California: Sutter’s Fort

A frontier settlement built by Swiss immigrant John Sutter in the 1840’s, Sutter’s Fort was the first European outpost in the California interior. The fort became a way station for westbound emigrants and figured in military actions in early California. After gold was discovered nearby in 1848, the ensuing gold rush depleted Sutter’s operations of labor and resources. Sutter’s financial problems eventually led him to sell the fort and the land surrounding it, and on this land the city of Sacramento was founded. The fort, acquired by the state of California in 1891, has been restored to its 1840’s appearance.

Site Office

Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park

c/o Sacramento District Office

111 I Street

Sacramento, CA 95814

ph.: (916) 445-7373

Challenged throughout his life by problems that would have daunted lesser men, John A. Sutter held steadfast to his ambitious and self-aggrandizing plans. His fort, which stands as a permanent symbol of his charisma and tenacity, was built in lush, virgin terrain. Today, it is surrounded on all sides by the city of Sacramento.

Born in 1803 of Swiss parents living in Kandern, Germany, Johann August Suter–whose name eventually was Anglicized to John Augustus Sutter–moved to Basel, Switzerland, in his mid-teens. Having served a printing apprenticeship, he abandoned that trade to work in an Aarburg drapery store. In 1826, at the age of twenty-three, Sutter married Annette Dubeld (also known as Anna), who was already pregnant with his son, Johann August, Jr. By this time the young couple had moved to Annette’s home in Burgdorf, and with help from his mother-in-law, Sutter established a dry goods store. In 1828, Sutter joined the Swiss Army Guard.

By 1834, John and Annette had a family of five children and few prospects. Sutter fared well in the Swiss Guard and rose to the rank of lieutenant, but he was a poor retailer, and his business failed.

Sutter Comes to America

Faced with the possibility of debtor’s prison, the thirty-one-year-old Sutter entrusted his family to the care of his mother-in-law and crossed the Atlantic on a ship bound for New York. It would be sixteen years before he saw his family again.

Joining a group of German emigrants, Sutter headed for the Midwest, then worked as a trader on the Santa Fe Trail until business plummeted. By this time, he had decided to journey to the Mexican territory of Alta California. With the help of a mule-skinner named Pablo Gutiérrez, he planned to create a settlement in the largely unexplored interior.

Penniless in Westport, Missouri, Sutter set about raising the money for his venture. As the self-styled “Captain Sutter,” he used his charm and powers of persuasion to advantage. After just a few months, in the spring of 1838, Sutter and Gutiérrez, suitably equipped, headed west.

The two men joined a fur trappers’ caravan bound for the Wind River Mountains in what is now Wyoming. On the arduous and often tedious journey, traveling on horses and mules between forts, outposts, missions, and other settlements, Sutter attracted a small band of followers. These footloose men had little to lose, and under his leadership they might find fortune.

In October, 1838, Sutter and his party reached Fort Vancouver on the Willamette River, close to what is now the southern border of Washington State. Too late to make the 250-mile journey south to the Siskiyou Mountains and cross them into Alta California before the onset of winter, and unwilling to bide his time until the spring, Sutter took a surprising, but fortuitous, detour.

Leaving most of his men behind, he boarded a trading ship, Columbia, and sailed through the Columbia basin and across the Pacific to Hawaii. From there, he planned to travel to California on another trading vessel. Forced to wait on the islands for a few months, Sutter socialized with the local merchants, purchased on credit equipment that he would need in California, and recruited eight native men and two native women, one of whom became his mistress. Eventually, a merchant commissioned Sutter to deliver goods to California on the brig Clementine, but by way of the Alaskan port of Sitka, then under Russian sovereignty.

Arrival in California

When the storm-wrecked Clementine arrived in San Francisco Bay, Sutter and his party of ten Hawaiians and three white men were not allowed to stay in Yerba Buena (now San Francisco), the only sizable settlement on the bay. After patching up the Clementine, the chagrined Sutter and his crew sailed down the coast to Monterey, the seat of the Mexican governor, Juan B. Alvarado.

Sutter presented the governor with letters of recommendation from Hudson’s Bay Company officials and other merchants whom he had met along the way. While Alvarado was probably impressed by the articulate and multilingual visitor, he had more compelling reasons for consenting to Sutter’s plans for an inland settlement. The governor needed better representation in the interior and felt that the bold European might contain the delta natives who regularly raided the coastal communities. Sutter, with every reason to keep on the right side of the authorities, agreed to protect the area and promised to return to Monterey and apply for Mexican citizenship as soon as he was properly established. At that time, the governor would grant him rights to the land surrounding his outpost.

