Bidwell Lore – Barnabas Flees to Canada

Welcome to week 31 of Bidwell Lore! This week you will learn about the dramatic downfall of Barnabas Bidwell and the end of his time in Massachusetts.

As we mentioned in recent installments of Bidwell Lore, Barnabas Bidwell served as Attorney General of Massachusetts from June 15, 1807, to August 30, 1810, after having served in the State Senate from 1805-1807. In the absence of other viable Republican candidates, Barnabas also served for eighteen years as Berkshire County Treasurer beginning in 1791, the same period of time he held the other political offices, a decision that would later come back to haunt him.

Prior to his marriage, Barnabas had studied law under Judge Theodore Sedgwick in Stockbridge. Sedgwick was a staunch Federalist whose amazing political career spanned from 1780 to 1813, ending with a term as a judge on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.
Theodore Sedgwick had mentored Barnabas’ early legal and political career. They had a falling out and history hints at several political scenarios that might have caused that split. It may have been that Barnabas saw the rapidly growing popularity of the Republican Party as more beneficial to his political ambitions or possibly that the Republicans were more in tune with his own philosophical leanings. However, family ties would always link the two as Mary Gray Bidwell’s mother, Sarah Spring Gray, was a first cousin of Pamela Dwight Sedgwick, who was married to Judge Sedgwick. Sarah Spring Gray, Mary Gray Bidwell, and Barnabas Bidwell frequently socialized with the Sedgwick family, maintaining close friendships and family ties despite the political differences between Theodore and Barnabas.

Barnabas Bidwell c. 1795

In 1810, just as Barnabas was being considered by President Madison as a likely candidate for a seat on the U. S. Supreme Court to replace Barnabas’ friend, Judge Cushman [1], questions came up about the management of funds in the Berkshire County Treasurer’s Office. Barnabas had been Treasurer in name only since 1791, allowing his clerks to run the office in his absence and probably only occasionally setting foot in the office after 1805. The shortage in the county funds came to light when the head clerk died in office and they performed an audit. New England was still a Federalist stronghold and the Berkshire County Clerk of Courts at the time was Federalist Joseph Woodbridge. Woodbridge had studied law under Judge Sedgwick and it was he who issued Barnabas’ arrest warrant.

Almost 140 years later, Mrs. Charles Alanson Bidwell, in a letter of May 25, 1942, noted: “… I found in the Registry of Deeds office in Pittsfield the Power of attorney which he gave to his attorneys, whereby he turned over his estate to settle all reasonable claims before he left the country.” According to Mrs. Bidwell, the Clerk of Courts found that the sum he was accountable for was but $303.64. The Federalist newspapers at the time spread the story that he absconded with $12,000.00 and that information is still being repeated by historians and biographers. The bookkeeping had been done by several clerks in his absence while Barnabas worked in Washington and Boston, as he was county Treasurer while he was also a Congressman.
Further research found that by agreement with the court at their December 1810 term, Barnabas accepted a figure of $4,688.59. The court later withdrew from that agreement and Barnabas sued and won, having some of his real estate returned to him. Final judgment by the Supreme Judicial Court sitting at the County of Hampshire was as follows:

It is agreed between Joseph Tucker County Treasurer of Berkshire & Augustus Sherrill, Attorney to Barnabas Bidwell, that Judgment shall be rendered in the action now pending in the Supreme Judicial Court in the County of Hampshire, against the said Bidwell for three hundred & thirty dollars & sixty-four cents, conformably to the above statement.
April 25th 1815 Joseph Tucker Treasurer
Augustus Sherrill, Atty to B. Bidwell

In a letter from 1819 between two of Barnabas’ nephews, you can see that blood, in this case, is thicker than political water, as the following letter would support:

         To Mr. Josiah Brewer [2], New Haven
         From A. S. Bidwell [3]
Tyringham May 19th 1819
Dear Cousin,
As Milicent [4] is to leave Tyringham tomorrow morning for New Haven I think it my duty to write you a few lines. What I have principally in view in writing at this time is to make a statement of J. Woodbridge’s feelings and conduct toward Uncle Bidwell. Milicent can tell you other particulars.
Uncle according to our arrangement, left our house [5] Wednesday morning, went to Stockbridge, lodged at Mr. Sherrill’s. [6]

