by lyle e davis
I find it fascinating to go exploring into the past . . . tracking down and reading the memories of those who have gone before us.
Letters from the pioneers give us a much clearer picture of the sights, sounds, smells, and life in “the good old days.”
Jumping around, from territory to territory, from state to state, from the United States, as it was then known, to uncharted territory, makes for some fascinating reading:
LETTER FROM DAKOTA
from a young lady, Blanche P. Waldo, in Minnehaha County, South Dakota:
SIOUX FALLS, Sept. 12, 1878
This September afternoon, Marion, my eldest sister, and Jennie, my younger, sit on the summit of one of the beautiful bluffs of Sioux Falls, a delightful little village in the south-eastern part of Dakota territory. As I gaze around me from this height of 200 feet, or perhaps more, I see our beautiful Sioux River winding its way through a lovely valley, and tumbling over mighty rocks, forming a foaming cataract. Oh! how beautiful the large island, covered with verdure is on this barren prairie. This island contains nine acres of ground, and its principal trees are elm and oak. Sioux Falls is a thriving little place, and as we sit here, we can see the carpenters at work putting up the frames of business houses as well as residences, and the masons venering them with brick. The largest hotel of the place is a large venered building. I smile when I think of the surprise Eastern people manifest as they see the beautiful residences, elegantly furnished of some of our citizens. Before us lies the railroad which was finished through here last month, and on which they are now at work. A great many strangers are coming in every day, some seeking fortunes, and others pleasures; among the latter are six gentlemen, friends of ours, from Evansville, Wisconsin, our former place of residence, surprise us by stepping in upon us unexpectedly. We had a very pleasant visit with them. One mile beyond the depot is the cemetery, on the hillside; it is a beautiful yet lovely spot, and a cherished place for us, because alas! one year ago, we laid all that remained of our beautiful and dearly beloved sister there, and only last month a little niece; just a little while and we too may be laid there. Our home is just at the foot of the bluff, and Marion and husband think it is a pretty place. Now I am no story writer, my friends, but please accept my poor description of my western home.
Blanche P. Waldo
Printed in the Evansville Review, September 25, 1878, p. 3, col. 4, Evansville, Wisconsin
Sioux Falls, Dakota TR.
July 11th, 1872
Pipestone Falls, South Dakota
I am sitting in the doorway of our western home. It is just before sunset, and the country before me is very beautiful, as the shadows of evening fall over it. I wish you could see the Indian Train that just passed by on the Yankton road; it is fantastic I assure you; perhaps I can describe part of it. There were ponies with saddles, and to each pony two very long poles were strapped, one on each side of the saddle, the other end of the poles drag on the ground; there were cross pieces from one pole to the other and quite a load of goods and traps packed on. Some of the packs were topped out with a squaw. There were a good many of these turnouts, and all driven by squaws dressed in gay costumes; but one needs to see it to appreciate it. We have just had a bit of experience in camp life and I will tell you about it.
We have long wished to visit the Pipestone Falls, rendered famous by Longfellow, and distant from here a little more than sixty miles. Last Friday morning, July 5th, a company of four, my brother, aunt and uncle Sawtelle, and myself started for the Falls. We had a fine team and a light canvass wagon, well packed with provisions, blankets, pillows, a tent, and everything we thought we were likely to need. Our route lay up the Sioux River. At noon we stopped at the "Dells" made tea and coffee, and set our table on a large flat rock, beneath overhanging cliffs. It was a beautiful place. We rested two hours and then went on. We reached Flandrau just before dark. This is a place on the river 40 miles north of Sioux Falls. It comprises an old store built as a trading post for the Indians and an Indian church. Here is a fine water power, and as fine a farming country extending for hundreds of miles around, as was ever seen. Three of our company have a quarter section each. Campbell of Evansville, has an adjoining claim, whom we found here making improvements. Also a gentleman and his son from the East. These composed the entire white population, although all the land has recently been taken up for miles around, and another year will see the country dotted with homes. Our horses were put out, supper dispatched, and our tent pitched for the night. We enjoyed the scenes around us until a late hour. Upon a little hill was our tent, two or three covered wagons, the old store and the church. At the foot of the hill a beautiful meadow reached to the river, and on it were horses, cattle and Indian ponies without number. Beneath the shadow of the trees on the river bank was an Indian encampment. Plenty of Indians all around us, and no whites except those mentioned. Early the next morning, I went with one of our company to visit one of the Indian families. They had a good log house all in one room. They seemed glad to see us and gave us a seat on the best bed. This bed had a nice clean patchwork quilt, two large