Clearing Up The Confusion About California Cannon Of John Sutter
By Cap Cresap
Spring 2006 - Vol 27, No. 2



John Sutter arrived in California in 1839 where he established an agricultural empire. His route to California was less than direct as he went by way of Alaska and Hawaii. He reported it was in Hawaii that he purchased three small cannon.

Those guns and the several others that he placed around his fort in Sacramento were mistakenly attributed to his purchase of Fort Ross from the Russians. An interview given by Sutter several years after leaving California and a recent discovery now provide a clearer picture of his cannon and the Mormons who were involved with him at the beginning of the end of his California adventure.

In September 1841 Sutter arranged to purchase Fort Ross from the Russian American Company. The Russians had decided to vacate their colony on the coast of California just north of Bodega Bay. They negotiated with Sutter to sell him what they had not taken back to their colony in Alaska.

The $30,000 transaction included "the houses, farms, cattle and implements..." The inventory also contained muskets and old uniforms, which Sutter used to train his native workers, but no cannon.

Later confusion arose when visitors to Sutter's Fort saw several cannon and assumed them to be Russian or captured French cannon from Fort Ross.

Sutter obtained no artillery from the Russians with his purchase of Fort Ross. However, he was given a 4-pdr. Russian cannon by the Russians as part of a deal to supply foodstuffs and other products of his California empire.

George Stammerjohan, a retired California Department of Parks and Recreation Associate Historian and an expert on Sutter, explained that the Russians were obtaining supplies for their colonies from the Hudson Bay Company. To provide other sources and competitive prices they also made arrangements for supplies from both Sutter and Vallejo. Vallejo was another Californian and a contemporary as well as a competitor of Sutter.

It wasn't until 1879 from his home in Leipzig, Pa., that Sutter revealed the source of his artillery. In a letter written to the California Society of Pioneers he explained: "Those guns, of which your society have two placed at the door of their hall, are not Russian guns.

“On my arrival in California in 1839 I brought three of the smaller guns with me from the Sandwich Islands. Six of the larger guns I bought from the Captain of an Italian (American?) vessel, who was a friend of mine, and brought them for me from South America, and took them very secretly in the night on board of my launch and brought them up to my fort, 1841 ... undoubtedly they have been used in the South American wars.

“Some other guns I had brought from different vessels, among them two brass pieces, which likewise came from South America, as they had the arms of Spain. From the Russians I got only one fine brass field piece, mounted with Caisson. They would not let me have more. This was cast in St. Petersburg in 1804...

 “When in my possession we used this gun in the rebellion of the native Californian against our Governor, General Michealtorena. We were defeated by treachery and desertion, and the field piece ... fell into the hands of the rebels, Castro, Alvarado and Pico. Afterwards the gun fell into the hands of Fremont's Battalion [Stockton's force] ... and in the battle of the Mesa, between Commodore Stockton, etc. and the Californians, she rendered great service.

“After peace was restored ... Captain Folsom, returned the gun to me ... [and] I presented her to the society of pioneers ...."

Sutter took his Russian gun with him to Los Angeles, where he was involved in the battle between the new Mexican governor, Michaeltorena, and the old Mexican governor, Castro, for the control of Alta California. Sutter sided with Michaeltorena and the Picos were with Castro.

When Castro and the Picos prevailed, they confiscated Sutter's only Russian gun. Shortly thereafter American forces under Stockton arrived in Los Angeles and the gun was abandoned by Castro and the Picos. Stockton took it to San Diego aboard his ship and it was,  subsequently, taken to San Pasqual by Lt. Archibald Gillespie and his California Volunteers.

With the U.S. takeover of California Gillespie had been made the alcalde of Los Angeles, but his heavy-handed tactics caused the citizens of Los Angeles to revolt and to chase him and his Marines out of town. The locals dug up a small cannon which had been hidden and used it with great success against the Gillespie and his Marines.

This revolt, called the "Battle of the Old Woman's Gun,” was the cause of renewed hostilities in California between U.S. forces and the local Californios. Gillespie, with the Sutter cannon, joined Gen. Stephen Kearny and his U.S. Dragoons at San Pasqual just before the Battle of San Pasqual.

It was either the Sutter gun or one of the two mountain howitzers, which had accompanied General Kearny through the mountains, that was fired and ended the battle. It has been reported that the Kearny guns, one of which was captured by the Californio forces under Andres Pico, were in need of repair. That would mean that it was the Sutter gun that ended that battle where so many Americans were killed.

The Sutter gun was taken to San Diego with the U.S. forces and later returned to Sutter. He presented it to the Pioneer Society and it was on display at their museum in San Francisco until it was destroyed in the earthquake and fire of 1906. An original similar to Sutter's can be found today at Fort Ross on the coast of California above Bodega Bay

In the fall of 1847 several veterans of the Mormon Battalion arrived at Sutter's Fort seeking employment. The Mormons had been part of the 1st Iowa Volunteers of the U.S. Army of the West under General Kearny. They were known as the Mormon Battalion because they were all Mormons who had been recruited from Mormon refugees.

The Mormons had been driven from their homes in Illinois and were scattered across the plains of Iowa in 1846. Five hundred men and 20 women were recruited to assist with the War with Mexico, but the battalion arrived in California after the peace accord had been signed at Campo de Cahuenga. Assigned garrison duty in San Diego and Los Angeles, they earned the respect and appreciation of the local population.

