Runaway Horses in 1851

I’ve been going through letters in the John Bidwell Papers in the California State Library. Bidwell was the kind of man who held on to all his correspondence, and kept it well organized. Most of the letters deal with mundane matters, but as such they are a glimpse into everyday life in Northern California.

Here is a letter from a man seeking some runaway horses:

                                                Monroe’s Ranch Colusi Co. California  July 20th, 1851

Dear Sir,

Some days since I bought of Capt. Sutter twenty mares, and in crossing these on the Sacramento River, about one mile below this place, three of the mares escaped from us. These mares may fall in with your wild bands – if so please keep them until I see you which will be most probably, with the next four weeks.

The following is a description of the mares, as near as I can recollect.

One cream colored “Gil. flirt” mare, rather old.

One dun, or brown, mare, with a black list down the back.

One light bay mare, with a ball face. All of these mares are branded with Capt. Sutter’s iron, and vented, the vent being placed upside down.

Your attention to this Sir, will confer an especial favor for which I shall be pleased to make a remuneration.

Very truly yours etc.

John T. Hughes

Here are a few things to can learn about this letter:

Monroe’s Ranch belonged to Uriah P. Monroe, who helped to organize Colusi County and conveniently placed the county seat on his ranch, at a town he named Monroeville. When it was organized in 1850, the county had 115 non-native residents. It encompassed present-day Colusa and Glenn Counties, and part of Tehama County.

Monroeville was located where Stony Creek joins the Sacramento River, about five miles south of Hamilton City. The town has disappeared, but there is a Monroeville Cemetery, where William B. Ide is buried. You can learn more about Monroeville here.

The horses: Wild horses roamed all over California in those days. There were probably quite a few on Rancho Chico.

I don’t know what a “Gil Flirt” mare looks like, but there was a mare named Gil Flirt in 1816 who shows up on breeding charts. I don’t know what a “black list” is, or a “ball face” either, unless he meant to write “bald face.”

To “vent” a brand is to cancel it. According to an article by Delbert Trew (and “It’s All Trew”), “A brand may be canceled or abandoned by branding a bar across the original brand. This is called venting or barring out a brand.”

I like how politely Mr. Hughes asks Bidwell to “confer an especial favor.” Courtesy counts!

Who was the writer? John T. Hughes shows up as a miner, living in a cabin with three other men, in Mariposa County in the 1850 census. In 1851 he was living in Colusi County, where on May 3rd he was elected county judge to replace J. S. Holland (who had died). By September 1851 another election had to be held, because he had left the county. (This information from The History of Colusa and Glenn Counties.) Where he went from there, or what happened to the mares, I don’t know.

And yet the letter is still filed away in the library, and we can read it today.

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More about Sutter and the Mormons


Thomas O. Larkin

At the same time that Captain Sutter was bragging to General Vallejo (in Spanish), about his wheat fields and his new saw mill and flour mill, he was also writing to Thomas O. Larkin (in slightly awkward English) on the same subjects.

Larkin was an American merchant in Monterey who had lived in California since 1832, and served as the first (and only) American consul in Alta California. He was the man Sutter wrote when he needed supplies that could only be procured from ships calling at Monterey.

On October 29, 1847 Sutter wrote to Larkin, thanking him for sending a saw for his saw mill, and asking Larkin to send “bolting clothes.”


Sieve covered with bolting cloth, from Flour Bolting, by Theodore R. Hazen

Nothing is wanting now to this enterprise, as the bolting clothes, and for those I take the liberty to apply to you for them, as the protector of such undertakings, and beg you to do this great favor to procure them for me, and I would be forever under the greatest obligation to you, and pay you for them immediately in lumber, flour, or money.

This bolting cloth is for his new flour mill. It was used to sift larger particles out of wheat flour, and it wasn’t something Sutter could have made on site. Hence his obsequious request to Larkin.

In a letter to John Bidwell a week later, Larkin said: “Say to Captain Sutter I rejoice in his prospects and I do not know of a yard of bolting cloth for sale in California.”

Sutter continues:

My tanyard is now once carried on well. I have about 1500 hides to tan. I have two tannery and 3 shoemakers (Mormons) all the hands on my mills are Mormons, and the best people which ever I has had employed. If I would have had Mormons 4 or 5 years past I would have a fortune, but so long I am here I has had only a few good men, the balance was a bad kind of man.

There are those Mormons again. If only he had had workers this intelligent and diligent a few years ago. How prosperous he would be! But things are looking up. Success and riches are sure to come now that everything is going so well.

The only other thing he needs is a clerk.

I am in want of a good Clerk who have to be, a good correspondent and a good bookkeeper (brought up on the desk). I would be very much obliged to you if you could recommend me a good one.

John Bidwell had been his clerk, but now Bidwell has gone off to farm for himself at Butte Creek. Sutter needs a new clerk and bookkeeper. A good clerk was hard to find, and even harder to keep.

