Eldorado: The California Gold Rushby Dale L. Walker
"Gold! Gold on the American River!"
This declaration, shouted in the streets of San Francisco in the spring of 1848, electrified the nation, and its echo was heard in the farthest corners of the globe. In the five years that followed, tens of thousands of hopeful argonauts made their way to the vast territory on the Pacific conquered by the United States in/p>
"Gold! Gold on the American River!"
This declaration, shouted in the streets of San Francisco in the spring of 1848, electrified the nation, and its echo was heard in the farthest corners of the globe. In the five years that followed, tens of thousands of hopeful argonauts made their way to the vast territory on the Pacific conquered by the United States in its recent war with Mexico. They traveled overland from the Missouri River, their ox-drawn wagons crossing the Rocky Mountains, vast plains and deserts, and the formidable peaks of the Sierra Nevada. They journeyed by boat and on foot across the fever-ridden jungles of the Isthmus of Panama. They took ship from eastern seaports and sailed sixteen thousand miles via Cape Horn to the gateway of the goldfields, the new city of San Francisco.
In Eldorado, award-winning historian Dale L. Walker presents the complete, often gaudy, always fascinating story of the California Gold Rush, the greatest mining bonanza in all of American history. The story ranges from the discovery by a New Jersey carpenter at a sawmill north of Sutter's Fort to the advent of large-scale hydraulic mining that spelled the ruination of the land and the end of the boom days when a Forty-niner with a pick and a pan found "colors" in a streamed and earned his wages-an ounce of raw gold a day.
Walker's narrative of this pivotal event of American history is drawn from the lives and experiences of those "on the ground" in the rush, those who blazed the trails and settled the West in their search for the riches at the rainbow's end.
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IEMPRESARIOGold will be slave or master.--Horace, EpistlesONEA WANDERING LORD OF JEOPARDYON A GUSTY August day in 1839, a dozen or so American and European residents of the windblown village of Yerba Buena rowed out and boarded the Monsoon, a Boston trade ship and the sole vessel then anchored in San Francisco Bay. The occasion was a banquet celebrating a man preparing to plunge into California's northern wilderness on a quest none of his gathered friends could quite comprehend. In fact, for all the wit and wassail, toasts and tales of the occasion, the honoree himself remained as much a mystery as his mission.John Augustus Sutter had that effect on people. He always learned more of others than he permitted them to learn of him. A Bostonian named William H. Thomes, who as a teenager sailed to Alta California on the brigantine Admittance in 1844, attested to this. While his ship swung at anchor off Yerba Buena, Thomes said, "Captain" Sutter came aboard with a gang of laborers to deliver a lot of two hundred cowhides and some bundles of beaver furs. Shipboard scuttlebutt preceding the visit described Sutter as liege lord of a domain "way off, up the Sacramento River somewhere," where he had a strong fort and ten thousand savage Indians under his command. The young seaman described this fantastic personage as "a short, stout man, with broad shoulders, large, full face, short, stubby mustache, a quiet, reserved manner, and a cold blue eye, that seemed to look you through and through, and to read your thoughts, no matter how much you tried to conceal them ... ."In Thomes's time and for many years following, rumors about Sutter were so commonplace that the most scandalous of them scarcely raised an eyebrow: He had deserted his wife and children, leaving them penniless somewhere in Europe; he was rich as a maharajah and ruled like one over so much territory he had himself not seen the outer boundaries of it; he had Indian slaves and many Indian mistresses, and an army of cutthroats manning the battlements of his fort;he was friendly, gregarious, and generous, but such a dangerous man to cross that even the Mexican authorities who had bestowed upon him an immense grant of land gave him no orders, levied no taxes on him, and left him alone.And even in 1839, on the eve of his departure into the northern hinterlands of Alta California, those who raised their glasses to celebrate their friend knew little about him except that he seemed to be a man of several nations who was not really allied with any of them.
