Although financially ruined by the discovery of gold on his property in California in 1848, John Augustus Sutter is popularly perceived in California and Western history as an ambitious but magnanimous entrepreneur who was sympathetic to American settlement in Mexican California and treated the overlanders of the early 1840s with hospitable compassion. However, this popular–and essentially factual–image fails to consider Sutter’s confrontational and explosive relations with the California Indians.
Having abandoned his wife, five children and debts in Bern, Switzerland in 1834, Sutter arrived in Mexican California in July 1839 posing as a Swiss Guard officer forced to flee the French Revolution of 1830. A contemporary compared Sutter’s uniform and grandiose manner to those of Hernan Cortes “in his palmist days.” In 1841, by sheer force of personality and insightful awareness of political intrigue and conflict in California, Sutter persuaded Governor Juan Bautista Alvarado to grant him 11 square leagues or 48,400 acres (the maximum legal limit for a private rancho in Mexican California) at a site near the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers that he had previously selected in 1839.
Sutter also led Alvarado to believe that a large land grant in the Sacramento Valley would discourage Americans from infiltrating the Mexican colony. Upon becoming a Mexican citizen to qualify for the grant, he names it Nueva Helvetia or New Switzerland. Alvarado also bestowed on Sutter the authority “to represent in the Establishment of New Helvetia all the laws of the country, to function as political authority and dispenser of justice, in order to prevent the robberies committed by adventurers from the United States, to stop the invasion of savage Indians (who often raided the scattered coastal settlements), and the hunting and trading by companies from the Columbia (river).” The latter was an obvious reference primarily to England’s Hudson’s Bay Company. From Sutter’s Fort (in present-day Sacramento) the first white settle in California’s vast Central Valley built an economically productive empire that relied heavily on Indian labor.
Sutter, despite what he had told Alvarado, went on to play a prominent role in the early settlement of California by Americans. His strategically placed fort on the overland trails became a convenient place of refuge where travelers were treated very hospitably. This incurred the wrath of Mexican officials. Later, in his memoirs, Sutter explained: “I gave passports to those entering the country…and this (they) did not like, I was friendly with the emigrants of whom (they) were jealous. I encouraged immigration, while they discouraged it. I sympathized with the Americans while they hated them.” Indeed, it was from John Sutter’s Fort that several relief and rescue parties were dispatched into the mountains to save what was left of the ill-fated Donner Party in early 1847. While Sutter undoubtedly saw the emigrants as employees, buyers of his land and customers for the products of his diverse enterprises, the Anglo overlanders regarded him as generous and obliging. According to historian Robert Cleland, “At Sutter’s, these immigrants, exhausted and half-starved…found shelter, food and clothing, and an opportunity to learn something of the new land and people to which they had come.” John Bidwell, who led the initial organized party of settlers to California in 1841 and later was employed by Sutter, wrote that “he was one of the most liberal and hospitable of men.”
As a result of James Marshall’s famous gold discovery at Sutter’s Mill on January 24, 1848, Sutter lost his landed wealth, and his early open-handed kindness to the Americans was soon forgotten. His workers deserted him for the lure of gold, and American squatters seized and riotously despoiled his vast properties. By 1852, litigation over title to contested land had led to bankruptcy. While the California legislature gave him a pension of $250 per month from 1862 until 1878, Sutter never recovered from financial disaster. Despite numerous petitions to the U.S. Congress and an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, the grand old man of the Sacramento Valley and former friend of American pioneers died impoverished in 1880 in a Washington, D.C., hotel room, far from the site of his famous old fort.
Although this much about Sutter and his ultimate fate is generally known, his relations with the native peoples in the Sacramento Valley have received insufficient attention from historians. While extending kindness and generosity to Americans settling in Mexican California, he generally exploited, often ruthlessly, the local Indians in his early rise to power and wealth.
The successful operation of California’s Mexican-era rancho system was based largely on Indian labor. In exchange for their services, the Indians customarily were rewarded with shelter, food, clothing and, at times, such trinkets as glass beads. In effect, they were serfs to the rancheros, who ruled their landed estates as feudal lords. Like other rancheros such as his nearest California neighbor, Mariano G. Vallejo of Petaluma and Sonoma, Sutter promised some tribes protection from their traditional Indian enemies in order to win their political support and secure an essential labor force. For example, he formed an alliance with Chief Narcisco, a Christian convert, who also was the leader of the Ochecames within Sutter’s pastoral domain.
