John Sutter

From New World Encyclopedia

Johann Augustus Sutter
BornFebruary 28 1803
Kandern, Baden-Württemberg, Germany
DiedJune 18 1880

Johann August Suter (February 28 1803 – June 18 1880) was a Swiss pioneer of California known as a founder of California and for his association with the California Gold Rush. Leaving his family behind after several failed business ventures, and after a long journey and sometime arduous journey of many years, Sutter traveled from Europe to New York City, St. Louis, and Santa Fe. From there he set out for California with dreams of becoming a successful rancher. The pursuit of this dream took him across the Oregon Trail to Honolulu, to Sitka, Alaska, before he finally landed at Yerba Buena, later named San Francisco. After spending years developing a Utopian agricultural society, history shows that Sutter reached one too far and built a sawmill at the far eastern extent of his land at Coloma, California, on the American River. This lead directly to his greatest regret.

The discovery of gold on January 24, 1848, by Sutter's carpenter, James W. Marshall, at Sutter's Mill, brought ruin to his plans for a utopian society. Although famous throughout California as a founder of the state—although he did not initially support Union—and for his association with the Gold Rush, Sutter ironically died almost penniless, having seen his business ventures fail while those of his elder son, John August Sutter, Jr., prospered.

The founding of California did much to stretch the United States clear across the continent, in fulfillment of its "manifest destiny" to spread freedom, and the "federative development of self government."[1] Joining the Union on September 9, 1850, California was the 31st state but the first on the Pacific coast. California developed a distinctive ethos that especially affirms personal freedom and is always ready to embrace new ideas. The 31st state has provided a haven for many people fleeing prejudice and bias elsewhere. To some degree, Sutter's Utopian ideas have remained alive in a state where people aspire to become the people their deepest desires want them to be.


Early years

Johann August Suter was born on February 23, 1803, in Kandern, Baden, Germany. His father was from the nearby town of Rünenberg, in Switzerland, one of Europe's few democracies at that time. As a boy Suter went to school in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, and later joined the Swiss army, rising to the rank of captain in the artillery. Debts incurred in business dealings, however, compelled Suter to leave Europe for the United States. In May 1834, he left his wife and four children, the oldest was seven years old in Burgdorf, Switzerland, in the care of his brother. He promised to send for them as soon as he was able and with a French passport sailed on the ship Sully, which traveled from Le Havre, France, to New York City, where it arrived on July 14, 1834.

The New World

In the United States, Suter changed his name to John Augustus Sutter because he wanted to be as American as possible. He then undertook extensive travels at once and headed for St.Louis, Missouri. Before coming to the United States, he learned to speak Spanish and English. Together with 35 other immigrants from Germany, he went from St. Louis, where he became a trader on the Santa Fe Trail. In Santa Fe, New Mexico, Sutter heard about the lush opportunities in the Mexican territory of Northern California. The reports were of mild climate, rich soil, and all the land an ambitious man could want. After three years of trading on the Santa Fe Trail, Sutter decided to move to California and pursue a dream of being a rancher.

April 1, 1838, with a group of missionaries, led by the fur trapper Andrew Dripps, Sutter set out across the Oregon trail to Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River, near present day Portland, Oregon. The group of eight men reached their destination in October. However there was no ship to take Sutter to California, but there was a ship leaving for the Sandwich Islands (present day Hawaii), so with a few companions, he sailed on the Hudson Bay Company bark HMS Columbia, from Fort Vancouver in November, 1838. They arrived at Honolulu on December 9, 1838. Sutter, still far from his goal, was determined to settle in California. In Honolulu Bay, the only vessel available for charter was the brig HMS Clementine. Sutter managed to sign on an unpaid supercargo of provisions and general merchandise including three small brass cannon to be used the great ranch that he planned in California. When he sailed for the Russian colony of New Archangel, now known as Sitka, Alaska, on April 20, 1839, Sutter carried with him ten Kanakas (natives of the Sandwich Islands); two of them women, a few companions, and a Hawaiian bulldog. When his trading at Sitka was successfully completed, Sutter, aboard the Clementine, headed south. He arrived at last in California and sailed through the Golden Gate and landed at Yerba Buena, now San Francisco. When the Clementine arrived in Yerba Buena on July 1, 1839, it was a tiny and poor mission station. At the time of Sutter's arrival in California, the territory had a population of only 1,000 Europeans, in contrast with more than 30,000 Native Americans.

