Sutter’s Fort

Sutter’s Fort

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John Augustus Sutter was born in Europe to Swiss-German parents in 1803. It was here he built an empire known as New Helvetia (New Switzerland.) The walls were 2 1/2 feet thick and 15 to 18 feet high, and he developed flourishing crops, such as grapes and wheat.Sutter aligned himself with the Mexican authorities, at one point, with his various land grants; Sutter owned more than 150,000 acres of the Central Valley. Fremont and Kit Carson as well.In 1848, a carpenter working for Sutter, discovered gold at the sawmill Sutter was having built in Coloma, on the American River. Less than a decade after they were established, Sutter’s properties were overrun by gold seekers and the fort is all that remains of New Helvetia.The Native Sons of the Golden West were influential in the restoration of the Fort which began in 1891 and was completed in 1893. Sutter's Fort stands as the oldest restored Fort in the United States.Today, the Fort is furnished and reconstructed to reflect its 1846 appearance, and is open for self guided tours.

John Sutter

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John Sutter, in full John Augustus Sutter, original name Johann August Suter, (born February 15, 1803, Kandern, Baden [Germany]—died June 18, 1880, Washington, D.C.), German-born Swiss pioneer settler and colonizer in California. Discovery of gold on his land in 1848 precipitated the California Gold Rush.

Sutter spent much of his early life in Switzerland he was a Swiss citizen and served in the Swiss army. Fleeing from bankruptcy and financial failures and leaving his wife and children in Switzerland, he reached California in 1839 and persuaded the Mexican governor to grant him lands on the Sacramento River. There, at its junction with the American River, he established the colony of Nueva Helvetia (New Switzerland), later to become Sacramento. He built “Sutter’s Fort” (1841), set up frontier industries, and, in spite of his enormous debts, provided lavish hospitality, and often employment, to traders, trappers, and immigrants who came to his fort. Sutter was much less accommodating to the local Native Americans whose labour he exploited.

Gold discovered at Sutter’s Creek

A millwright discovers gold along the banks of Sutter’s Creek in California, forever changing the course of history in the American West.

A tributary to the South Fork of the American River in the Sacramento Valley east of San Francisco, Sutter’s Creek was named for a Swiss immigrant who came to Mexican California in 1839. John Augustus Sutter became a citizen of Mexico and won a grant of nearly 50,000 acres in the lush Sacramento Valley, where he hoped to create a thriving colony. He built a sturdy fort that became the center of his first town, New Helvetia, and purchased farming implements, livestock, and a cannon to defend his tiny empire. Copying the methods of the Spanish missions, Sutter induced the local Indians to do all the work on his farms and ranches. Workers who dared leave his empire without permission were often brought back by armed posses to face brutal whippings or even execution.

In the 1840s, Sutter’s Fort became the first stopping-off point for overland Anglo-American emigrants coming to California to build farms and ranches. Though sworn to protect the Mexican province from falling under the control of the growing number of Americans, Sutter recognized that his future wealth and influence lay with these Anglo settlers. With the outbreak of the Mexican War in 1846, he threw his support to the Americans, who emerged victorious in the fall of 1847.

With the war over and California securely in the hands of the United States, Sutter hired the millwright James Marshall to build a sawmill along the South Fork of the American River in January 1848. In order to redirect the flow of water to the mill’s waterwheel, Marshall supervised the excavation of a shallow millrace. On the morning of January 24, 1848, Marshall was looking over the freshly cut millrace when a sparkle of light in the dark earth caught his eye. Looking more closely, Marshall found that much of the millrace was speckled with what appeared to be small flakes of gold, and he rushed to tell Sutter. After an assayer confirmed that the flakes were indeed gold, Sutter quietly set about gathering up as much of the gold as he could, hoping to keep the discovery a secret. However, word soon leaked out and, within months, the largest gold rush in the world had begun.

John Sutter and California’s Indians

Although financially ruined by the discovery of gold on his property in California in 1848, John Augustus Sutter is popularly perceived in California and Western history as an ambitious but magnanimous entrepreneur who was sympathetic to American settlement in Mexican California and treated the overlanders of the early 1840s with hospitable compassion. However, this popular–and essentially factual–image fails to consider Sutter’s confrontational and explosive relations with the California Indians.

Having abandoned his wife, five children and debts in Bern, Switzerland in 1834, Sutter arrived in Mexican California in July 1839 posing as a Swiss Guard officer forced to flee the French Revolution of 1830. A contemporary compared Sutter’s uniform and grandiose manner to those of Hernan Cortes “in his palmist days.” In 1841, by sheer force of personality and insightful awareness of political intrigue and conflict in California, Sutter persuaded Governor Juan Bautista Alvarado to grant him 11 square leagues or 48,400 acres (the maximum legal limit for a private rancho in Mexican California) at a site near the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers that he had previously selected in 1839.

Sutter also led Alvarado to believe that a large land grant in the Sacramento Valley would discourage Americans from infiltrating the Mexican colony. Upon becoming a Mexican citizen to qualify for the grant, he names it Nueva Helvetia or New Switzerland. Alvarado also bestowed on Sutter the authority “to represent in the Establishment of New Helvetia all the laws of the country, to function as political authority and dispenser of justice, in order to prevent the robberies committed by adventurers from the United States, to stop the invasion of savage Indians (who often raided the scattered coastal settlements), and the hunting and trading by companies from the Columbia (river).” The latter was an obvious reference primarily to England’s Hudson’s Bay Company. From Sutter’s Fort (in present-day Sacramento) the first white settle in California’s vast Central Valley built an economically productive empire that relied heavily on Indian labor.

