Saturday, October 2, 2010

Floating Down the Stream of Consciousness... or how the 1861 flood got me thinking about a Russian cannon which may have saved the life of Sacramento’s surveyor.

From Page 10 - the Overland Monthly July-December 1893

Like many people, my mind wanders from time to time. I enjoy my rafting trips down the Stream of Consciousness. These historical wanderings usually start with something R Street related but they rarely end there. When my mind wanders like this, I end up Googleing things for days and buying a bunch of history books... as if I have any more room for those. This time I was thinking about how I need to get off my comfy chair and go on the Sacramento Underground Tour. And I need to do it soon too. October 31st is the last day of the year that tour will be given.

As most Sacramento history buffs will already know, the tour illustrates the period of Sacramento history where it* raised itself up from its vulnerable elevation on the flood plain in the 1860s through the 1870s.

The street raising project was a long, difficult and expensive one. The city actually voted to increase taxes because of it. The danger was so obviously clear and present that Sacramentans felt they had no choice.

Sacramento’s history is replete with many, many floods - seemingly annually in the early years. By 1861, there was a system of levees in place including the R street levee, and up until the winter of that year the city felt themselves pretty secure from flooding. The flood of 1861-62 changed all that. It was a very watery watershed moment indeed, and it featured the levee failure that served final notice that the city could not be protected by mere earthen berms alone. The delusion was specifically snapped at 16th and R Streets where the Sacramento Valley Railroad had filled in a trestle that crossed a slough as its line headed east. The wooden piles of the trestle were showing their age and the bridge was unstable. The SVRR duly received permission to fill in the bridge as a safety precaution.

At 16th street the levee left R Street and turned in a northeasterly zigzag to the American River. ** The levee turned, but the rail line kept going due east. Immediately after the levee was a slough, thus the need for a trestle.
In December 1861, the region was living through the biggest storm of the century... maybe two centuries. On December 9th, the levee on north side of town broke and the American river poured into the slough. If the trestle hadn't been filled in, the flood waters would have drained to the south where there was little town development. But because of the SVRR fill, the water backed up and over-topped the levee flooding the city proper.

There was much finger pointing - mostly at the railroad, but the result was that the street raising scheme was eventually hatched.

All this got me thinking about how and why the town was laid out where it was, which got me thinking about John A. Sutter Jr. Everyone knew him by his shortened middle name “August” and since I hate referring to him as “Junior” that’s what I’ll call him too. He had only just arrived in 1848 as the gold rush was starting and likely hadn’t experienced the routine flooding of the area. His dad, the more famous Sutter, had abandoned him for the gold fields. He gave August the crumbling empire, and the financial troubles. Thanks, dad. This left August alone with a desperate need to raise money to save his father’s finances. ***

So the idea**** of laying out a town between the river and the fort was conceived. For this, August hired brevet Captain William H. Warner on leave from the US Army Topographical Engineers to do the surveying. The town lots sold well and Sacramento City became well established on a flood plain. Commercial interests quickly became too entrenched to consider moving the town just because of a silly string of devastating floods. 

Continuing on my leisurely rafting trip down the Stream of Consciousness, I then became interested in how Captain Warner came out west in the first place. Turns out, he almost didn’t make it.

In September 1846, then 1st Lt. Warner was attached to the 1st Dragoons under General Kearny as part of the force that marched from Santa Fe for California during the Mexican-American war. The journey took six weeks, and along the way they met up with Kit Carson who told them the Mexicans in California, who thought of themselves more as Californios than Mexicans, had surrendered. On this intelligence, Kearny sent back two thirds of his troops to Santa Fe, continuing on with about 100 men.

When they arrived in California, very much the worse for wear, they found the war was far from over.

The bearer of this bad news was Marine Captain Archibald Gillespie. He had with him about 20 members of the California Volunteers- and the “Sutter Gun”.

The Sutter Gun itself has an interesting story. ***** Made in Russia during the Napoleonic wars, it was considered too small for the regular army and was given to the trading post at Fort Ross as a gift from the Tsar himself. When the Russians pulled up stakes and left in 1841, Sutter bought the fort and much of its equipment, which was whatever the Russians couldn’t take with them. This included cannons, one of which became known as ‘the Sutter Gun’- a brass 4-pounder. The cannon helped augment the defenses of Sutter’s fort and probably went a long way to enforce Sutter’s rule over his Native American work force. It was also a marvelous noise maker at parties. The purchase of Fort Ross was a major part of his debt problem by the way, but Sutter’s psychological makeup likely made it impossible for him to pass up the chance to buy cannons and military uniforms. 

During the war the Sutter gun moved around quite a bit before ending up in Los Angeles where it stayed until Gillespie took it. He had been given charge of the city, and his harsh military rule measures backfired, the town rose up, and he had to leave... “Flee” might be a better word.

