When news of the gold discovery on the American River reached Sutter’s Fort, John Sutter did his best to keep it quiet. He knew if word got out his sawmill would never be finished and his crops would never be harvested. He sent John Bidwell to San Francisco to have the sample assayed, but he asked him to keep the news to himself.
Undoubtedly John Bidwell did his best.
But the news leaked out. On March 15, 1848 the Californian newspaper published the news, although many were skeptical that there was anything much in the report. It would be another two months before the rush to the hills began.
Meanwhile, Sam Brannan was buying up all the picks, shovels, crowbars and pans he could find. Flour, salt, knives, gunpowder, blankets, and foodstuffs of all kinds — anything that a man heading to the mines might want, Brannan stocked at his store at Sutter’s Fort.
Then he went to San Francisco and famously rode around Portsmouth Square with a flask of gold in his hand, shouting, “Gold, gold from the American River!” The rush was on, and Sam Brannan was ready for it.
So when John Bidwell and George McKinstry wanted to buy goods to sell at their own trading post on the Feather River, they first went to Brannan’s store at Sutter’s Fort. A receipt records that on June 23rd and July 6th, 1848, goods such as 200 pounds of flour, 6 pounds of lead, bags of salt, a bottle of pepper, knives, forks, buckets and fish line were “Bot of S. Brannan & Co.” by George McKinstry. John Bidwell was up on the Feather River, looking for gold.
(Brannan’s name is on the third line. Kemble and Rolfe were his agents. The word “bought” was typically abbreviated as “Bot.”)
Powder (gunpowder) sold for $3.00 a pound at Brannan’s store in the summer of 1848. In 1849 Bidwell sold it for $12.00 a pound at his store on the Feather River. The Emigrant’s Guide to California (1849) lists the price of gunpowder in the States at $.22 a pound ($5.50 for 25 pounds — the recommended amount.).
Flour, which sold for $.02 a pound in the States, cost $.14 a pound at Brannan’s store in Sacramento, and $.50 a pound at Bidwell’s Bar.
The list goes on and on, and we will see more examples of inflation as we continue. It’s no wonder that immigrants to California marveled at the prices and wondered how they could possibly get by.
A great many people have crowded upon this stream since you left. About 300 people have arrived from Oregon inpressly [sic] for Gold digging. I have heard of the arrival of several companies from the States – and have seen some of the people among whom was Mr. Farwell, formerly in this country.
In case nothing has transpired since you left to prevent starting a trading post at some point on your return, and you have not made other engagements, I think Mr. Farwell would answer the purpose.
John Bidwell to George McKinstry, 30 September 1848
John Bidwell had discovered gold on the Feather River in June 1848 and by September “a great many people” had crowded on the stream, even before most Americans could get there in 1849. He was doing well at mining, using a crew of local Indians, but he could see that he could do even better with a trading post to sell goods to the miners.
Luckily for the historian, John Bidwell saved a ledger from his store, and he saved a folder full of receipts from his buying trips to Sacramento. These sources give us a good idea of what the miners were eating, what tools and clothing and medicines they could purchase, and what the prices were like.
Bidwell started by bringing beef cattle and flour up to Bidwell’s Bar to sell.
I have been up to my Ranch, moved camp down to the bend of Feather river with a quantity of meat and coarse flour, and have come down to take up the things that were sent up in the canoe. Tomorrow I shall land in the “diggings”.
John Bidwell to George McKinstry, 19 June 1848
I don’t know exactly what was “sent up by canoe,” but this was the beginning of his trading post at Bidwell’s Bar. It would make him a rich man.
“Diggings” or “diggins” was such a novel word he put it in quotation marks. His Ranch was not Rancho Chico, but a farm he had started in 1845 on Little Butte Creek. He bought cattle from Theodore Cordua at New Mecklenburg (Marysville) for $25 a head. That’s probably where he bought the flour as well. Cordua had a large ranch, which produced so much more food than he could use, that in 1847 he built a schooner to ship his produce to Mexico or Hawaii. The Gold Rush would solve that problem, but bring a new crop of troubles to Mr. Cordua.
