The story of John Sutter and Sutter’s Fort are intertwined with the history of Sacramento, even well before California was a United States territory or the first nugget of gold was pulled from the ground.
The Sacramento Valley (well before it was named that) was home to Native Americans for at least 10,000 years. The Nisenan and Maidu tribes made huts from willow trees, fished the bountiful rivers, and lived in harmony with the land. But that all ended as a small number of European trappers and traders started coming to the area.
The first settlers, about 1,000 strong (compared to 700,00 natives) were actually not from the newly formed United States of America but colonizers from the Spanish Empire. The area of present-day Sacramento sat in the Alta California province of New Spain, formed when conquistadors overtook Central American and Southwest America. However, the area of Sacramento was judged unfit for colonization so was nearly undisturbed.
Johann August Ausgustus Suter was born in Switzerland on February 15, 1803. He served in the Swiss Army as an artillery captain and at 23, married the daughter of a rich widow. He operated a store but was mostly adept at spending money – not much of it his own. Faced with criminal charges for his debts, he boarded a ship for France, fleeing to his eventual destination, the United States. To “Americanize” or perhaps flee any bounty hunters that may have been on his trail, he changed his name to Captain John Sutter. He traveled about the U.S. with a group of 35 German settlers – from St. Louis to Santa Fe, Oregon to Hawaii, and Alaska before heading to California.
Sacramento’s destiny changed when John Sutter arrived in the colonial provincial capital of Monterey. There, he petitioned Spanish governor Juan Bautista Alvarado for a land grant. Interestingly, Sutter represented Mexico when he got his grant, 50,000 acres in a valley where two nearby rivers (later named the American and Sacramento) converged. In exchange for the grant, he had to declare himself a citizen of Mexico within one year of settling.
Sutter and his group arrived at his new granted land on August 13, 1839. He called his new colony New Helvetia (New Switzerland) and considered placing it under French protection. They immediately set to work building Sutter’s Fort as protection from the elements, wild animals, and the Native Americans. Sutter’s Fort – now in downtown modern Sacramento – was an adobe compound built with walls eighteen foot high and three feet thick. He formed a private army for security and doling out justice to the new inhabitants. It was completed by 1841.
As more pioneers made their way west, Sutter’s colony grew. Unfortunately, that meant the demise of the Native American population, who were exposed to diseases they had no immunity to. That was to the chagrin of Sutter, who had befriended many of the Native Americans and employed them around the fort, envisioning an agricultural utopia.
The newly independent colony of Sutter’s Fort operated autonomously under the umbrella of the newly formed Mexican government – but not for long. In 1846, the U.S. defeated Mexico in the Mexican-American War and the California Republic was formed. U.S. troops seized Sutter’s Fort, though Sutter and the inhabitants didn’t even resist. With no apparent value, troops quickly left the fort and Sutter and his citizens were left to their own devices.
It’s the understatement of the millennium to say that Sutter’s hiring of Marshall didn’t turn out as planned, because in 1848 he discovered gold in the eastern foothills of the soon-to-be-created City of Sacramento. Upon hearing news that “There’s gold in them there hills!” a San Francisco newspaperman, Samuel Brannan, rushed to open a store right near the banks of the Sacramento River. He knew that the vantage point to the water was key as commerce and transportation were sure to become the keystones of rapid expansion. The waterfront area became known as Sutter’s Embarcadero, the site of Old Sacramento now.
As for John Sutter, the senior? When gold was first discovered, he pledged his employees to secrecy. But nothing would stop the rumor of gold fever as word quickly got out and country was crisscrossed with wagon trails of settlers, panners, and speculators.
“If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” as the old saying goes, so Sutter went into the gold mining business and staked several claims, enhancing his already impressive wealthy.
In a crazy twist of fate, since New Helvetia had been a Mexican land grant, the U.S. and California state governments denied his claims and rights to the land. By 1852, Sutter was a broken man – bankrupt, stripped of his wealth, and his colony discredited and broken up in favor of the City of Sacramento. He had to sell what was left of New Helvetia under his ownership to pay debts.
He was never successful, dying in Washington, D.C. in 1880 where he was awaiting a Congressional ruling that would have reimbursed him $50,000, if successful. He may have died without wealth, but John Sutter’s legacy is firmly intact. Today, Sacramento can credit him for its early origins. Sutter’s Fort still stands as a monument to the early settlers. Schools and even the Sutter Health Center are named after the colorful and mercurial pioneer who left his mark on California.