The Russians are leaving! the Russians are leaving! — that was the news going around Sutter’s Fort when John Bidwell arrived there in the fall of 1841.
The Russian-American Company had established itself in northern California first in 1811. They built a settlement on the coast at Fort Ross, and later expanded southward to Bodega Bay. They held a charter from Spain which allowed them to hunt for furs in California and also to grow crops. Fort Ross was not only a base for fur-trading, it was also a source of foodstuffs for the Russian settlements in Alaska.
But by the mid-1830’s the fur haul was dwindling and the charter had expired. The Russians decided to pull out of Fort Ross. They put everything they had in California up for sale and the only taker was John Sutter. In the summer of 1841 he bought Fort Ross from the Russians, lock, stock, and barrel, for $30,000. Sutter acquired a wooden stockade complete with cannons, muskets, carts, tools, plows and thousands of cattle and horses. The only thing he didn’t get was the land, because the Russians didn’t own the land.
Sutter bought the fort and all its contents for $30,000, but of course he didn’t have $30,000. He agreed to pay off the debt in wheat over the next several years. But he never harvested enough wheat to fully pay off that debt. Sutter definitely got the better part of the deal with the Russians.
Sutter’s next problem was how to transport the contents of Fort Ross from the coast to his land grant on the Sacramento River. What he needed was a capable and reliable agent to do the job. Enter John Bidwell. When Sutter met Bidwell, he know he had found the man who could take care of his Fort Ross project.