A Brief History of John Sutter and his Bronze Field Cannon
as interpreted by Stephen Beck – Archivist, Sacramento Historic Sites Association
In 1841, John Sutter purchased Fort Ross from the Russian American Fur Company, and he acquired many of the materials and implements that went into the construction and development of Sutter’s Fort at New Helvetia. Included in the purchase was a small brass field howitzer known now, and in the 1840’s, as the Sutter Gun. It is often called a four pounder because of the weight of the ball that could be shot out of the cannon’s barrel. The gun was originally founded (built) in St. Petersburg, Russia for use in the wars against Napoleon. However, it was determined to be ineffective as a long range cannon when used against the much larger French cannon. For that reason, the cannon was decommissioned from the Russian Army and sold as surplus to the Russian American Fur Company. That is how the Sutter Gun made its way to Ft. Ross, along the Sonoma Coast of California about 65 miles north of San Francisco, where Sutter purchased it. Don’t let the small size of the barrel and ball fool you. The Sutter Gun is capable of hurling that four pound ball over one mile.
But, it is not the size of the ball or barrel that makes the Sutter Gun significant in the history of California. It is the size of the wheels that is important. The Sutter Gun has very large iron-reinforced wheels. The cannon also has an accompanying wagon known as a limber. The limber carries all the materials and necessary tools to shoot the cannon. That means the Sutter Gun is a true piece of field artillery that can be moved anywhere it can be pulled by mules, horses, or oxen. In the early 1840’s, the Sutter Gun was the only piece of field artillery in California. That is sort of like John Sutter being the only person in the neighborhood with a tank. The cannon allowed Sutter to extend his influence well beyond the walls of his fort. Sutter did just that in January of 1845.
At that time, there was a little-known revolution fought in California. In the early 1840’s, the war between the United States and Mexico seemed unavoidable because the United States planned to annex the Republic of Texas as the 28th state. To help finance the war, the Mexican government sent a governor to California to collect taxes. His name was Manuel Micheltorena. But he couldn’t collect taxes by himself so he needed an army. The Mexican government didn’t have a regular army it could send because the regular army was needed to defend Mexico against aggression by the United States. The army sent with Micheltorena was made up of cholos. These were felons released from the jails of the states of Northern Mexico. This army raided the ranchos of California, plundering, burning, and torturing wherever they went. This angered the Californios (the old family Mexicans and Spanish who lived in California) so much that they revolted against the government of Mexico. Well, not so much against the government, but against the governor that the Mexican government had sent. So, what does this have to do with John Sutter and the Sutter Gun?
At the time of the revolution, both sides asked Sutter for his help because he had a powerful militia and the Sutter Gun. Sutter was in a dilemma. Should he support his friends and neighbors in their revolution or should he support the government to which he had sworn allegiance, become a citizen, and held the rank of captain in the army? Ultimately, Sutter’s decision to support Micheltorena and the government was probably motivated by Micheltorena tripling the size of Sutter’s land holdings. This land grant was known as the Sobrante, or Surplus land grant. Including New Helvetia, this grant gave Sutter control of 145,200 acres of California. But, it came with a price.
Fearing Sutter’s army and cannon, the Northern Californios retreated to Los Angeles to gather support along the way and ally themselves with the Californios of the southern districts. Sutter and Micheltorena pursued. They marched over 500 miles south with their armies and the Sutter Gun. At Buenaventura, near the present day city of Camarillo, California, they made contact with the Californio forces. The Californios prepared an ambush. The Californios didn’t have any true field artillery but they did have some ships’ cannon mounted on ox carts. When the armies of Sutter and Micheltorena came into range, the Californios opened fire with their cannon. Sutter returned fire. No one was injured in this battle because the Southern California gunpowder was so bad that the cannonballs fell short of Sutter’s army and Sutter knew so little about field artillery that he shot over the heads of the Californios; but two important things did happen. As soon as someone began shooting real ammunition at them, the cholos of Micheltorena’s army deserted. And, that night, because cannonballs were expensive in California, both sides went out on the battlefield to pick up the balls that had been fired earlier so they could be used again the next day. In doing this, Americans from Sutter’s army recognized there were Americans in the Californio army. That night the Americans from both sides held a meeting and decided they wanted nothing to do with a California revolution so they all deserted. Basically, this left Sutter, Micheltorena, and the Sutter Gun to defend the government of Mexico. The next day the Battle of Cahuenga was fought, or not fought, actually.
