When the Russians Left California


Russian stamp showing Fort Ross

In 1841 the Russian-American Fur Company decided to leave California. They sold their holdings — lock, stock, and barrel — to John Sutter. The contract was signed in December, 1841, not long after John Bidwell arrived at Sutter’s Fort.

Sutter promptly hired Bidwell and after a few weeks of recuperation and learning Spanish, he sent him to the coast to oversee the dismantlement and acquisition of everything left by the Russians. It was a considerable amount of property and it took Bidwell over a year to deal with it.

Exactly what did John Sutter acquire in this deal? We know what was included from the Bill of Sale, which still exists in the John Augustus Sutter papers, housed in the Bancroft Library. A copy of the Bill of Sale, translated from French into English, has been posted online by the Fort Ross Conservancy.

For the price of $30,000 he got “the structures and chattels,” plus for an additional $3,868.16 he got “various merchandise, provisions, and goods.” The idea was that Sutter would pay in shipments of wheat to the Russian outpost at Sitka, Alaska. Sutter made a down payment of a mere $400 and then took years to pay off the balance of the debt.

What did Sutter get? Here is a list of the buildings at Fort Ross:

  • The old house for the commandant, two stories, built of beams. There are 6 rooms and a kitchen
  • The new house for the commandant… There are 6 rooms and vestibule
  • The house for Company employees, which has ten rooms and 2 vestibules
  • The barracks with 8 rooms and 2 vestibules
  • The old warehouse, two stories, with an open gallery and pillars
  • The granary, built of planks
  • A kitchen
  • A storehouse for provisions
  • An attached jailhouse
  • The chapel with a cupola
  • A well, 2 1/2 sazhens deep (a sazhen is about 7 feet)

Most of these buildings were demolished and shipped to Sutter’s Fort. That lumber was valuable. Outside the fort there were more buildings: various sheds, shops, kitchens, storehouses, and corrals. Furnishings included beds and bedding, tables, chairs, armoires, and cushions.

The Russians also had property at Bodega Bay and at three ranches, which had their own buildings and (as Bidwell wrote):

Even large circular threshing-floors (eras) in which the Russians were in the habit of tramping out their grain with bands of wild horses. These floors were made in the most substantial manner–the floors being made of hewn plank–six inches thick and perfectly matched together so tight that they would even hold water. The sides were planked about 8 feet high, with 4 1/2 in redwood lumber also hewn, for there was no such thing as sawmills there.

What a lot of hand labor went into those buildings and threshing floors!

Sutter got 1700 head of cattle, 940 horses and mules, and 900 head of sheep. These were either sold locally or herded overland to Sutter’s rancho. Most of the rest of the items were shipped by sea, for the sale included several boats:

  • a copper covered small boat, well suited for navigating all along the coast of California. 25 tons.
  • Two hide covered launches, one has 16 oars, the other, 18
  • A baidarka (a two or three-man kayak)
  • A long boat


And then there was the agricultural equipment:

  • 27 ox drawn plows
  • 24 horse drawn plows
  • 26 pairs of plowshares
  • 21 harrows
  • 24 harnesses
  • 30 horse harnesses
  • 21 bridles
  • 29 saddles
  • 8 bridles bits
  • 20 shadracks (I don’t know what a “shadrack” is)
  • 16 saddle blankets
  • 5 4-wheeled carts
  • 10 2-wheeled carts

All very useful and very desirable to a man trying to get an agricultural empire off the ground. And once John Sutter had all this loot, he took his own sweet time paying his debt to the Russians.


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A Trip to Fort Ross on the Penultimate Day of 2019


The corner blockhouse of the Fort Ross stockade is just visible on the left.

Last Monday I took a trip up the California coast to Fort Ross with some family members. Our #2 son and his family live in the Midwest; his wife was born in Russia. They were in California visiting us for the holidays. What better and more historical place to take a Russian than Fort Ross State Historic Park?