New Helvetia

Portrait of John Sutter by Frank Buchser in 1866, Solothurn Art Museum Switzerland.

When he first arrived at Yerba Buena (soon to be renamed San Francisco), Sutter was refused entry by the military commander, who insisted that Sutter sail to Monterrey and obtain an official entry permit from the governor. Several days later, Sutter landed at Monterrey and met with the governor, Juan Bautista Alvarado. The two soon became friendly and when Sutter expressed his desire to settle east of San Francisco Bay, Alvarado gave permission for Sutter to select a tract of land. Alvarado considered the land in that area to be worthless because it was inhabited solely by Native Americans. Beside that, Russia, Great Britian, and the United States were all showing interest in the same general region. It was good for Alvarado to have a friendly settler there.[2]

When he returned to Yerba Buena with Alvarado's entry permit, Sutter outfitted his party with tools, equipment, and farming implements. He hired two sloops and a four oared launch for shallower water. He then sailed inland across San Francisco Bay and the inlet Suisun Bay. He then sailed up the Sacramento River to the American River. In order to qualify for a land grant, Sutter became a Mexican citizen on August 29, 1840—the following year, on June 18, 1841, he received title to a parcel totaling 48,827 acres, known as El Sobrante. Sutter named his settlement New Helvetia, or "New Switzerland," after the homeland of his father. Variously, he employed Native Americans of the Miwok and Maidu tribes, the Kanakas who had sailed with him from Honolulu, and Europeans at his compound, which he called Sutter's Fort. He envisioned creating an agricultural utopia, and for a time the settlement was in fact quite large and prosperous. It was, for a period, the destination for most California-bound immigrants, including the ill-fated Donner Party. Some of them set out for Sutter's Fort and Sutter attempted their rescue.

Sutter took his time to select his settlement. He had been given permission by Governor Alvarado to choose any location he liked in the entire Sacramento Valley. He chose a tract of land a few miles up the American River, where it branched into the Sacramento River. Over the next three years Sutter prospered and built his fort. It was a structure of adobe brick, eighteen feet high and more than three feet thick. On September 4, 1841, the Russian schooner Constantine arrived at Sutter's Fort. The Russians offered to sell their land holdings on the coast 80 miles north of San Francisco. By 1841, the settlement at Fort Ross's agricultural importance had decreased considerably, and the local population of fur-bearing marine mammals had been depleted, so the fur trade was no longer lucrative. Following the formal trade agreement between the Russian-American Company in Sitka and Hudson's Bay Company at Fort Vancouver, the settlement at Fort Ross was not needed to supply the Alaskan colonies with food. The Russians offered to sell the land for $30,000. Sutter readily accepted and made the requested $2,000 down payment. Over the next few months, Sutter dismantled Fort Ross and shipped its contents and most of its buildings to Sutter's Fort. Soon after, his fort had a blacksmith and carpentry shop, a gristmill, a distillery, and a blanket weaving shop. His cattle herd increased to 13,000 head and he had large acreages planted with wheat and other grains. By some reports, there were acres of apple, peach, olive, pear, and fig tree orchards and two acres of Castille roses grown from cuttings given by the Mexican mission priests.[3]

Sutter's Fort had become a little kingdom in its own right, able to protect itself. It also had become an important way station for American emigrants coming westward across the Sierra Nevada Mountains. A Francophile, Sutter threatened to raise the French flag over California and place New Helvetia under French protection during the unsettled times following Mexico's loss of the Mexican American War to the United States. But, in 1848 as part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ending the war, California was ceded to the United States.[4] Sutter at first supported the establishment of an independent California Republic but when United States troops briefly seized control of his fort, Sutter did not resist because he was vastly outnumbered.

The sawmill

James Wilson Marshall

The one thing Sutter did not have in abundance on his beloved ranch was timber. To remedy this, he hired James Marshall. Marshall was hired to assist with work around the fort—carpentry, primarily. Sutter helped Marshall to buy two leagues (approximately 7 square miles) of land on the north side of Butte Creek (a tributary of the Sacramento River) and provided him with cattle.

