Sutter’s Fort was an invaluable resource and rest stop for many emigrants traveling the California Trail, but what do we really know about the man behind the fort? Learn more about this adventurous dreamer and how his determination took him on journeys throughout the Pacific, eventually igniting the ultimate driver of many to settle the West — the California Gold Rush.
Johann August Suter
John Sutter was born Johann Augustus Suter on February 28th, 1803, in Kandern, Germany. Maybe growing up so close to Dreiländereck, where Germany, France, and Switzerland meet, first planted the seeds of a wider world in his mind.
After an education in Switzerland, marriage, and unsuccessful business ventures that left him in debt, Suter decided to leave his family in the care of his brother and travel to the New World.
San Francisco Via New York
On arrival to New York City on July 14th, 1834, Johann changed his name to sound as “American” as possible. He traveled from New York to Missouri and eventually to Santa Fe, where he heard about the lush land and opportunity waiting in Northern California.
Unfortunately, no ships were scheduled to sail directly to California. So, Sutter had to sail first to Honolulu, HI, and then to Sitka, AK. Finally, on July 1st, 1839, he landed at Yerba Buena, today’s San Francisco.
New Helvetia & Sutter’s Fort
John Sutter quickly became friends with the local governor, Juan Bautista Alvarado, and gained title to a parcel of land totaling 48,827 acres. He named his new settlement New Helvetia (New Switzerland), aiming to create an agricultural utopia. In 1843, he built a fort at present-day Sacramento.
Providing Rest For The Weary
Sutter’s Fort became a desired destination for many weary travelers along the California Trail, including the Donner-Party, John Bidwell, Lansford Hastings, and William Hastings. It had all the amenities westward expansion travelers could hope for and much more.
- High, Thick, Gun-Guarded Walls
- Supply Shops
- Houses, Mills & Stocked Warehouses
- Blacksmiths, Millers, Bakers, Carpenters & Gunsmiths
- Meat, Cattle & Sheep
What Was Sutter’s Fort Like?
“The fort itself was one of adobe-walls, about twenty feet high, rectangular in form, with two-story block-houses at diagonal corners. The entrance was by a large gate, open by day and closed at night, with two iron ship’s guns near at hand. Inside there was a large house, with a good shingle-roof, used as a storehouse, and all round the walls were ranged rooms, the fort-wall being the outer wall of the house.
The inner wall also was of adobe. These rooms were used by Captain Sutter and by his people. He had a blacksmith’s shop, carpenter’s shop, etc., and other rooms where the women made blankets. Sutter was monarch of all he surveyed, and authority to inflict punishment even unto death, a power he did not fail to use.
He had horses, cattle, and sheep, and of these he gave liberally and without price to all in need. He caused to be driven into our camp a beef and some sheep, which were slaughtered for our use.” — William Sherman
Gold Rush & Ruin
On January 24th, 1848, James Marshall spotted gold while working on a sawmill in partnership with Sutter in Coloma. This find sparked the hurry West by thousands of emigrants known as the Gold Rush. This new development eventually left the “founder of California” in financial ruins and put an end to his dreams of building an agricultural utopia.
Learn More About California’s Pioneers
Despite his eventual losses, John Sutter took great pride in his ability to offer aid and supplies to the hopeful traveling west. Learn more about the successes and challenges of westward pioneers at the California Trail Interpretive Center in Elko, NV. Contact us today to get a schedule of upcoming events and to schedule your trip