pillows with cases, and sheets turned back from the head, a large piece of carpeting was spread on the floor in front of it; the stove was well polished. The family were eating breakfast; they had a nice set of dishes, and sat at the table eating from their plates and drinking from their cups just as anybody would do. There was a shelf in the room filled with books and papers, and some pictures hanging on the walls. This is only one of a good many such families. Saturday afternoon we started for Pipestone Falls, twelve miles distant. We were five miles on the way, and where the earth and sky seemed to meet all around us, when there came up on of the most fearful hailstorms I ever heard of. The horses were unhitched, but pelted by the large hailstones, were frightened and tore around fearfully. It was by almost superhuman efforts that they were restrained from rushing off before the storm. For a few moments I thought we should all perish. The thunder and lightning was dreadful, and it rained as I never saw it rain before. Of course we were thoroughly drenched. We were only in the edge of the storm and were soon able to go back to camp. Campbell, like the good hearted boy that he is, met us on the way with dry blankets and then hastened on and had a hot fire ready for us by the time we reached the old store. Well, we got dry after awhile, and passed the night the best we could. Sunday morning was delightful. Before we were through breakfast we saw the Indians coming to church over the hills and prairies, in all directions as far as we could see. Indians, squaws and papooses, some walking, some in ox teams and some riding on ponies. As they reached the place they sat down in groups on the ground to visit until church time. It was truly a fine sight to see these red men coming quietly and peaceably to church, dressed in citizens clothes, without paint or war gear. Soon the minister, a very intelligent half breed, rang the bell for service. Then all filed into church, we followed and were given the honoured seats beside the minister; eight whites in a church with 150 Indians. Many of them were once chiefs, warriors, and braves, who have often been on the warpath, and often engaged in massacres. I saw Big Eagle, who was formerly chief of the Sioux nation, and who surrendered his whole band to the United States, rather than fight with the troops. I doubt if any of us ever enjoyed a service more than we did that morning. Just think of those Indians singing our old church songs, and offering just as earnest and sincere prayers as were offered in any church. The singing was about as good as any congregational singing I ever heard. They kept perfect time and there were many voices. The men all wore white shirts with collars, neckties, and good suits of clothes. The most of them were intelligent, smart looking men. The squaws did not look quite so well, yet their looks indicated that they tried their best to dress like white women. I saw one very pretty Indian girl, the only one I ever saw. She was about 18 years old, medium height and straight as an arrow. She is said to be very reserved and haughty, won't let an Indian come near her. She says she will never marry until she can marry a white man. After service seven or eight of the leading church members came to shake hands with us, and expressed their pleasure at seeing us there. Towards night Fred wishes me to take a canoe ride, and I never enjoyed a boat ride more than I did that.
The Big Sioux River Today
Floating down the Big Sioux in a regular Indian canoe just at sunset. The branches nearly meeting over our heads, the birds singing their good night songs to their mates and the banks on either side were overgrown with vines and willows. As we were going back through the woods, an old squaw and pappoose came along and for the fun of it I took off my neck ribbon, and tied it around the little girl's neck. The squaw looked on much pleased, saying, washta, washta, which means, good, good. Monday morning we started again for the falls. On crossing the prairie, where the worst of the storm passed, we saw tons of hay torn out from the roots by the hailstones. We went on truly thankful that we were no further within its limits. Before noon we reached the falls, and camped near a beautiful little lake just below, for dinner. We had huckleberries for desert, which we gathered from the bushes. After clambering over many rocks, we at last stood below Pipestone Falls, so famous in Indian legend. The water falls down perpendicular rocks 50 or 75 feet high, the spray forming a beautiful rainbow constantly hanging over it. With a great deal of assistance we reached the top of the rocks above the falls and then found the rock that Longfellow describes, where "Gitchie Manitou the might, He the Master of life descending. On the red crags of the quarry stood erect and smoked the Calumet, the peace pipe, as a signal to the nations." Fred stood on the rock and we stood around him while he read the poem of "The Peace Pipe," which Longfellow has so beautifully written, and we appreciated it as we never did before. had we been here five or six years ago, we should in all probability have had our hair pulled. I could describe to you the quarry, and how the Indians work it, but will leave it for another letter. We went back to Flandrau Monday and came home Tuesday. Thus we intend to visit the "Palisades," which Frank says are more wonderful than anything we have yet seen.
