Bidwell and Sutter

“Sutter was a man who treated everybody well, especially strangers. He had unbounded confidence in other men–in fact, too much, at times. Everyone was welcome at his table, and at his fort. . . He treated me with great consideration, gave me employment by sending me to Bodega, the Russian settlement, to take charge of his business there. It was quite a charge, considering that I was a very young man and an entire stranger.” (Dictation, 1891, p. 11)

John Bidwell was 22 years of age when Sutter sent him off to the coast to take charge of Fort Ross. They had known each other for five weeks. Evidently Sutter sized up Bidwell quickly and saw in him the kind of man he needed to take care of his business. For his part, Bidwell admired, and later imitated, the hospitality and generosity of Sutter, but he could also be annoyed by what he saw as Sutter’s weakness and gullibility.

“I never left his employ but that he wanted me to return. He was peculiar man, however. He would seem to have more confidence in stranger than in those more intimate with him. For instance: a fellow named Kinney came across the plains–a ruffian always fully armed, and continually threatened to shoot people, so that no one dared cross him. Sutter employed him and put him in charge of his farm. The first thing the rascal did was take 75 mares belonging to Sutter and brand them with his own name. Sutter declared that he must give the mares up, but could not get anyone to go up and deal with the fellow. I told him I would, and I did.

“I had to go pretty well armed, but went quietly. I told him that he was to bring every one of those mares down and rebrand them. I stayed there until it was done. It was quite an undertaking, as I had no assistance.” Bidwell relished telling this story as a example of his “self-possession,” as he called it, his ability to confront an opponent and calmly face him down.

John Bidwell rarely lost his temper, and this self-possession served him well. But a subsequent incident involving Sutter and Kinney made him about as angry as he had ever been in his life.

Kinney decided to leave the country, but told Sutter that he must have provisions. He offered to pay with what he insisted was a “fine rifle.” Bidwell tried it out and had a blacksmith take it apart. It was cracked inside and “utterly worthless.” He told Sutter, and Sutter agreed not to take the gun. Yet the next morning he came to the office and told Bidwell, “Give Mr Kinney credit for $100.” “Captain Sutter, what is that for?” “Well, I have taken the rifle; he said it was a good gun.”

It was Bidwell’s word against Kinney’s, and Bidwell knew he was right. He couldn’t believe that Sutter could back down in this way, and he saw it as an insult to his own integrity. “I left his employ immediately. I did not know where to go to. Walked perhaps ten miles, revolving in my mind as to how I could get out of California. I had stood by Sutter many times when his life was in danger, and could not understand why he should believe a stranger’s word before mine. I returned that night and Sutter begged me to remain.”

It is easy to picture John Bidwell stomping out of Sutter’s office in a fury and tramping over the fields, angrily playing the incident over and over in his mind. The affable Sutter was adept at diplomacy, but disliked confrontation. In avoiding an argument with a well-armed ruffian, he instead managed to insult and alienate his best friend. Luckily for Sutter, John Bidwell couldn’t think of any other place to go, and came back to Sutter’s settlement. He never fully trusted him after that, though.

About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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