John Sutter built a fort and forever changed the Wild West

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Sutter’s Fort living history museum. Photo by Bob Difley

By Bob Difley

Like many of the era’s restless youth, John Augustus Sutter, a polished, dashing Swiss gentleman, set sail for New York in 1834 to seek his fortune. After some global wandering, he arrived at a rag-tag colony of barely a dozen residents called Yerba Buena (soon to become San Francisco) in 1839.

With a nice profit from the sale of trade merchandise that he had shipped from Hawaii and Alaska, Sutter purchased guns, seeds, farm equipment, blacksmith and carpentry tools, cannons and ammunition, and set out on three small ships up the Sacramento and America Rivers where he found the perfect spot to establish a colony.

With the help of local Indians, French trappers, and ship-jumping sailors, a 150-foot by 500-foot compound – larger than Fort Laramie – rose in New Helvetia (New Switzerland). He topped the two-and-a-half-foot thick, 18-foot high walls with cannons to protect a bakery, blanket factory, carpenter shop, blacksmith and other workshops within the walls.


He built houses for his workers and guests on the outside of the fort and planted several crops to feed his growing population and passing travelers. He traded for furs with passing mountain men and Indians, shipped wheat to Alaska, and operated a successful whiskey distillery, all the while sinking deeper in debt to finance his dream.

Sutter’s Fort gained a reputation throughout North America as a haven for settlers and pioneers, providing road-weary travelers with free shelter, hot baked tortillas, fresh meat, and strong brandy. His establishment was a home to all Americans, where they could live as long as it suited them, without charge. Everybody was welcome – “one man or a hundred.”

His holdings expanded in 1841 when, after trading his Swiss citizenship for Mexican papers (California was still Mexican territory), Mexican Governor Alvarado awarded him with a 48,000-acre land grant. Later that same year Sutter bought Fort Ross on the Sonoma Coast. He had – in two years – become the most powerful man in the Far West.

New Governor Micheltorena in 1844 appointed Sutter captain of all the troops in the Sacramento Valley, fulfilling one of his lifelong fantasies. But then a single event occurred that would change the West forever. James W. Marshall, working on a contract from Sutter to build a sawmill on the south fork of the American River about 50 miles from the fort, discovered that shiny metal that drives men crazy.

Gold seekers, who were more than willing to take advantage of the kindly Sutter’s hospitality, inundated the fort, and as gold fever spread even his own workers deserted him for the goldfields. By the end of 1849, his mountainous debt had forced him to his knees and he had to sell the fort, retiring to his ranch on the Feather River. By 1860 the fort was in gross disrepair, with only the central building remaining.

The Fort Rises Again

Sutter’s Fort became a California State Park in 1947 and with a map of the grounds found in 1950, the fort has been reconstructed to as close to the original as possible. During the summer, programs with costumed characters – a trapper, sailor, immigrant, farmer, blacksmith and administrator – demonstrate and explain tools and the day-to-day operations of the fort and answer questions about the typical activities of their character.

The trapper displays skins, traps, weapons, and tells stories. A blacksmith, pumping the fire with a huge bellows, pulls a hot metal rod from the white-hot furnace and hammers it on the anvil into a rounded crook. A mill worker demonstrates grinding stones and provides samples of milled wheat and corn. John Sutter would be proud.

Sutter’s Fort lies in central Sacramento.

Check out Bob Difley’s RVing e-books on Amazon Kindle.


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