Overview and History of Sutter’s Fort
Stephen Beck, Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park
Overview of Sutter’s Fort
As visitors stroll through the landscaped park grounds, ominous cannon stare down from tall bastions and more cannon poke their muzzles from behind embrasures in the whitewashed walls. Imposing gates topped by sharpened spikes guard the entrance to Sutter’s Fort, “The Citadel on the Sacramento.” Through the gates the visitor marches through time, back to a California before the Gold Rush and Statehood; when John Sutter’s Fort stood at a crossroads of colliding cultures and politics. To the west the ebbing Spanish mission/rancho culture; from the east the rising wave of ambitious American emigrants, and the fort was built in the center of a thriving indigenous Indian population. Sutter’s Fort was a stronghold on the frontier, a foothold for American expansion, and it became the name most associated with the “Gold Rush.” The Fort is now preserved as a State Historical Park and Museum open to the public 362 days a year.
History of the Fort
The first sight one encounters passing through the main gate of the Fort is the large “Central Building.” This is the original building of the Fort and was the first permanent Euro-American settlement built in the Central Valley. John Sutter was a German-Swiss immigrant who came to California in 1839. He was looking for land and the opportunity to build an agricultural and trading empire. Sutter petitioned the Mexican governor of California for a land grant along the little explored Sacramento River. The Mexican government was happy to accommodate Sutter because they believed he would have trouble establishing a new colony among the hostile Indians. However, Sutter made treaties, became friends with some of the indigenous people and incorporated them into is empire. Sutter used indigenous Indian laborers to construct the prodigious mud brick structure that has stood for over 170 years. By 1843, the Central Building was the centerpiece of a sprawling complex of more than 75,000 square feet and enclosed by 15-18 foot high mud brick walls. Within the compound worked blacksmiths, carpenters, coopers, weavers, vaqueros, mechanics, bakers, and cooks. Sutter named his colony “New Helvetia” (New Switzerland), and it rapidly became a bustling trading center on the frontier, and the destination for thousands of American emigrants.
In 1844 American explorer John Fremont and his guide Kit Carson visited Sutter’s Fort. It was Fremont’s published report of that journey that encouraged many Americans to form wagon trains and head west, and Sutter’s Fort was their destination. Sutter became the benefactor, and sometimes savior, of wagon trains running low on supplies. In the winter of 1846/47 the ill-fated Donner Party became trapped in the Sierra east of the Fort. Sutter helped organize relief expeditions and provided guides and supplies. The Donner Party survivors were brought to New Helvetia to recuperate, where some of the widows and female orphans quickly found husbands. With each new group of emigrants that arrived, Sutter’s wealth and power grew. By 1848 Sutter’s industrious venture was finally starting to pay big dividends. Sutter saw another opportunity for profit. The new settlers needed lumber to build housing and storage sheds. Sutter entered into a contract with James Marshall to build a saw mill on the American River about 45 miles from the Fort in the valley of the Collumah Indians (now the town of Coloma). Sutter and Marshall leased the land from the Indians. Though completed, the saw mill never produced lumber for sale.
On January 24, 1848, in the final stages of testing the mill-race construction, Marshall discovered some gold gleaming in the water. Despite Sutter and Marshall’s efforts to keep the news secret, within weeks word of the discovery of gold spread to the Fort and all across California. Sutter’s laborers deserted him; new arriving gold seekers trampled his crops and slaughtered his livestock. Within months the World knew about California Gold and the rush was on. Sutter’s eldest son, Johann Augustus Jr. came from Switzerland to join his father. John Junior arranged for the planning of “Sacramento City,” and he hired real estate agents to sell lots. Land and buildings within the Fort were considered choice property and sold first. Sutter’s manufactories became commercial establishments selling hardware, clothing, food, drink, and gambling. The Central Building became a hotel, billiard parlor, bar, and bowling alley. Sutter sold the Central Building and part of the Fort in 1849 for about $7,000 American dollars.
Sutter’s wife Anna and the rest of his children from Switzerland, who had left behind 16 years earlier when he ventured to the New World to make the family’s fortune, joined Sutter in January of 1850 and they moved to his plantation on the Feather River known as Hock Farm. It was located about 50 miles north of the Fort near present day Yuba City. There Sutter became a gentleman farmer selling his products in Sacramento City while trying to defend his Mexican land rights against impossible legal odds. As more people arrived for the Gold Rush by ship, the value of the riverfront property became obvious. Businesses relocated from the Fort to the new Sacramento City and bricks from the Fort walls were used to build the new buildings downtown. Rapidly the walls were destroyed and carried away, but the Central Building stood as a reminder of California before the Gold Rush. In 1865 Hock Farm burned down and Sutter and Anna moved briefly to Washington D.C. and then to the village of Lititz, Pennsylvania. Sutter died in 1880 at the age of 77 and Anna died a few months later. Sutter was a broken, bitter, and disappointed man who felt the Gold Rush and the American government had cheated him of his rightful wealth.
Over the years the Central Building served in a variety of capacities, including a hotel, a hospital, and a family farm. In 1889 the building, and the two city blocks surrounding it, were purchased by the Native Sons of the Golden West to establish a monument and memorial to the pre-Gold Rush emigrants to California. In 1891 the Native Sons donated the building and land to the State of California and reconstruction of the walls and renovation of the Central Building began immediately. The Fort was opened to the public as a historical monument in 1893. In 1906 the Fort served as a refugee encampment for survivors of the “Great San Francisco Earthquake.”
The Museum and History and Education Programs
Today, museum rooms within the Fort depict the many aspects of California life and material culture as they were before the Gold Rush. A one-hour self-guided audio tour enhances the museum displays by providing details about Sutter, his Fort, and the people who lived and worked there. However, several days a year the Fort comes to life with interpreters, historians, and artisans dressed in period costume and sharing their knowledge and skills about the Fort and life in 1840s California. The performers do a variety of demonstrations including a firing of Sutter’s cannon! From November through May, on most Tuesdays and Thursdays, a different school group spends the day and night in the Fort doing a living history. They make candles, bake bread, cook in the kitchen, and do trapping and carpentry demonstrations, and a variety of other pioneer projects. Each month, one Saturday is set aside for the docents of Sutter’s Fort to put on the real show of Hands-on-History. These are dedicated volunteers highly trained and skilled in the many aspects of 1840s life at Sutter’s Fort. The Fort is a place you can spend most of a day.
The grounds outside the Fort are lawn and shade trees. There are ponds that show the native plants. The California State Indian Museum is located on the same grounds as the Fort and may be visited for a separate admission fee. The Fort also has an extensive gift shop operated by the non-profit “Friends of Sutter’s Fort.” A wide variety of books, maps, gift items, and replica pioneer material items may be purchased at the gift shop.
Call or visit the Fort’s site for details on hours of operation and admission prices.