Now allowed to spend some time at Yerba Buena, Sutter hired seamen and chartered two large boats and a scouting vessel to take his party and equipment up through San Pablo Bay and on toward the Sacramento River. They set sail in August, 1839, and stopped briefly along the Carquinez Strait to visit a rancher, Ygnacio Martinez. Recognizing Sutter’s potential as a customer and fellow trader, Martinez agreed to deliver cattle, crop seed, and supplies when Sutter was settled.

Finally, a Settlement

After some minor skirmishes with delta Indians and a couple of excursions up the wrong rivers, Sutter found the mouth of the Sacramento and traveled up it until he turned east into the American River. He decided to anchor a few miles upstream. An oak tree-covered knoll just above the flood line seemed a promising location for his settlement. The area possessed fresh water, an ample supply of game, plenty of fish in the river, and a profusion of berries and wild grapes. It also had swarms of mosquitoes.

The seamen wasted no time in returning to the cooler coast, and Sutter set his party and some friendly local Indians to work. Now at last he could create his “New Helvetia,” as he liked to call it. Though willing to live under the Mexican flag, he would be master of his own little Switzerland and would build a fort to protect himself from native raiders and from ranchers who might wish to usurp him.

The Hawaiians built temporary grass huts, and the Indians made adobe bricks. Oak trees were felled for cutting into floorboards and rafters, bullrushes were gathered for use as thatch, and the buildings began to take shape. From the settlement, a road was built to a landing stage at the river. With the arrival of trading ships, Sutter was able to obtain much-needed metal tools and implements. Fields were cleared and cultivated, pastures fenced for the cattle, and orchards and vineyards established. Sutter paid his Indian workers with metal tags exchangeable for goods at his new store. This system of payment was used by the Mexican ranchers and by the Franciscan missionaries.

Although Sutter’s relationships with neighboring Mexicans–Ygnacio Martinez, Antonio Sunol, and Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo–soon soured, he did maintain good relations with Governor Alvarado. After his first year the proud leader of New Helvetia, heavily in debt, visited Monterey and officially assumed Mexican citizenship. He also was named an alcalde (a magistrate and high-ranking law officer), a position that gave him the power he needed to rule his domain. A year later, documents granting him some fifty thousand acres were signed and sealed.

Construction of the Fort

The construction of Sutter’s Fort began in 1840, and in 1841 Sutter formed an Indian musketeer guard unit. At that time, the dilapidated Russian trading post of Fort Ross was up for sale. This coastal unit had been established by the Russian American Fur Company in 1812, and Sutter outbid Vallejo for its entire contents, pledging thirty thousand dollars. John Bidwell, a recent arrival from the east, was commissioned to dismantle the Fort Ross buildings and ship them to Sutter’s Fort, along with horses, livestock, cannon, muskets, and other equipment, on the Russian schooner that was also part of the purchase.

When completed in the early summer of 1844, Sutter’s Fort had eighteen-foot-high adobe walls with bulwarks at each corner. The walls enclosed a courtyard measuring one hundred fifty by five hundred feet. With twelve cannon installed, Sutter was ready for all comers.

A Center for Trade

Of more immediate concern, however, were Sutter’s ever-rising debts. Always an entrepreneur, he was never an accomplished businessman, but while his settlement was underfunded, it was nevertheless an important asset and his creditors usually remained patient, expecting that Sutter would eventually strike it rich. In many efforts to pay off debts, Sutter hired artisans to make a wide variety of items, and he frequently organized trading trips to Yerba Buena. His main dealings were in leather goods, pelts and skins, Indian blankets, cured salmon, and brandy.

As a traveler, Sutter had often relied on the kindness of strangers, and a kind man himself, he was delighted to help others requiring rest and sustenance along their way. His New Helvetia, located on what was fast becoming a major trade route between Oregon and the east, was the only white settlement in the interior of Alta California. Fortunately, his fields and pastures, newly irrigated with water from the American River, were producing enough meat, grain, fruits, and vegetables to feed all of his workers as well as his visitors.

John Bidwell, who helped Sutter with the Fort Ross project in 1841, had arrived that same year as a member of the Bartleson-Bidwell Party. This was the first of many organized parties of American easterners who, having encountered the Midwest depression, were once again moving steadily westward in their covered wagons to the legendary land of opportunity.