In the next few posts I will explore Bidwell’s shopping trips to Sutter’s Fort and beyond, look at what the miners were buying from Bidwell’s store, and compare some prices. We will never know just how much money Bidwell made as a storekeeper, but we will get an idea of what it cost to be a gold miner.
I do not think there was ever a more wicked war than that waged by the United States on Mexico. I thought so at the time, when I was a youngster, only I had not moral courage enough to resign. –Ulysses S. Grant, 1879
Grant was a young officer in his twenties when he fought in the U.S.-Mexican War. John Bidwell, who served in the California Battalion, agreed with him, calling the war “an unjustifiable war.”
In A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln, and the 1846 Invasion of Mexico, author Amy S. Greenberg uses extensive research and good storytelling to bring to life the people, the conflict, and especially the political pressures that involved the United States in a war of aggression against a neighboring republic.
James K. Polk was a dark horse candidate for president in 1844, but he had tapped into the Zeitgeist of Manifest Destiny. Americans wanted expansion — they wanted more land, land for farmers, land for slaveholders, the resources those lands held and the ports on the Pacific. Polk believed in Manifest Destiny. For Polk, the issue was “a perfect marriage of politics and conviction.” It would win him the presidency.
Texas, which had declared itself an independent republic, was asking for annexation to the United States. But the previous administration had waffled on the issue, not wanting to aggravate Mexico, which still claimed Texas, and reluctant to open more territory to slavery. Polk had no such qualms. He was willing to claim the lie that Mexico had insulted and robbed the United States in order to further a war. For the first time, the United States began a war for empire.
Greenberg follows the army into Texas and Mexico, but her focus is on the political, rather than the military, battle. She has almost nothing to say about the war in California. She draws deft portraits of the major players: Polk, his intelligent and devoted wife Sarah, Henry Clay, Nicholas Trist, who negotiated the treaty with Mexico, Abraham Lincoln, and his rival for office, John J. Hardin. If Hardin had survived as a war hero, Lincoln might never have won his own dark horse candidacy.
A Wicked War is exciting, well-written history, and for me it illuminated the political background of the conquest of California. I heard about the book by listening to the History of California podcast, and was happy to find that my public library has the book.
Today in History — Courtesy of the Sacramento History Museum:
December 28, 1848
On this day in 1848, John Sutter Jr., in an effort to raise capital to pay off his father’s looming debts, started to sell portions of Sutter’s Fort. Priest, Lee, and Company purchased the rooms along the north wall east of the Central Building for $3,500 for their mining equipment store. Dr. Victor Fourgeaud bought the northeast corner rooms for $1,700.
The rooms along the south wall east of the main gate were sold to Hensley, Reading, and Company for $6,500. Pierson B. Reading and Samuel Hensley rented the properties to David Dring who operated a dry goods store, Peter Slater who had a saloon and bowling alley, and the southeast bastion (tower) became a hospital (which was later one of the main cholera hospitals in the city during the October-November 1850 cholera epidemic).
The Central Building was purchased for $7,000 by Alden Bayley and Michael McClellan, who converted the former administrative hub for New Helvetia into a hotel on the main floor and a saloon, gambling parlor, and bowling alley in the basement. The rest of Sutter’s Fort was sold by April 1849.
Most of these men were already renting the rooms that they bought at this time. Sam Brannan had a store at Sutter’s Fort too.
On one of my forays into the archives at the California State Library, I came across a trove of receipts saved by John Bidwell from his trips to buy supplies for his trading post at Bidwell’s Bar on the Feather River. Picture in your mind Sutter’s Fort, and then imagine John Bidwell and his partner George McKinstry going round the various businesses that had set up shop there, buying all kinds of necessary items to stock their own store. Here are a few of the receipts, with transcriptions (not all from the same trip):
Bought of McKee & Dring
10 pairs of shoes @ $7 $70.
¼ oz. Quinine @ $60 15.
1 piece Mantua 12. (probably “manta,” a type of cloth)
1 roll of Copper 6.
1 lb. of Salts 2.
1 Rope 3.00
9 pieces of Prints @ $14 126. (more cloth)
3 “ “ “ @ $11 33.
12 pairs Pantaloons @ $4 48.
