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Monday, July 17, 2017

Rise and Fall of Sutter's Fort - Part 3

In May, I featured the RISE of Sutter’s Fort and how John Augustus Sutter Sr., a native of Switzerland, received a grant from the Mexican government, after which he began to build what he hoped to be how own little empire, New Helvetica. To read that post, please CLICK HERE. In June, I shared about the FALL of Sutter’s Fort brought on by one momentous event that proved to be a catalyst for bringing California into the Union as a state, but was disastrous as far as Sutter’s plans for his land. To read that post, please CLICK HERE.

1867 photo of what was left of Sutter's Fort

When gold was discovered in the nearby foothills by James Marshall, local merchant Sam Brannan rushed to open a store near the Sacramento River to take advantage of the convenient waterfront location. What was then called Sutter’s Embarcadero was soon known as the City of Sacramento. The city rapidly grew into a trading center for miners outfitting themselves for the gold fields.

Sutter's Fort Plaque, ctsy Ian Howard

As word quickly spread, some 80,000 miners flooded the area, extending up and down the length of the Sacramento Valley, and overrunning Sutter’s domain. Sutter’s employees also joined the Gold Rush and he was unable to protect his property.

As almost everything Sutter had worked for was destroyed, John deeded everything that was left to his son, John Augustus Sutter Jr., in order not to lose it. The younger Sutter saw the commercial possibilities of the land and promptly made plans for building a new city he named Sacramento, after the Sacramento River.

The elder Sutter deeply resented this because he had wanted the city to be named Sutterville and be built near his New Helvetia domain.

Ironically, although James Marshall discovered gold on land where John Sutter was building a sawmill to provide lumber for his dream of an empire, neither man ever profited from the discovery that should have made them independently wealthy. Though Marshall tried to secure his own claims in the gold fields, he was unsuccessful. The sawmill where the gold was found also failed, as every able-bodied man took off in search of gold. 

By 1852 John Sutter was bankrupt and his land was filled with squatters. After Sutter sold the property to his son, John Augustus Sutter Jr., he and his wife moved back to Lititz, Pennsylvania. From there, he continued to fight the U.S. Government for compensation for his losses for fifteen years. He died without successfully winning his appeal to Congress.

In the meantime, his elder son, John Augustus Sutter Jr., who had stayed behind in California, prospered.

Most of the buildings that had belonged to Sutter were dismantled by squatters. Only one of the buildings survived. It was the original fort, the same building in which Sutter and Marshall met to discuss the discovery of gold.

This building with walls 2.5 feet (0.76 m) thick and 15 to 18 feet (5.5 m) high managed to survive the destruction of vandals, but since the fort was largely deserted by the 1850s it fell into disrepair.

In 1891, the Native Sons of the Golden West, who sought to safeguard many of the landmarks of California's pioneer days, purchased and rehabilitated Sutter's Fort when the City of Sacramento sought to demolish it. Repair efforts were completed in 1893 and the fort was given by the Native Sons of the Golden West to the State of California. In 1947, the fort was transferred to the authority of California State Parks.

The adobe structure has been restored to its original condition and is now administered by California Department of Parks and Recreation. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1961.

It is because of that preservation and restoration effort this fort is available as an example of the early history of California. It is frequented by school tours.

In fact, my first recollection of touring Sutter’s Fort was when I joined one of my children’s fourth or fifth grade classes (don’t remember exactly what grade goes there for field trips each year) on the two hour bus trip (which seems like a lot longer than two hours when you are traveling on a school bus with a class of vocal, excited children) up to the fort. 

I found it fascinating. I think the impressions that stuck with me were (1) the walls were quite thick, and (2) people sure lived in small quarters back then. However, I am grateful that although this fort was a loss and a symbol of bankruptcy for John A. Sutter Sr., it is a wealth of California history for us today.



Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated May, 2017.

Zina Abbott is the pen name used by Robyn Echols for her historical western romances. Five of her books in the Eastern Sierra Brides 1884 series, , Big Meadows Valentine, A Resurrected Heart, Her Independent Spirit, Haunted by Love  and Bridgeport Holiday Brides, have been published by Prairie Rose Publications and are available. A sixth full-size novel, Luck Joy Bride, is in the works.


  1. Too bad about the saw mill with the lose-lose situation between Sutter and Marshall. Seems like a compromise of sorts could have won the day.
    Sutter's son seems to have had the most business sense. Seems like he would have helped his dad after he succeeded in establishing Sacramento. Some people must just be born visionaries with a truck load of business acumen.
    All the best Zina.

  2. How lucky you were to tour the site and share your thoughts and research with us. Thanks you for this series. Enjoyed it. Doris

  3. This was an interesting and informative series about John Sutter and the discovery of gold in California. I came into these articles knowing very little about Sutter, other than his mill was the site of the gold discovery. I have learned a great deal more about his story. Thank you for that. ;-) I like happy endings but, sadly, reality doesn't comply with everything I want. lol So Sutter's story makes me a little sad.

    On a happier note, my oldest son and his family live in Sacramento. Maybe I can tour Sutter's Fort next time I visit them.