The Californios now significantly outnumbered the forces of Sutter and Micheltorena whom they easily captured along with the Sutter Gun. Micheltorena was put on a ship and sent back to Mexico. Sutter was tried and found guilty of treason and, had it been up to Pio Pico and the Southern Californios, Sutter would have been hung or beheaded on the spot. However, Sutter’s neighbor from Monterey, Juan Alvarado, interceded on Sutter’s behalf and convinced the other Californios that Sutter was just doing his job as a captain in the Mexican Army. This seemed reasonable and Sutter was allowed to return to his fort on the Sacramento River, but without the Sutter Gun. The Sutter Gun was captured and the Californios never wanted it used against them again. Yet none of them wanted to be responsible for keeping it. The Californios were not a true army; they were a militia and each member was going home to his rancho for siesta and the spring planting. None of them wanted to haul a cannon with them. So, the Californios took the Sutter Gun apart and buried it in three different places so that only they would know where the cannon was and only they could retrieve the canon if they needed it.
During the revolution, the Californios captured a German named Charles Weber who was released when the revolt ended but was with the Californios when they buried the Sutter Gun. Weber later went on to become Captain Weber of the United States Army, and when the Mexican American War broke out just one year later, Weber knew where the Sutter Gun was buried. He took the American Army to the spot. They dug up the Sutter Gun and it proceeded to fight in every major battle of the Mexican American War in California.
It was particularly strategic at the battle of the Mesa, fought between the San Gabriel and Los Angeles Rivers. In this battle the Americans were significantly outnumbered by a force of Mexican cavalry. The Americans were forced to form a defensive square with their soldiers in order to protect all flanks. Within the middle of the square was concealed the Sutter Gun. When operated by a crew of nine, the Sutter Gun can be fired about four times per minute. And because it was going to be fired at a charging cavalry, it was not loaded with four pound iron balls but with something called langridge, which consists of nails and pieces of chain and scraps of sharp iron. As the Mexican cavalry bore down on the American square, one side of the square parted and the Americans opened fire with the Sutter Gun. The Mexican charge quickly became the Mexican retreat and the rest, as they say, is history. The Americans went on to win the Mexican American War and with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in February of 1848 the United States acquired territory that became the entire states of California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona (less the Gadsden Purchase), most of New Mexico, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming.
At this time, the Sutter Gun was in the charge of the New York Volunteers of the American Army under the command of Captain Folsom, for whom Folsom, California was named. In a ceremony held at Sutter’s Fort, Folsom presented the Sutter Gun back to John Sutter. In 1848 and 1849 Sutter used the cannon to fire salutes to visiting dignitaries during the early days of the Gold Rush. When Sutter sold the fort and retired to his plantation on the Feather River, he took the Sutter Gun with him. He had it mounted on the walkway leading up to his hacienda. While he sat on his porch sipping aguadiente (brandy) and smoking imported cigars, he fired salutes to passing ships on the Sacramento and Feather Rivers.
In 1864 John Sutter moved away from California and donated the Sutter Gun to the Pioneer Historical Society of California. It kept the Sutter Gun in a museum in San Francisco. The original Sutter Gun was lost and presumed melted in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The cannon currently at Sutter’s Fort is a replica that was cast from a mold of one of the original sister guns that was at Fort Ross when Sutter purchased it. The sister guns were removed to Fort Sitka when Sutter dismantled Fort Ross.
* The material in this article was adapted from works by Blanchard, The History of the Sutter Gun; Harlow, Califonia Conquered; Duflot de Mofras, Travels on the Pacific Coast; Nevin, Fremont; and Zollinger, Sutter:The Man and His Empire.
