Life of John Augustus Sutter 1803-1880

A heroic figure he was not, although his romantic position as pioneer in the great valley made him seem so to many travelers and historians. . . . his fate was the ordinary one of the persistent and unteachable dreamer.

Sutter's Friend, I.S. Tichenor (1866)


Captain John Sutter, an immigrant from Switzerland,was born on February 15 of 1803 in Kandern, Baden, a few miles from the Swiss border. As an apprentice to a firm of printers and booksellers, Sutter found the paper business was not for him.

He met his future wife, Annette D'beld, while clerking in a draper's shop, and the two were married in Burgdorf on October 24 of 1826.

Business failures prompted Sutter's decision to seek his fortune in America. At the age of thirty-one, he left his wife and four children in Germany and started his long trip.


 After arriving in America, Sutter headed west for Missouri where he worked as a merchant and innkeeper for several years. All the while he dreamed of establishing his own agricultural empire somewhere out west. In April of
1838, he joined a trapping party on their way to the Pacific Coast. The traders reached Fort Vancouver in October, the Pacific headquarters of the Hudson's Bay Company. Unable to leave for California immediately, Sutter sailed on the ship "Columbia" for the Sandwich Islands, where he landed at Honolulu on December 9 of 1838.

While in Hawaii, Sutter presented himself as a successful former Captain in the Swiss Guards. Even though he was broke, Sutter became very popular with some influential Hawaiian business people. Sutter interested them in his project to establish a mercantile base in the Sacramento valley. Before leaving Honolulu in April of 1839, Sutter had borrowed supplies, money and had made a contract to take nine Hawaiians with him to California. He sailed to California by way of Sitka, Alaska.

At Monterey in 1839, Sutter met with Governor Alvarado to discuss the possibility of establishing himself in the country. In reach of his dream, Sutter then chartered the schooner "Isabella" from the firm of Spear and Hinckley, and two smaller vessels. Loaded with provisions he had bought on credit, Sutter led his fleet up the Sacramento River on August 1 of 1839.

Two weeks later they landed near where the American joins the Sacramento River. They encountered a group of two hundred Indians who at first did not seem friendly. Because of his skills at diplomacy and the Indians fear of his canons, Sutter established a friendship with the Indians. He soon led his workers in setting up camp. A tent and some brush huts built by the Hawaiians provided the first shelter for the small party. Later, a more substantial adobe building was erected with the help of the Indians.

In order to qualify for a land grant, Sutter became a Mexican citizen on August 29 of 1840.The following year, on June 18, he received title to 48,827 acres of the Sobrante Land Grant from Governor Alvarado. He also received a grant of land he named "New Helvetia", after his homeland. He could now begin building his empire.

Sutter started building his fort in 1840 to protect his settlement which he called New Helvetia. Besides Mexicans and the Hawaiians who worked for him, Sutter also had around 350 California Nisenan and Miwok Indians who were employed to guard the fort. John Bidwell also arrived from Missouri and helped Sutter with the management of the fort.There were large herds of cattle and horses grazing in fields about the fort. Hunters were sent into the mountains for furs pelts and elk hides. A distillery, flour mill and bakery were built. A blacksmith shop and carpenter shop furnished tools. A boat launch soon carried freight and passengers between Sutter's Fort and the San Francisco Bay.

In 1841, Sutter bought the Russian settlements of Ross and Bodega for $32,000, secured by mortgage on New Helvetia. Sutter also established Hock Farm on the west bank of the Feather River, a few miles south of what would become Yuba City. This farm supplied food for the settlement at Sutter's Fort on the Sacramento River.

Sutter's "New Helvetia" and Sobrante land grants, stretched from about what is now Redding to south of Sacramento. It finally comprised over 150,000 acres, not including pasture land. He also had purchased Fort Ross from the Russians.


Sutter went about to find his vision of utopia. He learned how to farm and recruited immigrants for his settlement from the United States, Switzerland and Germany.

Sutter's Fort was pretty well completed by 1844. It grew in importance as more settlers arrived from the difficult trip west.

The Fort was not only a trading post but also occupied one of the most strategic locations in Northern California. It became the natural objective for parties crossing the Sierras, especially in the winter months.

In November of 1846, the Donner Party stopped for the evening near Truckee in the Sierras. They became trapped by a snowstorm. They were unable to move. 40 of the 87 people in the Donner party died from the weather and hunger. They remained snowbound until February of 1847, when they finally rescued and brought to Sutter's Fort. Sutter put them up at the fort until they were healthy and able to move on.

In 1847 Sutter contracted with James Marshall to build a sawmill on the south fork of the American River about 50 miles east of Sutter's Fort. The sawmill was almost completed when, on January 24, 1848, James Marshall discovered gold in the tail race.

On January 28, 1848 Marshall came to Sutter's Parlor at the fort's main building. Marshall met privately with Captain Sutter to show him the gold he had found at the mill. Grabbing a book, Sutter performed a few simple tests on the yellow metal. "Its gold," he said. Simple words that ignited the imagination of the world.

The following year would forever be known for the thousands of gold-seeking 49ers who abandoned farms and families across the country to search for riches in California. Many found the yellow stuff but few made their fortunes.

The Gold Rush hurt Sutter. Sutter's workmen quit working to look for gold. Tens of thousands of new arrivals swept law and order before them, helping themselves to Sutter's land, crops and livestock. Sutter tried, with partners, to become a merchant to the miners but his partners cheated him and his creditors pursued him.

In order to keep from loosing everything, Sutter deeded his remaining land to his son, John Sutter,Jr. The younger Sutter began laying out the Sacramento town site in January 1849. Captain Sutter was very unhappy about this as he had wanted the local city center to be at Sutterville.In late 1849, Sutter sold his fort to Alden Bayly for $7,000. He moved to Hock Farm, near Yuba City, with his wife and children.

In 1850, California became the 31st state of the United States. People continued to come west looking for gold until it became more and more difficult to find. During the 1850's, after it had served it's purpose, all that remained of Sutter's Fort was the main building.

In 1865, Sutter's home at Hock Farm was burned down by a disgruntled worker. Sutter then decided to try to obtain reimbursement from Congress for his help in colonizing the State of California; his aid to emigrants; and his losses from having his Sobrante Land Grant declared invalid by the courts. In 1871, he and his family moved to Lititz, Pennsylvania because of his poor health.

On June 16, 1880, Congress adjourned without passing a bill that would have given Sutter $50,000 as reimbursement. Two days later John Sutter died of heart failure in Washington D.C.. His body was returned to Lititz and buried in the Moravian Brotherhood's Cemetery. Mrs. Sutter died the following January.

Sutter told his own story of the Discovery of Gold and the impact it had on his life.

Student Activity 2

Write an Essay

Write a five paragraph essay. Choose one of the following topics or create one of your own:

1. A biographical sketch of John A. Sutter.

2. A historical sketch of Sutter's Fort.

3. The lifes of the Native Americans of the Sacramento Valley and how they were affected by the Gold Rush.

4. Describe the different Americans living in California at the time of Sutter's arrival.

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Student Activity 3

Portrait of John A. Sutter

Find a photograph or drawing of John A. Sutter and make your own drawing of him. The teacher can print out several different pictures from the website to use for models.

Supplies: You will need white drawing paper, pencils, colored pencils, crayons or water colors.

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