Sutter, despite what he had told Alvarado, went on to play a prominent role in the early settlement of California by Americans. His strategically placed fort on the overland trails became a convenient place of refuge where travelers were treated very hospitably. This incurred the wrath of Mexican officials. Later, in his memoirs, Sutter explained: “I gave passports to those entering the country…and this (they) did not like, I was friendly with the emigrants of whom (they) were jealous. I encouraged immigration, while they discouraged it. I sympathized with the Americans while they hated them.” Indeed, it was from John Sutter’s Fort that several relief and rescue parties were dispatched into the mountains to save what was left of the ill-fated Donner Party in early 1847. While Sutter undoubtedly saw the emigrants as employees, buyers of his land and customers for the products of his diverse enterprises, the Anglo overlanders regarded him as generous and obliging. According to historian Robert Cleland, “At Sutter’s, these immigrants, exhausted and half-starved…found shelter, food and clothing, and an opportunity to learn something of the new land and people to which they had come.” John Bidwell, who led the initial organized party of settlers to California in 1841 and later was employed by Sutter, wrote that “he was one of the most liberal and hospitable of men.”

As a result of James Marshall’s famous gold discovery at Sutter’s Mill on January 24, 1848, Sutter lost his landed wealth, and his early open-handed kindness to the Americans was soon forgotten. His workers deserted him for the lure of gold, and American squatters seized and riotously despoiled his vast properties. By 1852, litigation over title to contested land had led to bankruptcy. While the California legislature gave him a pension of $250 per month from 1862 until 1878, Sutter never recovered from financial disaster. Despite numerous petitions to the U.S. Congress and an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the grand old man of the Sacramento Valley and former friend of American pioneers died impoverished in 1880 in a Washington, D.C., hotel room, far from the site of his famous old fort.

Although this much about Sutter and his ultimate fate is generally known, his relations with the native peoples in the Sacramento Valley have received insufficient attention from historians. While extending kindness and generosity to Americans settling in Mexican California, he generally exploited, often ruthlessly, the local Indians in his early rise to power and wealth.

The successful operation of California’s Mexican-era rancho system was based largely on Indian labor. In exchange for their services, the Indians customarily were rewarded with shelter, food, clothing and, at times, such trinkets as glass beads. In effect, they were serfs to the rancheros, who ruled their landed estates as feudal lords. Like other rancheros such as his nearest California neighbor, Mariano G. Vallejo of Petaluma and Sonoma, Sutter promised some tribes protection from their traditional Indian enemies in order to win their political support and secure an essential labor force. For example, he formed an alliance with Chief Narcisco, a Christian convert, who also was the leader of the Ochecames within Sutter’s pastoral domain.

The Ochecames and the other local natives with whom Sutter forged alliances were often products of the Spanish mission system. Therefore, they were skilled in agriculture, animal husbandry, masonry and various crafts. Sutter used them to build his fort, raise his crops, care for thousands of cattle, sheep, horses and hogs, catch his fish, deliver pelts for his profitable beaver trade, and serve as soldiers against other tribes he suspected of stealing his horses and destroying his property. However, Sutter’s methods of recruiting and maintaining his native labor force raise serious moral questions about his legendary liberality and benevolence.

Contemporary observers at Sutter’s Fort claimed that he resorted to “kidnapping, food privation, and slavery” to force Indians to work for him. He also manipulated and rewarded native chiefs to secure the labor of tribal members. Heinrich Lienhard, a Swiss employee at the fort, observed that the chiefs “received far better pay than the poor wretches who worked as common laborers, and had to slave two weeks for a plain muslin shirt, of the material for a pair of cotton trousers.” Sutter also adopted the practice of paying his Indian workers in pieces of cheap tin currency to be exchanged for merchandise at his store. Most likely, the system worked to Sutter’s advantage. Theodor Cordua, a Prussian rancher living in nearby Marysville who initially leased land from Sutter before acquiring his own large land grant, provided perhaps the most incriminating indictment of Sutter’s Indian labor policy: “Those who did not want to work were considered enemies. With the other tribes the field was taken against the hostile Indian…the villages were attacked usually before daybreak when everybody was asleep. Neither old nor young was spared…and often the Sacramento River was colored red by the blood of the innocent Indians.” While Cordua may have been guilty of exaggeration, it is nonetheless well documented that Sutter was inclined to punish harshly those he suspected of treachery or insubordination. Such was the case when the harvest at New Helvetia conflicted with good hunting or acron season, and his Indian laborers left the fort to provide for their families. To intimidate and terrify his workers into submission, he sent armed posses into the foothills to capture and punish runaways, whipping and even executing those who repeatedly resisted.

It is clear that Sutter was no benevolent despot to the Indians he employed. At the end of a day’s work, they were placed in holding pens or locked in rooms. Lienhard described graphically their incarceration: “As the room had neither beds nor straw, the inmates were forced to sleep on the bare floor. When I opened the door for them in the morning, the odor that greeted me was overwhelming, for no sanitary arrangements had been provided. What these rooms were like after ten days or two weeks can be imagined, and the fact that nocturnal confinement was not agreeable to the Indians was obvious. Large numbers deserted during the daytime, or remained outside the fort when the gates were locked.”

Feeding time at the fort brought forth especially negative commentary from contemporary visitors. James Clyman, a Virginia-born mountain man who had no reason to sympathize with the Indians since they nearly took his life twice during attacks in the Rocky Mountains, nonetheless recalled in 1846 that Sutter fed his Indians like animals. “The Capt. [Sutter] keeps 600 to 800 Indians in a complete state of Slavery and as I had the mortification of seeing them dine I may give a short description. 10 or 15 Troughs 3 or 4 feet long were brought out of the cook room and seated in the Broiling sun. All the Labourers grate [sic] and small ran to the troughs like so many pigs and fed themselves with their hands as long as the troughs contained even a moisture.” Dr. G.M. Waseurtz af Sandels, a Swedish naturalist and artist visiting Sutter in 1842, left a description of mealtime that supported Clyman’s later observations: “I could not reconcile my feelings to see these fellows being driven, as it were, around some narrow troughs of hollow tree trunks, out of which, crouched on their haunches, they fed more like beasts than human beings, using their hands in hurried manner to convey to their mouths the thin porage [sic] which was served to them. Soon they filed off to the fields after having, I fancy, half satisfied their physical wants.”