3 “ “ 12.
20 pairs of Blankets @ $20 400.
5 Scotch Caps @ $1 5.
Wm. H. Smith
for McKee and Dring [on reverse] Oct. 14th 1848
Messrs McKinstry, Bidwell
Bot of Hensley Reading & co.
155 lbs Coffee 30¢ $46.50
100 “ Sugar 4 sacks 30¢ 32.40
2 pc. blue drill $16 32.00 (fabric similar to denim)
2 sack salt 1.00
Chag’d to acct. Hensley Reading & co.
I Paid on the above $25.00 J. Bidwell
Sacramento City July 6, 1849 [Priest & Lee had moved out of the Fort by this time]
Bought of Priest, Lee & Co.
7 8/12 Doz. Fancy Shirts @$12 $92.00
4 pr. Blankets $20. 80.00
2 doz. Pants $16 32.00
1 sack nuts 50 # $30 15.00
4 cases Brandy $20. 80.00
1 Canister Powder $4 4.00
Received Payment Priest, Lee & Co.
Mr. Bidwell Bot of P. Slater
½ doz. Hatchets 12.00
9 Col’d Shirts (colored) 13.00
Sacramento City August 29 / 49
Rec’d Paymt. P. Slater [other name unreadable]
Unfortunately, these receipts do not answer the question: Did John Bidwell go bowling at Sutter’s Fort?
On April 14, 1846, the Donner and Reed families set out from Springfield, Illinois, for Independence, Missouri, to commence their journey to a place that had been advertised to them as “the best land under heaven.” Around this core would gather eighty-seven men, women, and children, from a 70-year-old matriarch to several babes in arms. Their journey has become the most well known of all the emigrant wagon trains that set out for California.
Because the Donner Party is so famous, it is a story I have never felt called upon to deal with. Everyone knows about the Donner Party disaster. It has not only been the subject of numerous books, but has been the basis of a graphic novel, a poetry sequence, and an opera. No one needs my two cents’ worth.
If you want to read about the Donner-Reed Party, I can recommend this book as one of the best in that crowded field. Michael Wallis gives a gripping account of the journey, with all its mistakes and setbacks, and of the tragedy in the mountains and the rescue of the survivors.
The subtitle of the book: “The Donner Party in the Age of Manifest Destiny,” is a bit misleading. There is little analysis of the larger context of the USA under the spell of Manifest Destiny. But as a straightforward and thorough account of the Donner experience, this book fills the bill. Wallis has done his research and every detail from every journal or archeological dig is here.
Reading this account is an exercise in “if only.” Even though they were an early wagon train on the California Trail, setting out before the great rush for gold, there had already been successful treks by emigrant parties. As I read, I couldn’t help thinking, “If only they had set out even a week earlier, if only they hadn’t taken such large and over-loaded wagons, if only the had not taken the Hastings Cut-off (a terrible mistake, but not an irretrievable one), if only they had abandoned their slow-moving wagons sooner, if only the storms had not come so early that year to the Sierras.”
The fate of the Donner Party was a terrible lesson for subsequent emigrants of the pitfalls and perils of the journey they were undertaking. This book will keep you reading until the last snowflake melts from the mountains.
Lincoln Steffens, notable muck-raking journalist of the late 19th and early 20th century, was born in San Francisco in 1866 and grew up in Sacramento, where his father owned a prosperous store. There in Sacramento he watched as the city “grew and changed with the State from a gambling, mining, and ranching community to one of farming, fruit-raising, and building.”
One chapter of his autobiography tells the story of his ‘miserable merry Christmas” when he was ten and the family had just moved to a new house. Here’s the condensed version; perhaps it will remind you of the unbearable excitement your own childhood Christmases.
What interested me in our new neighborhood was not the school, nor the room I was to have in the house all to myself, but the stable which was built back of the house. My father let me direct the making of a stall, a little smaller than the other stalls, for my pony, and I prayed and hoped and my sister Lou believed that that meant that I would get the pony, perhaps for Christmas. . . My father, sounded, said that some day we might have horses and a cow meanwhile a stable added to the value of a house. “Some day” is a pain to a boy who lives in and knows only “now.”
