Bidwell Lore – Introducing Barnabas Bidwell

Welcome to week 18 of Bidwell Lore! Last week we introduced you to Reverend Bidwell’s oldest daughter, Jemima, with a wonderful guest post by Bidwell descendant Russ Taylor.  This week we turn to the last and most well known of Reverend Bidwell’s children, his son Barnabas. He had a fascinating and at times dramatic life and so we will stay with him for a number of weeks.  

The Children of Adonijah Bidwell – Barnabas

Adonijah, Jr. (1761-1837)
Barnabas (1763-1833)
Jemima (1765-1842)
Theodosia (1766-1841)

Barnabas Bidwell was the younger son of the Rev. Adonijah Bidwell (1716-1784) and Jemima Devotion Bidwell (1727-1771). We do not know much about his childhood but can share the following summary of his adult endeavors: Barnabas graduated from Yale College in 1785; studied law at Brown University, Providence, R.I.; was admitted to the bar in 1805; and commenced practice in Stockbridge. He served in the State Senate from 1805 to 1807 and was elected to the Ninth and Tenth Congresses, where he served from March 4, 1805, until his resignation on July 13, 1807. He served as Attorney General of Massachusetts from June 15, 1807, to August 30, 1810. Bidwell eventually moved to Canada, settling in Kingston, Ontario, practiced law there, and died in 1833.  Bidwell served for eighteen years as Berkshire County Treasurer, beginning in 1791, during the same period of time that he held the other political offices. In the Federalist stronghold of Massachusetts Bidwell proved popular enough that the Jeffersonian Republicans urged him to continue to run for that office, a decision that would come back to haunt him later in his career.

Upon graduation from Yale in 1785, Bidwell taught in a school for young ladies at New Haven until 1787, when he was appointed to a tutorship at Yale. In 1790 he unexpectedly resigned from this position to study law under Judge Theodore Sedgwick of Stockbridge, Mass. Sedgwick was a prominent member of the House of Representatives, serving as Speaker of the House.  Later, in the U.S. Senate, he was Senate President, as well as an important spokesman for the Federalist Party.  One reported cause of his leaving Sedgwick’s clerkship was his failure to secure a postmaster’s position from the Federalist Party. Reading letters between Barnabas and his wife Mary, however, would suggest the cause was a large philosophical divide that would have pushed Barnabas into the Jeffersonian Republican camp.

Barnabas Bidwell’s wife was Mary Gray, daughter of Col. James Gray, Jr. and Sarah Spring Gray. Colonel Gray was a first cousin of Ephraim Williams, Jr., the founder of Williams College. Sarah Williams, the sister Ephraim Williams, Sr., married Colonel James Gray, Sr., of Hadley, Mass. Through that Williams family connection, Mary Gray Bidwell and Pamela Sedgwick, wife of Judge Theodore Sedgwick (mentioned above), were second cousins. As the letters between Mary and Barnabas indicate, even though they were in opposing political parties, the Bidwell and the Sedgwick families remained friends and good neighbors during the time Bidwell lived in Stockbridge. For both Sedgwick and Bidwell blood was thicker than the murky political waters that would encircle Barnabas and ultimately end his career in public life.

Barnabas Bidwell, c. 1795, image from Wikipedia Commons

Barnabas led a high profile and ultimately tragic life that we will explore for a number of weeks in Bidwell Lore.  Given the breadth of the information available, on occasion the reader will experience a repeat of some information from an earlier Bidwell Lore article that is included to support the backstory of yet another adventure in Barnabas’ busy life. Two letters below show you his early interest in national politics.


Washington, February 1, 1802.

Dear Sir,
The newspapers will have shown the position of the bill now before the Senate for the repeal of the act of last session establishing a new judiciary system; and that the bill, when on its third reading, was, by the casting vote of the vice-president, referred to a select committee. This day notice has been given that a motion to discharge that committee will be made to-morrow. It should be noted that the arrival of Mr. Bradley has given a vote to the republican side; hence it may be presumed that the committee will be discharged, and that the bill will pass the Senate to-morrow, and that in the course of three weeks it will become a law. I state this, however, as mere conjecture.
The constitutional right and power of abolishing one judiciary system and establishing another cannot be doubted. The power thus to deprive judges of their offices and salaries must also be admitted; but whether it would be constitutionally moral, if I may use the expression, and, if so, whether it would be politic and expedient, are questions on which I could wish to be further advised. Your opinion on these points would be particularly acceptable.

With entire respect and esteem,
Your obedient servant,

A. Burr


Quincy, 27 August, 1800.

I have received your favor of the 16th, and thank you for the information it contains. A very little reflection, I think, must convince a gentleman of your information that it would be altogether improper for me to enter into any conversation or correspondence relative to the changes in administration. If a President of the United States has not authority enough to change his own secretaries, he is no longer fit for his office. If he must enter into a controversy in pamphlets and newspapers, in vindication of his measures, he would have employment enough for his whole life, and must neglect the duties and business of his station. Let those who have renounced, all of a sudden, that system of neutrality for which they contended for ten years, justify themselves, if they can.

I am, Sir, very respectfully,

John Adams.

Barnabas had written a letter requesting an explanation of the grounds of the dismission of Mr. Pickering, “not for his own satisfaction,” he said, “but for the sake of counteracting injurious impressions.” The above response was a polite mind your own business. Bidwell was Berkshire County Treasurer at the time of the two letters.

Timothy Pickering was appointed by President George Washington as ad interim Secretary of State on August 20, 1795, and elevated to the position of Secretary of State on December 10, 1795. President John Adams dismissed Pickering on May 12, 1800.  Once appointed as Secretary of State, Pickering followed a pro-British agenda and did not share Presidents Washington’s and Adams’ qualms about political entanglements with warring European powers. The ratification of the Jay Treaty worsened U.S.-French relations due to its preferred treatment of Great Britain. France’s hostile reaction to the treaty—including the decision not to receive a U.S. Minister and the seizure of American merchant ships caught trading with Britain—encouraged Pickering’s pro-British stance. He opposed Adams’ decision to send a delegation to negotiate with France. The XYZ Affair (1797-1798) propelled Pickering’s desire to ally with Great Britain in a full-scale war with France. When Adams reopened negotiations with France late in 1798, seeking to end the Quasi-War with France, Pickering stepped up his protests. He conspired to place pro-British Alexander Hamilton as a Major General in the Army, hoping to establish a large permanent Army. Pickering also attempted to hinder Adams’ efforts to explore options for peace with France. Pickering’s public attacks on the President eventually drove Adams to request his resignation. Pickering refused to resign and was subsequently dismissed by Adams.

Next week we will introduce you Barnabas Bidwell’s in-laws: the Gray Family