Sutter also sold Indians into slavery. The reputable Indian historian Jack Forbes asserts that Sutter’s forces captured Indians from remote villages and then sold them to rancheros in coastal California. This slave trade also included the kidnapping and selling of Indian children. In 1876, at his home in Lititz, Pa., Sutter dictated his reminiscences to the famous California historian and bibliophile Hubert H. Bancroft. Based on the information provided, Bancroft reported that “from the first, [Sutter] was in the habit of seizing Indian children, who were retained as servants, or slaves, at his own establishment, or sent to his friends in different parts of the country[Alta California]. But he always took care to capture for his purpose only children from distant or hostile tribes…”

Sutter did not attempt to rationalize the Indian slave trade in his reminiscences other than to state that “it was common in those days to seize Indian women and children and sell them. This the Californians (Mexican Californios) did as well as Indians.” Although the enslavement and sale of Indian women and children was a relatively universal practice in Mexican and early American California, Sutter arguably was one of its earliest and most active white participants.

In the Spring of 1846, Sutter gave about a dozen Indian slaves to fellow California businessman William A. Leidersdorff to help pay off a debt. Leidersdorff, although Sutter and most others had no idea, was a black man (of Danish-African ancestry) who apparently saw nothing wrong with having native American slaves ( see “Westerners” in the February 2001 issue of Wild West).

Whatever the frequency of Sutter’s kidnappings and sale of California Indians, inhumane business was sufficiently extensive and troublesome to force Governor Alvarado to intervene. He explained: “The public can see how inhuman were the operations of Sutter who had no scruples about depriving Indian mothers of their children. Sutter has sent these little Indian children as gifts to people who live far from the place of their birth, without demanding of them any promises that in their homes the Indians should be treated with kindness. Sutter’s conduct was so deplorable that if I had not succeeded in persuading Sutter to stop the kidnapping operations it is probable that there would have been a general uprising of Indians within the Northern district under Sutter’s jurisdiction as a Mexican official.”

With the beginning of the California Gold Rush in 1849, self-proclaimed “Captain Sutter of the Royal Swiss Guard of France” fell victim, like the Indians whose labor and lives he had taken, to a new, gold-crazed, socially unstable and economically rapacious California. Within two decades of the gold rush, the Indian population had been reduced dramatically by disease, homicide and the disruption of traditional food sources.

Despite American exploitation and increased extermination of the California Indians, it is difficult to accept historian Richard Dillon’s conclusion that “in comparison with most Americans and Mexican Californians, (Sutter) was pro-Indian, in a decidedly paternalistic way.” There is little evidence to support such a generous characterization. Instead, it appears that his popular image of Christian charity, based on his compassionate treatment of the early American immigrants to Mexican California, needs to be re-evaluated in light of his Indian policy. This is especially appropriate because Sutter was given the official responsibility of overseeing Indian relations in the Sacramento Valley, and under the terms of his land grant, maintaining “the native Indians of the different tribes…in the enjoyment and liberty of their possessions, without molesting them…(or) making war upon them in any way without previously obtaining authority (from) the government.” Obviously, he wantonly violated and neglected his responsibility as the official supervisor of Indian affairs in his assigned territory.

While Sutter had to perform his duties in an often volatile Indian environment in an isolated part of Mexico’s raw California frontier, it is clear beyond any reasonable doubt that he, the American immigrants’ friend and supporter, was also an exploiter and enslaver of the often hapless California Indians. While some may regard John Sutter as a tragic figure in Western history, the Indians’ ultimate fate that he helped to precipitate was a far greater tragedy.

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Historic Northern California Sutters Fort

John Sutter was born in 1803 at Kandern, Baden, Germany. A flat forested land a few miles from the Swiss border where his father managed a paper mill. Sutter became an apprentice in a book publishing house as a teenager in Basel on the Rhine.

By the age of 23 he was working as a clerk and married Annette Dubeld. His subsequent ventures as owner of a dry goods and drapery shop proved to be financial failures.

In 1834, at the age of 31, Sutter sailed for New York, leaving his wife, five children, and his debts behind. Sutter would not be reunited with his family for 16 years.

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Settling in Missouri, Sutter in 1835 and 1836 is believed to have joined trading caravans headed for Santa Fe. In 1838 he traveled with the American Fur Co. and eventually journeyed to the Hudson's Bay Co. Pacific headquarters at Fort Vancouver in Washington State.

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During his stay at the fort, Sutter observed how a fort was run. He also set out to acquire letters of recommendation which he would later use to establish credit.

From Canada, Sutter sailed to Honolulu on the Hudson's Bay Co. ship Columbia. Stranded there for four months waiting for further passage, he used his letters of recommendations to impress leaders on Hawaii, in turn collecting even more influential endorsements.

He finally boarded the trading ship Clementine for Sitka, Alaska. With him were eight working class Hawaiians. Sutter sailed to Yerba Buena's harbor (San Francisco) on July 1, 1839, but heeded Mexican orders to put in at Monterey, the official port of entry.

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In mid-August of 1839, Sutter and his laborers sailed on the schooner Isabella and two smaller boats up the Sacramento River and eventually up the American River, landing at the intersection of 28th and C Streets in present day Sacramento. His laborers promptly built the first buildings of the Colony which were grass structures.

Sutter considered himself Swiss. He was a registered citizen of Ruenberg, Republic of Basel, as had been his father and grandfather. He was skilled in Indian affairs and overly generous to settlers. A polished gentleman, he valued books and kept his vision of settling the new frontier uppermost.