JOHANN AUGUSTUS SUTTER, born in 1803 in Kandern, Grand Duchy of Baden, Germany, a few miles north of Basel, Switzerland, came from Swiss forebears. His father, a paper maker, moved the family to the Jura Mountain town of Neuchatel in 1819 and there Johann apprenticed with a bookbinder and received some education in a military academy. While he later claimed to have served as a captain of artillery in the Royal Swiss Guard of King Charles X of France, in fact he served in the Swiss army reserve corps in Bern with the undistinguished, bottom-rung rank of under-lieutenant.In about 1826 Sutter found work as a bookbinder in Leipzig and began a descent into debt that dogged him to the end of his days. By now he had married Anna Dübeld, and by 1834, while he was working as a draper's clerk in Burgdorf, Switzerland, had Anna, her mother, and four children under his rented roof, was threatened by an arrest warrant for nonpayment of loans and obligations, and was planning an escape from all of it.America appears to have been on his mind as the perfect place to flee. While there is no record of what inspired his choice, he must have conceived of the United States, particularly its unsettled western frontier, as a place where he could be swallowed up and start over with a new identity and an erased slate thousands of miles from his old burdens. At age thirty-one, like so many of his contemporary hearthside dreamers, he had certain Rousseauesque notions of pristine Arcadias far from the ancient, stultifying social mores, traditions, and laws--particularly laws--of Europe. He had read assiduously, sponging up every droplet of news from America. He may have had American friends and business acquaintances in Germany, France, and Switzerland, who fired his appreciation of the opportunities across the Atlantic. He had even picked up a workable knowledge of Englishin his scurryings around the continent, a step or two ahead of the bill collectors.For all his poverty of property and means--and conscience, for he did abandon his wife and children, condemning them to sixteen years of penury--Sutter possessed certain traits that were to serve him well in America and its Pacific outstations in the years ahead. He had a natural amiability and charm, and a quick, inventive, and eager mind. He had no grand schemes, nor even small ones, but was willing instead to be tugged along by chance and circumstance, letting opportunity happen without banging on its door. And he had a species of courage, a confident daring, seated in the enormity of his self-confidence. His biographer, Julian Dana, viewed him as "a wandering lord of jeopardy," a man who believed he could free himself from any snare and survive any vicissitude by the sheer force of his personality and will. Such a vanity would often require employing desperate measures, such as the one he contrived to outlive the distresses of his life in Europe--running away.That he did in the spring of 1834. He borrowed funds for the passage to New York and wrapped up his affairs by asking his brother Friedrich to look after Anna and the children, promising to send money as soon as he got some to send.He sailed from Le Havre in July and among shipboard acquaintances learned of the riches to be made in the great blank places on the charts of the trans-Mississippi west. Mexico, so the steerage chatter had it, had opened to outside trade and all manner of goods could be bought cheaply in Missouri and transported to the fabled trade emporium of Santa Fé where they earned huge profits, paid in silver and gold.(In fact, with the first American trade wagons reaching the old town in 1821, the year of Mexico's independence and Missouri's statehood, the Santa Fé trade flourished and its trails from the Missouri frontier were well trodden by the time Sutter heard of them.)A few days after debarking in New York, Sutter hurried on to St. Louis and there sought out the German colony in the bustling city, presenting his bogus Swiss Guard history and convincing the burghers to advance him funds for a plunge into the Santa Fé trade. He had nebulous plans but he was presentable, affable, a soldier, and a German--all trustworthy characteristics to his backers.In 1834, he reached Independence, on a bluff above the MissouriRiver and a few miles inside the western boundary of the United States. In this noisy hamlet, the main frontier depot for the mule-and ox-drawn trade caravans heading southwest on the eight-hundred--mile trek to Santa Fé, Sutter launched his chaotic, adventurous American career.The four years separating his advent in New York and his arrival in California are nebulous--he kept no records and wrote no journal. He did become a Santa Fé trader, for a time in partnership with a similarly impecunious German gentleman he met either on the Atlantic passage or in St. Louis. The two managed to outfit themselves, on credit advanced by the St. Louis merchants, with goods, wagons, draft animals, and horses, and joined the commercial caravans on the rutted trails between Independence, Bent's Fort on the Arkansas River, and Santa Fe.Sutter profited little from these excursions, or from horse-trading among the Apaches, Shawnees, and Delawares he encountered in his travels in Missouri and New Mexico. According to some of his friendlier contemporaries, he managed to send small sums of money home to Anna together with pleas for her patience, but this is probably a story of his own invention. If he felt any pangs of regret about leaving Anna and their children to an uncertain fate in Switzerland, he did not talk about it, write about it, or brood about it.Less friendly speculation relating to his first years in American and Mexican territory circulated many years later. He