John Augustus Sutter

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Sutter, John Augustus

Born February 15, 1803

Kandern, Germany

Died June 18, 1880

Washington, D.C.


"I have been robbed and ruined by lawyers and politicians.... my cattle were driven off by hungry gold-seekers; my fort and mills were deserted and left to decay; my lands were squatted on by overland immigrants; and, finally, I was cheated out of all my property. All Sacramento was once mine."

From Fool's Gold by Richard Dillon

John Augustus Sutter has been heralded as one of the heroes of America's westward expansion. According to popular history, Sutter left Europe for the American frontier, where he realized his dream of creating an empire in the Sacramento Valley of the Mexican territory of California. At his California colony—named New Helvetia—Sutter welcomed the immigrants who streamed into the territory, especially after gold was discovered at his mill on the American River. However, Sutter claimed that miners ignored his claim to the land and deprived him of the wealth that should have come his way. Today he is remembered as one of the founding fathers of the state of California.

However, recent historians have established that Sutter was no saint: He built his reputation in America on a foundation of lies and borrowed money. He enslaved and mistreated the Native Americans who helped build New Helvetia. His mismanagement of his California empire was so complete that it led to financial failure. Despite all his faults, Sutter did play a pivotal role in opening California for American settlement. Sutter's story, then, is like many Western stories—it combines myth with reality, and it helps us understand that the settlement of the West was often based on luck, corruption, and lies.

Life as a European shopkeeper

Sutter was born Johann August Suter on February 15, 1803, in Kandern, Germany, a small village just north of Basel, Switzerland. His father, Johann Jakob Suter, served as a foreman in a paper mill. His mother, Christina Wilhelmina Stober, was the daughter of a pastor. Sutter left home at age fifteen to attend a military academy in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. He loved the romance and pageantry of the military, although he was never made an officer in the Swiss army (as he later claimed in America). He also began an apprenticeship (a period of learning under an experienced tradesman) as a publisher, printer, and bookseller.

After leaving school, Sutter became a clerk in a draper's shop in the Swiss town of Aarburg. He soon met Anna Dübeld and moved to her hometown of Burgdorf. He worked at several jobs, including grocery clerk. On October 24, 1826, he and Anna were married; the next day, Anna gave birth to their first child. Backed by Anna's family, Sutter opened a dry goods firm in Burgdorf. Like almost every venture Sutter ever engaged in, the business was a failure. Indeed, he piled up such an enormous debt by 1834 that it was clear he would be imprisoned for bankruptcy. In mid-May of that year he liquidated his assets, abandoned his family (he now had five children), and set out for the United States. According to historian Iris H. W. Engstrand, writing in John Sutter and a Wider West, "For more than a decade [Anna] Dübeld Sutter, the deserted wife and young mother, remained virtually a charity case, waiting vainly for her errant husband to rescue her from poverty and disgrace."

Starting over in America

When Sutter arrived in July 1834, the United States included twenty-six states, the Midwest beyond the Missouri River was free territory, and Texas had just become an independent republic. Mexico controlled most of the Southwest—including the territory of California—and Britain, Russia, and the United States were vying for control of the Oregon Territory. To an immigrant fresh from Europe, the country seemed full of opportunity. Sutter quickly learned English, Americanized his name to John Sutter—adding the title "Captain" for good measure—and set out to build a new life.

Sutter soon headed west, spending the winter of 1834 in St. Louis. He tried farming but soon was drawn by the promise of riches to be had from trading goods on the Santa Fe Trail, which connected Missouri with the then Mexican city of Santa Fe. Sutter profited from his Santa Fe trade, though there were charges that he made money in part by cheating his trading partners. In 1837 Sutter moved to Westport, Missouri (now part of Kansas City), where he hired local Shawnee Indians to help him build a hotel. An observer of Sutter's actions in Westport claimed that Sutter exploited his Native American workers' weakness for hard liquor and showed a distinct fondness for young Shawnee women. With his business dealings once again falling apart, Sutter escaped his debtors and set out for Oregon in April 1838. His dream, he told his fellow travelers, was to create a new community in California, a land fabled for its abundance.

