A military post was established on September 28, 1849, on Bear Creek, located near present Marysville in Yuba County. The post was strategically placed to safeguard the travel routes to the area's mines. until 1851 it was known as Camp or Cantonment Far West, then as Fort Ear West. It was abandoned on May 4, 1852.
Gold rush days in early California posed a series of contradictions, as far as Captain Hannibal Day was concerned. As commanding officer of Cantonment Far West, a temporary camp that lasted three years, he noted that the hardy and well armed miner was being defended by an under-fed and scurvy-weakened soldier from "a miserable race of savages . . . armed only with the bow and arrow."
Despite his post's mission to protect the emigrant trails and wagon roads to the mines, Day reported, "So far as the defense of the territory is concerned, no better force could be needed than the present population of the mines, armed and equipped as they very generally are."
At least two problems were at the root of the situation however. Desertion that weakened every California fort during 1850 touched Cantonment Far West equally. One captain and 27 enlisted men had taken off for the mines in the last half of 1849. Then the entire teamster detail followed suit, but first hampering pursuit by driving off the post's mounts. Day asked department headquarters what they had in mind for the officers to do, "when we shall have no rank and file left, which, I fancy, will not be a very distant period of time."
One staff officer at headquarters commented that the California regiments soon would be at the stage characterized by a senior officer as "terrestrial happiness: an Army without soldiers."
The second problem faced by Day was the makeshift situation at Far West. "As for hard service in this territory, with all imaginable deprivations and uncomfortable position," he complained, "I will not yield to anyone of the regiment."
His place at Far West was a small plateau of high ground near Bear Creek, a tributary of the Sacramento river. It was founded in 1849 as an overnight camp on land owned by a cousin of William T. Sherman, then an aide to the departmental commander, and was considered as little more than temporary during its whole career.
Northern California's autumn being less than tropical, however, within a month Day reported four soldiers had died. He said that the post surgeon predicted more fatalities unless "we can shelter ourselves from the winter rains" and noted that a saw mill 20 miles from the post would sell lumber for buildings. He thought the Army should take advantage of this source of shelter, not only to do "justice to a command already reduced by desertion," but because "more attention is due to the comfort of those who 'stand by their colors."'
On December 16 he was able to report that a log cabin hospital was finished "and other similar structures are in progress of completion for the two companies."
No sooner had the first of the log cabins been finished that Day was told that his lumber requisition had arrived and was at Vernon, the head of navigation of the river. "I was somewhat apprehensive that our previous outlay for log cabins and a beginning of shingles might prove unnecessary and extravagant," be commented, "but on discharging the transport, it was found that we had but about 12,000 feet of boards . . . some 8,000 feet were landed at Vernon and in use there for building but for whom and by whose authority does not appear."
Work was pushed on two 20- by 40-foot barracks. Winter set in before both could be completed. One with a shingle roof served for troops while one with a canvas top was appropriated as a supply warehouse. Officers' quarters were log cabins or floor-boarded tents while a tent had to serve for a guardhouse.
By mid-January, 1850, Cantonment Far West was becoming more comfortable. "By extraordinary exertion between the heavy falls of rain," the commander reported, "we have succeeded in completing our main cabin with shingle roof, and said stores are this moment being placed therein, being the first moment such a thing has been possible and the companies are ordered to occupy their cabin."
Scurvy continued to harass the garrison. In February a boat arrived but it turned out whatever was aboard was private property. It was for sale "on private account of someone." Of course the post bad no money or authority to buy.
When the winter of 1849-50 began to break up in March, Day immediately sent his quartermaster with requisitions for vinegar, sugar, garden hoses, scythes, and a half dozen ball and chain sets. He found that many of his requisitions had been filled, but without boats to negotiate the creek he had no way to get them over the primitive road to his post.
By April, the soil was firm enough for supply movement, and other movement. Miners and other settlers reported Indian skirmishes, but the miners' rifles outmatched the Indians "in which their skill in archery was found quite inefficient." Day said that at one point the miners planned to send a petition for Army protection, "but probably a 'sober second thought' seemed to shame them of the transaction . . . From all the information I can gather, the aggression was rather on the part of the whites towards the natives."
His theory was reinforced the next month when two settlers were attacked by Indians, despite a reputation of having "been all winter on the most friendly terms with the Indians and even more have treated them kindly and hospitably." Apparently some white men had attacked an Indian camp earlier in the belief that missing cattle had been rustled by them. The return of the accidentally strayed stock did nothing to resurrect two slain braves, and the tribesmen struck out at the nearest white men "as the most available victims and considering after such outrages all white men were equally at fault."
Day's comments, made in 1850, were appropriate for the remaining two years of the post:
"With the present reduced state of my command," be said, "a military station here or at any other point in this valley seems but as the merest pretense of protection or aid of any kind to the inhabitants, as I have not the force or ability to send ten bayonets a mile from camp on any duty whatever. So far as the mining population is concerned, they are competent for their own protection . . . "
He suggested that the Indian agent visit the tribes and notify them "of what will be their probable fate unless they discontinue their thieving and submit with a better grace to being shot down, although it may seem strange to them to be thus intruded upon by the whites . . . and they must vacate their hunting grounds in favor of our gold-diggers."
Cantonment Far West site is marked by graveyard and vandalized monument. Reportedly the monument stands on original location of flagpole for Army post. Far West was known variously as camp, fort, and cantonment, but last appears most frequently in official correspondence from post.
A slight slope marks the site of Cantonment Far West and stone-fenced cemetery on location. The post commander considered it a "Botany Bay" place, after the Australian convict colony, in his official correspondence, but be defended it in letters to subordinates, When a lieutenant asked for reassignment, the commander rejected request with comment, "Wiser heads than ours, or at least those of superior rank, have placed us in this peculiarly uncomfortable position and we must take care of ourselves with such means and appliances as are available." Discipline at the post was a continual problem, records of 1850 showing that private was found guilty of stealing gold dust from civilian. Sentenced to 200 lashes, he confessed after 20 and told where $1,200 worth of dust was hidden. The commander asked permission to dishonorably discharge him, "branded as he is with infamy and disgrace by the lashes, so deservedly inflicted." Settlers were not lily white either. The post commander in 1851 complained he could not reenlist soldiers because local justice of peace was "obliged to run from the sheriff under an indictment of grand jury." This left the area with no one to give the reenlistment oath.
The Daughters of the Golden West placed this marker to commemorate pioneers buried in Far West Graveyard. Papers and other souvenirs put inside were stolen long ago, and this plate is only one of four remaining. Its accuracy is open to question. Captain Day's official correspondence file shows that Private "Newton Barrs" died on 10 July 1849, "Harbor of San Francisco Cal. on board transport," and it is unlikely remains were taken to new cantonment for burial.
This page was reprinted with permission from Pioneer Forts of the Far West, published in 1965
Other Online Histories
Three Historic Posts in Northeastern California (Fort Far West, Fort Reading and Camp Bidwell)