Printed in the Evansville Review, Wednesday July 31, 1872, p. 1, col. 4 & 5, Evansville, Wisconsin
Moving a bit south and east, we find another several letters from the same general time period. We take a look now at Kansas Territory, using Ft. Scott as a starting point:
David Ransom Cobb was born at Saxton's River, Vt., January 2, 1824. Family records do not indicate when he started West. He stopped for a time in Wisconsin, where his brother, Judson M. Cobb, the recipient of the first of these letters, then lived. David R. Cobb, like many others, was interested in taking up a good farming claim in the new territory. Eventually, he located six miles west of Fort Scott and one-half mile north of the town of Marmiton, which had been incorporated early in 1858.
After a number of years, serving in public office, he died at his farm, October 19, 1891. In the first of these letters, Cobb tells of his arrival in Kansas territory. In it he also describes an unusual encounter between FreeStaters under James Montgomery and federal troops from Fort Scott. The other letters throw some light upon the social activities of the members of the 1864 legislature.
MAPLETON BOURBON Co. K. T. Apr 25th 1858
My Dear Brother Judd
You will doubtless be looking for something from me ere this. Well I should have written last week but the severe rains of Saturday and Sunday week swelled the streams so that it was impossible to get to the office or for the mails to [go] out. We arrived at Ft. Scott (see photo at left) and to Mapleton on friday found the people glad to see us.
We left Kansas City on Monday two week[s] tomorrow with a two horse team loaded with provision that Chap bought. So we put our valises aboard. The roads were very bad, and weather rainy. The team refused to work and we put up at Westport [Mo.] for the night-- found another team in the morning, and took up our line of march walking and riding alternately. As to the country along the State line- tis somewhat broken for some 12 or 15 miles from the river, with small prairies and some timber of an inferior character. Then we came to some Very good land and beautiful scenery, well located farms and good ranges- farther out the Prairies are larger with less timber but pretty well watered- couldn't say how it would be in dry time.
There is a large strip of country, say from 30 to 50 miles from the river, where the prairies are too large and a good deal less timber than I should wish to see and in all probability will not be settled up at present.
Passing along in the vicinity of the Marais des Cygnes or Osage river the country is more diversified, finer tillage lands, more timber, pleasanter country- and in fact a much better place to make a home. The timber in this country is only to be found on the streams, and is not generally in abundance though in some localities there is sufficient for all ordinary purposes.
Passing the Marais des Cygnes (pro Marie de Sene) (Swan river) the land is good, scenery pleasant, and will in all probability support a dense population, and that e'er long too- most all the land is claimed up now, good claims now selling from 2 to $500, for prairie; and from 300 to $1000 for timber claims. The timber is chiefly Hickory, Oak, Black walnut, Sycamore- a little bass wood, Maple & cotton wood- Some of the trees are Very large, say 5, 6, & 7 ft in diameter- but generally they are not overgrown- The Streams rise to a great hight during the Spring and fall rains, over flowing the banks and covering the bottoms- There could be found mill privileges in almost any of these rivers if it was possible to find a good site where a mill would be safe in flood time- I was at Stream: Mill yesterday when at a freshet this Spring the saw was covered with water, and now the water is some 25 to 30 ft lower.
The soil is what is called a limestone soil - water is found on low and high prairie at from 10 to 25 ft. Springs of water are more common than in Wis[consin].
The land on the Marmaton is pretty good - some pleasant locations, and good farms - we tramped three or four days without finding anything that suited us exactly - and then came up to this place some twelve miles on the little Osage, and 14 miles from the State line.
This place (that is if it should ever be one) is on the north side of the river, on a beautiful site-the prairie sloping in every direction, good timber in close proximity and surrounded by a very fertile country and is well located and will be a town of some importance if nothing should happen to prevent.