A Brief History of John Sutter
John Sutter was the first non-native (non-Indian) person to build a permanent settlement in the interior of Northern California. Sutter was born in the Grand Duchy of Baden, a small principality in what is now the Black Forest region of Germany. As a young man Sutter opened a dry goods business and became a citizen of Bergdorf, Switzerland. He married Anna Dubelt and soon fathered five children (one died as a child). Extremely poor economic conditions throughout Europe compelled Sutter, and thousands of his countrymen, to look to the New World for opportunity and prosperity. In 1833, disheartened and in debt, Sutter took what money he had and headed for America. He promised to send for his family as soon as he could properly provide for them. It took sixteen years.
Sutter made his way across The United States from New York and began a trading business between Westport (Kansas City), Missouri and Santa Fe, New Mexico. He learned about California and the easy availability of large land grants from the Mexican government. By 1838, Sutter put together enough money to join an American Fur Company trading expedition into the Rocky Mountains. There Sutter heard about the rich, unspoiled, and unsettled Sacramento Valley. Sutter purchased the necessary supplies an Indian boy as a guide and set off overland to Oregon. His swagger, politeness, and dashing good looks gave him special entry into forts along the frontier. He went on to Vancouver where he was regally received by the fort commander. Sutter’s treatment was due in part because he identified himself as a captain in the Swiss Guard of Charles X, despite never holding such a commission. From Vancouver, Sutter went on to Honolulu, Hawaii (Sandwich Islands), Fort Sitka, Alaska, Yerba Buena (San Francisco) and eventually to Monterey, the capital of Mexican California. Sutter met with Mexican governor Juan Alvarado, who outlined the terms by which Sutter could obtain a land grant of eleven square leagues (about 48,400 acres). The conditions included becoming a Mexican citizen, a Roman Catholic, controlling the Indian population, and acting as the civil official of the Mexican government. Sutter also had to build a permanent settlement and get twelve non-native settlers to join him and live on the land for one year. In August of 1839, Sutter left San Francisco (then called Yerba Buena), and sailed up the Sacramento River. He sailed in two rented launches and a small boat he brought with him from Alaska. His entourage consisted of a couple of his countrymen and ten Hawaiians, two of whom were women, who were paid servants given to Sutter by King Kamehameha III. After several days travel the fleet arrived at the site of present day Sacramento. Seven to eight hundred natives lined the banks to observe the small fleet. Sutter filled the natives with awe and won their admiration by discharging (into the vegetation) several blasts from the three cannons he brought with him from Hawaii. William Heath Davis, who captained the fleet, recalled the moment: “Standing on the deck of the ‘Isabel’ I witnessed this remarkable sight, which filled me with astonishment and admiration, and made an indelible impression on my mind. This [cannon] salute was the first echo of civilization in the primitive wilderness so soon to become populated, and developed into a great agricultural and commercial center.”
This was the beginning of a permanent Euro-American presence in the Sacramento Valley. Sutter named his new home New Helvetia (New Switzerland). The group lived initially in huts the Hawaiians constructed from grass and willows while the main building was being built. Many of the natives had spent time in the missions and were familiar with making sun-dried mud brick. The site of the fort (2.5 miles from the Sacramento River and 0.5 miles from the 1840 course of the American River) was probably chosen for three reasons. One, it was on a high knoll above the obvious flooding. Two, high ground is preferred from a defensive military standpoint. And three, the location was away from the hordes of mosquitoes that were a constant nuisance on the trip up river. Sutter wanted a powerful fortification and the bricks used to construct the central building were made a double thickness of nearly 18” x 36” (this probably accounts for the longevity of the main building). Why Sutter felt he needed a powerful fortification is subject to conjecture. One hypothesis is that Sutter had heard of Indian raiding parties and he needed a defense against them. This should be given little credence because the natives seldom raided settled areas and Sutter had already allied himself with the local population. Sutter was training the natives to become his army. A second explanation is that Sutter never fully trusted his Mexican hosts. This is no doubt true. The Mexican government frequently rattled the saber about immigrants who had received land grants. On one occasion, a number of Americans were arrested, their land seized, and they were imprisoned in San Blas, Mexico (the Graham affair). They were later released after a formal complaint from the United States government. But, these actions made foreigners uneasy. However, in Sutter’s case, he was a Mexican official and a captain in the army and, by most accounts, a good Mexican citizen. A third explanation for the Sutter fortification is that he was simply following his cultural imperative. Sutter was born in a small feudal principality that was defended by a castle, as were all the feudal holdings of Western Europe. Sutter came to the Sacramento Valley to be Baron von Suter and in all likelihood he intended the fort to be his castle. Sutter probably built the walls because he needed the pretense of protection to pacify the fears of potential settlers. Sutter knew that if he could attract settlers to live on his land, the value of his property would increase; plus, they would have to buy all of their supplies from his trading post. It took about four years to complete the fort with the bulk of the physical plant and agricultural and manufacturing supplies coming from the Russian American Fur Company outposts of Bodega and Fort Ross, which Sutter purchased in 1841. Sutter agreed to pay $30,000 in cash and produce using his land grant as collateral; it was a debt that haunted him his entire time in Sacramento. Drought, unusual freezes, political unrest, and war all contributed to Sutter’s inability to realize the true agricultural and economic value of his land–but the worst was still to come.
