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John Sutter’s California Dream Became His Worst Nightmare

By John Koster
1/10/2017 • Wild West Magazine

Cattle and wheat brought him blessings—but gold proved a curse.

John Augustus Sutter’s dream of riches rose with cattle and wheat but fell under the weight of gold. Fleeing bankruptcy in Switzerland, Sutter set up a baronial estate in Mexican California in the1840s based on agriculture, light industry and trade with the Indians. But the Gold Rush, which swept California into the Union at breakneck speed, brought Sutter to ruin even as it made once-sleepy California the portal to the Golden West.

Born Johann August Suter in 1803 in the German state of Baden, he was raised in Switzerland and as a teen joined the Swiss army. At 23 he married heiress Annette Dubeld and invested her funds in a store. A poor money manager, he ultimately faced charges that could have landed him in debtors’ prison. So in May1834 Captain Suter, leaving his wife and children behind, fled Switzerland for America, arriving in New York City in July.

The restless Sutter (who had added a“t” to his name) soon joined a party of35 Germans headed for St. Louis. By 1838he’d migrated west to New Mexico Territory and then north to Oregon Country.He’d already set his sights on California, though, which he’d reach by way of Hawaii, a faster option than cross-country travel. While in the islands he recruited10 Hawaiian laborers—eight men and two women, plus a bulldog. After a stopover in the Tsarist Russian colony of New Archangel (present-day Sitka, Alaska), in midsummer 1839 Sutter landed at Monterey. While Spanish grantees, numbering about 1,000, controlled much of coastal California, enormous tracts of land still belonged to the indigenous Indians. Sutter was Catholic, he was a soldier, and he was amenable to politics. The Mexican governor, Juan Bautista Alvarado,duly allowed Sutter to settle, and after a year in California he declared himself a Mexican citizen and received a grant of48,827 acres on the Sacramento River,which he named New Helvetia.

Sutter, his Hawaiian laborers and a few whites, as well as several Indians who came to the grant to trade and stayed to work for food, quickly set about building Fort Sutter, a walled complex armed with cannon and centered on a store and Sutter’s mansion. During Sutter’s first weeks at the site his bulldog tore into several Indians prowling inside the perimeter.A strong-handed response to later incidents quelled further trouble, and once the Miwoks and Maidus learned that Sutter would deal fairly with them, Indians became regulars at Fort Sutter.

That first year Mexican ranchers gave Sutter 500 cattle, 50 work and riding horses, and 25 breeding mares on credit.Traditional California-style agriculture leaned on raising half-wild cattle. But Sutter’s blacksmith shop soon turned out iron plowshares, and after a memorable rain in the winter of 1839–40 his settlers began to plant wheat. Sutter also had the Indians pick grapes to distill into brandy.

In 1842 Sutter bought the Russian American Co.’s holdings in California for $30,000 in credit, payable in wheat and other produce. But ongoing drought posed a very real threat to his harvests.Undaunted, Sutter began to shift agricultural equipment from the Russian holdings to New Helvetia, including300-square-foot eras, huge wooden threshing floors the Russian carpenters had built of redwood planks.

“The California plow—as rude an instrument as was ever devised by man,I guess—was the main reliance at the time,” Sutter aide John Bidwell wrote.“It was merely a crooked tree limb with a piece of flat iron for a point and a pole for a tongue to pull by. The Russian plow was difficult to manage and very little superior to the Californian.…Sutter’s own blacksmiths improved a few plows of better quality.”

Sutter’s main inconvenience was a lack of rain in 1842 and 1843. He fell back on the steadier form of California agriculture—namely the killing and rendering of wild game and cattle for their hides,beef and tallow. Sutter was also turning out furniture, hats and blankets for use or trade. But the vast promise of the land itself remained elusive due to the drought.

In 1843 a Swedish naturalist and investor named Dr. G.M. Sandels visited Sutter and wrote about what he saw. He noted that many of the whites at Sutter’s Fort were “what was termed Rocky Mountain men.…They had come from the [United]States—hunters, trappers, landless rovers.” Mountain men were becoming an anachronism in the Rockies, as beaver hats had fallen out of style by the 1840s,but Sutter offered them work as pot hunters, and those who had craft skills worked in the forges and factories.

