A Brief History of John Sutter

Stephen Beck, Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park

John Augustus Sutter Jr. is the founder of the City of Sacramento. In 1848 he sailed from Europe to join his father, John Sutter Sr., at his Fort in California. It was a time of dynamic change in California. The first wave of a great tide of gold hungry men was already on its way to Sutter’s Fort when Augustus arrived in September. The twenty-two year old Sutter Jr. found himself thrust into a maelstrom of financial and social activity. His father was not prepared for the sudden changes the gold discovery brought and his empire was in disarray. Money he was owed went uncollected and his bills went unpaid. In an effort to forestall creditors, real and frauds, Sutter Senior transferred his vast land holdings to his eldest son. The young man newly arrived from Switzerland, and ready or not, now controlled the destiny of his entire family.

In 1841 Sutter Sr. had purchased all of the buildings and supplies of Fort Ross from the Russian American Fur Company. This was a debt of about $30,000 that Sutter promised to pay with a combination of agricultural products, furs, and cash. The debt was supposed to be paid over four years but by 1848 most of the debt was still owed and the Russians were trying to foreclose on Sutter’s land grant of New Helvetia. The Sutters had very little actual money, but they did control huge tracts of property. Junior contracted with United States Army engineers William Walker and William Tecumseh Sherman (of Civil War fame) to design the new city of Sacramento. They selected the low plain at Sutter’s embarcadero near the confluence of the American and Sacramento Rivers where Old Sacramento State Park is now located. The site was selected because it had easy anchorage for ships—it also flooded every year. The new Sacramento City competed with the township of Sutterville already established by Sutter Sr. Sutterville had no proper ships’ anchorage because it was built on high ground with a planned ship canal that was never constructed. Investors in Sutterville, including Sutter Sr., felt undermined and cheated by Augustus because of his new city. Young Sutter now had pressure from his own father and his supporters, as well as from his father’s creditors. Additionally, Junior felt obligated to bring the rest of the family from Switzerland to California.

In 1849 Augustus arranged for his mother, three siblings, and an unknown number of other relatives to travel first class to join him in California and be reunited with Sutter Sr. for the first time in 15 years. Sutter Jr. used profits from the Sacramento land sales to pay the Russian and other debts and saved his father from financial ruin, but the strain on Augustus was extraordinary. He was constantly besieged by ruthless entrepreneurs and cheated by opportunistic scoundrels. In July of 1851 Augustus left California for Mexico. He was tired, ill, disillusioned, and possibly under the enervating influence of a nefarious doctor named Brandes who was secretly in league with men interested in cheating young Sutter. Sutter Jr. lost himself in the backcountry of northern Mexico and he also escaped the influence of Dr. Brandes. He took a wife, Maria del Carmen Rivas, and they had a son in 1852.

In 1855 John Sutter Jr. returned to Sacramento to try and recover some of the small fortune that had been stolen from him. He was once again cheated and outmaneuvered by charlatan businessmen. However, he did do much to mend his relationship with his father. He decided to return to Mexico, but he left his son in California to be raised by his grandparents. John Augustus Sutter Jr. then established himself in Acapulco where he became a respected civic leader and American Counsel. He had two more daughters with Maria Rivas who were also sent, in 1867, to be raised by their grandparents. Sutter Jr. then married Nicolasa Solis and they had nine children. John Sutter Jr. died and was buried in Acapulco in 1897. That graveyard was destined to be destroyed to make room for high rise hotels. In 1964, his daughter Anna Sutter Young in cooperation with the Sacramento County Historical Society, arranged to have his body returned to Sacramento. John Sutter Jr. is now buried with honor in the Old Sacramento City Cemetery.