In the summer of 1840, Sutter, using both his growing work force and local Indians, began building what would become an adobe fort. The walls were 2.5 feet thick and 15-18 feet high. The compound was 320 feet long.

Sutters Fort was larger than Fort Laramie and half the size of Fort Vancouver. His headquarters was the Central Building, a three floored structure located in the middle of the Fort compound.

He had quarters for some of his workers, a bakery, blanket factory, blacksmith shop, carpenter shop and other workshops within the fort. He located a tannery on the American River. .

Dwellings for guests and his vaqueros were also outside the fort. Probably no more than 50 people stayed inside at any one time prior to 1845. A maximum of 30 people could have used the fort during daylight hours.

Wheat farming, barley, peas and beans, cotton, for trading, a successful whiskey and brandy distillery provided Sutter, his Indians and staff, with food and provisions. He exported wheat to Russian Alaska. He issued passports to the American immigrants who were first his guests, later his customers.

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The "New Helvetia" (New Switzerland) land grant was given to Sutter in 1841 by Governor Juan Alvarado. Sutter had become a Mexican citizen in 1840 to qualify for his grant which contained approximately 11 leagues of land or 47,827 acres. He was expected to maintain order among the Indians and to secure the land for Mexico in return. By 1845, Sutter had 1,700 horses and mules, 4,000 cattle, and 3,000 sheep at New Helvetica. In February 1845, Gov. Meiceltorena needed military assistance against a revolt and so he appointed Sutter "Captain of Sacramento Troops" and gave his the "Sobrante" land grant of 33 leagues. The U.S. Supreme Court declared this land grant invalid in 1858.

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In 1841 Sutter bought Fort Ross near present day Bodega Bay, the only Russian settlement in Alta, California, for $30,000 on credit. He was to pay off this debt in four years with produce and coin. The purchase of Fort Ross brought Sutter many needed supplies such as sawn lumber, cannon, hardware, and numerous livestock.

Sutter's Fort, of course, flew the Mexican flag as we do today. However, the 1840's were times of political turmoil in California and as more Americans arrived, Sutter maintained a friendly relationship with Americans and Mexicans alike. In 1846, the Bear Flag Revolt in Sonoma caused a new flag, a lone star to be raised briefly over Sutter's Fort.

On July 11, 1846, Sutter and his U.S. Naval Officers replaced the Lone Star flag with the 28 star American Flag. Capt. John C. Fremont took over command of the Fort for a short period because of Sutter's relationship with the Mexican government. Sutter was given back his command of the fort in March of 1847.

Sutter's Fort became famous as a temporary refuge for pioneers between 1841 and 1849. Undoubtedly inspired by his warm hosts at other forts in earlier days, Sutter provided free shelter and supplies to weary settlers. He recruited immigrants for his settlement not only in the U.S., but also in Switzerland and Germany.

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One such group helped was the Donner Party. During the winter of 1846-1847, eighty-nine of the party were trapped in high snows at Donner Pass in the Sierra Nevada Mountains after taking an alleged shortcut.

They were taken by surprise by early snows that halted the party's advance down the mountains just west of present-day Truckee. Sutter sent several rescue parties, who brought back forth-seven survivors. The last of which weren't reached until Spring.

They survived by eating the flesh of the dead. The rest, forty-two members of the Donner Party, perished. Patty Reed's Doll, an artifact from the Donner Party encampment was donated to the Fort for exhibit and has been a highlight especially for children who visit the Fort. The Donner Party soon became a rally cry of just how arduous the journey could be and the dangers that faced early settlers.

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Sutter contracted James W. Marshall in 1847 to build a sawmill on the south fork of the American River about 50 miles east of the fort, now present-day Coloma.

On January 24, 1848 Marshall was trying to deepen the tailrace of the mill and accidentally discovered gold. Sutter tried to keep the discovery a secret and swore his men to secrecy until the mill was finished. To support the mill, Sutter built a 50 mile long road to the mill along the banks of the American River.

On a supply run to the fort, one of the children exclaimed they had found gold. The news was leaked and soon thousands seeking gold came to California to search for their fortune.

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Many began using the fort as a wayside station for transient miners and as a trading post for miners supplies. Unscrupulous men began swindling Sutter out of his holding and squatters took over much of his land.

Sutter's debts began piling up so he transferred his holdings to his eldest son, John A. Sutter, Jr. who had emigrated during the summer of 1848. The fort was sold for the meager sum of $7,000 at the end of 1849 and was no longer in Sutter's control.

Anna, Sutter's wife, came to California with the remaining children in 1850. Sutter retired to his ranch, the Hock Farm, on the Feather River near Marysville with his family. Sutter was long known for his immense generosity and poor business sense. When one of his daughters was married, he threw an elaborate wedding complete with a rented steamer.

Unfortunately, a year later, the daughter was divorced. Sutter lived at the Hock Ranch until June 1865 when his home was burned down in an act of vengeful arson by a former employee. It destroyed many of Sutter's historical accounts, journals, and objects.

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Sutter then decided to go to Washington, D.C. and along with his wife tried to obtain reimbursement from Congress for his aid to emigrants his help in colonizing the State of California (he was a member of the Monterey Convention the drew up the California State Constitution in 1849) and his losses from having his Sobrante Land Grant declared invalid by the courts.

The family settled in Lititz, Pennsylvania in 1871 while trying to get Congress to pass a bill for his reimbursement. On June 16th, 1880 Congress adjourned without passing a bill that would have given him $50,000 in reimbursement.

John Sutter died two days later and was buried at the Moravian Brotherhood's Cemetery in Lititz, PA. Hi wife was buried alongside him six month later.

