John Sutter had his New Helvetia (New Switzerland), and another German-speaking immigrant founded New Mecklenburg, better known today as Marysville. Although not as well-known as Sutter, Theodore Cordua had much in common with his more famous compatriot.
Like Sutter, Cordua was an enterprising German-speaking immigrant to California who arrived before the Gold Rush. He had large land holdings in the Sacramento Valley, where he raised cattle and wheat, employing American immigrants and native Indians, and like Sutter, he lost it all after the Gold Rush and left California nearly as poor as when he came.
Cordua was born near Mecklenburg in northern Germany in 1796. As a youth he wasn’t interested in schoolroom learning. He wanted to see the world, and he thought that the life of a merchant might give him the chance to travel. After a few dreary years as a grocery clerk, he set out, first to the Dutch East Indies, and then to Central America, where he became wealthy in trade. In spite of this initial prosperity, by 1841 he had lost it all.
He traveled to the Hawaiian Islands, and there he heard of John Sutter’s good fortune in California. (Sutter had spent about half a year in Hawaii in 1839, cultivating friendly relations with the American and European community there). Cordua decided to follow Sutter’s example. He arrived in Monterey in May 1842 and after looking all around Alta California, was induced by another German, Carl Flugge, to visit Sutter at New Helvetia. Cordua had heard enough about Sutter’s business practices to be cautious (Sutter had a habit of not paying his debts) but finally arrived at a deal in which he sold Sutter $8000 worth of much-needed supplies from Hawaii in exchange for cattle, horses, and a lengthy lease on all of Sutter’s land grant north of the Yuba River.
Having acquired five leagues of land from Sutter, he requested a land grant from the Mexican government of another ten leagues on the northern border of Sutter’s grant. Although this ranch never seems to have been confirmed by the Mexican government, he considered himself the owner of Rancho Honcut. Cordua called his establishment New Mecklenburg.
It was tough going at first. The land was rich but had never been plowed and was as hard as adobe bricks. The Indians worked willingly — Cordua seems to have treated them better than Sutter did — but they were unskilled in European farming practices. It was a lonely life as well. Until 1844 Cordua was the only white settler in the Upper Sacramento Valley. In spite of these difficulties, Cordua gradually built up his ranch until by 1848 he had so much livestock, grain, and produce that he had to search for a new outlet for his products.
Next time: Cordua builds a ship