I should have first described [the] general appearance of the country and will do so now- The south side of the river is bluffy and broken, with here and there a bold mound raising its lofty head overlooking the prairie, and between these mounds are to be found the most fertile farms in the country- on the north side banks are lower and the prairie and bottoms (one should hardly know the difference) as they recede, rise gradually, till a mile or two back they reach the high prairie which resembles in appearance the table lands of Mexico giving a variety of scenery unsurpassed for beauty and grandeur in the Western country- In fact Judd this is the most beautiful country I ever saw-that is a wild country- If the Lord is willing and nothing prevents I shall set my stakes here. As to the troubles and mess at Ft. Scott and in this vicinity you will have doubtless have heard all the particulars before this will reach you-but will say that I was within a mile or two of the battle on the Yellow Paint last Wednesday- saw the troops just before the collission- I happened on this wise Capt M-[ontgomery] of the Jay Hawkers as they are called, who are a self constituted company of free state regulators-some 17 passed up the creek from Marmaton last Wednesday morning ordering all the proslaveryites to leave the country immediately on point of death-also taking from them their horses, [and] arms- the proslaveryites despatched a messenger to the Ft for a company of troops to take them-So the Marshall ordered out Capt Anderson with 20 regulars-they followed on their track passing by the Mill where the free state folks were holding a county convention, they soon surprised some of the Jay Hawkers graising their horses-the latter mounted and fled for the timber, but the troops pressed them so hard that they were obliged to turn upon them and defend themselves-the J. Hs had just time to get a good position, having passed a little creek skirted with timber-they called upon the troops to halt, which was disregarded and they (the J. Hs) fired upon them, or rather six of them did, making in all 14 shots-the troops also fired, but having nothing but sabers & revolvers did but little execution wounding only one man- While the troops lost one man and two or three wounded, and two or three horses killed. The troops displayed a white rag, and came down and asked the privilege of carrying off their wounded-which was granted- The troops sent for reinforcements and the Jay Hawkers left-Such are the facts of the Battle on the Yellow Paint-
TOPEKA KAN. Jan'y 16, 1864
Dear Madam; . . . I reached Leavenworth on the night of the second day, cold, and disgusted with staging in mid winter. But the city was gay and joyous. There was in full operation the Grand Fair for the benefit of the invalid Soldier. That night was the last.
Everybody with their wife and friend was out, to say nothing of the belles and sweethearts. Twas a brilliant success. Lotteries, mock auction and games lent their charms to drain to the dregs the pockets of the visitors. Leavenworth is the Gotham of Kansas. Tis commercial to all intents and purposes The amusements of a city like those of a family indicate their taste, their education. A Mrs. Walters is their beau ideal of an actress, a prima donna whose excellence consists in her half disguised (I was going to say) vulgarity, but modesty would be a prettier word. But she caters to her audience, and receives her reward. It has its thousand advantages, its virtues, and its faults. We leave it and pass on.
The appearance of the country between Leavenworth and this city is perhaps more picturesque than with us-more rugged and broken in places, and then again broader, smoother prairies, surrounded with high bluffs in the distance advancing into the prairies as promontories to the sea-all add beauty and grandeur to the scenery. We come to Kansas' noblest river, and cross the stream where a boat unites opposite shores.
While the crescent moon's charmed ray
Kisses the waters where it lay;
and soon the light from an hundred houses
tells us we are near the State Capital.
Topeka has grown some within the last year. The Capitol buildings add somewhat to the appearance of the principal street, Kansas Avenue, and is in fact an ornament to the place. There has been also several fine residences built, all worthy of the citizens.
The organization of the House, the caucusing for petty officers would be uninteresting I presume, so I omit. The Message of the Governor will appear in the Monitor probably, though I could hardly recomend its perusal.
The Sabbath here seems more like civilization-the good old Bell chimes forth its notes of peace, of rest, and love. The people are not a church going people if I was to judge from those I saw out last Sabbath and today (the last part of this letter is written on Sunday) The preaching in this city is of a rather higher order than what we usually get at Marmiton, singing passable perhaps- not so tonight.
The Ball has just been put in motion- I mean the soiries, sociables, etc. Yesterday the Ladies of the Presbyterian Church asked us for the Hall for the purpose of holding a festival next Tuesday evening a week.
The session is destined to drag itself out to its full length, fifty days. Well it will soon wear away, and as I am on two committees, one of which is quite an important one and the other a Very laborious one I shall be quite busy.
The weather is moderating-the snow almost all gone.