Thursday morning called on a number of his friends on the Plain and had agreed to dine at Mr.—–

During this time Charles Sedgwick [7] was at Mr. Woodbridge’s [8], asked Woodbridge if he had seen B. Bidwell. Woodbridge said he had not and asked if he was in town. Sedgwick said he had nor seen him himself but he understood that he was on the plain calling on his friends. A short time after Sedgwick met Woodbridge in the street. Woodbridge asked if he had seen Bidwell. Sedgwick said he had. Woodbridge then replied, “I have been thinking since I saw you to apprehend him and have concluded to send immediately to Lenox for a warrant”, but it appears he had already sent a boy post haste after them. Sedgwick from that went immediately to Sherrill’s office and told him what conversation had passed between Woodbridge and himself and Sherrill communicated the same to Uncle who was then in Lawson’s [9] office. This was about eleven o’clock. Uncle said if that was the case he thought it prudent to leave the country immediately.

Sherrill and Lawson advised him not to continue long in Stockbridge for fear of bad consequences as it would be extremely unpleasant to them and his friends. Lawson at that went home, got horse and wagon and carried Uncle directly to New Lebanon and well he did for Woodbridge had got his warrants before twelve o’clock. This conduct of Woodbridge’s appeared to be very unpopular and he was glad enough to excuse the matter or cloak his notice under official duty. I have been thus minute in my statements of this affair presuming they would be interesting to you as they were to me.
In great haste for they hurry me intolerably, Yours, A.S. Bidwell

With the above letter comes the following attestation from 1940:
I have made the above and foregoing true copy from the original letters in possession of Mrs. Clara Warren, 164 Park Street, West Roxbury, Mass., great granddaughter of Barnabas Bidwell

Helen Bidwell Lukeman [10]
Sworn to before me, James H. Punderson [11], Notary Public
Stockbridge, Mass June 5th 1940

Barnabas had lost his beloved Mary in 1808, likely due to tuberculosis, so she was not alive to witness the drama that unfolded in 1810.  Bidwell moved to Canada in that year, settling in Kingston, Ontario, where he practiced law and remained until he died in 1833.  On August 14th, 1817, Barnabas penned a letter to the parishioners of the Kingston Presbyterian Church of Kingston, Ontario, Canada, after being asked to resign as a trustee of the church. He defended his behavior in the Berkshire County Treasurer’s case, while conceding he was legally responsible for the missing money.

You can read that letter in next week’s installment of Bidwell Lore.

[1] While in Washington D.C. serving as congressman, Barnabas would on occasion have tea with Judge Cushman and his wife, mentioning those visits to Mary by letter.
[2] Brewer was the son of Eliab Brewer and Theodosia Bidwell Brewer. Theodosia was Rev. Adonijah Bidwell’s daughter and Barnabas’ youngest sister.
[3] Adonijah S. Bidwell (1794-1830) was the son of Adonijah Bidwell, Jr., Barnabas’ older brother. A.S. Bidwell was a doctor who never married and died at age 36 after his leg was amputated.
[4] Milicent (1764-1860) the wife of Adonijah Bidwell, Jr. and mother of A.S. Bidwell.
[5] Now the Bidwell House Museum in Monterey, was then Tyringham.
[6] Former law clerk for Barnabas Bidwell and by then had his own law practice.
[7] Son of Theodore and Pamela Dwight Sedgwick.
[8] Laurel Cottage. Woodbridge was the son of Jahleel Woodbridge and grandson of Joseph Woodbridge, brother of Timothy Woodbridge the schoolmaster under Rev. John Sergeant.
[9] Lawson Dench Bidwell (1791-1863) the son of Adonijah Bidwell, Jr. was a lawyer and Barnabas’s nephew.
[10] Daughter of Charles Augustus Bidwell and granddaughter of Lawson Dench Bidwell.
[11] Father of Molly Punderson, the third wife of Norman Rockwell and a lineal descendant of Rev. Jonathan Edwards.