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Who Was George Nidever?

· California Livin',History,Characters

In the new Fenway Stevenson mystery, The Candidate Coroner, Fenway goes to a pre-election dinner for all the county's political candidates—the 47th Annual George Nidever Dinner.

Estancia is a fictional city (sort of a mash-up of the real cities of San Luis Obispo and Santa Maria) on the California coast, about 250 miles (400km) south of San Francisco, and about 180 miles (300 km) north of Los Angeles. Nidever University is a fictional private college in Estancia, named after a real California historical figure: George Nidever. I've lived in California all my life, and I had never heard of this guy. But as I started to fill out the novel, I learned more about him—and I thought he was the perfect person whom to name the private university after.

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Nidever (pronounced NIGH-dev-urr) was an American who came to California in the 1830s, when it was still under control of the Mexican government. He was a fur trapper by trade, but he seems to have had a gift for self-promotion. He survived several battles with Native American tribes, fought in the Spanish-American War, and was so successful on his fur trapping boat expeditions that people called him "Captain."

His legend grew when, in 1853, he led the expedition to one of the Channel Islands off the Santa Barbara coast and retrieved "The Lone Woman of San Nicolas Island." Her tribe, the Nicoleño, had been massacred by Russian seal hunters in 1811, and the few surviving members were transported to the mainland in 1835—but she didn't make it to the ship in time, and didn't get transported to the mainland until Nidever's expedition came to get her—after 18 years of living on her own. Her life was fictionalized in a popular book, The Island of the Blue Dolphins (which was made into a movie in the 1960s). Nidever's account says she was "rescued," but as she died of disease not even two months after being relocated to Santa Barbara, I don't think "rescued" is an appropriate term.

In 1878 Nidever published one of the early American autobiographies, called The Life and Adventures of George Nidever, which became hugely popular. His gift for self-promotion is evident in the memoir's subtitle, too: The Life Story of a Remarkable California Pioneer Told in his Own Words, and None Wasted. (I was all excited to use that as the subtitle of The Candidate Coroner, too, but to my chagrin, my early readers rejected the idea.)

His "adventures" included killing one grizzly bear with a single shot, and then staring another one down until it got scared and ran away, which is totally a thing that I'm one-hundred-percent sure he didn't make up or even embellish.

The grizzly bear story was so popular that a ballad was written about it, and the ballad was so popular that no less a literary giant than Ralph Waldo Emerson provided the lyrics in a supplement to his Courage essay.

The popularity of Nidever's memoir has faded and it's sadly no longer in print, although you can still buy a copy of the 1984 edition on Amazon if you want to shell out a hundred bucks or so. The reviews are glowing, although they're mostly written by Nidever's heirs.

Nidever University is home to a lot of people who, like Nidever himself, have a gift for self-promotion. While only a couple of scenes in The Candidate Coroner take place at Nidever University, the private college is at the center of the action in the forthcoming fourth Fenway Stevenson mystery, The Upstaged Coroner, which centers on a murder at the school itself.