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Monday, June 19, 2017

Rise and Fall of Sutter's Fort - Part 2

This post is not going to feature the details of the discovery of gold in California that took place in Coloma, California. That will be a separate blog post. Rather, it will highlight the effect of this discovery on John Sutter and his fort. 

John Sutter received a land grant from Mexico for the purpose of building an empire within Alta California. To review last month’s post on John Sutter’s fort, please CLICK HERE.

In 1848, two important events took place which affected Sutter and his fort. 

First, on January 24, 1848, James Wilson Marshall, a carpenter from New Jersey who had been hired by Sutter to construct a sawmill on the American River near Coloma, discovered gold. 

The second big event was the end of the Mexican-American war and the Treaty of Guadalupe Hilgado granting a large chunk of former Mexican territory to the United States. Included in this land transfer was Alta California which became California Territory.

At first, Sutter tried to keep news of the discovery of gold quiet. His focus was on building his empire. However, people cannot keep their collective mouths shut, and news of the discovery spread like wildfire.

John Sutter’s land grant did not extend to Coloma. He built the mill near a source of water and timber in order to provide lumber for construction at his fort. Sutter had negotiated an agreement with the Indians to use that land and cut timber in exchange for a promise of clothing and other items. He regarded it as open Indian land, not belonging to anyone. However, once the United States took over the administration of California Territory, the U. S. military governor in Monterey, Colonel Richard B. Mason, refused to accept it. Mason maintained that the Indians had no title to the land. According to him, it belonged to the United States by right of conquer.

1850 Upper California Map

Sutter worried that "easy" gold would make it difficult to get men to work. He needed workers to build the gristmill to grind his flour, and for constructing other farming facilities that would make his empire--the New Helvetia--profitable. 

Sutter had no legal means of keeping gold-seekers from the sawmill site. His workers, all but the Mormons, deserted to search for gold. The Mormons, having been instructed by the leader of their church to stay in California to work a year or two and bring their earnings back to the Salt Lake Valley, the new land in which the Mormons were settling, stayed and finished the mill, panning for gold on Sundays and holidays. However, once the mill was completed, they also chose to leave.

John Sutter tried desperately to find ways to profit from the discovery. However, neither he nor John Marshall ever enjoyed the wealth, power, and prestige they felt they deserved. Neither had legal claim to the Coloma area, nor to the land on which the mill was located.

As word of the gold discovery spread world-wide, and gold-seekers flocked to California, their numbers and disregard for his rights to his land and all that he had built spelled the beginning of the end for Sutter’s Fort. Many proved to have come from the ranks of the lawless, and others who had been lawful citizens of their countries, turned to lawless ways as the greed for easy wealth consumed them.

Sutter's Fort 1849
On September 1849 (Sept 1, 1849) J. A. Moerenhout again visited the Fort and describes the dramatic change of conditions there:

"The growth and importance of this new settlement (Sacramento City) has exhibited are among the marvelous things that are happening in this country. Last year, I was at this place at the same season and there was not a house or even a tent there. Only a few little schooners lay in the port and the only business of any importance was a trade or barter carried on at the Fort of New Helvetia. Now there is a town of 3,000 to 4,000 inhabitants there, with a quay lined with fine buildings, streets laid out and with a large volume of business that increases as communication with the placers and the interior becomes more regular and easy, and where thirty-five ships were at anchor, the smallest of which was fifty to sixty tons. Sutter's Fort has lost all importance since the founding of the settlements on the Sacramento River. In the Fort itself there is still a hotel and a few stores, but its business is languishing and there is no longer any stir and activity as prevailed there at the time of my visit in 1848."

Sutter's agricultural enterprises began to fall apart. He got his wheat harvested, but there was no one to thrash it. The stone wheels of his grist mill never produced any flour. Hides rotted in his tannery vats. Squatters settled in brush shelters in his fields and vandalized the fort itself, stealing, according to Sutter, even the bells from his fort. In no time, his sheep and cattle were stolen and his land was occupied by squatters. 

By 1852 John Sutter was bankrupt and his land was filled with squatters. In 1857, the squatters took Sutter to court over the legality of his titles and the U.S. Land Commission decided in Sutter's favor. 
1867 Photograph of what remained of Sutter's Fort

However, a year later, the Supreme Court declared portions of his title invalid. Sutter then sought reimbursement of his losses associated with the California Gold Rush, but received only $250 per month from the State of California in 1864.  The final blow came on June 7 of 1865, when a small band of men set fire to his house, completely destroying the structure.

Sutter's Fort in Ruins painting by Amanda Austin

Sutter and his wife, Nanette, then moved to Lititz, Pennsylvania and John continued to fight the U.S. Government for compensation for his losses. For the next 15 years, the 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 paid Sutter $50,000. Two days later John Augustus Sutter died in a Washington D.C. hotel. He was returned to Lititz and is buried in the Moravian Cemetery. Mrs. Sutter died the following January and is buried with him.

Sutter's Fort in Ruins - Painting by Vivian Calthea
John Sutter’s great fiefdom was destroyed. All of his holdings and Sutter's Fort were lost to the ever-increasing masses seizing everything in pursuit of instant wealth.




  1. Progress or something else. When we look at how people moved, planned and conquered, the story becomes all to familiar. Victory seems to come to those who are stronger, either by strength or numbers.

    Thank you for this brief look at a sometimes forgotten piece of the rest of the story. Doris

    1. Thank you, Doris. The existence of Sutter's Fort is well-known where I am from, and its restoration visited by school children annually. However, most of us are unaware of what happened to Sutter and his holdings after gold was discovered

  2. Count me in the group of those unaware of what happened to Sutter after gold was discovered. This is a tragic story on many levels. When I taught history, particularly American history, I impressed upon the students the importance of the '4 Gs of Conquest': Glory, Gold, God, and Greed. From the conquistadores to John Sutter and beyond, so many dastardly deeds throughout history have been done in the name of at least one of the "Gs". I appreciate this article, as it broadened my knowledge and presented me with a perspective I didn't know existed.