It was a beautiful sunny day, a perfect day for a drive along the coast. Fort Ross is rather remote — about 90 miles north of San Francisco — so it doesn’t get as many visitors as it deserves, but it is well worth the trip. The entrance fee is only $8 per car, so bring the whole family if you like. Bring a lunch too — there are picnic tables near the parking lot, or you can picnic near the shore with a rock for a table, as we did.


A drawing of Fort Ross, 1843

According to the State Parks website:

Fort Ross was a thriving Russian-American Company settlement from 1812 to 1841. This commercial company chartered by Russia’s tsarist government controlled all Russian exploration, trade and settlement in the North Pacific, and established permanent settlements in Alaska and California. Fort Ross was the southernmost settlement in the Russian colonization of the North American continent, and was established as an agricultural base to supply Alaska. It was the site of California’s first windmills and shipbuilding, and Russian scientists were among the first to record California’s cultural and natural history. Fort Ross was a successfully functioning multi-cultural settlement for some thirty years. Settlers included Russians, Native Alaskans and Californians, and Creoles (individuals of mixed Russian and native ancestry.)

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Posing in front of Rotchev House

Fort Ross is one of the oldest properties in the California State Parks system. When the state acquired it in 1906, the only original building still standing was the Rotchev House. The rest of the fort — the stockade, the bastions, the officials’ quarters, the magazin (for storage),  and the chapel — have been restored to make the fort look as it did in its heyday.

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The restored Fort Ross chapel

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Inside Kuskov House, with samovar, tea set, sextant, candlestck, and journal

For more information about Fort Ross, including events at the fort, check out the Fort Ross Conservancy website.

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Christmas with the Bidwells 2019

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The Bidwell Mansion Association celebrated “Christmas with the Bidwells” on December 6th with delicious holiday treats, live music, and a vignette inside Bidwell Mansion.

In the vignette, Mrs. Swasey (LaShona Haskell), William Swasey (Mike Swann), John Bidwell (Nick Anderson) and Annie Bidwell (Robyn Engel), discuss Christmas dinner at Sutter’s Fort in 1845. You can read that true story in two previous posts here and here.

You can watch the video of their performance on YouTube. The sound quality will improve after a few seconds when the party moves into the dining room.

bidwell-dec-2019 (17)The last casaba melon was served by Katie the maid (Emily Ping).

Our thanks to our wonderful actors and all the friends who make Bidwell Mansion a special place to visit.


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Pres Longley’s Christmas Column


Pres Longley, the Bard of Butte

Pres Longley, the “Bard of Butte,” wrote many columns and poems for the newspapers. This column appeared in the Weekly Butte Record on December 26th, 1868. It’s lengthy, so I am just going to give you the beginning, and the part addressed “to the juvenile readers of the Record about Santa Claus.”


In spite of the troubles of this old world, Pres encouraged his readers to live in gratitude and good cheer. He then tells the story of a “lazy girl” who hung up her stocking on Christmas Eve, and found nothing in it in the morning but the following two lines:

Your stocking is dirty, I’ll put nothing in it,
Till you wash out the dirt; ’twill take but a minute.

But another girl, who kept her stockings clean, had better luck, and here is her poem:


Now that’s something I would like to find in my stocking, a nugget of gold, “as pure and as bright / as the stars that illumine the darkness of night.” May we all have a merry and joyful Christmas!

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“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.


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A Real John Bull Plum Pudding

The cook at Sutter’s Fort, an Englishman, promised he could produce a Christmas dinner “that would rival Delmonico’s best efforts.” (Delmonico’s Restaurant in New York City being the epitome of fine dining.)


A banquet at Delmonico’s, not to be confused with dinner at Sutter’s Fort. From Wikipedia.

He also promised to top off the whole affair with “a dessert consisting of a real John Bull plum pudding.” It sounded irresistible, but where was he to get the necessary ingredients?


As our author notes, the cook had no spices, no butter or milk or eggs. The only fruit he had was the little sour grapes that grew along the river banks. How could he make a real plum pudding?