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Reconstruction of the Fort

By 1860, all that remained was his house, known today as the Central Building. The walls and bastions were gone, much of it even pilfered. The Native Sons of the Golden West purchased it in 1890 and donated it to the State in 1891. Reconstruction began in 1891 based on Civil Engineer Grunsky's reconstruction plan. The current ongoing rehabilitation is based on the Kunzul Map published in Darmstadt, Germany in 1847 to encourage German immigration to California. This map was discovered by accident during the 1950's in San Francisco. In 1947, Sutter Fort became a unit of the California State Park System.

Sutter's Fort stands as the oldest restored Fort in the United States.

Today, the Fort is furnished and reconstructed to reflect its 1846 appearance.

Sutter's Fort is located at 26th & K street in midtown Sacramento. It is also surrounded by freeways. Interstate 5 to the west. Interstate 99 to the east. Interstate 50 & Interstate 80 headed off to the Sierra Nevada. And due west is Interstate 80 headed in from the Bay Area. The entrance (parking is available anywhere along the block, bring quarters for the meters, free on Sundays). is located at 2701 L Street. Sutters Fort is open daily 10-5. The best time to visit is during Living History Days, look up these dates on the Sutters Fort State Parks website.


Johann August Sutter was born [5] on February 23, 1803, in Kandern, [6] Baden (present-day Germany). His father came from the nearby town of Rünenberg in the Canton of Basel in Switzerland.

Johann went to school in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. At age 21, he married [7] the daughter of a rich widow. He operated a store but showed more interest in spending money than in earning it. Because of family circumstances and mounting debts, Johann faced charges that would have him placed in jail and so he decided to dodge trial and fled to America. He styled his name as Captain John Augustus Sutter.

In May 1834, he left his wife and five children behind in Burgdorf, Switzerland, and with a French passport, he boarded the ship Sully, which travelled from Le Havre, France, to New York City, where it arrived on July 14, 1834.

In North America, John August Sutter (as he would call himself for the rest of his life) undertook extensive travels. Before he went to the United States, he had learned Spanish and English in addition to Swiss French. He and 35 Germans moved from the St. Louis area to Santa Fe, New Mexico, then a province of Mexico, then moved to the town of Westport, now the site of Kansas City. On April 1, 1838, he joined a group of missionaries, led by the fur trapper Andrew Drips, and traveled the Oregon Trail to Fort Vancouver in Oregon Territory, which they reached in October. Sutter originally planned to cross the Siskiyou Mountains during the winter, but acting chief factor James Douglas convinced him that such an attempt would be perilous. [8] Douglas charged Sutter £21 to arrange transportation on the British bark Columbia for himself and his eight followers. [8]

The Columbia departed Fort Vancouver on November 11 and sailed to the Kingdom of Hawaii, reaching Honolulu on December 9. Sutter had missed the only ship outbound for Alta California, and had to remain in the Kingdom for four months. [9] Over the months Sutter gained friendly relations with the Euro-American community, dining with the Consuls of the United States of America and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, John Coffin Jones and Richard Charlton, along with merchants such as American Faxon Atherton. [9] The brig Clementine was eventually hired by Sutter to take freight provisions and general merchandise for New Archangel (now known as Sitka), the capital of the Russian-American Company colonies in Russian America. Joining the crew as unpaid supercargo, Sutter, 10 Native Hawaiian laborers, and several other followers embarked on April 20, 1839. [10] Staying at New Archangel for a month, Sutter joined several balls hosted by Governor Kupreyanov, who likely gave help in determining the course of the Sacramento River. [10] The Clementine then sailed for Alta California, arriving on July 1, 1839, at Yerba Buena (now San Francisco), which at that time was only a small seaport town.

Beginnings of Sutter's Fort Edit

At the time of Sutter's arrival, Alta California was a province of Mexico and had a population of only about 1,000 Europeans [ citation needed ] and an estimated 100,000-700,000 Native Americans. Sutter had to go to the capital at Monterey to obtain permission from the governor, Juan Bautista Alvarado, to settle in the territory. Alvarado saw Sutter's plan of establishing a colony in Central Valley as useful in "buttressing the frontier which he was trying to maintain against Indians, Russians, Americans and British." [11] Sutter persuaded Governor Alvarado to grant him 48,400 acres of land for the sake of curtailing American encroachment on the Mexican territory of California. This stretch of land was called New Helvetia and Sutter was given the right to “represent in the Establishment of New Helvetia all the laws of the country, to function as political authority and dispenser of justice, in order to prevent the robberies committed by adventurers from the United States, to stop the invasion of savage Indians, and the hunting and trading by companies from the Columbia (river).” [12]

The governor stipulated however that for Sutter to qualify for land ownership, he had to reside in the territory for a year and become a Mexican citizen, which he did to assuage the governor on August 29, 1840. [11] However, shortly after his land tract was granted and his fort was erected, Sutter quickly reneged on his agreement to discourage European trespass. On the contrary, Sutter aided the migration of whites to California. “I gave passports to those entering the country… and this (Bautista) did not like it… I encouraged immigration, while they discouraged it. I sympathized with the Americans while they hated them.” [13]

Construction was begun in August 1839 on a fortified settlement which Sutter named New Helvetia, or "New Switzerland," after his homeland. In order to elevate his social standing, Sutter impersonated a Swiss guard officer who had been displaced by the French Revolution and identified himself accordingly as 'Captain Sutter of the Swiss Guard'. When the settlement was completed in 1841, on June 18, he received title to 48,827 acres (197.60 km 2 ) on the Sacramento River. The site is now part of the California state capital of Sacramento.

A Francophile, Sutter threatened to raise the French flag over California and place New Helvetia under French protection, [14] but in 1846 California was occupied by the United States in the Mexican–American War. Sutter at first supported the establishment of an independent California Republic but when United States troops under John C. Frémont briefly seized control of his fort, Sutter did not resist because he was outnumbered.

