John Augustus Sutter – The Man Behind The Gold Rush

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

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Winnie Griggs is the author of Historical (and occasionally Contemporary) romances that focus on Small Towns, Big Hearts, Amazing Grace. She is also a list maker, a lover of dragonflies and holds an advanced degree in the art of procrastination.
Three of Winnie’s books have been nominated for the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award, and one of those nominations resulted in a win.
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19 thoughts on “John Augustus Sutter – The Man Behind The Gold Rush”

  1. Sometimes, you need to read about these guys just to appreciate all the unsung heroes of the time.
    Sad about his family and those he mistreated.

    In some ways, this story reminds me of King Midas who had the golden touch but discovered it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.

    Thanks for the informative post.

    Peace, Julie

  2. Winnie,
    What a great post. I had never thought about the man behind the gold rush. This was really a great post–so informative! I had no idea. I’m glad his son had the character to send for the rest of the family. That must have been one HECK of a family reunion. LOL
    Cheryl P.

  3. Okay, so he left his family behind from 1803 until 1850?

    Good golly Miss Molly the man was slime. Then he finally ‘sent’ for them (or his son did) and had them with him for three years before he declared bankruptcy?

    So, some questions…weren’t all his children grown and married with lives of their own?

    Did ‘sending’ for them just mean he brought his wife over? Was his wife still living? I mean … she’d had five children before he left, she had to be at least sixty years old. What sixty year old jumps onto a boat in Europe to be with a husband who’s abandoned her?

    Winnie, seriously girl, you need to do more research.

    Interesting that Cheryl and I went for the ROMANCE ( or lack there of) of the story.
    Occupational hazard I suppose.

  4. Mary – LOL yes my research did not lead me to admire the man greatly. His wife and several of the children come over – perhaps she was tired of living off her brother-in-laws charity and had heard about the gold rush. Poor woman, if financial security was her motive she was doomed to disappointment. If it was for love, well I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions…

  5. Winnie, prior to your blog I didn’t know much about Sutter except that he was the one who discovered gold in California. I agree with our Filly sister Mary that he certainly didn’t treat his family well. Maybe he had another separate family on the side. If he truly cared about them he would’ve wanted them with him.

  6. On the other hand, Linda, maybe his wife was THRILLED to see him go. Five children, no money. She probably gave him a pat on the back, wished him luck, and moved in with her brother with a sigh of relief.

  7. Fascinating story, Winnie. I agree with Mary, the man was a slimeball. In the end, he got what was coming to him.
    Still, he had a huge impact on the history of our country. You have to give him that much credit.

  8. Very interesting!! Wish they taught you more of this stuff in history classes. Seems like he got his comeuppance in the end lol.

  9. Hi Winnie, I’m a bit late getting here today, but yes, boo to Sutter. I never knew any of this until your post today. He’s always presented as something of a great adventure/saver of the world LOL. I always wonder, who decided gold was so valuable? oxoxo

  10. I think some of those big wheeler dealer types are just compulsive gamblers only they gamble with real estate and investments instead of a deck of cards.

    It would’ve killed him, when he owned ten businesses and 48,000 acres, to set something aside for a rainy day, right?

  11. Hi, I’m late, as usual. I have been to Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento on many occasions and it is really a fascinating place. Really a museum. The kids in the area go there on field trips for the day. The California Indian Museum is right next door. Very interesting people who came here early. I guess that’s why the rest of us native Californians are different, too. LOL.

  12. We lived in Sacramento for 2 years and missed both Sutter’s Fort and the California Indian Museum. Now that I think of it, we didn’t see much of the area while we were there. My husband was a detachment commander and our son was a hyperactive 2 to 3 year old. Our girls were in two different schools, one in junior high. There was little free time. We normally hit every historic site and museum where ever we go.
    Sounds like Mr. Sutter was enjoying his freedom and didn’t want a family getting in the way. It really wasn’t fair for the authorities not to protect his community and his property rights even after things had settled down.
    A trip back to CA is needed to see everything we missed. Thanks for the post.

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