Stump the Board!

Have your difficult California History question answered or………STUMP THE BOARD!   


The Sacramento Historical Society Board members have diverse interests in many aspects of the history of the Sacramento Region. Our mission is to act as a resource for inquiries regarding local area history and to promote a greater awareness of Sacramento's regional and national history. We invite you to ask your questions about anything related to local history (and we mean anything!).


  • How did Humboldt County get its name?

  • Did anyone die, on either side, during the Bear Flag Rebellion?

  • Has California maintained the original counties it had in 1850?

  • When were the Northern, Eastern, and Southern Boundaries of California officially established?

  • When Sacramento County was established, what were its original recognized cities?

  • How many people were in the Donner Party? How many died on the trail before crossing the Sierra?  How many died in the Sierra?

These are just a few examples of the kinds of questions you can ask. Your question will be directed to the Board member most familiar with your question area.  You will either receive an answer with source information or you will successfully “Stump the Board”!

Ask the Board a question!

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Annotated Bibliography

Here is Board Member Steve Beck’s personal annotated bibliography of just a few resources that may answer some of your questions – or raise questions you hadn’t thought to ask.

Sutter and the Fort

John Sutter: A Life on the North American Frontier by Albert L. Hurtado **
       Published in 2006, this is an excellent account of the life and times of Sutter and New Helvetia.  It does a superior job of placing Sutter in the “context of his time.”  It’s only weakness is Hurtado’s reliance on undocumented second-hand sources to make some of his points.

Sutter: The Man and his Empire by James Peter Zollinger
       Published in 1939, this is a scholarly work and is the most accurate and best-documented account of Sutter’s life.  It deals with Sutter as a man.  It covers Sutter’s years in Europe and his time in the United States prior to settling in California, as well as life at the Fort and at Hock Farm, including references to farming, trade, and business practices.  This is the quintessential source about Sutter and his Fort.

A Pioneer at Sutter’s Fort 1846-1850 by Heinrich Lienhard edited by Marguerite Wilbur
       This is a very good reference for what day-to-day life was like in and around Sutter’s Fort.  It is a partial translation of Lienhard’s recollections 20 years after he left Sutter’s Fort.  Because of some questionable translating and some personal issues that Lienhard had with Sutter, and some prejudices Lienhard had regarding the Native People, this book should be viewed with some skepticism.  However, its value for discussing the social and material culture as well as its references to the many other pioneers of the area make it a valuable resource. 

Fool’s Gold (or Sacramento’s Sainted Sinner) by Richard Dillon **
       This is a less than scholarly, but easily read, work of “revisionist” history that merely rewrites for dramatic effect or misinterprets much of the sparsely circulated Lienhard document.  It also contains some interesting, but undocumented, comments about Sutter’s life in Europe and Westport (Kansas City).  This book applies 20th century morality to 19th century social culture but only on a selective basis.  However, it is accurate regarding chronology and is an interesting comparison to the Zollinger and Hurtado works.  This book portrays Sutter in later life as a pitiable impoverished scalawag looking for handouts.  [This was not true, based on wealth being a “relative term.”  Sutter lived comfortably in his old age; despite being bitter and disappointed about being “cheated” in California.]  Most of Dillon’s information about Sutter’s “impoverished life” after California came from articles in periodicals which were (unknown to Dillon) probably planted by Sutter and his supporters as he attempted to obtain remuneration from the U.S. Congress for his claims against the government—Sutter needed to appear impoverished.

Sutter’s Fort by Oscar Lewis
       This is part of a series of books about American Forts.  It is very superficial in its information about Sutter, the Fort, and the history of California.  However, it is a quick and easy read and is recommended for younger readers.  It quotes other secondary source books written about Sutter and only Sutter’s interview with H. H. Bancroft is used as original source material.

New Helvetia Diary by John Sutter, John Bidwell, and the other clerks
       This is the day-to-day journal/record of the comings and goings at the Fort.  It is a very dry but incredible document because it shows the great amount of activity and endeavors being accomplished at the Fort.  Sutter’s Fort was a busy place!  It is a dated journal, so you can look up specific dates such as January 28, 1848 when Sutter was told of the gold discovery.  In addition, many people who worked in, or passed through the Fort, are mentioned and their references are indexed.  It is also a good correlation to the other books, manuscripts, and letters regarding Sutter.

Sutter: His Own Words by John Sutter as told to H.H. Bancroft and others and assembled by Erwin G. Gudde
       While this is obviously written with a slant toward Sutter’s own perceptions, and Gudde’s personal criticism of them, it is nice to read what Sutter’s perceptions were.  Quotes from this book are used on the sound box tour within the Fort.  