Relationship with Native Americans Edit

Sutter had to make peace with the local native Maidu people. Over time, the Maidu and Sutter became friends, and they helped Sutter and his Kanakas build a fortified settlement. Sutter's Fort had a central building made of adobe bricks, surrounded by a high wall with protection on opposite corners to guard against attack. It also had workshops and stores that produced all goods necessary for the New Helvetia settlement.

Sutter employed or enslaved Native Americans of the Miwok and Maidu tribes, the Hawaiians (Kanakas) he had brought, and also employed some Europeans at his compound. He envisioned creating an agricultural utopia, and for a time the settlement was in fact quite large and prosperous. Prior to the Gold Rush, it was the destination for most immigrants entering California via the high passes of the Sierra Nevada, including the ill-fated Donner Party of 1846, for whose rescue Sutter contributed supplies.

In order to build his fort and develop a large ranching/farming network in the area, Sutter relied on Indian labor. Some Native Americans worked voluntarily for Sutter (e.g. Nisenans, Miwoks, Ochecames), but others were subjected to varying degrees of coercion that resembled slavery or serfdom. [15] Sutter believed that Native Americans had to be kept "strictly under fear" in order to serve white landowners. [15] Housing and working conditions at the fort were very poor, and have been described as "enslavement", with uncooperative Indians being "whipped, jailed, and executed." Sutter's Native American "employees" slept on bare floors in locked rooms without sanitation, and ate from troughs made from hollowed tree trunks. [16] Housing conditions for workers living in nearby villages and rancherías was described as being more favorable. [17] [18] Pierson Reading, Sutter’s fort manager, wrote in a letter to a relative that “the Indians of California make as obedient and humble slaves as the Negro in the South". [19] If Indians refused to work for him, Sutter responded with violence. Observers accused him of using "kidnapping, food privation, and slavery" in order to force Indians to work for him, and generally stated that Sutter held the Indians under inhumane conditions. [20] [21] Theodor Cordua, a German immigrant who leased land from Sutter, wrote:

“When Sutter established himself in 1839 in the Sacramento Valley, new misfortune came upon these peaceful natives of the country. Their services were demanded immediately. Those who did not want to work were considered as enemies. With other tribes the field was taken against the hostile Indian. Declaration of war was not made. The villages were attacked usually before daybreak when everybody was still asleep. Neither old nor young was spared by the enemy, and often the Sacramento River was colored red by the blood of the innocent Indians, for these villages usually were situated at the banks of the rivers. During a campaign one section of the attackers fell upon the village by way of land. All the Indians of the attacked village naturally fled to find protection on the other bank of the river. But there they were awaited by the other half of the enemy and thus the unhappy people were shot and killed with rifles from both sides of the river. Seldom an Indian escaped such an attack, and those who were not murdered were captured. All children from six to fifteen years of age were usually taken by the greedy white people. The village was burned down and the few Indians who had escaped with their lives were left to their fate.” [22]

Heinrich Lienhard, a Swiss immigrant that served as Sutter's majordomo, wrote of the treatment of the enslaved once captured:

“As the room had neither beds nor straw, the inmates were forced to sleep on the bare floor. When I opened the door for them in the morning, the odor that greeted me was overwhelming, for no sanitary arrangements had been provided. What these rooms were like after ten days or two weeks can be imagined, and the fact that nocturnal confinement was not agreeable to the Indians was obvious. Large numbers deserted during the daytime, or remained outside the fort when the gates were locked.” [12]

Lienhard also claimed that Sutter was known to rape his Indian captives, even girls as young as 12 years old. Despite the procurement of fertile agriculture, Sutter fed his Native American work force in pig troughs, where they would eat gruel with their hands in the sun on their knees. Numerous visitors to Sutter’s Fort noted the shock of this sight in their diaries, alongside their discontent for his kidnapping of Indian children who were sold into bondage to repay Sutter's debts or given as gifts. American explorer and mountain man James Clyman reported in 1846 that:

“The Capt. [Sutter] keeps 600 to 800 Indians in a complete state of Slavery and as I had the mortification of seeing them dine I may give a short description. 10 or 15 Troughs 3 or 4 feet long were brought out of the cook room and seated in the Broiling sun. All the Labourers grate [sic] and small ran to the troughs like so many pigs and fed themselves with their hands as long as the troughs contained even a moisture.” [23]

Dr. Waseurtz af Sandels, a Swedish explorer who visited California in 1842-1843, also wrote about Sutter's brutal treatment of Indian slaves in 1842:

“I could not reconcile my feelings to see these fellows being driven, as it were, around some narrow troughs of hollow tree trunks, out of which, crouched on their haunches, they fed more like beasts than human beings, using their hands in hurried manner to convey to their mouths the thin porage [sic] which was served to them. Soon they filed off to the fields after having, I fancy, half satisfied their physical wants.” [12]

These concerns were even shared by Juan Bautista Alvarado, then Governor of Alta California, who deplored Sutter's ill-treatment of indigenous Californians in 1845:

“The public can see how inhuman were the operations of Sutter who had no scruples about depriving Indian mothers of their children. Sutter has sent these little Indian children as gifts to people who live far from the place of their birth, without demanding of them any promises that in their homes the Indians should be treated with kindness.” [24]

Despite his promises to the Mexican government, Sutter was hospitable to American settlers entering the region, and provided an impetus for many of them to settle there. The hundreds of thousands of acres which these men took from the Native Americans had been an important source of food and resources. As the White settlers were ranching two million head of livestock, shooting wild game in enormous numbers, and replacing wilderness with wheat fields, available food for Indians in the region diminished. In response, some Indians took to raiding the cattle of White ranchers. In August 1846, an article in The Californian declared that in respect to California Indians, "The only effectual means of stopping inroads upon the property of the country, will be to attack them in their villages." [25] On February 28, 1847 Sutter ordered the Kern and Sutter massacres in retaliation.