was said to have bilked his German financiers in St. Louis, in effect running west with their money and making no attempt to pay it back from his trade profits. There was even a story that he killed one man sent to collect a debt. California historian H. H. Bancroft dismissed this as a canard but did say that some of Sutter's activities in Missouri were "not favorable" to his reputation.The Swiss managed to bank some nonpecuniary profits from these opening years in the West. He came to know, either in Santa Fé or at Bent's Fort, such influential traders as Ceran St. Vrain and Charles Beaubien, both of whom had acquired land grants from Mexico, and Charles Bent who, with St. Vrain had constructed the great fort on the north bank of the Arkansas which flourished as a center of the Indian trade, collecting furs and buffalo robes and outfitting Santa Fé Trail merchants.The French-Canadian Beaubien, alcalde (a magistrate or mayor) ofTaos, seems to have befriended Sutter and told the Swiss tales of trapping expeditions he had made to California.Sutter's New Mexico experiences provided him a frontier education that would prove even more useful than his native charm and fake credentials. He learned the Spanish language, absorbed the rough niceties of frontier diplomacy--haggling with Mexican traders, bribing Mexican customs officers, and cajoling Mexican provincial army officers and bureaucrats--and absorbed the survival lore of the wilderness trail and camp.On a trip to Taos, the trade depot fifty miles north of Santa Fe, he encountered another French-Canadian trapper recently returned from the beaver streams of California. This unidentified man, Sutter later recalled, spoke dreamily of the golden warmth of the place, its fur riches, and the fortunes being made there by the "Bostons," the Americans bringing their merchant vessels around Cape Horn to San Diego, Monterey and points north. Foreigners, the trapper said, were welcomed. There were flags from many nations in the anchorages serving the hide and tallow trade. Governance was lax, laws almost nonexistent, Mexican port officials pliable, opportunities limitless and far less competitive than those along the Santa Fé Trail.Somewhere between Taos and the Missouri settlements, Sutter acquainted himself with the Perthshire nobleman William Drummond Stewart, a wealthy sportsman who roamed the Rocky Mountains, usually with an entourage of gentlemen hunters, servants and gun-bearers, as if on safari. Seventh baronet of Murthly Castle, late of the Fifteenth King's Hussars, and a veteran of the Peninsular War in Spain and of Waterloo, Sir William had hunted in the Oregon country and may have influenced the Swiss's forthcoming impromptu visit to the Pacific Northwest.Stewart invited Sutter to a hunt he was planning that summer of 1838. The Scotsman, who wisely traveled into the mountains with veteran mountain men as guides, was heading for the Wind River Range of the Rockies. He had attached his party to a caravan taking trade goods and supplies to the "rendezvous," the trappers' annual trade fair, to be held that year on the Popo Agie River in central Wyoming.Sutter tagged along, riding with Stewart and his retinue ahead of a wagon and pack mule train. Guide for the party was Irish-born Andrew Drips, a fabulous figure from the earliest days of the fur tradewho had dealt with most of the native tribes along the upper Missouri, and whose knowledge of the trails and beaver streams of the Rockies was matchless.The route, over the still dimly etched Oregon Trail, followed the Platte River 650 miles from western Missouri to Fort Laramie, a whitewashed adobe fort in prime buffalo lands, then plodded on northwest into the Wind River Mountains.Sutter later claimed to have met Kit Carson at the 1838 rendezvous and it is likely that he did. The little gray-eyed Kentuckian had been working traps in the Yellowstone country with another of the West's storied mountaineers, Jim Bridger, the year before, and with Bridger and several other American Fur Company trappers rode to the Popo Agie gathering that summer.(Sutter would get to know Carson better seven years hence, in far touchier circumstances, when Kit marched into California with John C. Fremont's expedition.)There were missionaries accompanying Andrew Drips's caravan to the rendezvous, among them William H. Gray, a Utica, New York, cabinetmaker, heading to Oregon's Willamette Valley as "secular agent" to the Congregationalist missions there, as well as Elkanah Walker and Cushing Eels and their wives, destined to minister to the Spokane Indians. They were to be guided west by Francis Ermatinger, a Canadian of Swiss heritage working for the Hudson's Bay Company. Sutter naturally sought out his countryman and once the rendezvous ended, joined Ermatinger's party as they resumed travel on the Oregon Trail.It is likely that Sutter met one of the most celebrated of mountain men during the Oregon Trail journey. This was Joseph Reddeford Walker, a giant Tennessean who had trapped the western mountains since 1819 and now, in 1838, was returning from California with a horse herd to sell among the trading posts of the Rockies. From him Sutter learned much about Alta California: In 1833 Walker had led fifty men from the Green River in Wyoming to the Mary's (later the Humboldt) River in northern Nevada, made a three-week crossing of the Sierra Nevada, and discovered the primeval Yosemite Valley. Afterward he and his company spent the winter in the Sacramento and San Joaquín River valleys.Ten years after their meeting somewhere near the South Pass of the Rockies, Sutter must have remembered the giant Tennessean whoblazed the trail in 1833 that thousands of gold hunters were following into California.