David R. Cobb
Typical “Little House on the Prairie” in Kansas, near Ft. Scott
The folks cited above either emigrated to, or settled in, the midwest. Others had explored further west. Here, for example, diary entries of John Bidwell, a pioneer of 1841, who describes California immigrant life, before the discovery of California’s gold:
The party whose fortunes I have followed across the plains was not only the first that went direct to California from the East; we were probably the first white people, except Bonneville’s party of 1833, that ever crossed the Sierra Nevada. Dr. Marsh’s ranch, the first settlement reached by us in California, was located in the eastern foothills of the Coast Range Mountains, near the northwestern extremity of the great San Joaquin Valley and about six miles east of Monte Diablo, which may be called the geographical center of Contra Costa County. There were no other settlements in the valley; it was, apparently, still just as new as when Columbus discovered America, and roaming over it were countless thousands of wild horses, of elk, and of antelope. It had been one of the driest years ever known in California, The country was brown and parched; throughout the State wheat, beans, everything had failed. Cattle were almost starving for grass, and the people, except perhaps a few of the best families, were without bread, and were eating chiefly meat, and that often of a very poor quality.
Dr. Marsh had come into California four or five years before by way of New Mexico. He was in some respects a remarkable man. In command of the English language I have scarcely ever seen his equal. He had never studied medicine, I believe, but was a great reader: sometimes he would lie in bed all day reading, and he had a memory that stereotyped all he read, and in those days in California such a man could easily assume the role of doctor and practise medicine. In fact, with the exception of Dr. Marsh there was then no physician of any kind anywhere in California. We were overjoyed to find an American, and yet when we became acquainted with him we found him one of the most selfish of mortals. The night of our arrival he killed two pigs for us. We felt very grateful; for we had by no means recovered from starving on poor mule meat, and when he set his Indian cook to making tortillas (little cakes) for us, giving one to each,— there were thirty-two in our party, — we felt even more grateful; and especially when we learned that he had had to use some of his seed wheat, for he had no other. Hearing that there was no such thing other as money in the country, and that butcher-knives, guns, ammunition, and everything of that kind were better than money, we expressed our gratitude the first night to the doctor by presents — one giving a can of powder, another a bar of lead or a butcher-knife, and another a cheap but serviceable set of surgical instruments. The next morning I rose early, among the first, in order to learn from our host something about California, — what we could do and where we could go, — and, strange as it may seem, he would scarcely answer a question. He seemed to be in an ill humor, and among other things he said, “The company has a ready been over a hundred dollars’ expense to me, and God knows whether I will ever get a real of it or not.” I was at a loss to account for this and went out and told some of the party , and found that others had been snubbed in a similar manner. We held a consultation and resolved to leave as soon as convenient. Half our party concluded to go back to the San Joaquin River, where there was much game, and spend the winter hunting, chiefly for otter, the skins being worth three dollars apiece. The rest — about fourteen — succeeded in gaining information from Dr. Marsh by which they started to find the town of San José, about forty miles to the south, then known by the name of Pueblo de San José, now the city of San José. More or less of our effects had to be left at Marsh’s, and I decided to remain and look out for them, and meantime to make short excursions about the country on my own account. After the others had left I started off traveling south, and came to what is now called Livermore Valley, then known as Livermore’s Ranch, belonging to Robert Livermore, a native of England. He had left a vessel when a mere boy, and had married and lived like the native Californians, and, like them, was very expert with the lasso. Livermore’s was the frontier ranch, and more exposed than any other to the ravages of the horse-thief Indians of the Sierra Nevada (before mentioned). That valley was full of wild cattle, — thousands of them, — and they were more dangerous to one on foot, as I was, than grizzly bears. By dodging into the gulches and behind trees I made my way to a Mexican ranch at the extreme west end of the valley, where I staid all night. This was one of the noted ranches, and belonged to a Californian called Don José Maria Amador — more recently, to a man named Dougherty. Next day, seeing nothing to encourage me, I started to return to Marsh’s ranch.
On the way, as I came to where two roads or rather paths, converged, I fell in with one of the fourteen men, M. C. Nye, who had started for San José. He seemed considerably agitated, and reported that at the Mission of San José, some fifteen miles this side of the town of San José, all the men had been arrested and put in prison by General Vallejo, Mexican commander-in-chief of the military under Governor Alvarado, he alone having been sent back to tell Marsh and to have him come forthwith to explain why this armed force had invaded the country. We reached Marsh’s after dark. The next day the doctor started down to the Mission of San José, nearly thirty miles distant, with a list of the company, which I gave him. He was gone about three days. Meanwhile we sent word to the men on the San Joaquin River to let them know what had taken place, and they at once returned to the ranch to await results. When Marsh came back he said ominously, “Now, men, I want you all to come into the house and I will tell you your fate.” We all went in, and he announced, “You men that have five dollars can have passports and remain in the country and go where you please.” The fact was he had simply obtained passports for the asking; they had cost him nothing. The men who had been arrested at the Mission had been liberated as soon as their passports were issued to them, and they had at once proceeded on their way to San José. But five dollars! I don’t suppose any one had five dollars; nine-tenths of them probably had not a cent of money. The names were called and each man settled, giving the amount in something, and if unable to make it up in money or effects he would give his note for the rest. All the names were called except my own. There was no passport for me. Marsh had certainly not forgotten me, for I had furnished him with the list of our names myself. Possibly his idea was — as others surmised and afterwards told me — that, lacking a passport, I would stay at his ranch and make a useful hand to work.