Much of Sutter's labor practices were illegal under Mexican law. However, in April 22, 1850, following the annexation of California by the United States, the California state legislature passed the "Act for the Government and Protection of Indians," legalizing the kidnapping and forced servitude of Indians by White settlers. [26] [27] [28] In 1851, the civilian governor of California declared, "That a war of extermination will continue to be waged . until the Indian race becomes extinct, must be expected." [29] This expectation soon found its way into law. An 1851 legislative measure not only gave settlers the right to organize lynch mobs to kill Indians, but allowed them to submit their expenses to the government. By 1852 the state had authorized over a million dollars in such claims. [30]

In 1856, a San Francisco Bulletin editorial stated, "Extermination is the quickest and cheapest remedy, and effectually prevents all other difficulties when an outbreak [of Indian violence] occurs." [31] In 1860 the legislature passed a law expanding the age and condition of Indians available for forced slavery. A Sacramento Daily Union article of the time accused high-pressure lobbyists interested in profiting off enslaved Indians of pushing the law through, gave examples of how wealthy individuals had abused the law to acquire Indian slaves from the reservations, and stated, "The Act authorizes as complete a system of slavery, without any of the checks and wholesome restraints of slavery, as ever was devised." [32]

Involvement in California revolt Edit

In 1844–45, there was a revolt of the Mexican colony of California against the army of the mother country. [33] [34]

Two years earlier, in 1842, Mexico had removed California Governor Juan Bautista Alvarado, and sent Brigadier General Manuel Micheltorena to replace him. It also sent an army. [35]

The army had been recruited from Mexico’s worst jails, and the soldiers soon began stealing Californian’s chickens and other property. Micheltorena’s army was described as descending on California “like a plague of locusts, stripping the countryside bare.” Californians complained that the army was committing robberies, beatings and rapes. [33] [34]

In late 1844, the Californios revolted against Micheltorena. Micheltorena had appointed Sutter as commandante militar. Sutter, in turn, recruited men, one of whom was John Marsh, a medical doctor and owner of the large Rancho los Meganos. Marsh, who sided with the Californios, wanted no part of this effort. However, Sutter gave Marsh a choice: either join the army or be arrested and put in jail. [36]

In 1845, Sutter’s forces met the Californio forces at the Battle of Providencia (also known as the Second Battle of Cahuenga Pass). The battle consisted primarily of an artillery exchange, and during the battle Marsh secretly went over to parley with the other side. There was a large number of Americans fighting on both sides. Marsh met with them and convinced the Americans on both sides that there was no reason for Americans to be fighting each other. [37]

The Americans agreed and quit the fight, and as a result, Sutter’s forces lost the battle. The defeated Micheltorena took his army back to Mexico, and Californian Pio Pico became governor. [37] [38] [39]

Beginning of the Gold Rush Edit

In 1848, gold was discovered in the area. Initially, one of Sutter's most trusted employees, James W. Marshall, found gold at Sutter's Mill. It started when Sutter hired Marshall, a New Jersey native who had served with John C. Frémont in the Bear Flag revolt, to build a water-driven sawmill in Coloma, along the American River. Sutter was intent on building a city on his property (not yet named Sacramento), including housing and a wharf on the Sacramento River, and needed lumber for the construction. One morning, as Marshall inspected the tailrace for silt and debris, he noticed some gold nuggets and brought them to Sutter's attention. Together, they read an encyclopedia entry on gold and performed primitive tests to confirm whether it was precious metal. Sutter concluded that it was, in fact, gold, but he was very anxious that the discovery not disrupt his plans for construction and farming. At the same time, he set about gaining legitimate title to as much land near the discovery as possible.

Sutter's attempt at keeping the gold discovery quiet failed when merchant and newspaper publisher Samuel Brannan returned from Sutter's Mill to San Francisco with gold he had acquired there and began publicizing the find. Large crowds of people overran the land and destroyed nearly everything Sutter had worked for. To avoid losing everything, Sutter deeded his remaining land to his son John Augustus Sutter Jr.

When Sutter's oldest son arrived from Switzerland, Sutter Sr. asked his fellow Swiss majordomo Heinrich Lienhard to lend him his half of the gold he had mined, so that Sutter could impress his son with a large amount of the precious metal. However, when Lienhard later went to the Fort, Sutter, Jr., having taken charge of his father's debt-ridden business, was unable to return his share of the gold to him. Lienhard finally accepted Sutter's flock of sheep as payment.

The younger Sutter, who had come from Switzerland and joined his father in September 1848, saw the commercial possibilities of the land and promptly started plans for building a new town he named Sacramento, after the Sacramento River. The elder Sutter deeply resented this he had wanted the town named Sutterville (for them) and for it to be built near New Helvetia.

Sutter gave up New Helvetia to pay the last of his debts. He rejoined his family and lived in Hock Farm (in California along the Feather River).

Land grant challenge Edit

Sutter's El Sobrante (Spanish for leftover) land grant was challenged by the Squatter's Association, and in 1858 the U.S. Supreme Court denied its validity.

Sutter got a letter of introduction to the Congress of the United States from the governor of California. He moved to Washington D.C. at the end of 1865, after Hock Farm was destroyed by fire in June 1865.

Sutter sought reimbursement of his losses associated with the Gold Rush. He received a pension of US$250 a month as a reimbursement of taxes paid on the Sobrante grant at the time Sutter considered it his own. He and wife Annette moved to Lititz, Pennsylvania in 1871. The proximity to Washington, D.C. along with the reputed healing qualities of Lititz Springs appealed to the aging Sutter. He also wanted three of his grandchildren (he had grandchildren in Acapulco, Mexico, as well) to have the benefits of the fine private Moravian Schools. After having prospectors destroy his crops and slaughter cows leaving everything but his own gold, John Sutter spent the rest of his life trying to get the government to pay him for his losses, but he never had any luck.