The road to California

Sutter accompanied the American Fur Company into the Oregon Territory and then joined a Hudson's Bay Company trapping expedition to Fort Vancouver. There were few ships sailing in this part of the world at the time, and Sutter learned that his best chance for reaching the main California port town of Yerba Buena (present-day San Francisco) would mean first traveling to Honolulu, Oahu, in the Hawaiian Islands (which were then called the Sandwich Islands). Sutter sailed aboard the Columbia to Honolulu and, while awaiting a ship to California, met the king of the islands, Kamehameha III.

Sutter told Kamehameha and others of his plans for building a community and trading post in California. Always a good storyteller, Sutter won the confidence of the king, who then offered to send eight men (Kanakas, or native Hawaiians) to help in this venture. In addition, most of the merchants traveling with him eagerly vowed their support. When Sutter and his followers finally obtained passage on the ship Clementine, he felt that his dreams were within reach. Traveling via Sitka, Alaska, Sutter arrived in Yerba Buena in July 1839.

The settlement of New Helvetia

Land was not free for the taking in California; first Sutter had to present his idea to Governor Juan Bautista de Alvarado at the territorial capital of Monterey, south of Yerba Buena. Sutter told Alvarado that he wanted to build a vast fort and trading post at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, inland from present-day San Francisco. The Mexican governor, believing that Mexico would benefit from a thriving community in the midst of the undeveloped valley, was enthusiastic about Sutter's plans. He proposed that Sutter could become a Mexican citizen—and the legal owner of a vast tract of land—if he developed the land within a year. Sutter was thus granted fifty thousand acres near the Sacramento River.

Before claiming his land, Sutter traveled to various Mexican, Russian, and American outposts throughout northern California, establishing relationships that would be necessary for the trading post. Sutter, his eight Kanaka laborers, and a handful of white settlers reached the juncture of the American and Sacramento Rivers in August of 1839. What they found was not quite a wilderness—several American Indian tribes had lived off the land for hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of years—but by white standards it was an "uncivilized" land, heavily forested and home to grizzly bear, deer, and elk. To Sutter, it seemed the ideal place to farm, graze livestock, and build a community.

Sutter first had to make peace with the Native American groups in the area. At first, he told the Miwok, Nisenan, and other Indians that he came in peace, and he offered them employment; later, he showed the Indians the three cannons that King Kamehameha had given the pioneers, thus warning the Indians that he would not hesitate to use force if necessary. With the help of the Native Americans, Sutter constructed a massive military-style structure, known as Sutter's Fort. The fort's eighteen-foot-high and three-foot-thick walls enclosed a trading post that included shops, small "factories," and personal dwellings. Outside the fort, farmland was cultivated, vine-yards planted, and livestock grazed. Sutter called his community New Helvetia, which means "New Switzerland."

Sutter's empire

Sutter presided over his empire of New Helvetia with a mix of hospitality and despotism (absolute power and authority). To settlers—Mexican or American—who moved into the valley Sutter offered a warm welcome, a variety of goods, and cheerful assistance in getting established. He recognized that his business would profit from every settler who ventured into the region, and he did all he could to welcome newcomers. To the American Indians who performed the majority of the labor in New Helvetia, however, Sutter was neither kind nor generous. He paid his Indian laborers in coins that could only be exchanged for goods in his stores, and he never paid them well. Worse, he was not above enslaving Indians when he needed extra labor during harvest season. Sutter even gave Indian girls to his white trading partners, a practice that most historians stop just short of calling a slave trade. In New Helvetia, however, Sutter was king and could do as he liked.

In the 1840s Sutter's empire expanded in size and power. He tripled the size of his land holdings in 1841 when he purchased Fort Ross and the accompanying lands from the Russians. He exercised control over his holdings with the help of an Indian army of about two hundred men. This army—dressed in gaudy blue-and-green Russian uniforms—helped Sutter protect his land from Indian raids; they also coerced unwilling Indians into laboring in the fields during harvest season. In 1845, when the growing number of American settlers in California began to revolt against Mexican rule, Sutter switched his allegiance away from the Mexicans and used his army in service of the American cause. For his services Sutter was made an American citizen when California became a U.S. territory in 1847.

Gold on the American River!

In 1847, at the height of his influence in the region, Sutter and his workers built several mills powered by the many streams that flowed out of the mountains surrounding the valley. Sutter appointed a carpenter named James Marshall (1810–1885) to oversee the construction of a sawmill in the Coloma Valley, about forty-five miles from Sutter's Fort on the south fork of the American River. On the morning of January 24, 1848, Marshall was surveying work on the mill when he spotted something sparkling in the river. Mill construction had disturbed the earth around the riverbed, and the moving water had washed away the gravel and sand to reveal what appeared to be gold. Picking out a few small nuggets, he ran back to the mill workers and shouted, "Boys, I believe I have found a gold mine," according to Rodman W. Paul's The California Gold Discovery.