THE ERMATINGER PARTY crossed the Rockies at South Pass, reached Fort Hall, a Hudson's Bay Company post on the Portneuf River of Idaho, and some weeks later Fort Walla Walla, the timber-walled Hudson's Bay trade center on the east bank of the Columbia River. Sutter seems to have visited the missions of the Walla Walla and Willamette Valleys before arriving at Fort Vancouver in October.He tarried there three weeks, touring the immense rectangular fort that had been built in 1825 on the north bank of the Columbia near the mouth of the Willamette. He admired its stout log palisades, its great gate with the Union Jack flying over it, its cannon-mounted bastions, and the scurrying of the workers, trades-, and craftsmen inside its ramparts. Here were shops for bakers, mechanics, smiths, coopers, tanners, wheelwrights, saddle and harness makers; and storehouses, worker quarters, kitchens, and a huge dining hall for the voyageurs returning from their trapping expeditions. He saw Indian trading posts, offices, chapels, a jail, a schoolhouse, a powder magazine, and houses for the chief factor and other fort officers. Surrounding the fort were gristmills, sawmills, orchards, and cultivated fields that were cleared and plowed by idle Hudson's Bay trappers in summer months. The company grew wheat, barley, corn, potatoes, and produce; had coops of chickens, a few head of cattle, many horses and hogs, and an international crew of tradesmen, laborers, and field and kitchen workers. French-Canadians were predominant but there were also employees from Scotland, England, Ireland, Wales, and Russia, and Kanakas--natives of the Sandwich Islands--as well as many Indian workers, some Iroquois, but more local tribesmen, Chinooks in particular.Fort Vancouver's chief factor, John McLoughlin, a Québec-born physician, seems to have been away at the time of Sutter's visit but James Douglas, the fort's second-in-command, an urbane Scotsman married (as was McLoughlin) to a Cree Indian woman, served as the Swiss's guide. Douglas must have been impressed by the letters of recommendation from Sir William Drummond Stewart and other notables whose paths Sutter had crossed, and probably endured a barrage of questions about his thriving fort-in-the-forest.The Scotsman was instrumental in Sutter's decision to try to locate in the north of Alta California, somewhere along the Sacramento River. Douglas had been there on Hudson's Bay business in 1837 and again the following year, exploring beaver streams with the approval of Mexican authorities.While he enjoyed the hospitality and comforts of the fort's guest quarters, Sutter decided not to spend the winter there and sought the factor's advice on a passage to California. He told Douglas of a plan he had devised to drive a herd of Mexican cattle north to the beef-starved Willamette Valley.The Company had no vessels routed to California but the Hudson's Bay brigantine Columbia was soon scheduled to take a cargo of lumber to the Sandwich Islands and Douglas offered Sutter a berth on the ship, advising him that at Honolulu he could eventually find a trader bound for San Diego or Monterey.The factor had been impressed by the Swiss, as indeed were most who met him. Sutter had a polite, even courtly manner, a soldier's bearing--he played well the part of a former officer of the Royal Swiss Guard--and a disarming ingenuousness. He listened intently, blotting up news and knowledge, asked intelligent questions in good Germanic-English, and was a deft raconteur, full of tales of his peripatetic life in Europe. There was something about this short, moon-faced, blue-eyed, affable man with his curly blond hair and groomed moustache and side whiskers that elicited trust. He seemed ambitious, but not so overtly as to cause suspicion; he was energetic, restless, willing to take chances, and these were admirable traits in a world as full of jeopardy as the untamed lands of the Pacific coast.James Douglas wrote letters for the newcomer, one of them to the Hudson's Bay agent in the islands, another to the American consul in Honolulu, and a third to an eminent American merchant there. Like the others he carried, these epistles he treated as bona fides, useful in his travels and enterprises, and with them in his valise, and after great expressions of gratitude to his host, Sutter paid the Company £15 for cabin accommodations and sailed from Fort Vancouver on October 23, 1838.