Sutter built his home across from the Lititz Springs Hotel (renamed in 1930 to be the General Sutter Inn and subsequently renamed to be the Lititz Springs Inn & Spa). For more than fifteen years, Sutter petitioned Congress for restitution but little was done. On June 16, 1880, Congress adjourned, once again, without action on a bill which would have given Sutter US$50,000. Two days later, on June 18, 1880, Sutter died in the Made's Hotel in Washington D.C. He was returned to Lititz and is buried adjacent to God's Acre, the Moravian Graveyard Anna Sutter died the following January and is buried with him.

Legacy to the region Edit

There are numerous California landmarks bearing the name of Sutter. Sutter Street in San Francisco is named for John A. Sutter. Sutter's Landing, Sutterville Road, Sutter Middle School, Sutter's Mill School, and Sutterville Elementary School in Sacramento are all named after him. The Sutterville Bend of the Sacramento River is named for Sutter, as is Sutter Health, a non-profit health care system in Northern California. The City of Sutter Creek, California is also named after him. In Acapulco, Mexico, the property that used to belong to John Augustus Sutter Jr. became the Hotel Sutter, which is still in service. The Sutter Buttes, a mountain range near Yuba City, California, and Sutter County, California (of which Yuba City is the seat) are named after him as well.

The 'Sutter's Gold' rose, an orange blend hybrid tea rose bred by Herbert C. Swim, was named after him. [41]

Gov. Jerry Brown, elected to a third term in 2010, had a Welsh corgi named Sutter Brown, affectionately referred to as the First Dog of California. Sutter died in late 2016 from cancer.

On June 15, 2020, amid the Black Lives Matter protests and the removal of many statues deemed to be racist, the statue of John Sutter outside the Sutter Medical Center in Sacramento, CA, was removed, "out of respect for some community members' viewpoints, and in the interest of public safety for patients and staff." [42]


SUTTER'S FORT. In 1841 John Sutter (1803–1880) established a fort in California's Sacramento Valley as the trade and commercial center of his New Helvetia colony. It contained a central building constructed of adobe bricks,

surrounded by a high wall with bastions on opposite corners to guard against attack. Built around the interior of the wall were the workshops and stores that produced all goods necessary for New Helvetia to function as a selfsupporting community. Sutter's Fort housed a kitchen, able to serve up to two hundred workers and visitors a day carpenter and blacksmith shops a bakery and blanket factory a general store and jail and rooms that Sutter provided free to the region's new immigrants. Sutter's Fort is most often associated with James Marshall's discovery of gold in 1849, but the ensuing gold rush resulted in the destruction of the fort and its resources by miners and fortune hunters, and in the financial ruin of John Sutter. Sutter left New Helvetia in 1850, and Sutter's Fort fell into disrepair. When restoration efforts began in 1890, the central building was all that remained. The fort has been reconstructed and restored and is now maintained and administered as a California State Park.

Sutter’s Fort a Kind of Living History

My toddler grandson and I visited Sutter’s Fort on a Friday morning along with school kids.

Many a fourth grader in the Sacramento area has taken a field trip to Sutter’s Fort. It is easy to see it as a place primarily for kids. Alas, that would be selling Sutter’s Fort short.

It doesn’t take much imagination to put yourself into the place of a miller or blacksmith living on this farm enterprise. Or imagine what life must have been like living in a community confined to these relatively small courtyards during floods in winter. This is where many a pioneer stopped thankful to reach “civilization” as primitive as it was. The California Indian museum next door tells the story of the indigenous people who lived here before European settlers and their fate as the settlers introduced small pox and other diseases and land ownership.

Here you see how the fort was first and foremost an enterprise. Many of the recreated scenes are accompanied by a narrated recording, but there are a few volunteer re-enactors who enliven the feel of the clerk’s office or other activity centers within the fort.

John Sutter was a Swiss immigrant who was granted the land from the Spanish for the fort and farms around it. His place in history was secured as the owner of the mill further upstream of the American River in Coloma where gold was discovered. The resulting rush brought a population of seekers and adventurers, quick statehood, and huge environmental degradation and water laws.

Toddlers will race through the Fort finding very little of interest except the stairs and the gift shop. However, with a little energy expended, you may enjoy a nice snack stop on this bench enjoying the view of ducks, geese and butterflies.

The Roving Historian

Johann Augustus Sutter left his family in Switzerland and came to America in 1834 to escape debts and gain a fresh start. He was reportedly a huckster with a tendency to inflate his own resume, but by hook or crook he made it to California in 1839. When Sutter saw the land around the American River, he started making plans to build a farming and ranching empire. He sold his plan to the Mexican government of California and not only won Mexican citizenship in 1840, but also a land grant of 48,827 acres the following year. All he had to do was maintain order among the local Indians. He was also authorized to issue land grants and passports to American immigrants to California.

Although the park was surrounded by the growth of Sacramento long ago, don’t let that give you the impression that this is not an enjoyable park to visit. And if I was going to recommend a starting point for a California Gold Rush trip, this would be the place, followed by a drive up to the Marshall Discovery site. For one thing, the drive up to Coloma would give you a feel for the expanse of land that was under Sutter’s control, if even for a brief time. The fort itself is a real treat to walk through. It is on par with the mission at La Purisma for the re-creation of the shops. There are plenty of artifacts in each to view as well as a period wagon. Check the park website for a schedule of events. If possible, visit on a day when one of the “living history” events is taking place. And while outside the fort there is a quiet modern neighborhood, inside it is easy to transport yourself back to the 1840s. Imagine what an oasis this settlement must have been after arduous months on the trail.

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