In 1843, Sutter was generous host to Joseph B. Chiles and Joseph R. Walker and hired one of their party, Pierson Reading, to assist him with the ever-increasing administrative duties. Some months later in March, 1844, the army topographer and chart-maker John C. Frémont arrived at the nearly completed fort with his group of trailblazers, including Christopher “Kit” Carson and Thomas Fitzpatrick. They had made the first winter crossing of the Sierra Nevada and were in desperate need of food and supplies.

Mexican Politics

Political uncertainties in Alta California increased in 1844, when Governor Alvarado was displaced by General Manuel Micheltorena. Alvarado joined forces with other Californios, notably the Castro brothers (Manuel and José) and the Pico brothers (Andres and Pío) to fight Micheltorena and his crude army of former convicts. Micheltorena begged Sutter for help, promising him another major land grant.

On bad terms with a number of Alvarado’s supporters, and ever interested in expanding his own little empire, Sutter agreed to help the new governor. With his friend Bidwell he quickly organized a volunteer army of his most loyal Indians and white immigrants who were suspicious of the rebellious Mexicans. Sutter also used his powers as an alcalde to draft those who were reluctant to join him. One disaffected draftee, Sutter’s neighbor Dr. John Marsh, did his best to encourage revolt and succeeded in lowering the morale of Sutter’s ragtag army.

The troops of Micheltorena and Sutter met near San José and together pushed south with little resistance, defeating some dissidents at Mission San Buenaventura. However, closer to Los Angeles, at Rancho Cahuenga, rebels under the the command of General José Castro were well prepared. With no casualties inflicted, Sutter and Bidwell were quickly arrested, and the defeated Micheltorena was sent back home.

Pío Pico, the new governor, moved his headquarters to Los Angeles and released the humiliated Sutter after he had solemnly pledged a new allegiance. Fortunately for Sutter, Pico recognized the importance of Sutter’s Fort and, rather than have it fall into the hands of potential rivals, Pico allowed the chastened Sutter to keep both his fort and his original land grant.

When Sutter returned to his settlement he quickly reaffirmed his strength by paying soldiers to quell the protests of a growing number of Indian workers. For a brief time Sutter’s Fort was a peaceful and productive hub where emigrants came and went. One of them, who came in July, 1845, and stayed to work for Sutter as a carpenter, was the millwright James Wilson Marshall, who would later make a historic discovery.

In November, 1845, a group of local Mexicans offered Sutter a good price for his lands and fort. These wealthy landowners were increasingly threatened by the numbers of travel-worn settlers straggling endlessly into California and hoped to stanch the flow. Naturally, Sutter dismissed their offer; he had not become a Californian pioneer simply to make money and depart.

American Control

Throughout the region, tensions were rising between the Mexicans and the European settlers. General John C. Frémont returned, ostensibly to lead yet another charting expedition, but in fact he had been sent back because war between the United States and Mexico was a virtual certainty.

An early skirmish, the Bear Flag Revolt, in June, 1846, resulted in the capture at Sonoma of General Mariano Vallejo. He and three associates were brought to Sutter’s Fort and held there by Frémont. When war was officially declared the following month, a large part of Alta California, including San Francisco, was controlled by U.S. forces. Sutter, the former Swiss national and erstwhile Mexican, was now a U.S. citizen.

Under military rule, Sutter’s Fort was renamed Fort Sacramento by Frémont. Most of Sutter’s men enlisted in Frémont’s California Battalion of Volunteers while Sutter stayed at home, second-in-command of his own fort. It was at this time that Sutter sent help to rescue the Donner Party, trapped in the snow-laden Sierras.

When the war ended with a U.S. victory in early 1847, Sutter’s men returned, and once again the fort was under his leadership. Having weathered Indian uprisings, Mexican opposition, and U.S. military occupation, the middle-aged Sutter must have hoped for a more peaceful and prosperous future under U.S. jurisdiction. He could not foresee that a fabulous discovery, about to occur, would in his case prove more of a curse than a blessing.

Gold Leads to Ruin

In partnership with his carpenter James Marshall, Sutter planned to build two water-powered mills, one for grinding grain and the other for cutting timber. When construction of the gristmill was under way at Brighton on the American River, Marshall went looking for a suitable spot for the sawmill. He decided on a site in Cullomah (Coloma) Valley, some forty-five miles east of the fort along the southern fork of the American River. It was there, in a newly dug trench, that on January 24, 1848, Marshall struck gold.

Pocketing some of the gold fragments, Marshall cautioned his workers to say nothing about the find, then rode back to the fort to inform Sutter. When satisfied that the samples were genuine gold, Sutter kept the matter secret, fearing that his men would abandon their work and rush to Cullomah. Marshall returned to the sawmill and was visited there by Sutter a few days later. As they had hoped, the two men were able to keep the discovery quiet until shortly before before the sawmill began to operate in March.