The men discovered more of the gleaming, soft metal, and Marshall decided that he must present his find to Sutter. Together the two men tested the mineral. Amazingly, it was gold. Sutter hoped that he could keep Marshall's discovery secret. But word soon spread: there was gold on the American River.

A group of Mormons working on a flour mill on the same river discovered a second gold mine, which became known as Mormon Island. With this discovery, gold fever spread through New Helvetia. According to J. S. Holliday, author of The World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experience, "Sutter could not hold his workers. The flour mill stood unfinished, hides rotted in the warehouse. All his plans depended on a staff of assistants, field workers, carpenters, and tanners. Suddenly they were gone, with plans of their own." Once people across California—and throughout America—heard of the gold, they quickly left their jobs and rushed to the gold mines to strike it rich.

Gold rush disaster

Within a year after the initial discovery of gold, Sutter's Fort lay at the center of the greatest gold rush in American history. However, Sutter saw no profit from the boom: to him it must have seemed that the black cloud that had hovered over his previous business dealings had found him again, for gold-diggers from all over the world flocked to Sutter's property and "squatted" on his land (claimed the land with no legal basis) for the next three years. Ignoring Sutter's property claims and destroying his farm and ranch land, the squatters even took Sutter to court to challenge his property claims. Since the land was granted to Sutter under Mexican authority, those rights were now under question. Forced into lengthy and expensive court battles, Sutter had to sell much of his property and mortgage (borrow against) the rest. By 1852 John Sutter, once one of the most powerful men in California, was bankrupt.

Along with his family (who had finally rejoined him in 1850) Sutter moved to a small piece of property known as Hock Farm, on the Feather River near Marysville, California. From there he lobbied the California legislature for compensation for his losses, and the legislature finally voted to pay him $250 a month for five years. Even that amount seemed to provide little solace to the aging Sutter. To make matters worse, on June 21, 1865, a disgruntled worker burned down Sutter's home at Hock Farm.

The Transforming Power of the Gold Rush

The California gold rush, which began in 1848 with the discovery of gold at John Sutter's mill, transformed the state of California and indeed the entire nation. Before the discovery of gold, California was a distant and sparsely populated territory that the United States had acquired in a war with Mexico. Yet the discovery of gold and the ensuing publicity turned the trickle of immigrants coming into the territory into a steady flow and then a flood. An estimated thirty-two thousand people took the overland routes to California in 1849, and another forty-four thousand came in 1850. Many others came by sea. The territory of California now had enough inhabitants to petition for statehood, which was granted in 1850.

Though not all of the gold diggers struck it rich, many stayed in California and brought their families with them. The city of San Francisco exploded with growth and soon became an important port city. With California's statehood and the growing population there, the United States now had an official outpost on the West Coast, and the Pony Express (an early postal service), telegraph lines, and eventually the transcontinental railroad all connected east to west. These enhanced communication and transportation systems in turn helped populate the vast unsettled territory between California and Missouri. By speeding settlement in California, the gold rush also increased the pace of general westward expansion.

Sutter left his beloved California in 1871 and settled in the German community in the town of Lititz, Pennsylvania. For the remaining years of his life he tried to convince the federal government to reimburse him for his losses, with no success. He was staying in a Washington, D.C., hotel on one of his many trips to petition Congress when he died in his sleep on June 18, 1880.

Although Sutter received no further reimbursement from Congress, he was remembered well for many years after his death. As California grew and successive generations looked back on the pioneer days, Sutter was held up as an important founding father, a noble visionary who brought prosperity and peace to California. However, beginning in the 1960s, historians presented Sutter as a much more complicated figure. They discovered accounts written by Sutter's contemporaries that portray him as a scheming, vain, drunken, but optimistic man who never quite managed to make the best of his opportunities. Josiah Royce's description of Sutter, penned not long after Sutter's death and quoted in The California Gold Discovery, perhaps captures the contradictory nature of the man best:

In character Sutter was an affable and hospitable visionary, of hazy ideas, with a great liking for popularity, and with a mania for undertaking too much. A heroic figure he was not, although his romantic position as a pioneer in the great valley made him seem so to many travelers and historians. When the gold-seekers later came, the ambitious Sutter utterly lost his head and threw away all his truly wonderful opportunities. He, however, also suffered many things from the injustice of the newcomers. He died a few years since in poverty, complaining bitterly of American ingratitude. He should undoubtedly have been better treated by most of our countrymen, but, if he was often wronged he was also often in the wrong, and his fate was the ordinary one of the persistent and unteachable dreamer.