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The Best of Days for John A. Sutter


John A. Sutter in 1850, the earliest photograph.

1847 was a good year for Captain John Sutter. Things were going well and prosperity lay all around. Here is a letter written from John A. Sutter to Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo on October 31, 1847. (The original letter, in the Bancroft Library, is in Spanish.) He relates that the wheat crop is good, cattle trading is fine, the building of a saw mill and a flour mill are going well, he has hired skilled workmen, and by the end of the year he expects to have finished up the year’s work successfully.

Immigrants are coming into California from the United States, but not so many as to be a problem. (According to George R. Stewart in The California Trail, there were less than half as many immigrants in 1847 as there were in 1846. Maybe less than 100 arrived overland to Sutter’s Fort.) He writes:

                                                                                               New Helvetia, 1847 – October 31

Senor Don Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo at Sonoma

My dear Sir and Friend:

I regret very much that I cannot come to visit you in Sonoma – for I have had an inflammation in my eye for the last two weeks.

I have received 150 head of cattle, cows, bulls and calves. Do me the favor to tell me the price of this cattle. Mr. Reading, who has 60 or 68 head will come to see you in a short time. I will send you the bricks when I finish delivering the wheat that I have to deliver. I still have much wheat outside. The saw mill was made in a few weeks, and with the large flour mill we are getting ahead with the work, and by the end of the month of December we shall finish up everything.

The Mormons are the best workers I have, without them the mills could not be made. In a short time I will send you some ramrods to try, for I have workmen who know the trade well. If you need strong shoes for your vaqueros I can send them to you, for I have good shoemakers – all Mormons.

As a Mormon myself (though not of pioneer stock) I am glad to hear these fellow Saints commended for their talents and industry. The letter continues:

Have you jerked meat for sale? How many vine stocks can you sell me in the months of January and February?

The sick are recovering everywhere on the Sacramento. It seems that in many other parts of the country there was much sickness, in Monterey, San Francisco, Napa, etc.

I received a letter from a gentleman in Switzerland. He wishes to come with a company of colonists or emigrants, when I send him a reply favorable to the country. I am certainly going to write him to come, for all of those people are industrious.

Excuse my bad Spanish.

I am, with the highest consideration,

Your very attentive and obedient servant,


P.S. Do me the favor to give food to Olimpio and his brother, the messengers.

Olimpio was an Eastern Miwok Indian and the head of Sutter’s vaqueros. He often acted as a courier and in 1848 became keeper of the keys at Sutter’s Fort.

October 31, 1847 — everything is about to change for Sutter. In three months gold will be discovered at his new saw mill, his workers will leave for the goldfields, and he will soon be overrun with exhausted forty-niners and land-hungry squatters. Nothing would ever be this good again.

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Sutter’s Fort Restored


The central building in 1879, surrounded by an empty field

“In its broken, withered and dilapidated condition it offers sublime evidence of the devastation of time.”

So wrote the Sacramento Daily Union on September 2, 1891. But by 1890, nostalgia for “the days of old, the days of gold, the days of ’49” had roused the citizens of Sacramento to restore Sutter’s Fort to its former glory. The newspaper reported  that restoration work had begun and was being “carried on in good earnest.”

The foundation was strengthened with brick and cement, and new adobe bricks were made in the time-honored fashion.

A force of men are busily engaged in making adobe bricks on the ground. This work, to the uninitiated, is peculiarly interesting, for, in order to duplicate the original strength, it necessitates using the same kind of earth, and the same line of operation that was adopted by the original builders. The earth is mixed with water and tramped into proper consistency by the bare feet of the workmen. It is then molded into proper shape and placed on the ground to dry. After being turned several times it soon becomes hard enough for use.

The original fort must have been even larger than it appears today, because the newspaper reported that

Owing to the fact that the south corner of the outer walls extended to where the center of L street now is, the Restoration Trustees have decided to abandon the work of restoring that portion. It is, however, the intention to restore the two bastions, one at the west and the other at the east angles of the building, and show the profile of the outer trails jutting from the bastions, and gradually breaking down to the ground. Limited space in the two blocks will not permit the restoration of the entire outer walls, but by the foregoing plan the exact outline of same can be shown.

As it is, L Street has to curve slightly around the grounds of Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park.

at the old fort newsIn January 1892, the Trustees invited John Bidwell and another old-timer, Charles Stevens, to inspect the work.

The old-timers were delighted with the appearance of the structure, and both united in saying that it looked quite natural. General Bidwell, however, thought the walls used to be whiter than the new coating of adobe renders them. “They used to get a white potter’s clay somewhere up in what is now Amador County,” he said, ” and with that the Indians whitewashed the walls, bastions and the buildings, and I tell you it was quite a feature. As one approached the fort from a distance, the aspect of the old fort, with its snow-white walls, was inviting, I can assure you. The sight gladdened the heart of many a weary traveler.

It must have gleamed as white in the old days as it does today.