The next morning before day found me starting for the Mission of San José to get a passport for myself. Mike Nye, the man who had brought the news of the arrest, went with me. A friend had lent me a poor old horse, fit only to carry my blankets. I arrived in a heavy rain-storm, and was marched into the calaboose and kept there three days with nothing to eat, and the fleas were so numerous as to cover and darken anything of a light color. There were four or five Indians in the prison. They were ironed, and they kept tolling a bell, as a punishment, I suppose, for they were said to have stolen horses; possibly they belonged to the Horse-thief tribes east of the San Joaquin Valley. Sentries were stationed at the door. Through a grated window I made a motion to an Indian boy outside and he brought me a handful of beans and a handful of manteca, which is used by Mexicans instead of lard. It seemed as if they were going to starve me to death. After having been there three days I saw through the door a man whom, from his light hair, I took to be an American, although he was clad in the wild picturesque garb of a native Californian, including serape and the huge spurs used by the vaquero. I had the sentry at the door hail him. He proved to be an American, a resident of the Pueblo of San José, named Thomas Bowen, and he kindly went to Vallejo, who was right across the way in the big Mission building, and procured for me the passport. I think I have that passport now, signed by Vallejo and written in Spanish by Victor Prudon, secretary of Vallejo. Every one at the Mission pronounced Marsh’s action an outrage; such a thing was never known before. We had already heard that a man by the name of Sutter was starting a colony a hundred miles away to the north in the Sacramento Valley. No other civilized settlements had been attempted anywhere east of the Coast Range before Sutter came the Indians had reigned supreme. As the best thing to be done I now determined to go to Sutter’s, afterward called “Sutter’s Fort,” or New Helvetia. Dr. Marsh said we could make the journey in two days, but it took us eight. Winter had come in earnest, and winter in California then, as now, meant rain. I had three companions. It was wet when we started, and much of the time we traveled through a pouring rain. Streams were out of their banks; gulches were swimming; plains were inundated; indeed, most of the country was overflowed. There were no roads, merely paths, trodden only by Indians and wild game. We were compelled to follow the paths, even when they were under water, for the moment our animals stepped to one side down they went into the mire. Most of the way was through the region now lying between Lathrop and Sacramento. We got out of provisions and were about three days without food. Game was plentiful. but hard to shoot in the rain. Besides, it was impossible to keep our old flint-lock guns dry, and especially the powder dry in the pans.
On the eighth day we came to Sutter’s settlement; the fort had not then been begun. Sutter received us with open arms and in a princely fashion, for he was a man of the most polite address and the most courteous manners, a man who could shine in an society. Moreover, our coming was not unexpected to him. It will be remembered that in the Sierra Nevada one of our men named Jimmy John became separated from the main party. It seems that he came on into California, and, diverging into the north, found his way down to Sutter’s settlement perhaps a little before we reached Dr. Marsh’s. Through this man Sutter heard that our company of thirty men were already somewhere in California. He immediately loaded two mules with provisions taken out of his private stores, and sent two men with them in search of us. But they did not find us, and returned, with the provisions, to Sutter’s. Later, after a long search, the same two men, having been sent out again by Sutter, struck our trail and followed it to Marsh’s.
