Riches to Rags
Theodor Cordua was the first European to establish a permanent settlement on the site of present-day Marysville, California. Ambitious, enterprising, and hardworking, Cordua accomplished many things; but like so many others who settled in the Sacramento Valley before the gold discovery, fate denied him a lasting success.
Born in 1796 on his father’s estate in Mecklenburg, Germany, young Theodor dreamed of travel and adventure in foreign lands. At age fourteen he became an apprentice to a retail grocer, hoping the mercantile profession would offer the best chances to see the world. Nine years later, after having worked his way via Amsterdam and Capetown to Batavia, Cordua became an official in the Dutch Colonial service, and established himself as a commission merchant in Dutch South America. Soon, his trade extended over the whole of Central America.
Often described as “a fat and jolly, whist-loving man, popular with everybody,” he became wealthy—but lost his whole fortune in 1841, and consequently set sail for the Hawaiian Islands. There, he heard glowing accounts of Swiss immigrant John Sutter’s success in California— then a province of Mexico—and decided to settle in that little known region. Cordua was, or had been, married when he arrived in California, but had evidently left his wife and children behind at some point in his travels.
Now aged forty-five, he landed in Monterey on May 20, 1842. In November of that year he leased five leagues of land (about 23,000 acres) from John Sutter, within the fork formed by the Yuba and Feather Rivers, trading goods valued at $8,000 he had brought from Hawaii for cattle and horses. There was already a Nisenan village in the area, and he depended on them for the labor on his farm. In 1843 he built an adobe farmhouse, storehouse and trading post at the southern end of what is now D Street in Marysville, and in 1844, after becoming a naturalized Mexican citizen, he was awarded a land grant of about 31,000 acres that adjoined his leased land.
He named this property Rancho Honcut, but called his entire holdings New Mecklenburg, in hopes that he would one day be able to share it with his fellow countrymen. Cordua erected more out-buildings, laid out gardens and fields, and added pigs and chickens to his thriving establishment. He hired people who had arrived with the 1845 and 1846 wagon trains, and continued to prosper during 1846 and through 1847.
However, the Gold Rush ruined Cordua just as it did John Sutter and many others: his workers abandoned him, his crops went unharvested, and unscrupulous gold-rushers stole his supplies and livestock. In 1848, Cordua sold one-half of his land to his former employee Charles Covillaud, and in January 1849 sold the other half to Covillaud’s brothers-in-law William Foster and Michael Nye. In 1850 Cordua’s former holdings became Marysville—named for Covillaud’s wife Mary, a Donner Party survivor—but Theodor Cordua had moved on to other newly-established Gold Rush towns, vainly hoping to restore his lost fortunes.
In 1852 he sailed to Hawaii where he remained until he returned to his homeland in 1856. Nothing is known of his wife (or wives); he had a daughter (living in Germany) who married in 1848, and apparently had at least one son. Theodor Cordua died in Gustrow, Germany, on October 8, 1857, before he could finalize plans to start anew on Vancouver Island. Cordua Bar on the Yuba River is named for him.