Sutter and His Dream

General John A. Sutter

The life story of John Sutter identifies him as an individual with little inherent nobility of character. In 1834 he left Switzerland to escape both his debts and his personal responsibilities. He arrived in New York and then traveled to St. Louis, where he briefly engaged in the Santa Fe trade. In 1838, again fleeing creditors, he traveled overland along the Oregon Trail to the Pacific Coast. After a brief stay at Fort Vancouver, he went to Hawaii and then to Sitka, Alaska--the headquarters of Russian America before going to California.

He arrived in Monterey, the capital of Mexican California in 1839 with a small group of Hawaiian natives (known as the "Kanakas"). When he was in Hawaii, he had made an impression on King Kamehameha who provided him with the group of eight Kanakas to add to his crew of followers. In California, he planned to emulate the many frontier enterprises he had encountered throughout his travels. He received, from Governor Alvarado, a generous land grant situated in the lower Sacramento Valley. Here he planned to develop his own estate while serving the Mexican government.

Essential to his plan was the promise of free land, the prospect of cheap native labor, and support from his commercial patron, the merchant Nathan Spear. Mr. Spear had extended Sutter credit with the expectation that the newcomer would indeed amass a great fortune as a frontier entrepreneur.

Sutter's plans focused on the creation of a baronial estate, which he called New Helvetia (the old name for Switzerland) located near the confluence of the Sacramento and American Rivers. By late 1840, he had established a foothold in the area and constructed his fort. He set about trying to develop several agricultural and business ventures, but a series of reverses soon cast doubt on his abilities. He could not control the native work force and was often cheated when dealing with other people. He suffered repeated crop failures and his efforts to develop a trade in beaver furs came to a sorry end when his employees sold the furs instead to the rival Hudson's Bay Company.

Sutter had a genial side to his personality and even during all his troubles, he gained a reputation for generosity to emigrants and settlers. Letters and journals, written by men and women who visited Sutter's Fort, often tell of his hospitality. Pre-gold rush pioneers arrived in ever-increasing numbers and Sutter furnished many of them with shelter and supplies. It was from Sutter's Fort that teams of men went out to rescue the Donner Party and other stranded travelers.

Trying to keep ahead of his financial troubles, Sutter went into partnership with James Marshall to build a sawmill in the lower Sierra Nevada mountains. The discovery of gold at the site known as Coloma in January 1848 quickly completed the ruination of Sutter's great dream. The discovery of gold could not be kept secret, as he briefly hoped. Once the gold rush began, Sutter found his land overrun by squatters, miners, and settlers, while his livestock and other property were stolen. His lack of business ability, his gullibility, and his capacity for self-delusion, encouraged by a tendency toward heavy drinking, all combined to make him an easy mark for the sharp men who grasped hold of his lands and other assets.

Trying to escape his problems, Sutter transferred title of all his property to his son John Sutter, Jr. who together with developers Sam Brannan and Peter Burnett, developed the land facing the Sacramento River into lots and auctioned them off. With this money, his son paid some of Sutter's most pressing debts.

Bewildered and still beleaguered with many problems, Sutter retired to live quietly on his modest farm on the Feather River. From time to time he traveled to Sacramento and San Francisco, where he played the role of the brave and noble foundeer of civilization in interior California, all the while seeking financial assistance from the state and federal governments. He had hopes the US government would confirm his land rights and mining claims after California became a state in 1850. In the process, Sutter began to make his own myth--reciting a tale of wrongs while creating a legend about his immense contributions to Anglo-American occupation and civilized progress in California--a legend that had only the smallest basis in fact.

In 1865, after a vengeful former employee set fire to his farm, Sutter and his wife Anna who had come from Switzerland to join him after the beginning of the gold rush, moved east and for several years lived in Washington, D.C. In 1871 he settled in the small town of Lititz, Pennsylvania. He thought the people there were friendly and the medicinal springs would be beneficial to his health. In 1876 he presided over Swiss Day at the Centennial Celebration in Philadelphia. His public appearances were becoming fewer and fewer as age, ill health, and discouragement took their toll. He died on June 18, 1880, at the age of 77. He had devoted his last years to petitioning Congress to reimburse him for his losses. Although he was not destitute--the California Legislature had voted him a pension in 1864--he lived in modest circumstances compared to the potential weath that might have been his.

Source: "Sutter and His Dream," pamphlet, Discovery Museum

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