Berengena Oscura

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With the obvious exception of the natives, no one is as sharply stricken by the convergences of time as Johann Augustus Sutter. He has come into a scene in which gold is unsuspected–this blue-eyed blond and ruddy, bankrupt Swiss dry-goods merchant, with his broad-brimmed hat and his broader belly and his exceptionally creative dream. He is thirty-six years old. He envisions a wilderness fiefdom–less than a kingdom but more than a colony–with himself as a kind of duke…

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…but better to leave him on July 4, 1848, sitting at the head of his table in the storehouse of his fort, host of a party he is giving to celebrate–for the first time in California–the independence of the United States. He has fifty guests. With toasts, entertainment, oratory, beef, fowl, champagne, Sauternes, sherry, Madeira, and brandy, he presents a dinner that costs him the equivalent of sixty thousand dollars (in the foothills’ suddenly inflated prices converted into modern figures). In no way has he shown resentment that rejection has met his appeal to secure his claims in a discovery of sufficient magnitude to pay for a civil war. Seated on his right is Richard Barnes Mason. Seated on his left is William Tecumseh Sherman.

-Assembling California, John McPhee

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