My good little sisters, to comfort me, remarked that Christmas was coming, but Christmas was always coming and grown-ups were always talking about it, asking you what you wanted and then giving you what they wanted you to have. Though everybody knew what I wanted, I told them all again. My mother knew that I told God, too, every night. I wanted a pony, and to make sure that they understood, I declared that I wanted nothing else.
“Nothing but a pony?” my father asked.
“Nothing,” I said.
“All I want is a pony,” I said. “If I can’t have a pony, give me nothing, nothing.”
Now I had been looking myself for the pony I wanted, going to sales stables, inquiring of horsemen, and I had seen several that would do. My father let me “try” them. I tried so many ponies that I was learning fast to sit a horse. I chose several, but my father always found some fault with them. I was in despair. When Christmas was at hand I had given up all hope of a pony, and on Christmas Eve I hung up my stocking along with my sisters’, of whom, by the way, I now had three.
Christmas morning came, and the children rushed to look at their stockings and gifts. Lincoln’s stocking hung loose and empty, with no pile of presents, like his sisters, sitting on the floor. He went out to the stable — no pony. In despair he sat in the stall, weeping. Nothing could comfort him, not his sisters’ sympathy or his mother’s attempts to soothe him. Then—
After — I don’t know how long — surely an hour or two — I was brought to the climax of my agony by the sight of a man riding a pony down the street, a pony and a brand-new saddle, the most beautiful saddle I ever saw, and it was a boy’s saddle; the man’s feet were not in the stirrups; his legs were too long. The outfit was perfect; it was the realization of all my dreams, the answer to all my prayers. A fine new bridle, with a light curb bit. And the pony! As he drew near, I saw that the pony was really a small horse, what we called an Indian pony, a bay, with black mane and tail, and one white foot and a white star on his forehead. For such a horse as that I would have given, I could have forgiven, anything.
But the man, a disheveled fellow with a blackened eye and a fresh-cut face, came along, reading the numbers on the houses, and, as my hopes — my impossible hopes — rose, he looked at our door and passed by, he and the pony, and the saddle and the bridle. Too much. I fell upon the steps, and having wept before, I broke now into such a flood of tears that I was a floating wreck when I heard a voice.
“Say, kid,” it said, “do you know a boy named Lennie Steffens?”
I looked up. It was the man on the pony, back again, at our horse block.
“Yes,” I spluttered through my tears. “That’s me.”
“Well,” he said, “then this is your horse. I’ve been looking all over for you and your house. Why don’t you put your number where it can be seen?”
“Get down,” I said, running out to him.
He went on saying something about “ought to have got here at seven o’clock; told me to bring the nag here and tie him to your post and leave him for you. But, hell, I got into a drunk and a fight — and a hospital, and — ”
“Get down,” I said.
He got down, and he boosted me up to the saddle. He offered to fit the stirrups to me, but I didn’t want him to. I wanted to ride.
“What’s the matter with you?” he said, angrily. “What you crying for? Don’t you like the horse? He’s a dandy, this horse. I know him of old. He’s fine at cattle, he’ll drive ’em alone.”
Lennie Steffens rode his pony up and down the street, then brought him back to the stable, where he fed him and watered him, and with his sisters’ help, “curried and brushed him, curried and brushed him” over and over.
Happy and now hungry for dinner, he went in to eat.
I could laugh. My mother said I still choked and sobbed now and then, but I laughed, too. I saw and enjoyed my sisters’ presents till — I had to go out and attend to my pony, who was there, really and truly there, the promise, the beginning, of a happy double life. And — I went and looked to make sure — there was the saddle, too, and the bridle.
But that Christmas, which my father had planned so carefully, was it the best or the worst I ever knew? He often asked me that I never could answer as a boy. I think now that it was both. It covered the whole distance from broken-hearted misery to bursting happiness — too fast. A grown-up could hardly have stood it.
Best holiday wishes from me to you, for a Christmas bursting with happiness!
When Pablo Gutierrez died in 1845, John Sutter put his land grant up for sale. The ranch was bought by William Johnson. What do we know about Johnson?
