California brick

George Zins


George Zins was Sacramento's first brickmaker when he began making bricks at his yard at Sutterville about June 1847. William Willis in History of Sacramento, California, in 1913 wrote, "He stamped each brick with his initials. The Crocker Art Gallery Museum and the Museum of the Pioneer Association each contain one of them." However, inquiry into the brick found that the Crocker Art Gallery no longer has the brick and the Pioneer Association did not respond.

When Mike Peters wrote in April 2015, that he had found a brick on the Sacramento River that was marked "GZ," I asked him to send a picture and measurements of the brick. Sure enough, on the face of the crude red brick were impressed George Zins initials, and the "Z" was printed backwards. Thanks to Mike Peters' discovery, we can now see what the first brick made in Sacramento looks like.

According to the California Department of Parks and Recreation, the brick building that Zins erected at Sutterville in 1847 was one of the first brick structures made in California. Hubert H. Bancroft and other historians claimed that it was the first brick house erected in California. However, those statements have been challenged by brick structures erected at Fort Ross as early as 1825 and by the Mormon Battalion at Old Town San Diego in April 1847. Brick houses were also built about the same time in 1847 at Monterey and San Francisco.

George Zins was a native of Lorraine, France, and he was born about 1819. He immigrated to the United States in 1841. He then came to California by wagon with Heinrich Lienhard and three other immigrants, arriving at Sutter's Fort in October 1846. An obituary states that he took part in the Bear Flag Revolt under Fremont, but his name does not appear on Fremont's Battalion or Bear Flag rosters. He married Dorothea Wolfinger, a Donner Party survivor, on June 20, 1847. They had a daughter and a son. Together, they began making bricks at Sutterville.

No description of Zins' brickyard was found. The brick indicates that surface material was used to form the brick in wooden molds. In the bottom of the mold were set two letters of the maker's initials. The bricks were probably air-dried on the ground and when sufficiently dried, burned in field kilns fired by wood. The first kiln in 1847 burned 40,000 bricks, of which 30,000 went into Zins' Sutterville house and 10,000 went to Sutter's Fort. According to George Wright, 1880, John Sutter kept two of the marked bricks as mementoes in his window, making him the first recorded brick collector in California. Other pioneers also saved the bricks as relics as they became available, such as Mrs. J. W. Davis, who displayed hers in the Loan Association Exhibit in 1885. Another 100,000 bricks were fired in the fall of 1848. Most of these bricks went to Sutter's Fort or into the first brick structures at Sutterville.

In the spring of 1849, on land that John Sutter, Jr., gave to them, the Zins commenced to build the first brick building in Sacramento. The lot was bounded by Front, Second, M, and N streets. Zins and Dorothea hauled the bricks from their Sutterville yard to the site by ox teams. Dorothea made the mortar and carried the hod, while George laid the brick. The two-story house with a basement was completed by October of that year. In September 1852, Zins sold the house to Jacob Bininger, who called it the Green Tree Hotel. It later became the Pioneer Hotel. It survived the great fire of November 1852, but was destroyed by fire in July 1884.

In the spring of 1850, Zins probably supplied the bricks that went into the brewery built at 29th and J streets in Sacramento. George Zins partnered with George Weiser (Weber) to start their own brewery here. However, the brewery was destroyed by fire and Zins was financially wrecked. Zins may have sold his Sutterville brickyard to Petit and Queen in 1850.

By May 1854, George and his wife were farming on the west bank of the Feather River near Nicolaus in Sutter County. Dorothea died in 1861 at the age of about 44 years. George remained on the farm until October 1885, when he moved to Oakland, Alameda County. He had contracted bronchitis and died two weeks later on October 24, 1885, at the age of about 66 years.

Zins Brick

Common brick is pale red and mostly uniform in color. Form is irregular with undulating dull edges and dull corners. Surface is coated with sand and contains large pits 1/4 to 5/8 inch in diameter. Sides display stack indentations. Marked face contains recessed serif block letters of the maker's initials "G Z" with the "Z" printed backwards. The mark spans 3 1/4 inches and stands 1 1/2 inches in height. A few white subangular quartz, as much as 1/4 inch in diameter, are visible on the surface. This brick was made using the soft-mud process. Length 8 1/2, width 4, height 2 1/2 inches.

View of the marked face of Zins common brick.
View of the marked face of Zins common brick. Photo courtesy of Mike Peters.

References, New Orleans, Passenger List Quarterly Abstracts, 1820-1875 [database on-line], Operations, Inc., Provo, Utah, 2011.

Bancroft, Hubert H., History of California, Vol. VI, 1848-1859, The Works of Hubert Howe Bancroft, v. 23, The History Company, San Francisco, California, 1888, p. 448.

California Department of Parks and Recreation, California Historical Landmarks, Resources Agency, Sacramento, California, 1981.

Concerning the Pioneer Brick Building, Sacramento Daily Union, July 24, 1884.

Death of George Zins, Oakland Tribune, October 30, 1885.

Dixon, Kelly J., Schablitsky, Julie M., and Novak, Shannon A., An Archaeology of Desperation: Exploring the Donner Party's Alder Creek Camp, University of Oklahoma Press, Oklahoma, 2014.

Federal Census Records, 1850.

Federal Census Records, 1880.

First Brick House, Sacramento Daily Union, February 1, 1873.

Heringer, Mark, California Historical Landmark, (accessed July 9, 2010).

Lienhard, Heinrich, A Pioneer at Sutter's Fort, 1846-1850, Calafia Society, Los Angeles, California, 1941.

Oakland Times, October 26, 1885.

Peters, Mike, written communications, 2015.

Sacramento Daily Union, March 21, 1885.

Special Collections of the Sacramento Public Library, Sacramento's Gold Rush Saloons: El Dorado in a Shot Glass, The History Press, Sacramento, California, 2014.

The Pioneer Brick, Sacramento Daily Union, May 31, 1854.

Willis, William L., History of Sacramento County, California, Historic Record Co., Los Angeles, California, 1913.

Wright, George F., editor, History of Sacramento County, California, Thompson and West, Oakland, California, 1880.

Copyright 2015 Dan Mosier

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