Following the completion of their one-year military commitment many of the Mormons, now veterans, made their way to Sutter's Fort. Sutter hired 105 of the veterans to work at his holdings. Six of them were sent to Coloma to build a sawmill. They constructed a millrace to run the mill and it was on Jan. 24, 1848, during an inspection of this project by James Marshall, Sutter's foreman, that gold was discovered.

This discovery precipitated the gold rush of 1849 that brought California into the United States as a state and also led to the demise of Sutter's dreams of an empire.

The Mormon workers finished their contracts with Sutter and purchased what they needed for the trip back to their families who were then in the Salt Lake Valley. They were attracted to two cannon, which were described as a small bronze 4-pdr. cannon and a 6 pdr. The Mormons believed them to be French or Russian parade cannons from Fort Ross, which was the  prevailing thought at the time.

The guns were purchased for $512 in gold, they were put in the back of a wagon and taken to Utah where they were given to the Mormon leaders. With the eventual deaths of the battalion members the guns disappeared.

Rumor had them at a gun show in the 1970s, where they were sold several times, but when the State of California searched for two Russian or French guns, no trace of them could be found. There were several cannons owned by the church museum but none were Russian or French. Apparently, no one was aware of Sutter's letter of 1879.

In 2001, while visiting a friend who was working with the arms collection in the Museum of Church History and Art at Salt Lake City, I noticed a small bronze 4-pdr. howitzer. It was one of several unidentified cannons in the museum's collection.

Since the bronze gun at least resembled the description of the Mormon Battalion cannon, I decided to make a copy of it to use as part of a living history program. The bronze gun had nearly been destroyed in a scrap metal drive, probably around World War I. It was missing its trunnions, the cascabel knob had been cut off and there was a deep cut along its entire top.

Fortunately, it had been rescued from destruction. The knob was replaced and a trunnion band had been made out of iron so the howitzer could be displayed. Dimensions were taken from what was left of the original, a wooden pattern with trunnions added was made and it was cast in bronze.

In 2004 a collector saw the copy and said it resembled a Spanish, 4-pdr. howitzer. Three original Spanish howitzers were located at West Point. The museum curator, Paul Ackerman, sent several photos and measurements and they matched the original in Utah. The Utah gun is a 1781 Spanish 4-pdr. howitzer.

Discussions with George Stammerjohan, the Californian historian, revealed that Sutter had several small bronze Spanish 4 pdrs. He brought the three from Hawaii and later got two bronze guns that had the arms of the King of Spain. Sutter's letter mentioned two brass guns with the arms of the King of Spain. One of the West Point guns showed the Spanish King's crest on it.

An examination of the Utah gun showed residual marks closely resembling the pattern of the Spanish crown found on the West Point gun. This could be the missing bronze, Sutter/Mormon Battalion gun, but what about the six pdr.?

The Mormon collection also has a 6-pdr. iron gun, which appears to be British. It has trunnions below the center like a 1776 period gun and, though looking British, there are a couple of differences. Though the gun is in good condition, there is no broad arrow or any other markings of the British military and the ring around the knob is slightly off.

In his book Round Shot and Rammers Harold Peterson says: "On the relationship between England and Spain in cannon design, it might be mentioned that Muller's Treatise of Artillery was translated into Spanish and seems to have been influential."

Stammerjohan explained that there were British cannon makers in South America during the late 18th and early 19th centuries who were making cannon for the governments there. He had documented over 1,200 cannon from these and other cannon makers, which had been brought to California around 1840 from South America as ballast by ship captains.

They were traded in California for hides, tallow, grain, etc. Most of these iron guns were turned into nails, tools, wagon parts and other implements in an iron-hungry community. However, one 6 pdr. and a 4-pdr. howitzer made their way to Utah where they lay incognito until I made a copy of the bronze gun.

The original wooden pattern for the howitzer was changed to incorporate the sighting features of the guns at West Point. These details had been lost on the Utah gun when the cut was made along its top. The current copy is as the original would have been in 1848 except for the king's crest which is still being researched.

There were four cannon known to have been in the Mormon collection in 1855. The earliest was a carronade, a short ship's gun that had been brought from the east by the first Mormon settlers in 1847. Two were the Sutter guns, which had been brought to Utah by the Battalion veterans in 1848.

In 1850 the battalion veterans formed the Utah Territorial Militia and used federal funds to purchase a mountain howitzer similar to those they had used while in the U.S. Army in California. General Kearny's mountain howitzers had been           stationed at Fort Moore in Los Angeles, which the Mormons had built during their service there.

That gun, #65, on a prairie carriage with limber and ammo boxes, arrived in Utah in 1854. Today there are still four guns at the church museum, though at this time only the carronade is on  display. They are the carronade, the mountain howitzer- #65, a bronze Spanish 4-pdr. howitzer and an iron 6-pdr., the Sutter guns.

The Sutter guns are on carriages that are copies of the mountain howitzer carriage. They were probably built around 1857 when Gen. Sidney Johnston was bringing U.S. troops to Utah to control the "rebellious Mormons."

But that is a story for another time. However, the Sutter guns are no longer missing, they never were. They just weren't French or Russian; they were Spanish and they were hiding ... in plain sight.