Soon after this, the Mexican American War began in May 1846. Marshall volunteered and served under Captain John C. Fremont's California Battalion during the Bear Flag Revolt. When he left the battalion and returned to his ranch in early 1847, he discovered that all his cattle had either strayed or been stolen. With his sole source of income gone, Marshall lost his land.[5]

It was then that Marshall entered into a partnership with Sutter for the construction of a sawmill. Marshall was hired to oversee the construction and operation of the mill, and would in return receive a portion of the lumber. After scouting nearby areas for a suitable location, he eventually decided upon Coloma, located roughly 40 miles upstream of Sutter's Fort. He proposed his plan to Sutter, and construction began in late August, 1847. His crew consisted mainly of local Miwok and Maidu natives and veterans of the Mormon Battalion on their way to Salt Lake City, Utah.[6]

Construction of the sawmill continued into January 1848, when it was discovered that the tailrace portion of the mill (the ditch that drained water away from the waterwheel) was too narrow and shallow for the volume of water needed to operate the saw. Marshall decided to use the natural force of the river to excavate and enlarge the tailrace. This could only be done at night, so as not to endanger the lives of the men working on the mill during the day. Every morning Marshall examined the results of the previous night's excavation. On January 24, 1848, Marshall caught sight of bright gleaming objects under the clear water.[7]

Samuel Brannan, courtesy of the Utah Historical Society.

Sutter and Marshall realized immediately that the gold they found in abundance would spell ruin for Sutter's dream of an agricultural utopia. They attempted to keep the discovery of gold from getting out, but there were many workmen at the site. The workmen promised to keep the discovery quiet and did so until the following February. By mid-March 1848, the mill was completed and the workmen began to leave the fort to search for gold. The secret could not be kept forever and failed altogether when an elder in the Mormon Church in San Francisco, publisher (The California Star), and store owner, Samuel Brannan heard of the activity at Sutter's Mill. Brannan realized he could increase revenue at his store in Sutterville many times from the added traffic prospectors would bring. He returned to San Francisco with a bag of gold dust he had acquired from sales to prospectors and began publicizing the find.

Land grant challenge

Camp Union, Sutterville (State Historical marker and fort pillar)

In March 1848, Brannan did all he could to rouse the populace of San Francisco toward the gold discovered at Sutter's Mill on the American River. More traffic up the American river to Sutter's Mill meant more business for his store at Sutterville. At first, interest was mild, but within two weeks, masses of people began to overrun the landscape. Within weeks San Francisco evacuated for the gold fields around Sutter's Mill.

Immediately upon discovery of gold at his mill, Sutter became concerned with being overrun by prospectors. He signed a treaty with the local native tribes, leasing the land to them for three years. Sutter then sent one of his men, Charles Bennett, a carpenter at the sawmill in March of 1848, to the new American military governor at Monterrey. Bennett was known to Sutter as a veteran of the United States military and familiar with military protocol. But the governor, Richard Mason refused to confirm Sutter's claim because word had not yet reached California that the treaty ending the war had been signed or that Mexico had formally ceded California to the United States.

Sutter tried mining himself in the summer of 1848, with a large group of Miwok and Maidu Indians and the Kanakas. However, he was not inclined toward mining and the gold he gathered from the river gravel went to pay his debt to the Russians for his purchase of Fort Ross.

Sutter's son, John Augustus Sutter, Jr., came from Switzerland and joined his father after an absence of fourteen years in August, 1848, but the reunion was not destined to remain a happy one. There was far more than the two men and the crew of natives could manage. The younger Sutter saw the commercial possibilities of the land and promptly teamed up with Brannan. The two started plans for building a new city he named Sacramento, after the Sacramento River at the confluence of the American and Sacramento rivers.

Sutter's son and Samuel Brannan planned the City of Sacramento initially, and their plans were laid out by United States Army Corps of Engineers William Tecumseh Sherman against Sutter’s wishes. As the Gold Rush brought a a seeming endless flood of prospectors through New Helvetia into the nearby foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, Sutter Jr. and Brannan believed that great wealth could be acquired in starting a city where the two rivers forked.