Sutter asked Dr. Sandels, who had invested in a failed gold mine in Mexico,“Doctor, can’t you find me a gold mine?”

“Captain Sutter, “ replied Dr. Sandels,who had learned his lesson, “your best gold mine is here in this rich soil.”

“True, my friend,” Sutter readily agreed,“This good land is all the gold mine I could ever wish.”

Sutter’s Indian fishermen, mountain man trappers and cattle herds got Sutter’s Fort through the second drought year with deer suet, beaver skins, river otter skins, salmon, sturgeon and wild grape brandy. Meanwhile, the long suffering Indian women hauled a steady supply of water from the pond to the vegetable gardens to irrigate potatoes,cabbages, beans, peas, corn, parsnips,melons and lettuce—foods the Indians had not seen let alone eaten before.

California wild steers averaged about200 pounds of smoked prime meat per animal. The steers also produced about four arrobas of tallow, 25 pounds to an arroba, and these were shipped down the Sacramento River and onward to the soap and candle works of South America. The best steers also produced about two arrobas of manteca—the fat from between the hide and ribs—prized in California kitchens and rendered into home cooking oil in Monterey.

The rains finally returned in 1845, and the wheat harvest was so heavy that Sutter sent some 500 Indians to join his reapers and cut down the stalks with sickles, scythes, sabers, kitchen knives and even cutters improvised from barrel hoops. Once the wheat was in, Sutter made good use of the Russian redwood eras. His men drove horses around the threshing floors, reversing their course every five minutes, in a process that took about an hour. There was enough surplus that year for Sutter to send a brig loaded with grain to the Russians as partial payment on the land they had sold him.

By 1847 Sutter’s holdings in the Sacramento region comprised 200 square miles and tallied 160 white males, 47white females, five Hawaiians, one black man, 50 Indian males, 15 Indian females and 10 half-blood children. Sutter also listed 20,000 cattle, 2,500 horses, 2,000sheep, 1,000 hogs and 70 mules. New Helvetia operated three horse-driven mills (for grinding grain or turning lathes), two water mills, one sawmill,one tannery, 60 houses and the fort itself.

But John Augustus Sutter’s desire for one more sawmill would soon lead him into ruin. That fall Sutter sent overseer James Marshall with a crew of white and Indian workmen to build the new mill and rechannel the South Fork American River to provide waterpower. One brisk day in late January 1848, while inspecting the tail race, Marshall spotted telltale yellow flakes beneath the surface of the rippling water. He immediately brought samples of the ore to Sutter, who, fearing the consequences, pledged him to silence. Word of the strike inevitably leaked out, though, and by June sailors were jumping ship by the score in San Francisco, leaving a forest of bare masts in the bay as the crewmen rushed inland to seek their fortunes. By then most of Sutter’s white men had also taken to panning and digging. Even his skilled workers turned to prospecting. As for his Indians,the arriving mob of avaricious Forty-Niners included ruffians who gunned them down, either because they wanted to rape the Indian women or simply to brag they had shot an Indian. Thus the Indians fled,leaving Sutter with no workforce whatsoever. Cultural anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber estimated the total Miwok population at about 11,000 as of 1770; the1910 census counted 671, while the 1930census tallied 491 Miwoks. Kroeber estimated the Maidu people at 9,000 in 1770;their population in 1910 was 1,100, while the 1930 census recorded 30 full bloods.

Later that year Sutter’s wife and grown children arrived in California, after 14 years of separation, to find him struggling without laborers to keep his holdings intact. Indeed Sutter, to cover the last of his debts, sold New Helvetia. The Settlers’ Association, actually a loosely affiliated band of squatters, challenged his remaining Mexican-Californian land grant and in 1858 beat Sutter in court. Sutter retreated with his family to Hock Farm, his last freehold in northern California. But a vengeful arsonist claimed that in 1865. Seeking reimbursement from the state for his Gold Rush misfortune, Sutter was granted a pension of $250 a month in reimbursed taxes. In 1880 he had a bill before Congress that would have secured him $50,000 for all his lost holdings. Congress adjourned on June 16 without voting on the bill. Two days later John Sutter died in a Washington hotel.


Originally published in the February 2015 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.

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