Timeline of the Life of John Sutter


Stephen Beck, Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park


1803 – Johann Augustus Sutter was born in Kandern in the Grand Duchy of Baden in the Black Forest Region of what is now Germany.

1826 – Sutter married Anna Dubeld(t) and they produced five children (one died very young). Sutter became a Swiss citizen and opened a dry goods business in Bergdorf, Switzerland

1833 – Post Napoleonic War economic depression paralyzed Europe. Sutter’s dry goods business failed (along with the businesses of thousands of other Western Europeans).

1834 – In debt, and with no prospects, Sutter left his family and sailed to the New World to seek his fortune and the hope of a better life for his family. He arrived in New York and quickly made his way west to Westport (Kansas City) where he captained a mercantile wagon business with Santa Fe, New Mexico.

1838 – Sutter joined an American Fur Company expedition and headed west. His intentions may have been to trade manufactured goods for furs and pelts – but – he may have already decided to journey to California. At the Wind River Mountains rendezvous Sutter met trappers who reaffirmed what he had learned in the Santa Fe trade about the lush Sacramento Valley. He also learned that large tracts of land could be acquired for free from the California Mexican Government.

1839 – By a circuitous route that included stops in western forts, Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), and Sitka, Alaska, Sutter made his way to the California capital at Monterey to ask for a land grant. With three small riverboats, ten Hawaiians, two German sailors, a guide and his crew, and two or three small ship’s cannon or signal guns, Sutter sailed up the Sacramento River looking for a place to establish his feudal empire.

1840 – Governor Juan Alvarado granted Sutter 11 square leagues (over 48,000 acres) of the lower Sacramento Valley. Sutter named the region New Helvetia (New Switzerland). As conditions of his land grant, Sutter became a Mexican citizen, a Roman Catholic, a Captain in the Mexican Army, and the civil government of Mexico on the northern frontier. The first structures in his empire were three grass huts built by the Hawaiian Islanders. Sutter made alliances with the local Natives and used them to construct a mud-brick structure to house himself and his early industries, such as the blacksmith shop. But construction soon began on a large central building made of mud brick. It is the original building of the Fort that is still standing.

1841 – The first party of American emigrants arrived at the Fort, The Bidwell-Bartleson Party. It consisted of 34 people, 32 men and Nancy Kelsey and her three year old daughter. This was the first group of “settlers” to cross the Sierra Nevada.

1841 – Sutter purchased Fort Ross from the Russian American Fur Company. John Bidwell was sent to dismantle Fort Ross and send the usable items to New Helvetia. These items included agricultural implements, bedding, doors and locks, glass windows, muskets, uniforms, the Fort gates, and a piece of brass or bronze field artillery. Fort Ross had been operational since 1811 and possessed many of the implements Sutter needed to build and operate his own fort. Construction began on the exterior walls.

1843- Lansford Hastings arrived from Oregon. He wrote a “travel guide” for overland wagon parties bound for the West Coast. In An Emigrant’s Guide to Oregon and California, Hastings described Sutter’s Fort as being “428 feet long, 178 feet wide at the west end and 129 feet wide at the east end, with eighteen feet high walls and gates on the south, east and north walls.” The north gate was more like a door, or “water gate,” that provided access to the garden and to the creek for the dumping of bed pans etc.

1845 – Sutter supported the appointed Mexican Governor, Manuel Micheltorena in a revolution against the other Californios. Despite losing the revolution, Sutter received, for his support of the official government, the Sobrante (surplus) land grant that tripled the size of Sutter’s land holdings.

1846 – Overland migration and the Mexican-American War brought a large American presence to New Helvetia. Many men from New Helvetia participated in the Bear Flag Revolt in June. The Fort, as you see it today, is depicted as it would have appeared before June 1846. In July, Captain John C. Fremont of the United States Army took over command of the Fort and it was renamed Fort Sacramento. Sutter became largely a figurehead in his own establishment; although, he was commissioned as an officer in the United States Army.

1848 – The war ended and Sutter regained possession of his Fort. On January 24th, gold was discovered 45 miles east of the Fort in the valley of the Columma Indians. Sutter had leased the land from the Indians and contracted with James Marshall to build a sawmill on the location. As word of the gold discovery spread, the world began to rush into California. It was a time of intense confusion and business activity. Sutter leased his many rooms within the Fort to different businesses and the Fort became California’s first shopping mall, including California’s first hotel. Sutter began selling his property and had difficulty controlling his land and business affairs from squatters and unscrupulous entrepreneurs.

1848 (September – December) – Sutter’s eldest son, Johann Augustus Junior, joined his Father in California, after travelling from Switzerland. He went by the name August. Sutter temporarily transferred ownership of his properties to his son in order to ward off creditors, especially the Russian American Fur Company. Sutter still owed them money from the purchase of Fort Ross, and he put up New Helvetia as collateral. In order to pay that debt and others, and to generate new income, Augustus Sutter contracted with American Army engineers William Walker and William T. Sherman (famous Civil War General) to “layout” a new city along the waterfront to be named Sacramento City. The new city filled rapidly with gold seekers and vendors satisfying the equipment and prurient needs of the miners; however, it competed with Sutter Senior’s existing city to the south, Sutterville, and this created a conflict between father and son. After Augustus paid the Russian debt, Sutter senior reassumed control of his land.

1849 – Sutter sold much of the Fort, including the Central Building, for about $7,000 and retired to his 600 acre farm (Hock) on the Feather River, which became the model for California agriculture. The Fort complex became a commercial center to supply the needs of the miners. The Central Building became a hotel and boarding house operated first by Kyburz and later the McClellan Family, but owned by a man named Alden S. Bayley. Sutter’s Fort had become California’s first shopping mall.

