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John Sutter and the California gold rush
July 29, 2013, 05:00 AM By Darold Fredricks

Photo courtesy of the San Mateo County History Museum John Sutter in 1866.

John Sutter was a ambitious man who wanted to carve out his personal kingdom in the California wilds of the Sacramento Valley. He amassed an enormous fortune and acquired vast acres of land in the Valley and he almost achieved his goal except for one historical event that spoiled his plans — the California gold rush.

Born in Baden, Germany in 1803, his father was born in Switzerland and John moved there for schooling. He later joined the Swiss army and became a captain of the artillery. Things went well for Sutter and he married Annette Dubeld at 23. His wife’s mother was rich and she set him up in a store business. Sutter proceeded to run the business into the ground with enormous debt. He was faced with a dilemma now — should he stay and raise his five children or should he run away? Rather than be thrown into the debtors jail, he chose to leave the country and his family and arrived in New York in 1834. He became restless and moved to St. Louis then on to Santa Fe, N.M. territory and finally entered Westport, Oregon Territory. Next he was found in Fort Vancouver in April 1838.

He wanted to go to Yerba Buena to fulfill his dream of starting a new state but the only boat available was going to Hawaii. He took the offer hoping to get a boat to Yerba Buena but the only boat out of Hawaii was going to Sitka, Alaska. He picked up goods (on credit of course) he felt he could sell in California for a profit while waiting to leave. Finally, he got a boat to California and arrived in Yerba Buena on July 1, 1839. At this time, California had 1,000 Europeans and 10,000 Native Americans. Sutter needed permission from governor Juan Bautista Alvarado to stay in California and to acquire a land grant from the Mexican government he needed to become a citizen of Mexico also.

On Aug. 29, 1840, he became a Mexican citizen and a year later he received a grant of 48,827 acres by what is now Sacramento. It stretched along the Sacramento River from New Helvetia to the Feather River and present-day Marysville. Then he was appointed to be the alcalde (or chief enforcement officer) which gave him the power of life and death over his subjects. He named his settlement New Helvetia, or “New Switzerland” after his homeland.

Sutter began building his “fort” in 1839 and completed it in 1841. He had visited Fort Laramie in Wyoming and he was impressed enough of its form that he patterned Fort Sutter after this army fort. Sutter was not a big man but he had an imposing demeanor with a military bearing and a flair for attracting people to him. By the time he acquired the land for his kingdom, he had acquired a number of people along the way who wanted to share in his dreams. He became friends of the Indians and they helped make thousands of adobe bricks for the home he placed in the center of the compound. Surrounded by a thick and high wall that would ward off any attack, he placed workshops and stores in which he was to produce all goods necessary for the settlement.

In 1841, he purchased the Russian Fort (Fort Ross) for the sum of $30,000 (on credit). Now he had boards, ammunition, cannons and livestock. At the end of 1841, members of the Bartleson-Bidwell immigration party arrived, the fist to cross over the Sierra Nevada. Many more pioneers were to use the facilities of Sutter Fort and many were saved by the generosity of Sutter in rescuing stranded parties in the mountains.

Wheat was grown and a number of trappers were hired by Sutter to trap beavers for their pelts. One of the first things he did was to collect the grapes in the area and distill a potent brandy called aguardiente.

In 1843, another immigration party led by Joseph B. Chiles and Joseph Walker arrived. In March 1844, John Fremont and his bedraggled starving band of “trail blazers” stopped at the fort. Fremont was to become a familiar figure in the area for a number of months and have his hand in the “Bear Flag” rebellion and the taking over of California for the U.S. government.

In July 1845, a immigrant group arrived from the Willamette Valley in Oregon. Among them was a man who would change the history of California and the world. His name was James Wilson Marshall. He was a millwright. Sutter hired him immediately as a handyman-carpenter.

Late in December 1845, Fremont and Kit Carson and their band of “topographers” were back and eventually he placed General Vallejo under guard at Sutters Fort after the Bear Flag Revolt in mid-June 1846. Things were spinning out of control for the Mexicans.

Sutter needed water-powered mills to cut logs into lumber and to grind grain into flour.

He started a gristmill a few miles upstream from the fort and he decided to build the water-powered mill in a well-timbered valley called Cullomah (now Coloma). By late August, the mill was underway and it was unfinished when, on Jan. 24, 1848, Marshall discovered gold in the newly dug tailrace.

After determining it was gold, Sutter had Marshall and his workers to keep it quiet until after the mill was finished. That worked for a while until work leaked out that there was gold on the American River. Because there had been many gold discoveries in the past, this news was received cautiously by most at first until newspaperman, Samuel Brannan, visited the area and became convinced that the gold strike was real. He quickly returned to San Francisco and shouted out to the world as he walked down Montgomery Avenue that there was really gold on the American River.

What was to follow changed the entire history of San Francisco and the nation.

Rediscovering the Peninsula by Darold Fredricks appears in the Monday edition of the Daily Journal.




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