For More Information

Dillon, Richard. Fool's Gold: A Biography of John Sutter. New York: Coward-McCann, 1967.

Engstrand, Iris H. W. "John Sutter: A Biographical Examination."In John Sutter and a Wider West, edited by Kenneth N. Owens. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994, pp. 76–92.

Holliday, J. S. The World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experience. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981.

Lewis, Oscar. Sutter's Fort: Gateway to the Gold Fields. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1966.

Marks, Paula Mitchell. Precious Dust: The American Gold Rush Era: 1848–1900. New York: William Morrow, 1994.

Owens, Kenneth N., ed. John Sutter and a Wider West. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.

Paul, Rodman W., ed. The California Gold Discovery: Sources, Documents, Accounts, and Memoirs Relating to the Discovery of Gold at Sutter's Mill. Georgetown, CA: Talisman Press, 1966.

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John Augustus Sutter

John Augustus Sutter (1803-1880), German-born American adventurer and colonizer, is generally regarded as one of the founding fathers of California.

Born in Kandern, Baden, on Feb. 15, 1803, Johann August Sutter (as he spelled the name before he Anglicized it) grew to manhood at Rünenberg, Switzerland. He possibly attended a military academy there, and he served in the army. He married in 1826, but after failing in business he emigrated to the United States in 1834.

Sutter settled at St. Charles, Mo., where he became a trader. Twice he made unsuccessful trading trips to New Mexico. He left Missouri in 1838, one jump ahead of his creditors. From Oregon he sailed to Honolulu and to Alaska, arriving in San Francisco in July 1839. He received a land grant from the Mexican governor of California of approximately 50, 000 acres, which he decided to locate at the junction of two rivers in northern California. Employing former mission Native Americans, he cleared land, dug irrigation ditches, planted crops, and erected a fortified post. Soon he was growing wheat, ranching, milling, mining, fur trading, salmon fishing, and shipping. He predicted that California's greatness lay in agriculture and commerce.

Sutter became a Mexican citizen in 1841, and his wife and child joined him at what came to be known as Sutter's Fort. Short, heavy, and bald, except for a fringe of gray hair, he proved a genial, expansive host to Americans arriving in Mexican California. His fort became the focal point of the Bear Flag Revolution, which quickly merged into the Mexican War and ended with California in the hands of the United States. Sutter was a delegate at the constitutional convention of 1849 and a candidate for governor in the first election following statehood.

In January 1848 one of Sutter's employees discovered gold on Sutter's property. This triggered the famous gold rush of 1849, during which Sutter's employees deserted him, his herds disappeared, his fields fell into ruin, and his lands were overrun by squatters searching for gold. He began drinking heavily and by 1852 was bankrupt. Even when the Federal courts upheld his Mexican land grant, he could not afford the court costs to recover it and was left almost penniless. The state of California paid him a pension of $250 per month from 1864 to 1878. He moved to Lititz, Pa., in 1873 but spent his winters in Washington, D.C., pushing a petition in Congress for his relief. He died in Washington on June 18, 1880, still awaiting passage of his bill.

Further Reading

The Diary of Johann August Sutter (1932) contains good autobiographical detail. An early and somewhat derogatory biography is Thomas J. Schoonover, The Life and Times of Gen. John A. Sutter (1895), while Julian Dana, Sutter of California (1936), is eulogistic. A balanced treatment is Richard Dillon, Fool's Gold: The Decline and Fall of Captain John Sutter of California (1967). See also Oscar Lewis, Sutter's Fort: Gateway to the Gold Fields (1966).

Additional Sources

Dana, Julian, Sutter of California; a biography, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1974.

Dillon, Richard H., Fool's gold: the decline and fall of Captain John Sutter of California, Santa Cruz: Western Tanager, 1981.

John A. Sutter's last days: the Bidwell letters, Sacramento: Sacramento Book Collectors Club, 1986.

John Sutter and a wider West, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994. □

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