John Sutter, founder of Sutter’s Mill, where gold would be discovered
John A. Sutter(see photo at left) was born in Baden in 1803 of Swiss parents, and was proud of his connection with the only republic of consequence in Europe. He was a warm admirer of the United States, and some of his friends had persuaded him to come across the Atlantic. He first went to a friend in Indiana with whom he staid awhile, helping to clear land, but it was business that he was not accustomed to. So he made his way to St. Louis and invested what means he had in merchandise, and went out as a New Mexican trader to Santa Fe. Having been unsuccessful at Santa Fe, he returned to St. Louis, joined a party of trappers, went to the Rocky Mountains, and found his way down the Columbia River to Fort Vancouver. There he formed plans for trying to get down to the coast of California to establish a colony. He took a vessel that went to the Sandwich Islands, and there communicated his plans to people who assisted him. But as there was no vessel going direct from the Sandwich Islands to California, he had to take a Russian vessel by way of Sitka. He got such credit and help as he could in the Sandwich Islands and — induced five or six natives to accompany him to start the contemplated colony. He expected to send to Europe and the United States for his colonists. When he came to the coast of California, in 1840, he had an interview with the governor, Alvarado, and obtained permission to explore the country and find a place for his colony. He came to the bay of San Francisco, procured a small boat and explored the largest river he could find, and selected the site where the city of Sacramento now stands.
A short time before we arrived Sutter had bought out the Russian-American Fur Company at Fort Ross and Bodega on the Pacific. That company had a charter from Spain to take furs, but had no right to the land. The charter had about expired. Against the protest of the California authorities they had extended their settlement southward some twenty miles farther than they had any right to, and had occupied the country to, and even beyond, the bay of Bodega. The time came when the taking of furs was no longer profitable; the Russians were ordered to vacate and return to Sitka. They wished to sell out all their personal property and whatever remaining right they had to the land. So Sutter bought them out — cattle and horses; a little vessel of about twenty-five tons burden, called a launch; and other property, including forty odd pieces of old rusty cannon and one or two small brass pieces, with a quantity of old French flint-lock muskets pronounced by Sutter to be of those lost by Bonaparte in 18l2 in his disastrous retreat from Moscow. This ordnance Sutter conveyed up the Sacramento River on the launch to his colony. As soon as the native Californians heard that he had bought out the Russians and was beginning to fortify himself by taking up the cannon they began to fear him. They were doubtless jealous because Americans and other foreigners had already commenced to make the place their headquarters, and they foresaw that Sutter ’s fort would be for them, especially for Americans, what it naturally did become in fact, a place of protection and general rendezvous; and so they threatened to break it up. Sutter had not yet actually received his grant; he had simply taken preliminary steps and had obtained permission to settle and proceed to colonize. These threats were made before he had begun the fort, much less built it, and Sutter felt insecure. He had a good many Indians whom he had collected about him, and a few white men (perhaps fifteen or twenty) and some Sandwich Islanders. When he heard of the coming of our thirty men he inferred at once that we would soon reach him and be an additional protection. With this feeling of security, even before the arrival of our party Sutter was so indiscreet as to write a letter to the governor or to some one in authority, saying that he wanted to hear no more threats of dispossession, for he was now able not only to defend himself but to go and chastise them. That letter having been despatched to the city of Mexico, the authorities there sent a new governor in 1842 with about six hundred troops to subdue Sutter. But the new governor, Manuel Micheltorena, was an intelligent man. He knew the history of California and was aware that nearly all of his predecessors had been expelled by insurrections of the native Californians. Sutter sent a courier to meet the governor before his arrival at Los Angeles, with a letter in French, conveying his greetings to the governor, expressing a most cordial welcome, and submitting cheerfully and entirely to his authority. In this way the governor and Sutter became fast friends, and through Sutter the Americans had a friend in Governor Micheltorena.
The first employment I had in California was in Sutter’s service, about two months after our arrival at Marsh’s. He engaged me to go to Bodega and Fort Ross and to stay there until he could finish removing the property which he had bought from the Russians. I remained there fourteen months, until everything was removed; then I came up into the Sacramento Valley and took charge for Sutter of his Hock farm (so named from a large Indian village on the place), remaining there a little more than a year — in 1843 and part of 1844.
Editor’s Note: John Bidwell would go on to chronicle more events of California before gold was discovered. He notes:
There was not a hotel in San Francisco, or Monterey, or anywhere. in California, till 1846, when the Americans took the country. The priests at the Missions were glad to entertain strangers without charge. They would give you a room in which to sleep, and perhaps a bedstead with a hide stretched across it, and over that you would spread your blankets.
Bidwell would go on to a distinguished career in government, at one time having been elected to Congress, twice a nominee to become California’s Governor.
Having been a school teacher, an explorer, an immigrant, a rancher, a farmer, a governmental employee, elected official, and a candidate for both Governor of California and for President of the United States, in 1892, Bidwell had come a long way. At age 81, died in Chico, Butte County, Calif., April 4, 1900; he is buried in Chico Cemetery.