July 21, 2009
"Our Founder John A. Sutter"
John Sutter 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
soon 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.
A series of business failures propmted Sutter's decision to seek his fortune in
America. At the age of thirty-one, he left his wife and four children, a step ahead
of his creditors.
After arriving in America Sutter headed west for Missouri where he worked as a
merchant and innkeeper for several years. All the while dreaming 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, the
Pacific headquarters of the Hudson's Bay Company, in October. Unable to leave for
California immediately, Sutter sailed on the Hudson's Bay ship Columbia for the
Sandwich Islands, where he landed at Honolulu on December 9 of 1838. From there
he sailed to the Russian colony at Sitka, Alaska, and thence to Yerba Buena, where
he arrived on July 1 of 1839. He had finally reached California.
Sutter met with Governor Alvarado at Monterey to discuss establishing himself in
the country. In search of his dream, Sutter chartered the schooner Isabella from
the firm of Spear & Hinckley, and two smaller vessels. Loaded with provisions he
led his fleet up the Sacramento River on August 1 of 1839. Two weeks later they
landed near where the American River joins the Sacramento and established camp.
A tent and some brush huts provided the first shelter for the small party; later,
a more substantial adobe building was erected with Indian labor.
In order to qualify for a land grant, Sutter became a naturalized Mexican citizen
on August 29 of 1840. The following year, on June 18, he received title to 48,827
acres from Governor Alvarado. He named the grant New Helvetia after his homeland
and began building his empire.
In 1841, Sutter bought the Russian settlements of Ross and Bodega for $32,000,
secured by mortgage on New Helvetia. Sutter established the Hock farm on the West
bank of the Feather River a few miles south of what would become Yuba City. This
farm supplied the settlement at Sutter's Fort on the Sacramento River.
Sutter's Fort was pretty well completed by 1844. The Fort was also a trading post
and as it occupied one of the most strategic positions in Northern California.
Because of the overland trails, it became the natural objective for parties crossing
Sutter's dreams of an agricultural empire were soon fulfilled as he branched
out into many pursuits. local Indians employed were to sow and harvest his wheat
fields; large herds of cattle and horses grazed in fields about the fort. Hunters
were sent into the mountains for furs and elk skins. A distillery was built. A
blacksmith shop furnished tools and a launch carrying freight and passengers ran
regularly between the Fort and San Francisco Bay.
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
As the news of the discovery spread, more and more people began traveling through
the region and Sutter saw his settlement overrun with gold seekers. They trampled
his crops, stole his animals, tools, and supplies, and infected his workers with
gold fever. Sutter saw his empire crumbling away and there was nothing he could
do about it.
In 1850, he was joined by his wife, daughter Eliza, and sons Emil Victor and William
Alphonse, whom he hadn't seen for sixteen years. As life at the Fort had become
intolerable, he took his family north to Hock Farm. The family enjoyed a few years
peace in their beautiful redwood home, surrounded by vineyards, orchards and gardens
of rare plants, before misfortune struck once again. Rustlers stole his livestock
and squatters overran his land. The squatters eventually took Sutter to court over
the legality of his titles. The U.S. Land Commission decided in Sutter's favor in
1857, but a year later the Supreme Court declared portions of his title invalid.
The final blow came on June 7 of 1865, when a small band of men set fire to and
completely destroyed the house.
Sutter and his wife went to Washington D.C. seeking restitution from Congress,
but were unsuccessful. He and his wife settled down in the Moravian town of Lititz,
Pennsylvania, around 1871, but he never gave up the fight.
On June 16 of 1880, Congress adjourned before passing a bill which would have given
him $50,000. Two days later on June 18, 1880, John Augustus Sutter died as poor as
he was born into the world. He was returned to Lititz and buried in the Moravian
Mike "Gunshot" Young