After five courses of variations on beef and chile colorado, the diners were ready for relief to the rumbling stomachs. It was time for that crowning achievement, the plum pudding!

1a59d629c80c9b4c0f22b199d451548fHe brought it in with an air of great self-gratulation, and such a pudding! It is doubtful if another, to compare with it, has ever been or ever will be concocted. In its construction the cook had used common beef tallow liberally, and filled it with the aforesaid sour grapes, and seasoned it unsparingly with chile colorado, black pepper, salt and garlic. He also made a sort of sauce with the panoche sugar and tallow, and had also dosed that liberally with chile and black peppers.

The pudding was served to the diners, and they all watched as Captain Sutter tasted his portion. Captain Sutter was a man of the most courteous manners, and felt it his duty to eat whatever was put before him. But this dish bothered him.

As he would gulp it down, he would look around at us, with a sort of dazed and helpless look, evidently to see if we were really eating it, and how the thing was affecting us. But he was too well bred and dignified in bis manners to say a word.

Poor Captain Sutter! At last another man asked “Cook, what is it?”

“Why, sir.” replied the cook, “it is a regular Christmas plum pudding, Mexican style!”

And so ended Christmas dinner, 1845, at Sutter’s Fort.

rohrzuckerblock-piloncillo-2933-004hm02_600x600Note: The author mentions “panoche” sugar. This is unrefined Mexican brown sugar, formed into a cone, and also known as piloncillo. You can buy it in most grocery stores. “Unbolted” flour is coarse, unsifted whole wheat flour.

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A Pioneer Repast


Sutter’s Fort in the 1840s

If you were living at Sutter’s Fort in 1845, before the Gold Rush, what was available for you to eat? Would you enjoy lots of good foodstuffs, or a limited diet? It could be both, depending on the time of year and your own imagination. But one thing is for sure — there would be beef.

Looking in the California Digital Newspaper Collection for information on women and side saddles, I came across something completely different. With the headline “A Pioneer Repast,” it was the story of Christmas dinner at Sutter’s Fort in 1845, by a man who was there.


It was published in the Christmas Day edition of the San Francisco Call in 1892. I turned the story into a vignette for the Bidwell Mansion Association’s annual “Christmas with the Bidwells” party and we will be performing it this Friday, December 6th inside Bidwell Mansion.

The gentleman telling the story relates how he went to the cook and asked him what he could come up with for Christmas dinner:

The cook was an English Cockney, but a good fellow withal, who, when approached upon the subject. declared that he could get up a menu that would rival Delmonico’s best efforts, if I would only leave the whole matter in his hands. I agreed to his terms, but did not quite see how he could do it, as our commissariat consisted wholly of beef, frijoles (brown beans), unbolted flour, Mexican panoche sugar, about the color of natural beeswax and of about the same consistency, with an abundance of chile colorado (red peppers), plenty of salt and black pepper, with coffee and tea. There were no vegetables, butter or milk, but he was so confident I let him have his own way.

Not only did the cook claim he could create a spread to rival Delmonico’s, but he also promised a genuine “John Bull plum pudding.”

And yet, as the author says, all he had to work with was beef, beans, unbolted (unsifted) whole wheat flour, red peppers, and brown Mexican sugar. Christmas Day came and the men sat down to dinner “with expectancy and no little curiosity.” Out came the first course:

The first course was beef soup, garnished with frijoles, chile colorado and garlic; the second course was roast beef: the third course was baked beef pie; the fourth course was stewed beef, and the fifth course was fried beef, accompanied with black, unbolted flour bread. All these dishes were garnished with the same condiments as the first, but the chile colorado dominated over all the others, and our bodies were aglow with heat, and our stomachs were like a boiling cauldron.


You can’t say that the cook didn’t do his best to vary the menu!


And what of the “John Bull plum pudding? Wait until the next installment and I will tell you about the English cook’s greatest culinary accomplishment.

We will also solve the mystery of the author of this piece, a man who only signs himself as “S”.



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