Murder at Sutter’s Fort

In the last post I published a letter from the Themis of December 21, 1889, in which John Bidwell writes “You ask if I can throw any light on the killing of “The White Horse?””

So, who or what was “The White Horse”? What happened to him? In the November 23, 1889 issue of Themis the incident is described. The letters “k” and “q” refer to the map of the fort. The room designated “k” was formerly a granary and is now, I think, where the Sutter’s Fort Trade Post (gift shop) is located. “q” is the open spot on the north side by the slough, where “White Horse” was killed.

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The White Horse Story

“k” Room on west side of fort, next north of blacksmith. 40 x 17, was from 1842 to the fall of 1848 used by Sutter as a storehouse for wheat in bulk.

In the fall of 1848 it was rented to James Cary, and he fitted it up as a boarding-house. In this house was held a celebrated trial, the circumstances of which are worthy to be recorded. We get them from an eyewitness.

Late in October or early in November, 1848, a resident of the fort, an immigrant from Oregon, known to our informant only by the name of “The White Horse,” undertook to fence in an open space in the fort shown in diagram, and marked q.  C. E. Picket, also a resident at the fort, and since a well-known character in the State, claimed the open space, and, taking the law into his own hands, knocked down the fence put up by the other. “White Horse” started to rebuild his fence and Picket interfered, an altercation occurred, and Picket shot and killed his antagonist. There were then some 200 white men at the fort. There was a man at the fort named Tanner who was there acting as sheriff by appointment of Captain Sutter. He took Picket in charge, detaining him as a prisoner. Picket refused to submit, but Tanner was a stalwart, courageous officer, fitted for his place, and he disarmed his prisoner and compelled him to submit.

The white people at the fort had some knowledge of common law proceedings and determined that Picket should be tried for murder. Accordingly, they assembled in room marked k on plat and proceeded to elect by ballot a judge to sit at the trial. Sutter had some votes for that responsible position, but a large majority voted for Sam Brannan and he took his seat on the bench. A jury of eight was empanelled to try the case. Our informant can only remember the names of three of them: Thomas Shaddon, Martin Murphy and John Ames.

Picket plead his own case, and Brannan acted as Judge Advocate.  The trial came off the afternoon of the day of the killing. Picket insisted that he was an American citizen and, as such, entitled to bear arms, and Brannan decided that his two revolvers should be returned to him, and they were placed on the table during the trial. Picket was very nervous during the trial, as the Court, including the jury, were mainly strangers, and he was not wholly without fault.  Brannan charged the jury that this was a country governed by law and that breaches of the law should be punished. But he said if the jury found the prisoner guilty and determined to punish by imprisonment, there was no prison in which he could be confined.  The case was submitted to the jury about 10 P. M., and they deliberated till near morning, when they returned a verdict of not guilty, and Picket was discharged.


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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