Arriving at Fort Ross in January 1842, John Bidwell undoubtedly found it cold, wet, and windy. But he went right to work, overseeing the job of packing and shipping every useful item at the Russian settlement to Sutter.
“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.” (Life in California Before the Gold Discovery, p. 168)
There’s no reason to believe Sutter wouldn’t have recognized Napoleonic-era muskets when he saw them. He was born in Switzerland in 1803, and grew up in a Europe convulsed by the Napoleonic wars. As a young man he served in the Swiss army, although he was only ten years old when Napoleon’s Grande Armee suffered its devastating retreat from Moscow in 1813.
It was one of the most lethal military campaigns in world history. An army of 449,000 men invaded Russia; only 22,000 returned to France. Even before any major battle, Napoleon’s army was diminished by disease, desertions and casualties sustained in minor encounters. Extensive losses occurred in battle. As the army retreated, men died of starvation and disease, or they were captured and executed. The final deadly blow was dealt by “General Winter” as the remnants of Napoleon’s army struggled through the hostile and frozen landscape that was Russia in the grip of winter.
Thousands and thousands of muskets must have been left behind, fallen from the hands of Napoleon’s defeated troops. Some of them ended up in the hands of the Russian-American Fur Company. They crossed Siberian Russia and the Bering Strait, and traveled southward with the trappers until they reached California. There at Fort Ross, sold to John Sutter, they made their way by boat down the coast and up the San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento River until John Sutter put them into the hands of his Native American soldiers and Spanish American vaqueros. A long and curious journey for the weapons of Napoleon’s Grande Armee.