On January 24, 1848, James Marshall, building a sawmill for Sutter at Coloma (about 45 miles from the Fort) on the South Fork of the American River, discovered gold. Sutter’s lands and personal property were rapidly overrun by squatters and scoundrels. In 1848, Sutter sent for his eldest son, a trained accountant. John Sutter Jr. was able to right the ship, somewhat. In 1849 the Russians threatened to foreclose on New Helvetia. To stall the proceedings Sutter transferred ownership to his son. Junior planned the City of Sacramento and sold lots from his father’s land. He was able to make enough money to pay off the Russian debt and to send a trusted employee, Heinrich Lienhard, to Switzerland to retrieve the rest of the Sutter family. Junior was able to secure Sutter’s holdings but he was only 21 years old and not a brilliant businessman. Unscrupulous entrepreneurs took advantage of Sutter junior and often paid him far below market value for the property. This infuriated Sutter senior and in 1850 he retook possession of his land. At this same time, his wife and family arrived from Switzerland. Sutter sold the Fort to a group of merchants for $8,000 and retired to his ranch (Hock Farm) on the Feather River.
Sutter’s wife, Anna, and the three younger children also moved to Hock Farm. John junior, shunned by his Father and cheated by his peers, moved to Acapulco, Mexico where he became the American consul. The rest of the family lived comfortably at Hock Farm until it burned to the ground in 1865. The children were old enough to leave home and John and Anna Sutter moved to a hotel in Washington D.C.. They stayed there three years so Sutter could argue a relief bill before the U.S. Congress. He was seeking $50,000 as compensation for his losses in the Gold Rush and as payment for supplies he provided the U.S. Army during the Mexican-American War. Congress never denied or approved Sutter’s request despite hearing it every Congress from 1865 until 1880. In 1868, John junior sent his children to live with Sutter and Anna. The Sutter’s moved out of the Washington D.C. hotel and bought land and built a house in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania in the village of Lititz. The house was the only three story, only brick, and only house with hot and cold running water in Lancaster County. The house has been restored and is a Pennsylvania State Historical Landmark. John and Anna remained there the rest of their lives. John Sutter died in a hotel in Washington D.C. in 1880, waiting for Congress to act on his compensation bill. The hordes of lawless gold seekers robbed Sutter of the massive fortune he would have acquired from the vast quantity of land he owned, but Sutter was never poor or impoverished. Wealth is a relative thing. If Bill Gates was suddenly forced to live on $100,000 a year, he’d think he was poor. By 1852, Sutter retired all of his California debt and in 1862 he repaid the 20,000 franc ($6,000) debt that forced him out of Europe. Sutter himself was the source of reports about his poverty. He postured as poor to enhance the chance that Congress would approve his relief bill at a time when reuniting and rebuilding the Nation after the Civil War was the top priority.
John Sutter was more than a pioneer; he was one of the true leaders of California. He was the keynote speaker at the 1850 State Constitutional Convention, signed the Constitution, and was a candidate for governor. Among his peers he was highly respected. General William Tecumseh Sherman said “Sutter was the man most responsible for California becoming a part of the United States. Navy officer Joseph Warren Revere wrote that “men have been deified for lesser deeds than those accomplished by Sutter. John Sutter’s vision, fortitude, and perseverance opened the Central Valley to the rest of the world.