Today marks the 163rd anniversary of the discovery that marked the beginning of the California Gold Rush. Most of you know that the gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, but how much do you know about Sutter himself? Well, depending on which version of history you want to believe, the man was either enterprising, adventurous, supportive of the American settlement of California and a good and generous host to travelers, or the man was a cheat, liar, slaver, alcoholic and smuggler. A controversial figure to be sure!
John Augustus Sutter was born in Baden, Germany in 1803 to Swiss parents. He married at 24, but the time he turned 31 he’d encountered a series of business failures that resulted in a mountain of debt. Sutter, unable to face his creditors, decided to see if he would fare better in America. He left his wife and five children in his brother’s care and traveled to New York, just a few steps ahead of the bill collectors. From there he headed west to Missouri where he set up as a trader and innkeeper on the Santa Fe Trail.
But Sutter had bigger dreams. He wanted to establish his own agricultural empire ‘somewhere out west.’ In the spring of 1838, again escaping creditors, he joined a group of trappers headed for the west coast. The party arrived at Fort Vancouver, near present day Portland, OR, in October of that same year. Sutter looked for a ship that would take him to the San Francisco Bay area, but when one was not immediately available, he set sail instead on a ship bound for the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii). From there he sailed to the Russian colony in Sitka, Alaska. Sutter managed to engage in profitable trade during these detours, and by the time he arrived in California in July of 1838 he could pass for a man of means.
Ingratiating himself with Governor Alvarado, Sutter easily gained permission to establish a new settlement east of Yerba Buena (later to be renamed San Francisco). The settlement was located near the spot where the American River meets the Sacramento River, an area formerly occupied only by Indians. He started with tents and brush huts, but soon had set up a more substantial adobe building.
Setting his sights on a land grant, Sutter became a naturalized Mexican citizen in August of 1840. The following June Governor Alvarado handed him the title to eleven leagues of land – approximately 48,800 acres. Sutter named the grant New Helvetia, which means New Switzerland (this would later become Sacramento).
In 1844, Sutter completed Fort Sutter and established it as a frontier trading post. This was an impressive structure, constructed of adobe and with walls 18 feet high and 3 feet thick. Because of its placement along the overland trails, one of the most strategic locations in Northern California, it became a gathering place and resting spot for settlers, traders and trappers in the region. With his dreamed-of agricultural empire established, Sutter branched out into many additional enterprises. He hired trappers to provide skins and furs for trade, built a distillery, established a blacksmith shop, and transported both freight and passengers between Fort Sutter and the San Francisco Bay.
In 1846, during the California revolt against Mexico, Sutter saw the writing on the wall and decided to side with the Americans. In the years that followed, Sutter continued to prosper. Though his reputation among the white settlers continued to be favorable, it was not so with the Indian population. Much of the labor that fed Sutter’s empire was provided by the Indians who, according to some reports, were treated almost as slaves.
As a side note, though Sutter liked to speak of himself as a good family man, alluding to a home in Switzerland where his family was ensconced (untrue – they were charity cases living with his brother), he never did send for them. In 1848 his oldest son, on his own initiative joined his father in California and in 1850 it was the son, not the father, who sent for the rest of the family.
In 1847, a chain of events began that would eventually bring about the downfall of Sutter’s empire but would ensure his place in history. It started innocuously enough – Sutter decided he wanted to establish a sawmill. For this purpose, he entered into an agreement with James W. Marshall. They decided to build this mill on the American River at a spot called Collumah by the Indians. On January 24, 1848, while inspecting the builder’s progress, Marshall spotted a bit of glitter in the mill’s tailrace. Marshall took his discovery to Sutter. Sutter confirmed the discovery was indeed gold by checking the entries in an encyclopedia. He tried to swear his workers to secrecy, but it didn’t take long for the word to get out. The gold rush was on!
To get an idea of how rapidly the fever spread, in the spring of 1849, the non-Indian population of California was in the neighborhood of 14,000. By the end of 1849 it stood at almost 100,000, and by 1852, to over a quarter million.
But Sutter himself never profited from the discovery. In fact, just the opposite. His workers abandoned him, his lands were overrun by fortune hunters, his crops and cattle were stolen. By 1852 Sutter was bankrupt and New Helvetia was in ruins. Sutter spent the rest of his life petitioning the government, both federal and state, for compensation for his losses but it was not to be. He died, disappointed, during a trip to Washington D.C. in 1880