The Man Who Founded New Mecklenburg, part 3

You can get an idea of how productive an operation Theodore Cordua was running in 1848 from this letter excerpt, written by John Bidwell to his partner George McKinstry that April:

Cordua at the head of his fleet has set out with the following articles only intended for the San Francisco market: viz; Candles, Hides, Flour, Manteca, Butter, Cheese, Hams, Pork, Beef, Smoked Beef, Corn, Bearskins, Bear oil, Indian Baskets, Bows & Arrows, Dressed Deerskins, Buckskin Pants, Moccasins, Eggs, Beaver, Otter, Panther, Raccoon, & Coyote skins, Castor etc. etc. etc. Isn’t he an old Coon?

By calling him an “old Coon” Bidwell meant he was a crafty operator. His fleet at that time consisted of sailboats and canoes; his schooner hadn’t been completed.


A view of the Plaza at Marysville, in 1850

Theodore Cordua had his fingers in any number of pies, and he didn’t limit his business activities to his ranch at New Mecklenburg (Marysville). He owned lots in Napa, Sonoma, Benicia, San Francisco, and Suttersville. He took a ten-year lease on a ten-thousand acre ranch at Corte Madera on the bay. He stocked it with chickens and milk cows, sheep and hogs, and planted vegetables, all with an eye to selling fresh provisions to the whaling ships that entered San Francisco Bay.

In February 1848 he entered into a contract with the U.S. Army to supply hay for horses. Another good business deal, he thought, which would give him the cash he needed to complete his sea-going schooner. His plan was to send men to the Napa Valley to cut wild oats, press them, bale them, and ship them to Sacramento for the cavalry.

By this time he had heard about the gold discovery at Coloma, but it didn’t worry him — not at first. For years there had been an operating gold mine in the San Fernando hills, and everyone knew how little it produced. How could a small amount of gold in the river affect his agricultural empire?

But when he went to cut the hay at Napa, he couldn’t get enough workers to do the job. The men he had hired to do the job were heading for the goldfields instead. His Indian workers were loyal, but there just weren’t enough of them to completely fulfill the contract. Cordua delivered 140 of the 190 tons he had contracted for. Most of that shipment ended up rotting in the winter rains when Lieutenant Folsom could not find ships to freight it. Everyone had gone gold-seeking.

On his return to New Mecklenburg he found that his majordomo was drunk, his white employees had deserted, the grain was unharvested, and even the floorboards of his house had been pulled up to build a machine for washing gold. And that was only the beginning of the downward spiral.

Next: Leaving California

P.S. Nearly the all the information in these posts (other than Bidwell’s letter), comes from The Memoirs of Theodor Cordua, the Pioneer of New Mecklenburg in the Sacramento Valley, edited and translated by Erwin G. Gudde (December 1933), which is available online at .

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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