The Sutter Family and the Origins of Gold Rush Sacramento – Ed. Allan Ottley
       This is the definitive source on the Sutter Family beyond John Sutter Sr.  It contains the Statement of John Sutter Jr. regarding his life and times in California.  It is the definitive source for the birth of Sacramento City and the conflict between the Sutters – Father and Son

Material and Social Culture in 1840’s California

Seventy-five Years in California (or Sixty-Years in California) by William Heath Davis
       This is the definitive work on non-Native social culture in California from 1830 until after the Gold Rush.  Davis devotes individual chapters to vaqueros, missions, ranching, games, sailing and trade, etcetera.  Davis was a contemporary and confidant of most of the influential people of California.  He was the man who brought Sutter to the site of New Helvetia and he recorded Sutter’s landing.  This book truly gives the reader a comprehensive view of socio/cultural life in early California.

Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana
       This is the preeminent source for merchant sailing and the hide and tallow trade between Boston and California.  It is a good read but it offers very little history beyond, the life of a sailor, the hide and tallow trade, and the port pueblos.  It does provide excellent social commentary.

A Tour of Naval Duty in California by Joseph Warren Revere
       While this may sound like a military book, it is actually an extremely insightful work on all aspects of social and material culture in California.  It examines the Mexican Californios, the American Emigrants, and the different California Indians.  It is wonderfully written in Victorian-era style prose with excellent illustrations by the author.  It has many candid comments about the Spanish/Mexican treatment of the Indians, and how their lives changed under American rule.  It is also the definitive history of the American Naval presence in Northern California since Revere was an officer in the American Navy.  He is the man who sent the first American Flag to Sutter’s Fort, and raised the American Flag at Sonoma.  He was also the grandson of Paul Revere.

Military and Political History

California Conquered by Neal Harlow 
       This is a scholarly work of the first degree.  It is the definitive history of the Mexican-American War in California including the pre and post war years.  This book sets the stage for the war, documents the battles and political strife during the war, and explains the political confusion that gripped California after the war and the discovery of gold.  It also has excellent maps by the author and illustrations from original sources.

Fremont by Allen Nevin 
       This is a Pulitzer Prize winner and the best of many books about John Charles Fremont with regard to his experiences in California.  It gives the reader an intimate glimpse of Fremont’s maneuvers at and around Sutter’s Fort.  This is a nice augmentation to the Harlow book because it deals more directly with conditions in Northern California and how the people of the region viewed the war.  This book also addresses Fremont’s role in the Bear Flag Revolt.

Fremont by Ferol Egan 
       While not as scholarly as Nevin’s book, this is still a very good book and a much easier read.  This book is very interpretive, and after reading it, I had the feeling that Mr. Egan had a very insightful understanding of Fremont.  Egan spends many pages on Fremont’s expeditions to California and Fremont’s part in the Bear Flag Revolt and the Mexican American War.
From Mud-flat Cove-To Gold-To Statehood by Irving Stone, excerpted from Men to Match My Mountains
       Though largely undocumented, this is a quick, easy and enjoyable read about California from 1840 to 1850.  It deals primarily with the ever-changing political atmosphere in the region, which means that it discusses the individuals involved in the political squabbles.  It devotes chapters to how each emigrant party and how some of their members influenced life in the region, which makes it especially appropriate for the Environmental Living Education Program.

Pioneers of California by Donovan Lewis
       This book contains biographies of 52 Californians living here in the 1840’s.  Though it has a few glaring errors in history, it is still an excellent resource.  There are biographies of men, women, Americans, Mexicans, African Americans, and Chinese.  This is probably the best material available for the Environmental Living Education Program.  For History Live, by reading how each of these people impacted California, one can get a feeling for the social culture and the interrelated nature of the region.

Men and Women of the Bear Flag Revolt by Barbara Warner
       This is a great resource for the Environmental Living Education Program because it gives biographies of many of the pioneers that the students portray.  The book is well researched; although it’s with the purpose of proving, rather than disproving, Ms. Warner’s hypotheses.  It is also a little Napa-Sonoma centric in its explanations and interpretations of historic events.  It is available in most libraries.

General Reading about California before 1850

What I Saw in California by Edwin Bryant 
       If I could read only one book about California during the Sutter era, this would be it.  This book covers overland migration, Sutter’s Fort, early San Francisco, the Mexican-American War, the Gold Rush, and the social and material culture of California.  It is beautifully written (Bryant was a reporter for the Louisville Courier Journal newspaper when he wrote it) and easy to read.