ONE DISAPPOINTMENT AWAITED him after the twenty-eight--day voyage to Honolulu: After the port quarantine cleared the vessel andhe stepped ashore from the Columbia's lighter, he learned that an American vessel had departed for California only six hours before and that three or four months might pass before the next California-bound trader might offer him passage.Still, Sutter had much to do and see, and so made quick contact with the Hudson's Bay agent, George Pelly, who read the letters Sutter presented, taking particular note of the one from Factor Douglas at Fort Vancouver. Much impressed by Sutter's credentials, Pelly introduced the impatient visitor to a number of other island notables, among them the wealthy American merchant and sugar mill owner, William French, and the American consul at Honolulu, John Coffin Jones. Sutter may even have had an audience with King Kamehameha III during his stay in Hawaii, and certainly met the king's emissary, Oahu Governor Mataio Kekuanoa.How much time he spent contemplating the lush paradise his detour had presented him, or how widely he traveled in the islands, is unknown. Nor do we know, as one of his early biographers asserted, that Sutter's mind seethed with plans for his California venture. He probably did not, at first, have any definite plans beyond examining the Sacramento country as Joseph Walker and James Douglas had advised him. He was certainly not thinking of "empire-building"--he was by nature spontaneous, lurching forward in accidental momentum--but he did have five months to think of his next step before the opportunity arose for him to take it. And by then, he had learned a great deal about California from islanders who had been there.William French took an interest in Sutter, was perhaps even enthralled by this former soldier, Santa Fe trader, Rocky Mountain trapper, friend of a British baronet and a Hudson's Bay officer who had glowing letters from them and others in his portfolio. French was a shrewd businessman, the "Merchant Prince of the Islands," and not easily guiled. He had sailed to the Pacific in 1819 representing a Boston commercial firm and had spent seven years in the turbulent trade marts of Canton, China, before headquartering in Honolulu. There he was such a familiar figure that his advertisements in the town's newspaper did not even carry the address of his office and headquarters.He listened to Sutter's vague ideas of settling in Alta California's northern wilderness and perhaps building a fort and trade centeralong the lines of those he had seen--Fort Laramie, Bent's, Fort Vancouver. This greatly interested the Merchant Prince. He could use such a commercial connection to Mexican California. He had things to sell there, and there were things to buy.He proposed a profitable way for his new friend to get to California--a scheme that involved another detour, maybe three thousand miles or so, round-trip.At anchor off the long, scimitar-shaped beach of Waikiki, at the foot of the extinct volcano called Diamond Head, lay a brig of eighty-eight tons, the Clementine, owned by Jules Dudoit, France's consul to the islands. The ship was idle and William French proposed chartering it, hiring a crew of sixteen men, loading it with a cargo of fruit, produce, salt, sugar, and miscellaneous other goods, and dispatching it to Sitka, capital of Russian America. Sutter could serve as unsalaried supercargo, handle the trade with the Russians and on the return voyage, disembark at San Francisco Bay with a share of the profits, start-up money for his Sacramento River exploration.Sutter needed no coaxing. He had learned from Hudson's Bay agents in Fort Vancouver, and from Pelly, French, Jones, and others in Oahu, of the ripe opportunities for trade at Sitka. Too few supply ships were stopping at New Archangel and the Russians there hungered for fresh fruit and vegetables to ward off the scourge of scurvy. The Russians, he had learned, needed everything and bought nearly anything offered to them.In April, with contracts signed, the ship chartered and manned, the $8,000 in goods purchased and stowed, the Clementine, commanded by a Cockney salt named John Blinn, was ready to sail.Sutter took aboard a big bulldog he had somehow acquired, and new letters from Pelly, French, and Consul Jones. The latter, in a letter recommending him to the eminent military chief of Alta California, Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, described Sutter as "a Swiss gentleman, and a man of the first class, honored with talent and esteem."In a last-minute development, Governor Kekuanoa of Oahu offered Sutter nine male islanders, two with wives, who would