Not a lot — we don’t even have a picture of him. He came to California as the mate of the shop Alciope in 1840. He was either a native of Boston or possibly an immigrant from Ireland. From 1842 on he owned a lighter (a flat-bottomed barge) in partnership with Jacob Leese. It would have been used to transfer cargo from ships in San Francisco Bay to shore.
Together with Sebastian Keyser, he bought the ranch on the Bear River in 1845 and lived there until 1852 when “he either died or went to the Sandwich Islands,” according to Bancroft’s Pioneer Register. Mountain man James Clyman recorded in his diary his stay at Johnson’s Ranch in April 1846..
Mr. Jonson who owns the Ranche is like all of his california neighbours 15 miles from the nighest inhabitant and not even a track leading to or from his place at this season of the year although in a dry time the emigration from the states pass.
Johnson’s Ranch was the first sign of “civilization” that emigrants from the States came to in California. It was a welcome resting place. From here they could proceed to Sutter’s Fort, or to Nevada City, or to Marysville, all of which were between 15 to 40 miles away. Most famously it was the site where the survivors of the Donner Party convalesced.
One of those survivors was Meriam “Mary” Murphy. She wrote:
My older sister had gone to San Francisco and I was without a home, an orphan and not quite eighteen, when Mr. Johnson asked me to go riding with him one afternoon while he rounded up some horses.
Knowing I was uncertain of my future, and having fallen in love with me, Mr. Johnson proposed marriage. In June 1847, at the age of eighteen, I became Mrs. Johnson. For several months I was busy serving to all of Mr. Johnson’s wishes, doing his cooking and washing and trying to make a home out of a cattle ranch. I knew he was a crude man and I sometimes overlooked many of his faults; but I could not love a man who abused me with the rest of the ranch hands. He proved to be a drunken sot. Because of that I got in touch with the rest of my family and secured an annulment of my marriage from the church.
Mary was actually younger than eighteen, maybe as young as fourteen when she married Johnson. Her birth date (as per findagrave.com) was 15 November 1831.) An orphan, and only a teenager, treated as roughly as any ranch hand, and enduring drunkenness and domestic violence — Mary had good cause to leave the marriage. By November of the same year she had left Johnson.
Mary went to Cordua’s Ranch, located at the junction of the Feather and Yuba Rivers, and there she met and married a Frenchman, Charles Covillaud, in December 1848. He took over the ranch from Cordua and founded the town of Marysville, which he named in honor of his wife.
Mary and Charles had five children. She died in 1867 at the age of 35 and is buried in the Catholic cemetery in Marysville.
According to her obituary in the Marysville Daily Appeal (28 Sept. 1867), “She was a woman of more than ordinary intellect, and possessed a kind, generous and noble disposition. All who knew her, loved her.”
This lovely little daguerreotype of Charles and Mary and two of their children belongs to the Couillaud family descendants in France and can be viewed on rootsweb.com.
Every December the Bidwell Mansion Association hosts a holiday event at Bidwell Mansion for members and guests. Although conditions are different this year, we couldn’t let 2020 go by without “Christmas with the Bidwells” so we put together a virtual holiday party.
In this YouTube video you will tour General Bidwell’s office, find out what’s cooking in the kitchen with Florence the cook, hear stories from Peter the coachman, and listen to Annie tell you about her plans for Christmas shopping. You’ll also enjoy piano and fiddle music in the parlor, just like John and Annie might have listened to.
Adrienne Glatz plays Annie, Nick Anderson is John Bidwell, Mike Swann is Peter, and that’s me as Florence the cook. Video recording by Elizabeth Quivey, editing by Adrienne Glatz, and music by Alicia Glatz (piano) and Joel Quivey (violin).
Enjoy! And have a merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
On December 22, 1844, Pablo Gutierrez, one of John Sutter’s employees, was granted five square Mexican leagues (22,197 acres) along the Bear River by the governor of Alta California. He built an adobe house, acquired some cattle, and made plans to become an independent rancher. Unfortunately, fate would soon cut short his dreams.
