsibility for any use rests exclusively with the user.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Gift, in part, of Howard R. Guild, Jr., in 1966.


Arranged in three series: I. Barnabas Bidwell, 1782-1868, 1926-1944, II. Marshall Spring Bidwell, 1790-1890, III. Correspondence and Personal Papers of Other Bidwell and Related Families, 1750- 1952.


7 Linear Feet

Language of Materials


Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


The papers consist of correspondence, writings, legal and financial documents, and other papers of six generations of Bidwell family members. Principal figures include Barnabas Bidwell (1763-1833), lawyer and politician in Massachusetts and Kingston, Ontario; and his son, Marshall Spring Bidwell (1799-1872), lawyer and politician in Kingston and New York City.

Biographical / Historical


Barnabas Bidwell was born in Tyringham (now Monterey), Massachusetts on August 23, 1763. He was the son of Jemima Devotion Bidwell and the Rev. Adonijah Bidwell, first pastor of the Congregational Church in Tyringham.

As a senior at Yale, Bidwell wrote The Mercenary Match, a five-act tragedy in blank verse. Graduating in the class of 1785, Bidwell taught in a New Haven school for young women until 1787, when he accepted a tutorship at Yale. In 1790 he left his position and turned his attention to the study of law. He began a practice in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. He was appointed Treasurer of Berkshire County in 1791, a position he held for nineteen years. Mary Gray of Stockbridge became his wife in 1793. His daughter Sarah Gray was born in 1796, his son Marshall Spring in 1799.

Bidwell began his career as a Federalist, but, casting his lot with Jefferson, he changed his affiliation to the Republican party. From 1801 to 1805 Bidwell served as a state senator, and in 1805 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served on committees concerned with the purchase of Florida from Spain.

During the discussion of a bill to end the African slave trade (1806), a section of the bill was reported to the House, favored by the proslavery forces, under which individuals imported as slaves would be forfeited to the U.S. government. As forfeited property, they could be bought and sold by the government to augment the U.S. Treasury. In the lengthy and bitter debate which ensued, Bidwell was an outspoken and active opponent of the measure.

In 1807 Barnabas Bidwell was appointed attorney general of Massachusetts. While serving in Boston and in Washington from 1801 to 1810, Bidwell was also, albeit nominally, the Berkshire County Treasurer. In 1810, when Bidwell was being considered by Madison for an appointment to the Supreme Court, a large deficit was discovered in the treasurer's accounts. The exact nature of the sum is in question; it was reported at the time to be about $10,000, although it may in fact have been considerably lower.

Bidwell left the country for Canada to avoid a trial in the politically heated atmosphere. Over a period of years, he did, however, repay to the satisfaction of the Massachusetts courts the funds owed the County of Berkshire.

Bidwell and his children (Mrs. Bidwell had died in 1808) settled first in Bath, Ontario, where he established a school, and later in Kingston. In 1821 he was elected to the House of Assembly as an out-spoken Reform party member from the United Counties of Lennox and Addington. He was excluded from the House, however, on the grounds that he was an alien, although no such law existed. After Bidwell's exclusion and his son's repeated efforts contesting the action (See: Series II, "Correspondence Regarding Marshall Spring Bidwell"), an act was passed which rendered him ineligible by forbidding anyone who had held public office in the U. S. to sit in the House of Assembly of Canada. The act was later repealed, but Barnabas Bidwell's entry into Canadian politics had been arrested. As an alien, Bidwell was likewise unable to practice law in the courts, but it appears that he did give office consultations and assisted his son in his legal career.

Barnabas Bidwell died on July 27, 1833, at the age of seventy.


Born February 16, 1799, in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, Marshall Spring Bidwell was the son of Barnabas Bidwell and Mary Gray Bidwell. In 1808, two weeks before the boy's ninth birthday, his mother died. Several years later his father moved to Canada (due to events described in the life of Barnabas Bidwell). In 1812 Marshall and his sister joined him at Bath and later moved to Kingston. Marshall studied law in the latter city and was admitted to the bar of Upper Canada in 1821.

That same year Barnabas Bidwell was elected to the House of Assembly as a Reform party member from the United Counties of Lennox and Addington. A controversy arose when he was disqualified as an alien. Marshall S. Bidwell decided to become a candidate for the same seat and met with strong opposition from the Government or Conservative party. After three years of vain efforts to secure the seat, he became a member of the House in 1824. In the interim the Reform party had managed to pass an act which allowed an alien to serve in the House after seven years of residence in Upper Canada.