1849-1850s – A hospital was operated in the rooms that had been the southeast bastion and the east wall of the Fort. It eventually housed cholera patients to keep them isolated from the growing population of the new Sacramento City along the waterfront.

1850 (January) – Sutter was joined by his wife, children, and extended family from Switzerland. Sutters, Junior and Senior, had paid Heinrich Lienhard, a Fort employee and native of Switzerland, $16,000 to go back to Switzerland to retrieve the family and escort them to California.

1850 – 1851– Much of the Fort was deconstructed and many of the bricks were used to build the burgeoning Sacramento City. The central building remained intact because of its enormity and high clay content of the mud bricks used to construct the building. The Central Building and some of the out buildings became a private residence for McClellan Family.

1852 – The McClellan Family left and there was some dispute about the ownership of the Central Building and the immediate surrounding property. Bayley claimed ownership, but he allowed the wife of a former business partner, R. D. Torney, to live in the Central Building.

1852 (April) – Bayley tried to sell the remnants of the Fort to the State to be used as a “lunatic hospital.”

1854 – Olive Torney, who Bayley allowed to live on the grounds, purchased the Fort at public auction for $451. She later married Norman Lawson and continued to occupy the Central Building and the immediate space around the building.

1857 – The Southeast Bastion collapsed. And, sometime in the late 50s or early 60s, the south wall of the Central Building was rebuilt using fired red brick to replace the original mud-brick.

1861-62 – A great flood inundated much of the Central Valley, but the original footprint of the Fort was above the floodwaters. The Fort grounds became a haven for people trying to escape the rising water level, and Olive Lawson was given an award by the Howard Benevolent Society for rescuing people, by bringing them to the high ground of the Fort and allowing them to camp there. The floodwaters washed away the remnants of many out-buildings and the debris was used to build ramps leading to the new bridge across the slough, which replaced the bridge destroyed in the flood. By 1862 only the Central Building of the original Fort remained intact.

1869 – Olive Lawson sold her property to John Garland, who then purchased additional parts of the old Fort grounds, so that he owned most of the footprint of the original complex.

1870-1880 – Several historic preservation groups and individuals wrote about the appalling condition of the Central Building and the dilapidated east wall. The other walls were removed in the early days of the Gold Rush and the bricks were used to build the first buildings of what became Sacramento City. It was suggested by many that the Fort be saved and restored. James G. Martine became a prominent proponent of preserving the Fort and wrote many “letters to the editor” stating his case. During the 1870s, ownership of the property changed four times from Garland to Beatty to Bridges to Engle to Merrill, who owned it when the reconstruction proposal was finalized.

1888 – Civil Engineer C. E. Grunsky presented a proposal to the newly formed Native Sons of the Golden West. The resolution read, “There is no spot in California more intimately associated with the history of pioneer days of this state than Sutter’s Fort.”

1890 – Grunsky’s proposal was accepted and efforts were made to raise the necessary money to purchase the two city blocks on which the reconstructed Fort now sits. The Crocker Family donated $15,000 and another $5,000 was obtained from other sources to purchase the land. Merrill donated $2,000 of the $20,000 purchase price toward the reconstruction and restoration of the Fort.

1891 – Construction began on the reconstruction but funds were limited and the height of the walls was reduced from 18 feet to 15 feet to reduce expenses. They also used fired red clay brick rather than manufacturing mud bricks, in order to save time. The interior walls were made on-site from mud from the slough north of the Fort, the same source of the original mud-bricks. Additionally, the east wall was brought in about 125 feet in order to fit on the existing lots purchased by the Native Sons.


1893 – April 26th the memorial was dedicated by the Native Sons of the Golden West with a parade and great oratory. The reconstruction was not completed yet, but the State of California had already agreed, by legislative act, to take responsibility for the memorial.

1894-1895 – The reconstruction was completed. Sutter’s Fort opened as a museum.

1906 – The Fort was used to house refugees from the San Francisco Earthquake. The Emigrant Room was used as the shower room. A drain may still be seen in the floor of the room.

1907 – The State officially accepted the property from the Native Sons of the Golden West.

1926 – Harry Peterson, a graduate of Stanford University, was hired as the first curator of Sutter’s Fort. For twenty years people had been dropping off estate materials from California’s early pioneers and leaving them with the caretaker, or at the Fort gates. The Fort became a repository of artifacts and archival material. The rooms upstairs in the Central Building and Kyburz Annex became storage for these donated materials. It was an eclectic collection of all types of “pioneer memories,” and the storerooms become known as “Sacramento’s Attic.”

1939 – The rooms were refurbished, amenities were added to the grounds, and a large centennial celebration was held. The large oak tree from Baden was planted outside the “living quarters” (now staff area) in the east yard. Many of the facilities were upgraded.

1947 – The Fort officially became a unit of the California State Park system with the creation of the State Department of Parks and Beaches.

1959-present – The central building was gutted and refurbished. Major work to all of the rooms was done in the 1960s, in the late 1980s, and early 1990s; most of the work was done by volunteers. Work continues on the Fort and the grounds on a regular basis. A large docent guild working with the Friends of Sutter’s Fort provides much of the money and labor that keeps Sutter’s Fort one of the primary historic tourist attractions in California. Each year tens of thousands of California school children visit the Fort and experience pioneer history. Since 1976 the Environmental Living Program has opened the doors of the Fort to approximately 50 schools that spend a day and all night in the Fort and live like pioneers of the 1840’s.