work for him in California. The natives were each to be paid ten dollars a month. They were strong and dependable laborers and the Swiss was delighted to have them.At the end of April, the Clementine reached New Archangel andwarped under the cannon guarding Baranov Castle to anchor in Sitka Sound. The governor of the Russian-American Fur Company, Ivan Kuprianov, was so thrilled with the cargo he arranged to purchase all the perishables and most of the other goods as well, then gave Sutter, French, and Captain Blinn a tour of the town and its fur storage sheds and warehouses. (The Russians were formidable animal slaughterers on land and sea and had tons of walrus ivory, and hundreds of bales of furs--sea otter, sable, martin, fox, mink, muskrat, beaver, bear, and wolf--much of it destined for the vastly profitable trade at Canton.)In his talks with Kuprianov, Sutter learned that his hosts were interested in selling their California fur trading posts, built in 1812 by eighty fur hunters and fifty conscripted Aleut Indians as products of the Russian dream of a trans-Pacific empire. Called Fort Ross by Americans, Rossiya (an obsolete, poetical word meaning "Russians") lay fifty miles north of San Francisco Bay and consisted of fifty buildings, most clustered around a central, log-palisaded fort. A smaller station was located eighteen miles south of Ross above Bodega Bay at the mouth of the Russian River.The forts were no longer profitable, Kuprianov said, and were to be abandoned.This intelligence Sutter filed away as perhaps eventually useful, as would be the letter he collected from Kuprianov to add to his cache.With three-quarters of its cargo off-loaded at Sitka and sold at a fine profit in Russian gold, the Clementine sailed in June and after weathering heavy gales en route entered San Francisco Bay "in distress," Sutter said, on July 2, 1839, dropping her hook close to a dismal string of tents, shanties, and adobe huts scattered among the sandhills and beach of Yerba Buena Cove.
FRANCISCAN MONKS AND their Indian converts built a mission three miles southwest of the cove in 1776 and in the 1820s, the new Mexican government erected a makeshift presidio on the site, but not until four years before Sutter saw it were there any permanent dwellings there. Among the first of these were a poopdeck cabin, serving as somebody's residence, that had been removed from a wrecked hulk in the bay; and a tarpaulin tent supported by four redwood posts and roofed with a ship's sail, erected by W A. Richardson,an English merchant captain appointed harbor master by the Mexican governor of Alta California.The place had been named Yerba Buena ("good herb") for a native mint plant from which a fragrant tea was brewed.Isolated from the commerce and administration centers at San Diego, Pueblo de Los Angeles, and Monterey, Yerba Buena, except for its ill-equipped and undermanned presidio, was more foreign than Mexican. Yankee whalers and merchantmen from England and Russia made it a regular port of call, and there were several British and American skippers in and near the village who had been sanctioned by the Mexican government to deal in the hide and tallow and sea otter trades.The great bay that sheltered the settlement, first seen from the high hills of San Mateo in 1769 by an overland party of Spaniards, had been coveted by every nation whose ships visited it. Prevailing winds put the bay on sea lanes that linked ports in India, China, and Manila, and Bahía de San Francisco came to be regarded as the key to commerce in the trans-Pacific Orient. Nor was its strategic value underestimated. The American explorer Charles Wilkes of the sloop-of-war Vincennes anchored at Yerba Buena in 1841, and said the bay was spacious enough to shelter all the world's navies.Mexico exerted only nominal control over its greatest possession in the northern province but did require that foreign vessels, especially trade ships, have permits and pay cargo duties for use of their commercial ports. Thus, as soon as the Clementine anchored in the bay a boat was rowed out from the presidio landing and a Mexican officer and his escort climbed the jack ladder to the quarterdeck. There Captain Blinn was informed that he must move on to the capital at Monterey to obtain papers before he or any of his passengers could come ashore.Sutter's luck held. He had letters to show, including the one from Consul John Jones to General Mariano Vallejo, and through the intervention of some prominent merchants ashore who prevailed upon the presidio commander, the Clementine was granted a forty-eight-hour visit to provision, fill water casks, and make some repairs.