At first, the prospectors were Californians who knew of Sutter and respected him. The next year, 1849, brought a whole new crop of fortune seekers who had never heard of Sutter and were solely absorbed with personal greed. They stole Sutter's cattle and butchered them, turned their own horses and oxen to graze in his grainfields and even looted the fort, taking even the millstones to crush the gold bearing rock. A few of the new settlers bought land from Sutter, but most just took it and then sold it to others.

Sutter managed to remain active under these conditions. His boats ferried passengers and freight between San Francisco and Sacramento, he rented his now empty stables and set up stores near Sutterville and Coloma where his now famous mill was located. However, the mushrooming Sacaramento took leadership away from Sutter's Fort. Samuel Brannan at the same time did very well and prospered as John Sutter watched his holdings dwindle. In order to keep from losing everything, however, Sutter deeded his remaining land to his son and leased the fort to his son and moved to Feather River, to an area known in the present day as Sutter County, California, where his family joined him in 1851. He had very little to show them for all years of effort and hard work. The titles to his land were confused because they had come form the Mexican government and as part of the Treaty of Guadelupe Hildago, Mexican land grants were not honored by the United States government.[8]

The El Sobrante land grant was challenged by the Squatter's Association, and in 1858, the United States Supreme Court denied its validity. Sutter sought reimbursement of his losses associated with the Gold Rush. He received a pension of $250 a month not for his losses but as a reimbursement of taxes paid on the El Sobrante grant to California.

He and wife, Nanette, moved from Feather River to Lititz, Pennsylvania. The proximity to Washington, D.C. along with the reputed healing qualities of Lititz Springs appealed to the aging Sutter. He also wanted his three grandchildren to have the benefits of the private and Moravian Schools there. Sutter built his home across from the Lititz Springs Hotel. Later it became known as the General Sutter Inn.

For more than fifteen years, John Sutter, now as an undisputed founder of California, petitioned Congress for restitution but little was done. On June 16, 1880, Congress adjourned, once again, without action on a bill which would have given Sutter $50,000. Two days later on June 18, 1880, John Augustus Sutter died in a Washington D.C. hotel. His body was returned to Lititz and is buried in the Moravian Cemetery. His wife, Nanette Sutter, died the following January and is buried with him.


General Sutter's grave in Lititz Moravian Cemetry in Lititz, Pennsylvania

. Although the utopia that he sought to establish while he was on earth eluded him for a variety of reasons, Sutter is remembered as an historical figure. Recognized as a founder of the the state of California and the owner of the sawmill where the largest gold rush in the lower 48 United States began, Sutter is best remembered by various landmarks; streets, schools, a California county and a hospital which memorialize his name. Sutter Street in downtown San Francisco, California is named after him. Also Sutter's Landing, Sutterville Rd., Sutter Middle School, and the Sutterville Elementary School in Sacramento, California were all named in his honor as was the hotel where he spent his waning years in Lititz, Pennsylvania. The Sutterville Bend of the Sacramento River is also named after him. Sutter Medical Foundation, a non-profit medical system in Northern California also takes its name in honor of Sutter.


  1. Alan Brinkley, American History, A Survey (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1995). ISBN 9780073331638
  2. Ralph K. Andrist, The California Gold Rush (New York: American Heritage Publishing Company, Inc, 1961), p 10-13.
  3. Adrist, p 14-15.
  4., Ancestry Magazine. Retrieved October 19, 2007.
  5. Sarah A. Gallagher, Early History of Lambertville, N.J. (Trenton, N.J.: MacCrellish & Quigley, 1903).
  6., James Wilson Marshall. Retrieved October 10, 2006.
  7. Andrist p. 17.
  8. Andrist, p. 26.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Cendrars, Blaise. Gold Being the Marvellous History of General John Augustus Sutter. New York: M. Kesend Pub, 1984. ISBN 9780935576085
  • Dillon, Richard H. Fool's Gold the Decline and Fall of Captain John Sutter of California. Santa Cruz: Western Tanager, 1981. ISBN 9780934136150
  • Hurtado, Albert L. John Sutter: A Life on the North American Frontier. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006. ISBN 9780806137728

External links

All links retrieved August 3, 2022.


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