A San Francisco newpaper publisher, Samuel Brannan, quickly took advantage of the news, publicized the find in his paper, and opened up supply stations to satisfy the prospectors’ needs. He soon became the richest man in California.

Sutter was not so fortunate. He had negotiated with the Indians for the rights to operate his sawmill in Cullomah Valley, but he could not get his contract ratified by the occupying U.S. authorities. Meanwhile, the quest for the precious metal was quickly becoming a gold rush, and, as Sutter feared, all but his sickest and lamest workers left him by 1849 to become “forty-niners.” His Brighton gristmill remained half built, his crops rotted in the fields, and hungry gold seekers squatted in his building and killed his cattle.

While Sutter did make investments in a Cullomah store and several prospecting expeditions, he never profited from these ventures. Indeed, he was beset by financial woes and was forced to sell not only his share of the sawmill but also his beloved fort. Sutter sent for his eldest son and, now drinking heavily, moved to his Hock Farm property on the Feather River. When John A. Sutter, Jr., known as August, arrived, he was immediately put to work as assistant to his father’s real estate attorney, Peter H. Burnett. Their task was to sell off parcels of land.

For a brief period, Sutter prospered again. The California gold rush had driven up real estate prices, and a town named Sacramento was established. When Sutter found out that his son and Burnett had been selling parcels of building land on the river landing, he fired them both. He had instructed that this land must remain part of his own estate.

Final Days

The fort itself was sold in 1849, and the following year the rest of Sutter’s family finally arrived at Hock Farm. At that time, Californians were preparing themselves for statehood, and Sutter decided to run for governor, but he was defeated by Peter Burnett, the man he had recently fired. In 1850, when statehood was ratified, Sutter received a consolation prize. He was named a general in the state militia, a post that carried a useful pension.

Sutter and his family remained at Hock Farm for the next fifteen years, living there in reasonable contentment. The comforts Sutter could provide were a far cry from the riches he had hoped to bestow upon his offspring. The final blow for Sutter came in 1865, when Hock Farm was destroyed by fire.

With his wife, Sutter retired to a Moravian community in Lititz, Pennsylvania. From there he petitioned the U.S. Congress to reimburse him for the losses incurred when Frémont’s men commandeered his fort and for damages inflicted by gold rush squatters. However, it was not until Sutter was in his late seventies that passage of legislation to compensate him seemed likely.

Sutter went to Washington in June, 1880, and waited there in a hotel for news from Congress. When the congressmen adjourned on June 16 without enacting the necessary legislation, Sutter was mortified. He died in despair two days later. Anna Dubeld Sutter died the following January and was buried beside her husband in the Moravian cemetery at Lititz.

The Fort Today

Final destruction of Sutter’s Fort, which had fallen into disrepair, was scheduled for 1889 when the city of Sacramento planned to run a street through the middle of it. Due largely to the efforts of General James G. Martine, the street was never built. The first real restorations at the fort began in 1891, when it was acquired by the state of California.

Further work on the central building commenced in 1958, and today the monument features the much-restored two-story adobe fort. Various other buildings, such as artisans’ studios, storage rooms, and living quarters have also been reconstructed. A museum displays many artifacts from the fort’s heyday, and there is an important collection commemorating the rescue of the Donner Party, as well as much fascinating pioneer memorabilia, including early firefighting equipment, instruments, maps, furnishings, forty-niners’ diaries, documents, rare photographs, prints, and paintings. Set in beautiful grounds, the reconstructed Sutter’s Fort is a fitting monument to one of California’s most remarkable men.

For Further Information

  • Dana, Julian. Sutter of California: A Biography. New York: Press of the Pioneers, 1934. One of the older biographical works on Sutter.
  • Gudde, Erwin G. Sutter’s Own Story: The Life of General J. A. Sutter and the History of New Helvetia in the Sacramento Valley. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1936. Another older biography.
  • Lewis, Donovan. Pioneers of California. San Francisco: Scottwall, 1993. One of the most helpful sources of information on John Sutter and his fort.
  • Sutter, John. The Diary of Johann August Sutter. San Francisco: Grabhorn, 1932. Includes an introduction by Douglas E. Watson.
  • Sutter’s Fort State Historical Monument. Sacramento, Calif.: Division of Beaches and Parks, Department of Parks and Recreation, n.d. An excellent guide to the fort.