“A Pioneer Repast” and Its Author

SFC18921225.1.13-2968-3644-972-709-243wA couple weeks ago I told you about Christmas dinner at Sutter’s Fort in 1845 and its crowning finale, a genuine John Bull plum pudding.  All the information for those two posts came from an article that appeared in the San Francisco Call newspaper on Christmas Day, 1892.

When I read that article, I knew I had found a fabulous story of early days in California. But I was faced with the question: Who wrote the article? There was no name attached, just the initial “S” at the end. Who could “S” be?

I am confident the story was written by William F. Swasey, a pioneer who traveled overland to California and arrived at Sutter’s Fort on September 23, 1845. According to Bancroft’s California Pioneer Register, Swasey was employed for two months or more at Sutter’s Fort as assistant bookkeeper. He was in the right place at the right time to experience the banquet, and he later he was known for writing about his California experiences.

At Sutter’s Fort he got to know Captain Sutter, John Bidwell, Samuel Hensley, and Pierson B. Reading. But he was young and ambitious, and went looking for bigger opportunities. After three or four months at Sutter’s he went on to Monterey, where he worked for both William Heath Davis and Thomas O. Larkin as a clerk.

SFC18961226.1.1-4457-3888-1777-2013-444wThen the Mexican War broke out and he joined the California Battalion. After the war, in 1847, he went to San Francisco, where he became a merchant, a dealer in real estate, and a notary public. He was a founding member of the Society of California Pioneers and wrote many  obituaries of the old pioneers that he had known. In 1891 he published The Early Days and Men of California, which gives his eye-witness account of the conquest of California and brief biographies of many pioneers. You can find the book on Google Books and download it for free.

We owe the preservation of Sutter’s New Helvetia Diary, a day by day account of events at Sutter’s Fort, to Mr. Swasey. I don’t know how it came into his hands, but in 1881 he passed it on to John Bidwell. In 1886 Bidwell delivered the diary to the historian Theodore H. Hittell. As Bidwell recorded in his journal:

Thurs., May 27. San Francisco
Norton Bush’s studio, Swasey’s,  Montgomery Block, Hittell’s Office. Col. Bee’s Events: Saw painting of Sutter’s Fort at N.Bush’s – Went to Swasey’s place or office.- Delivered old diary of Sutter to Hittell.

I am sure William Swasey had many other entertaining stories to tell about life in California. I hope I’ll be able to find some more to share.


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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