But before his untimely end, Pablo Gutierrez and John Bidwell went looking for gold. Both the men had been working at Sutter’s Hock Farm, in what is today Sutter County. When Pablo went exploring his rancho along the Bear River, he realized that the land bore signs of gold, just as he had seen down in Mexico. He came back to the Hock Farm and told Bidwell about it.
Bidwell tells this story in his memoir Life in California Before the Gold Discovery. And I have recounted it in an earlier post. Pablo told Bidwell, in Spanish, that what they needed to recover the gold was a batea. Bidwell had become fairly fluent in Spanish over the previous two years, but he didn’t know what a batea was.
Pablo offered to go down to Mexico to get one. But before he could do so, an insurrection broke out against the Mexican governor of Alta California, Manual Micheltorena. The governor was disliked by native Californios, including the former governor, Juan Bautista Alvarado and military leader Jose Castro. They complained that he was too friendly with Americans and was giving them too much land.
John Sutter, the recipient of a vast Mexican land grant, sided with Governor Micheltorena and used Pablo Gutierrez as a courier. As John Bidwell relates:
Sutter sent him with despatches to the governor, stating that we were organizing and preparing to join him. Pablo returned and was sent again to tell the governor that we were on the march to join him at Monterey. This time he was taken prisoner with our despatches and was hanged to a tree, somewhere near the present town of Gilroy. That of course put an end to our gold discovery; otherwise Pablo Gutierrez might have been the discoverer instead of Marshall.
So who was Johnson?
Sutter, as the executor of Pablo Gutierrez’s estate, put the ranch up for auction in April 1845. The successful bidder was William Johnson, a sailor who had come to California on a Boston ship around 1840. He became partner with Jacob Leese (who married General Vallejo’s sister) and they operated a boat on the Sacramento River.
Johnson, and another partner of his, Sebastian Keyser, paid $150 for the ranch. Quite a bargain!
More about Johnson next time. And someday, more about Keyser, who also held the Llano Seco Ranch in Butte County.
We made a tortuous journey through the snow before we came to the headwaters of the Yuba river, where there were mules to carry us down to Johnson’s Ranch. . . . I stayed several days at the ranch, enjoying the comforts of civilization again, but I never could erase from my mind the sight of the dying people left behind at the lake. Mr. Johnson, a former merchant seaman, had built a substantial adobe building and was engaged in cattle raising on the Bear river.
Mary Murphy, survivor of the Donner Party disaster
Johnson’s Ranch figures large in California history. John C. Fremont and Kit Carson camped there. The Stevens-Townsend Party, the first to bring wagons over the Sierra Nevada, traversed the ranch. The U.S. Army had an outpost there at Camp Far West. It was a resting place and river crossing for many a pioneer and forty-niner.
And most importantly, it was the gathering place for the rescue parties that set out to retrieve the remnants of the Donner Party, and the first civilized dwelling-place that received the survivors.
And yet . . . how many Californians know where Johnson’s Ranch is? Who has visited it and seen the remains of Johnson’s adobe and the ford where countless wagons crossed the Bear River? Is there a monument there? Is it a state park? Or has it faded from memory?
There is a marker along Highway 65 in Wheatland, about 20 miles north of Roseville.
The ranch itself is still in private hands. Some archeological work was done back in the 1980s by Jack and Richard Steed (see their book The Donner Party Rescue Site). They located the site of Johnson’s adobe house, the Burtis Hotel, and the river crossing. But these historic sites on the ranch are still inaccessible to the general public.
That is about to change. Writing in Trail Talk, the newsletter of the California-Nevada chapter of the Oregon-California Trails Association, Bill Holmes reports that he has made contact with the ranch owner and ranch manager, and they are eager to have Johnson’s Ranch recognized as the important historic site that it is. Bill Holmes was primarily interested in locating the site of Camp Far West. Although known to be located near the still extant cemetery, the actual placement of the camp was in doubt. He believes he has pinpointed the location of the camp.
Will we be able to have a look ourselves? According to Mr. Holmes, “The next step in our written plan is to create, build and install interpretive panels for each historic site plus the trail itself. ” The property owner is interested in preserving the historic points of interest and making them available to the public, with parking and maybe even a museum. It’s an exciting time for Johnson’s Ranch and I hope someday soon to be able to visit it.