Bancroft’s History of California by H. H. Bancroft
       This is the definitive encyclopedic history of California (seven volumes) through the Gold Rush.  It contains the “Pioneer Registry” which lists, and gives some information about most persons known to be in California prior to 1848.  It is an excellent resource for locating original sources.  Its liability is that Bancroft clearly writes it from a “white American perspective.”

Echoes of the Past by John Bidwell
       These are three articles written by John Bidwell and originally published in Century Illustrated Magazine in 1890 and 1891 and republished as Echoes of the Past by The California Department of Parks and Recreation in 1987.
       These are three excellent articles written by a man who lived them. Bidwell’s mind was still sharp in 1890 (he ran for President of the U.S. in 1896) and they are a great description of life in California before the Gold Rush.

West from Fort Bridger Edited by Roderic Korns, Dale Morgan, Will Bagley, and Harold Schindler
       This is an excellent book about westward migration from 1846-1850.  It offers excerpts from original source narratives and has more explanatory and documentation footnotes as it has original text.

Diary of Henry Bigler by Henry Bigler
       Bigler came to California with the Mormon Battalion in 1847 and was the only one on-site at the gold discovery who was keeping a diary.  He writes about the days following the gold discovery at the mill site and between the mill and Sutter’s Fort.  His Diary also includes many comments about the journey of the Mormon Battalion to California and the people who worked at the mill and were the first to prospect for gold.

Scoundrel by Will Bagley
       This is the definitive source about the life of Samuel Brannan.  Brannan’s life is put under the microscope.  Brannan was a strong advocate for the founding of Sacramento City and he is often credited with being “the man who started the Gold Rush.”  This is because Brannan advertised the gold discovery through his newspaper The Californian, which began publication in 1846.  Brannan also owned a store outside Sutter’s Fort and one of the first general merchandise stores in Sacramento and at the Coloma gold discovery site.

California Digital Newspaper Collection
       This is an incredible on-line resource of many of the newspapers that have been published in California since 1846.  It is easy to search topics by subject and years and newspapers.

Donner Party

Ordeal by Hunger by George Stewart 
       This is the most “readable” of all of the Donner Party books.  Stewart gives a pretty accurate, though dramatic, account of the Donner Party without going into a minutia of footnotes.

The Donner Party: Weathering the Storm by Mark McGlaughlin 
       In 2006, this book won an award for being the “best California History” nonfiction.  It deals primarily with the entrapment in the mountains and uses both archaeology and written accounts to compare what was happening to the Donner Party and what was happening in the rest of Northern California.  It supports the contention that the Donner Party didn’t initially realize how desperate their situation was because they experienced periods of very pleasant weather.  McGlaughlin provides a very unique meteorological perspective.  Many of the photographs used are from the Sutter’s Fort Archives.    

Archaeology of the Donner Party by Daniel Hardesty 
       This is outstanding and professionally done.  Hardesty compares the “written record” with the archaeological record and gives a “just the facts” account.  It is a short easy read and highly recommended for an introduction to the Donner Party.  Hardesty, and other archaeologists working with him, did much of their preliminary research in the Sutter’s Fort Archives.  Hardesty has dedicated much of his professional life to studying the Donner entrapment.   

History of the Donner Party by C.F. McGlashan
       McGlashan was the first “Donner Scholar.”  He interviewed many of the original survivors and was the first to look in detail at the travails of the Donner Party.  This is a good first read because of the first-hand accounts and how the tragedy was remembered. However, additional literature will show how archaeology and research have changed the story. McGlashan was a Truckee resident and he located the first evidence (since the 1850s) of the Donner campsite and he worked hard to have the lake site preserved as historical monument.

NOTE:  Over 100 books have been written about the Donner Party! 

Gold Rush and Sacramento City

Rush to Riches by J. S. Holiday**
       There are many excellent books about the Gold Rush including The Shirley Letters, The World Rushed In (also by Holiday), etc., but this is the definitive source for Gold Rush history.  It synthesizes the works of many other authors and is filled with hundreds of Gold Rush era photographs.  It may look like a coffee table display book, but it also an excellent historical and social account of the Gold Rush and Gold Rush life.

The Narrative of William Grimshaw as written for the use of H.H. Bancroft and published by the Sacramento Book Collector’s Club in 1964
       Grimshaw arrived in Sacramento during the earliest days of the Gold Rush, when Sutter’s Fort was still the center of commerce.  He comments on the birth of Sacramento and the social and cultural life of the community.