Sutter’s Fort in 1847. Library of Congress


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Sutter’s Fort As It Was

jan30-sac (118)

This painting hangs in the California History Room at the State Library in Sacramento. It shows Sutter’s Fort, what was left of it, as it looked before its restoration in the 1890s. The fort had deteriorated quickly after the gold rush, and well before 1890 all that was left was the dilapidated central two-story adobe building where John A. Sutter and John Bidwell had their offices.

jan30-sac (120)I am a bit confused by the date — 1895 — for the painting, since restoration of the fort by the Native Sons of the Golden West began in 1891. The painting must have actually been done some time before the restoration began.

I am tickled to know, however, that “Grandma Moore” (Sarah Moore) had the picture painted to memorialize the old fort, and to advertise her fruit booth at the State Fair. What a nice idea! And imagine having that as a view from the orchard on your ranch.

The artist, J.W. Huber, was Jennie Willis Huber, who taught art at an academy in Sacramento before her marriage to a man named Amos Brothers.

The painting was donated to the State Library by Grandma Moore’s great-granddaughter, Marilyn Moore Sommerdorf in 2009. You can read more about the painting in the California State Library Foundation Bulletin, no. 94. More images of Sutter’s Fort can be found at Calisphere, a wonderful source of California pictures.

sutters fort old Here’s one — another picture of Sutter’s Fort in decline. It’s a pencil drawing by W. Tyrrell done in 1855. Only a few years after the gold rush and the walls are crumbling and the floors are sagging. It wouldn’t be long before the adobe bricks melted back into the earth.

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Sarah Pellet’s Philanthropic Scheme

According to the Butte Record for December 23, 1854, Sarah Pellet had a brilliant plan for promoting temperance among the California miners.

Issue Date DECEMBER 23 1854 page 2 pellet

Five thousand young ladies! Miss Pellet certainly did not think small.

The same item was also reported in the Daily Alta California on December 19, 1854, under the headline A Desirable Enterprise. Both newspapers picked up the item from The Miner’s Advocate of Coloma. Was that editor joking, or was Sarah really offering to import young ladies as brides for Sons of Temperance?

The editor of the Daily Alta California commended the plan, but doubted the lady’s ability to carry it out:

If Miss Pellet can carry it out effectually, she will deserve the thanks of the whole bachelor community of the State. There are thousands upon thousands of girls, respectable, well-educated and honest, working from daylight till dark among the deafening machinery of cotton mills, and earning but small wages, who, we should suppose, would gladly come to California if safe conduct and reception, and particularly husbands, were guaranteed them on their arrival, and who are well calculated for helpmates for our farmers, our miners and mechanics, and citizens generally. This is really a very desirable operation of Miss Pellet’s, but, begging the lady’s pardon, we scarcely believe that she possesses the practical ability to carry it into effect.

She didn’t. But anyone out there is welcome to use this story as the basis for a novel about manly miners and New England’s fairest.

sons temperance n currier

A Sons of Temperance poster from 1851

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Sarah Pellet in the Mining Camps

Sarah Pellet came to Bidwell Bar to lecture in the Fall of 1855. The Butte Record of November 3rd noted her plans for a tour of mining camps:

SP Issue Date NOVEMBER 03 1855 page 2Miss Pellett delivered a lecture at the Court House in Bidwell, on Tuesday evening last. The attendance was unusually large, and all expressed themselves well pleased. This was her first visit in Butte County. She lectured in Thursday Evening, at Spanish Ranch, on Friday at Quincy, and this evening will lecture at Elizabethtown. From thence, on Sunday evening at Nelson Point, and the balance of the week at different places in Sierra County, arriving at Forbestown, on Sunday November 11. She will again lecture at Bidwell on Monday Evening, Nov. 12, and at Ophir on the evening of the 13th.

Elizabethtown has disappeared under the debris from hydraulic mining, and Bidwell Bar is drowned under Lake Oroville, but Quincy is still there where she would have found it, and Ophir has changed its name to Oroville.

This is an ambitious schedule. Most of her traveling would have been on muleback, and while the distances are not all that long, the terrain was rough and mountainous. It would have been slow-going. She would have spent her days riding a mule (maybe she wore her brown linen bloomers), her evenings lecturing, and her nights on a cot in a tent or a shack.

Dame Shirley described conditions at Bidwell Bar just three years earlier:

As there was nothing to sleep in but a tent, and nothing to sleep on but the ground, and the air was black with fleas hopping about in every direction, we concluded to ride forward to Berry Creek House, a ranch ten miles farther on our way, where we proposed to pass the night.

Bidwell Bar does not sound very inviting, and they got lost on their way to Berry Creek House, and spent the night on the trail.

But Miss Pellet braved the dangers of the trail and the discomforts of the mining camps. Men were glad to see her, no matter what she proposed as her topic. The sight of a woman, even one lecturing on temperance, abolition, and political reform, was a welcome one. I wish she had written an account of her experiences in California.


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