SUTTER REACHED MONTEREY on July 4, 1839, with fortuitous timing. The best-known American in the capital, Thomas Oliver Larkin, wasgiving an Independence Day party at his home and the Swiss was able to present his letters there to some of the most influential men in Alta California.Larkin was a genial, thirty-seven-year-old New Englander who had reached California in 1832 and had risen to prominence as a merchant and agent for American shipping firms in Monterey. He traded with Mexico and the Sandwich Islands in furs, horses, lumber, and flour, had a store in Monterey, a mastery of the Spanish language, and the trust of provincial authorities despite the fact that he had neither applied for nor shown any interest in Mexican citizenship. He was known as "Don Tomás" and "El Yánqui de Bostoño" and ran his businesses shrewdly and with what a contemporary said was "no particular veneration for revenue laws."En route to Monterey from Honolulu in 1832, Larkin met on shipboard Mrs. Rachel Holmes and a year later, married the widow at Santa Bárbara. Their lovely two-storied home of adobe bricks, hand-hewn redwood roof shakes, and windows of imported glass, became a social center of Monterey with "Don Tomás" and "Doña Raquela" entertaining visitors from many nations with bailes, fine food, and a buzz of talk about trade and politics and the limitless opportunities in the golden land of California.At the Larkin celebration Sutter had talks with William A. Leidesdorff, a prominent Yerba Buena businessman of Danish-African descent who had left the West Indies as a young man, became a merchant captain in New York and New Orleans, and settled in California, like Larkin, as a trader-merchant.Most important, for his immediate purposes was Sutter's introduction to Juan Bautista Alvarado, the thirty-year-old former customs inspector and first native-born governor (born in Monterey, in fact) of Alta California. Alvarado read with interest the letters from James Douglas, Governor Kuprianov, William French, and Consul Jones, the latter recommending Sutter as "a Swiss gentleman who goes to California with the intention of settling there if the country meets his expectations."Sutter and the governor must have had several meetings in the days that followed in which the Swiss presented further credentials, his life story (excepting, of course the unfortunate business of abandoning Anna and the children), and his ambitions. He told Alvarado, no doubt in his most diplomatic guttural Spanish, that he wished to settlein the northern province, that he had four white men and nine Kanaka workmen to help him clear land, build an outpost, and plant crops. He said he was interested particularly in exploring a site somewhere along the Sacramento River.Alvarado seemed interested in the idea and the two talked of Sutter's proposed rancho serving as a buffer against the Indians in that area, these natives notorious as ruffians and horse thieves, harrassing the inhabitants around the village of San Jose and the sprinkling of settlers to the east and north of Yerba Buena and Sonoma. The latter was a small presidio where Alvarado's uncle, General Mariano Vallejo, lived, and Sutter carried a letter recommending him to that gentleman.During the course of their meetings, Alvarado suggested and queried and Sutter explained and embroidered. From the word "settlement" grew the idea of building a "rancho"; the rancho evolved into a "fort" to protect the northern limits of Mexican California; the nebulous notion of locating somewhere along the Sacramento River transformed into building on the American River near its confluence with the Sacramento, putting the rancho-fort in command of a waterway running 320 miles from the Sierra Nevada to the Pacific.By the end of the meetings, Sutter, in effect, had agreed to be an agent of Mother Mexico, or at least of its untended stepchild called Alta California, protecting its interests in the north. He even proposed to develop a fur trade up there that would force out such competitors as the Hudson's Bay Company and the Russians, both recent but now apparently erstwhile friends. Sutter's opportunistic abandonment of them occurred after Alvarado said he "suspected" them of trapping illegally in Mexican lands.All he needed to put these plans into action, Sutter said, was a grant of land and the government's official sanction for him to begin working on its behalf. Alvarado assured that this posed no problem. Sutter would need only to sign a paper confirming his intention of becoming a citizen of Mexico, go north and mark off a tract of land that suited him, and return to Monterey in a year for his naturalization and grant documents.Sutter signed the letter of intent, gathered his papers from Alvarado, including another introduction to Vallejo in Sonoma, and set out again on the Clementine for Yerba Buena.
