Sutter’s Fort as John Bidwell Saw It

The following letter appeared in the December 21, 1889 issue of Themis, a weekly compendium of political and cultural news published in Sacramento. The paper ran a series about early days at Sutter’s Fort, which drew this comment from General Bidwell about the ground plan and bird’s eye view they had published in the November 23, 1889 issue.

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Themis, Nov. 23, 1889, p. 2.

SUTTER’S FORT.  Letter from General John Bidwell — His Estimate of the Descriptions of the Old Fort published in “Themis.”

General John Bidwell, of Chico, was one of the first of the American companions of Captain Sutter after the establishment of the fort. The General occupied for some time a position of importance at the fort, and was, before 1848, and ever since has been prominently identified with the history of the State. We deem the following letter from him of great importance, for, as there seems now a disposition to restore the fort as it was originally, and in any event to effect a partial restoration, any data that can be obtained should be preserved. There are few men living who are better able than General Bidwell to recall the scenes of those early years :

Chico, Dec. 19, 1889.  It is nearly a month since the receipt of your letter, with a copy of Themis. You ask if I can throw any light on the killing of “The White Horse?” or “any other reminiscence mentioned therein?” Being in the mines on Feather river at the time, I can say nothing of my own knowledge. Of course, everybody heard of the fact that C. E. Picket killed the man, and that he was tried and acquitted. I had, I think, known the man — think his name was Coryell. Of this, however, I cannot be positive, for in trying to recall the events alone from memory, I may confound the killing of a man by Coryell — McDowell, the gunsmith.  The birdseye view and ground plan of Sutter’s fort are remarkably correct. The bastions, to my mind, should appear just a little higher — and they had not gable roofs, but hip roofs — that is, sloped equally from an apex. At least this was the shape of the roofs when first made.  Sutter’s business office, where his accounts were kept and all his business transacted, was in the northeast corner of the second story of the building, marked “A.” [Referring to the building now standing. — Eds.] His private office, however, is correctly marked “g.” Said building “A” was made in 1841, and, when I saw it last of November of that year, had simply walls and roof — no doors, stairs, floors or windows. In comparison with the thatched huts which surrounded it, this was an imposing edifice at that date.  In one of the small buildings, I never knew which — Sutter had managed to distil brandy from the wild grapes that same year — 1841 — for he offered us brandy to drink, and told us he had made it from wild grapes. I did not taste it, but those of our party who did, pronounced it excellent. But I cannot recall the fact that any distillery was ever used at Sutter’s fort from that date till the fall of 1845, when Sutter established one, and made whisky from barley, which was a great curse and caused more trouble than anything he ever did. Sutter may have had some of the brandy made in 1841, as he kept it mostly for his private use, and only offered it on rare occasions to visitors, when Fremont first arrived in 1844.

Yours, very truly,  John Bidwell

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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