Northern California

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.

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.

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.

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.

The Fort

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.

New Helvetia

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.

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.

Bear Flag Revolt

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.

A Refuge for Pioneers

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.

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.

Discovery of Gold

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.

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.

 

 

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.

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.

Getting there

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.

-Text c/o California State Parks

 

Sutters Fort - Photo Gallery

MORE INFO:

Sutters Fort SHP

Park Hours

Open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Tickets sold until 4:30 p.m.
Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years Day

Admission:
Adults $5 (18 years and older)
Youth $3 (ages 6 to 17)
Children Free (5 and under)

Please Note: On special interpretive program days fees are $7 for adults and $5 for youth

 

Sutter's Fort
State Historic Park
2701 L Street
Sacramento, CA 95816
(916) 445-4422

Other Pages about Sutter's Fort:

John Sutter's Diary

Military Museum - Sutters Fort History

California State Parks - Sutters Fort

History of John Sutter

Maps

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