For the next eleven years Bidwell served in the House as the representative from Lennox and Addington. Elected Speaker of the House in 1829 and 1835, Bidwell was recognized as an able attorney and as one of the leaders of the Reform party with William Lyon MacKenzie. Bidwell opposed the law of primogeniture and also sought official recognition for the less prominent churches in Upper Canada. One of Bidwell's convictions was that government officials should be responsible to and representatives of the people. He advocated reform in the areas of jury selection and of control of public resources. In the 1836 general election, Bidwell lost his seat in the House.

During this period of Canadian history there was great bitterness and hostility between the Government and the Reform parties and a growing dissatisfaction amid the general populace. In this atmosphere of antagonism, the British Government ordered Sir Francis Bond Head, who had assumed the post of lieutenant governor of Upper Canada in 1836, to appoint Marshall S. Bidwell to the first vacancy to appear on the Court of King's Bench. Head, a staunch Tory, refused to do so.

In December of 1837, the more radical wing of the Reform party under William Lyon MacKenzie staged an open rebellion which was quickly suppressed. Having declared his withdrawal from public life, Bidwell declined an invitation to attend a proposed provincial convention in August and took no part in the December uprising. Sir Francis Bond Head nevertheless insisted that Bidwell leave the Province of Upper Canada forever.

Marshall Spring Bidwell left Canada in December, 1837, and settled in New York City. Admitted readily to the New York bar, he built up a strong legal practice. A legal partnership begun in 1835 between Marshall S. Bidwell and George Strong lasted until the latter's death in 1855. Although well versed in constitutional and commercial law, Bidwell's specialty was the law of real property, i.e., real estate, trusts and the construction of wills.

In 1842, with the return of the Reform party to power, Bidwell was invited to return to Canada and was offered a seat on the Court of Queen's Bench. He declined, preferring to remain in New York City.

Bidwell was active in the New York Historical Society and served as a director of the American Bible Society. In addition, he was president of the N. Y. Bank of Savings.

Marshall Spring Bidwell died in New York City on October 24, 1872. He was survived by a son, Marshall Spring Bidwell, Jr., and two daughters, Mary Sabra Bidwell and Clara Emily Bidwell. His wife, Clara Willcox Bidwell, died in 1862.


Thomas Bidwell Orton, 1844-1867: soldier with the 28th regiment of the Connecticut Volunteers and the 150th regiment of the Ohio National Guard.

Appendix I

› Rev. Adonijah Bidwell (1716-1784)

› Adonijah Bidwell (1794-1830)

› Alice Cecelia Bidwell (1834-1912)

› Alice Julia Hart Bidwell (1840-1929)

› Alice Louise Bidwell (1872-19?)

› Charles Augustus Bidwell (1842-1933)

› Clara Emily Bidwell (1840-1912)

› Clara Luna Bidwell See: Clara Luna Bidwell Warren

› Clara Willcox Bidwell (1798-1878)

› Edwin Curtis Bidwell (1821-1905)

› Emmeline M. Bennett Bidwell (1798-1878)

› Gertrude H. Bidwell

› Hattie A. Bidwell (1846-1866)

› Henrietta Whitney Brewer Bidwell (1831-1901)

› Jacob Abbott Bidwell (1867-1882)

› Jane Raymond Bidwell (1861-1952)

› John Devotion Bidwell (1792-1867)

› John Welsh Bidwell (1824-1897)

› Lawson Bennett Bidwell (1833-1922)

› Lawson Brewer Bidwell (1858-1891)

› Lawson Dench Bidwell (1791-1863)

› Marshall Spring Bidwell (1824-1902)

› Marshall Spring Bidwell, Jr. (1835-1877)

› Marshall Spring Bidwell (1893-19?)

› Mary Gray Bidwell (1764-1808)

› Mary Sabra Bidwell (1823-1889)

› Meliscent Dench Bidwell* (1764-1860)

› Orlando Curtis Bidwell (1862-19?)

› Sarah Gray Bidwell (1796-1864)

› Sophia Bidwell (1829-1897)

› Walter Davidson Bidwell (1860-1896)

› Mary Gray Bidwell Cone (1831-19?)

› Rev. John Devotion (brother of Jemima) (1730-1810)

› Sarah Spring Gray (mother of Mary Gray Bidwell)

› Alice S. Orton (1853-19?)

› Azariah Orton (1761-1854)

› Beulah Orton (1846-1924)

› John Jackson Orton (1842-19?)

› Thomas Bidwell Orton (1844-1867)

› Alice Bidwell Warren (1899-19?)

› Charles Herbert Warren (husband of Clara L. Bidwell)

› Clara Luna Bidwell Warren (1871-19?)

› William W. Welsh (1818-1892)

*Spelled "Meliscent" and also "Melisent"

Guide to the Bidwell Family Papers
Under Revision
compiled by Katharine Morton
November 1971
Description rules
Finding Aid Created In Accordance With Manuscripts And Archives Processing Manual
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Part of the Manuscripts and Archives Repository

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