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Photo of John Augustus SutterJohn Augustus Sutter

(1803-1880)

At one time the absolute ruler of what amounted to a private kingdom along the Sacramento River, John Sutter saw his immense wealth and power overrun in the world's rush to pick California clean of gold.

Sutter was born John Augustus Sutter in Baden, Germany, though his parents had originally come from Switzerland, a lineage of which he was especially proud. In 1834, faced with impossible debt, he decided to try his fortunes in America and, leaving his family in a brother's care, set sail for New York. There he decided that the West offered him the best opportunity for success, and he moved to Missouri, where for three years he operated as a trader on the Santa Fe Trail.

By 1838, Sutter had determined that Mexican California held the promise of fulfilling his ambitious dreams, and he set off along the Oregon Trail, arriving at Fort Vancouver, near present-day Portland, Oregon, in hopes of finding a ship that would take him to San Francisco Bay. His journey involved detours to the Hawaiian Islands and to a Russian colony at Sitka, Alaska, but Sutter made the most of his wanderings by trading advantageously along the way. When he finally arrived in California in 1839, Sutter met first with the provincial governor in Monterey and secured permission to establish a settlement east of San Francisco (then called Yerba Buena) along the Sacramento River, in an area then occupied only by Indians.

Sutter was granted nearly fifty thousand acres and authorized "to represent in the Establishment of New Helvetia [Sutter's Swiss-inspired name for his colony] all the laws of the country, to function as political authority and dispenser of justice, in order to prevent the robberies commited by adventurers from the United States, to stop the invasion of savage Indians and the hunting and trapping by companies from the Columbia." In other words, Sutter was to serve the California authorities as a bulwark against the assorted threats pressing in on them from American-controlled territories to the north and east.

Ironically, as headquarters for his domain, Sutter chose a site on what he named the American River, at its junction with the Sacramento River and near the site of present-day Sacramento. Here, with the help of laborers he had brought with him from Hawaii, he built Sutter's Fort, a massive adobe structure with walls eighteen feet high and three feet thick. Two years later, in 1841, Sutter expanded his settlement when the Russians abandoned Fort Ross, their outpost north of San Francisco, and offered to sell it to him for thirty thousand dollars. Paying with a note he never honored, Sutter practically dismantled the fort and moved its equipment, livestock and buildings to the Sacramento Valley.

Within just a few years, Sutter had achieved the grand-scale success he long dreamed of: acres of grain, a ten-acre orchard, a herd of thirteen thousand cattle, even two acres of Castile roses. His son came to share in his prosperity in 1844, and the rest of his family soon followed. At the same time, during these years Sutter's Fort became a regular stop for the increasing number of Americans venturing into California, several of whom Sutter employed. Besides providing him with a profitable source of trade, this steady flow of immigrants provided Sutter with a network of relationships that offered some political protection when the United States seized control of California in 1846, at the outbreak of the Mexican War.

Barely a week before the war's end, however, there occurred a chance event that would destroy all John Sutter's achievements and yet at the same time link his name forever to one of the highpoints of American history. On the morning of January 24, 1848, a carpenter named James Marshall, who was building a sawmill for Sutter upstream on the American River near Coloma, looked into the mill's tailrace to check that it was clear of silt and debris and saw at the water's bottom nuggets of gold. Marshall took his discovery to Sutter, who consulted an encyclopedia to confirm it and then tried to pledge all his employees to secrecy. But within a few months, word had reached San Francisco and the gold rush was on.

Suddenly all of Sutter's workmen abandoned him to seek their fortune in the gold fields. Squatters swarmed over his land, destroying crops and butchering his herds. "There is a saying that men will steal everything but a milestone and a millstone," Sutter later recalled; "They stole my millstones." By 1852, New Helvetia had been devastated and Sutter was bankrupt. He spent the rest of his life seeking compensation for his losses from the state and federal governments, and died disappointed on a trip to Washington, D.C. in 1880.


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