WITH THE REMAINDER of its cargo sold off in Monterey, the Clementine returned to Honolulu while Sutter, set ashore at Yerba Buena with his Kanakas, baggage and bulldog, and paid calls on some local merchants--Jacob Leese, married to one of Vallejo's sisters; Nathan Spear and William S. Hinkley, who owned a general store in the village--and the harbor master, Captain Richardson.With Richardson he rowed across the bay to the Sonoma embarcadero to pay a courtesy call on Commandante General Vallejo and rode with the general's vaqueros to his headquarters opposite the Sonoma mission. The high-born Californio, keenly intelligent, striking in appearance with his wavy black hair, muttonchop whiskers, and dark, penetrating eyes, greeted the Swiss warily. He asked many questions about Sutter's plans and at a dinner that evening in his home, continued to talk, warning Sutter of the untamed Indians, dangers, and disease awaiting him in the wilderness and suggesting that he locate closer to Sonoma where rich pasturage was available. Sutter politely countered that he wished to settle and build along a navigable river in order to have a commercial avenue to San Francisco Bay.After a tour of the Sonoma presidio--consisting of fifteen soldiers in a motley of hand-me-down uniforms, and a few rusted field guns--Sutter borrowed horses and departed Vallejo's domain for a visit to the Russian outposts at Bodega Bay and Fort Ross. As Alvarado's northern agent, he needed to see what the Russians were up to.To the governor of Rossiya, Baron Alexander Rotchev, Sutter presented a letter from Ivan Kuprianov, governor of the Russian-American Fur Company, and other credentials, and was allowed to inspect the redwood-palisaded fort and its fifty-odd outbuildings. He found it much better equipped than Vallejo's sad presidio at Sonoma; in fact, he believed Ross comparable to the American Fort Laramie and a miniature version of Fort Vancouver. Especially impressive were the fields of wheat and barley, the gardens and orchards outside the fort proper, and the outpost's equipage, furniture, and arsenal.Upon his return to San Francisco Bay, Sutter hurried to put his inland expedition in order. From Nathan Spear and William Hinkley he worked out a credit agreement whereby he was supplied with seed and farm implements, carpenter and blacksmith tools, muskets, rifles,powder and ball, three small cannons, and provisions for his party. The merchants also let Sutter charter their two small schooners, the Nicholas and Isabel, to convey his men and supplies upriver. Captain John Wilson, another Vallejo brother-in-law, sold the Swiss a four-oared pinnace for use in making runs down the Sacramento to the bay.Now, with a half-dozen recruits gathered from among the shipless seamen and unemployed lingerers on the Yerba Buena waterfront, he was eager to find his place in the wilds and build on it.
His FAREWELL PARTY aboard the Monsoon lasted till sunrise and while Sutter was always a man of the moment, not much given to contemplation of the past, he must have allowed some time to consider the five years that had passed since he sailed for America. In Europe he had been a debt-ridden clerk with a hungry family, no future, and warrant servers baying at his heels. Now he was a debt-ridden entrepreneur with a bulldog, a malacca cane, eleven Sandwich Island natives, a fourteen-year-old Indian boy he had "purchased" (from Kit Carson, some said) at the Popo Agie rendezvous, a German cabinetmaker named Wetler, some flotsam from the beaches of San Francisco Bay to work for him, and a brain swirling with chancy ideas. He had been a Santa Fé trader and an Oregon Trail pioneer, had a long list of influential friends from outposts as far-flung as St. Louis, Taos, Fort Vancouver, Honolulu, Sitka, and Monterey, and letters from them giving him credit and attesting to his sterling character.He had accomplished more in the past half-decade than in the first thirty-one years of his life and as he stepped down the ladder from the Monsoon to the pinnace and its Kanaka oarsmen awaiting alongside on that morning of August 9, 1839, he may have given some thought to even grander achievements in the days to come.More than likely, however, being a man of the moment, he thought more of destination than destiny.Copyright © 2003 by Dale L. Walker
Meet the Author
Born in Illinois, the son of a career army sergeant, Dale L. Walker is a journalism graduate of the University of Texas at El Paso whose 20 books reflect his varied historical interests: military and Western history, 19th century "Golden Age" journalism, biography, and Jack London studies. Among his books are Januarius Macgahan: The Life and Times of an American War Correspondent; Legends and Lies: Great Mysteries of the American West; The Boys of '98; Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders; Bear Flag Rising: The Conquest of California; Pacific Destiny; and Eldorado: The California Gold Rush. He is a four-time winner of the Spur Award from Western Writers of America, the Owen Wister Award for life achievement in the history and literature of the American West, and many other awards, and is a member of the prestigious Texas Institute of Letters.
Walker, who lives in El Paso, Texas, with his wife of 43 years, Alice McCord, has been involved in virtually every aspect of the book business. He has served as a university press director, newspaper book page editor, magazine editor, fiction editor for Forge Books, book columnist and reviewer, and has written historical books, magazine work, and fiction.
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