A couple of years ago I wrote about the French Army muskets that ended up at Sutter’s Fort, after Johann August Sutter bought Fort Ross from the Russian-American Fur Company. Dismantling Fort Ross and sending every bit of useful equipment to Sutter’s New Helvetia was John Bidwell’s first job after arriving in California.
But Napoleonic firearms weren’t the only weapons that Bidwell transported to Sutter, and the story of the cannon that became known as the Sutter Gun is a true tale of global arms trading and California adventure.
The bronze four-pounder was cast in St. Petersburg in 1804, just in time to be used against Napoleon’s army. But even though it could fire a cannonball up to a mile, it was considered too small to be useful against the larger French field artillery. So the Czar gave the cannon to the Russian-American Fur Company, which transported it across Siberia to Sitka, and eventually down to Fort Ross in California. When Sutter bought Fort Ross, Bidwell shipped the cannon down the coast, through the bay and delta, and up the Sacramento River to Sutter’s Fort.
Sutter acquired a few other ships’ cannon with which to arm the fort, but the Sutter Gun was the only piece of field artillery in all of California, according to Stephen Beck, author of A Brief History of John Sutter and his Bronze Field Cannon. It was mounted on a caisson with large iron-reinforced wheels, and was accompanied by a limber, a two-wheeled wagon to carry ammunition and firing equipment. It was a true piece of field artillery, not a make-do ship’s cannon on an ox cart, which was all anyone else had.
In 1845 Sutter, Bidwell, and a small militia organized by Sutter took part in the little known Micheltorena War. General Manuel Micheltorena had been sent to California by the Mexican government to replace Juan Alvarado as governor and collect taxes to support the war against Texas independence. He was as unpopular as a governor could possibly be.
Micheltorena came with an army of cholos recruited from the prisons of northern Mexico, who proceeded to pillage the ranchos and harass the residents. The residents of California, the Californios, turned against him, but Sutter, as a citizen of Mexico with the rank of captain in the Mexican army, sided with Micheltorena. His decision was undoubtedly aided by the new governor’s grant of thousands of additional acres of land to Sutter.
Stay tuned for part 2, for the further adventures of the Sutter Gun.