Which gets us back to our engineer friend, Lt. Warner with Kearny in California in 1846. Between General Kearny and San Diego (and fresh supplies) was General Andreas Pico and his unit of about 100 Californios who were recruited from the nearby ranchos. Pico was reported to have a large number of good horses nearby.

Kearny planned for a twofer; he hoped to surprise Pico while he was camped in the Kumeyaay village of San Pasqual and, with a vigorous attack, scatter Pico’s forces leaving the route to San Diego clear. At the same time he would pick up some fresh mounts, which they could then ride into San Diego on in the style the elite 1st Dragoons deserved.

Not drawn by Warner, but the other Topographical Engineer at the battle, Lt. William Emory.
There are several excellent descriptions of the Battle of San Pasqual online, here, here, and most thoroughly, here if you want more detail- but I’ll attempt a summary.

Things went sideways from the start. The reconnaissance during the night wasn’t executed well and merely alerted the Mexicans to the American's presence. Pico’s men were well ready for the American advance on the cold, foggy morning of December 6th, 1846.

The Americans charged Pico’s men who were mounted on a line blocking the road. He had more men on foot in ravines on both flanks. The Mexicans fired a volley, killing the officer in charge of the vanguard, and then feigned a retreat. What was left of the vanguard plus the American’s main force pursued on mounts of differing quality. Some of them were on mules who had seen better days. Like, say, any day before they left from Santa Fe some one thousand miles and six weeks ago. Many of these mules clearly had not signed up for this sort of thing, and were not what you would call 'fast'.

The wide variety of mounts had the unfortunate effect of causing the American line of attack to be strung out about a mile. At this point, Pico’s men wheeled around and counter-attacked. The American’s were in danger of being rolled up piecemeal.

The weather had been very wet for days and the American’s gunpowder was not dry. This made their firearms unreliable, which meant that they were mostly reduced to using short swords (some actually rusting in their scabbards) or using their rifles as clubs. The Mexicans were armed with eight to ten foot long lances and lassos - they were also arguably among the best horsemen in the world at the time and they were on fresh horses.

The Americans did have the advantage of artillery: two ‘mountain howitzers’ pulled by mules and the aforementioned ‘Sutter Gun’. However their use was hampered by a number of critical problems. First the ammunition had not caught up with the advance of the cannons themselves. Second, there were few fire-lanes for them to shoot that wouldn’t also endanger friendly troops. And third, there was no means handy to ignite the gunpowder to fire them. At one point Lt Warner, out of desperation, fired his pistol (in vain) at one of the howitzer fuses. At another point one of the mules pulling one of the howitzers bolted, dragging it into the hands of the Californios. Understandably, they didn’t give it back.  

Really, it’s a wonder that any Americans survived the battle at all.

But it was the “Sutter Gun”, fired by Midshipman Duncan ******, that finally got a blast of grape shot off. It didn’t do any damage, but it did persuade the Californios it was about time to end the encounter. (There is some debate as to whether any cannons were fired at all, and if so, which one actually fired. But there very little other explanation as to why the Californio’s retired from the field. They were just doing too well up to that point.)

The battle then became a standoff at Mule Hill for four days until reinforcements from Commodore Stockton arrived which led to Pico’s withdrawal north.

The Sutter gun was returned to Sutter’s fort at the end of the Mexican-American war. About the time he sold the fort, Sutter gave the cannon to the California Pioneers who kept it in a museum in San Francisco. It was presumed lost in the major fires that broke out after the great earthquake in 1906.

Our surveyor Warner was wounded in three places, and was brevetted to Captain for gallantry at San Pasqual. Then again, nearly all the surviving regular army officers from that battle earned brevet promotions.

And so it was that when he surveyed Sacramento in 1848, he outranked his two assistants, both future generals, 1st Lieutenants Edward Ord and William T. Sherman. Sherman later would be an investor and vice president in the Sacramento Valley Railroad, one of several investments he was involved in while he was in California. 

The SVRR, by the way, was built atop the R Street levee which crossed a slough on a trestle that was filled in causing a... Oh crud! Now I'm caught in an eddy on the Stream of Consciousness! Quick! Throw me a line! Or better yet, go on the Sacramento Underground tour with me.

*Disclaimer: the central city section was raised; the raising did not go as far south as my beloved R Street - but there is a connection, as you’ll see.)
** See page 12 of the Sacramento County Historical society’s “Golden Notes” issue on the flood of 1861 that has the best map I’ve seen of the situation. Also, Andrew Isenberg’s Mining California: An Ecological History which tells the levee failure story well. 
***See Alberto Hurtado’s excellent John Sutter: A Life on the North American Frontier for more on that.
**** Influenced greatly by the future first millionaire of California, Sam Brannon.
****** The Battle of San Pasqual is notable for having elements of the Army, the volunteers, the Navy and the Marines.  And one of the naval officers present - Lt. Beale who also had an army commision later, had an Army Air Force Base named after him.

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