The Ochecames and the other local natives with whom Sutter forged alliances were often products of the Spanish mission system. Therefore, they were skilled in agriculture, animal husbandry, masonry and various crafts. Sutter used them to build his fort, raise his crops, care for thousands of cattle, sheep, horses and hogs, catch his fish, deliver pelts for his profitable beaver trade, and serve as soldiers against other tribes he suspected of stealing his horses and destroying his property. However, Sutter’s methods of recruiting and maintaining his native labor force raise serious moral questions about his legendary liberality and benevolence.
Contemporary observers at Sutter’s Fort claimed that he resorted to “kidnapping, food privation, and slavery” to force Indians to work for him. He also manipulated and rewarded native chiefs to secure the labor of tribal members. Heinrich Lienhard, a Swiss employee at the fort, observed that the chiefs “received far better pay than the poor wretches who worked as common laborers, and had to slave two weeks for a plain muslin shirt, of the material for a pair of cotton trousers.” Sutter also adopted the practice of paying his Indian workers in pieces of cheap tin currency to be exchanged for merchandise at his store. Most likely, the system worked to Sutter’s advantage. Theodor Cordua, a Prussian rancher living in nearby Marysville who initially leased land from Sutter before acquiring his own large land grant, provided perhaps the most incriminating indictment of Sutter’s Indian labor policy: “Those who did not want to work were considered enemies. With the other tribes the field was taken against the hostile Indian…the villages were attacked usually before daybreak when everybody was asleep. Neither old nor young was spared…and often the Sacramento River was colored red by the blood of the innocent Indians.” While Cordua may have been guilty of exaggeration, it is nonetheless well documented that Sutter was inclined to punish harshly those he suspected of treachery or insubordination. Such was the case when the harvest at New Helvetia conflicted with good hunting or acron season, and his Indian laborers left the fort to provide for their families. To intimidate and terrify his workers into submission, he sent armed posses into the foothills to capture and punish runaways, whipping and even executing those who repeatedly resisted.
It is clear that Sutter was no benevolent despot to the Indians he employed. At the end of a day’s work, they were placed in holding pens or locked in rooms. Lienhard described graphically their incarceration: “As the room had neither beds nor straw, the inmates were forced to sleep on the bare floor. When I opened the door for them in the morning, the odor that greeted me was overwhelming, for no sanitary arrangements had been provided. What these rooms were like after ten days or two weeks can be imagined, and the fact that nocturnal confinement was not agreeable to the Indians was obvious. Large numbers deserted during the daytime, or remained outside the fort when the gates were locked.”
Feeding time at the fort brought forth especially negative commentary from contemporary visitors. James Clyman, a Virginia-born mountain man who had no reason to sympathize with the Indians since they nearly took his life twice during attacks in the Rocky Mountains, nonetheless recalled in 1846 that Sutter fed his Indians like animals. “The Capt. [Sutter] keeps 600 to 800 Indians in a complete state of Slavery and as I had the mortification of seeing them dine I may give a short description. 10 or 15 Troughs 3 or 4 feet long were brought out of the cook room and seated in the Broiling sun. All the Labourers grate [sic] and small ran to the troughs like so many pigs and fed themselves with their hands as long as the troughs contained even a moisture.” Dr. G.M. Waseurtz af Sandels, a Swedish naturalist and artist visiting Sutter in 1842, left a description of mealtime that supported Clyman’s later observations: “I could not reconcile my feelings to see these fellows being driven, as it were, around some narrow troughs of hollow tree trunks, out of which, crouched on their haunches, they fed more like beasts than human beings, using their hands in hurried manner to convey to their mouths the thin porage [sic] which was served to them. Soon they filed off to the fields after having, I fancy, half satisfied their physical wants.”
Sutter also sold Indians into slavery. The reputable Indian historian Jack Forbes asserts that Sutter’s forces captured Indians from remote villages and then sold them to rancheros in coastal California. This slave trade also included the kidnapping and selling of Indian children. In 1876, at his home in Lititz, Pa., Sutter dictated his reminiscences to the famous California historian and bibliophile Hubert H. Bancroft. Based on the information provided, Bancroft reported that “from the first, [Sutter] was in the habit of seizing Indian children, who were retained as servants, or slaves, at his own establishment, or sent to his friends in different parts of the country[Alta California]. But he always took care to capture for his purpose only children from distant or hostile tribes…”
Sutter did not attempt to rationalize the Indian slave trade in his reminiscences other than to state that “it was common in those days to seize Indian women and children and sell them. This the Californians (Mexican Californios) did as well as Indians.” Although the enslavement and sale of Indian women and children was a relatively universal practice in Mexican and early American California, Sutter arguably was one of its earliest and most active white participants.
In the Spring of 1846, Sutter gave about a dozen Indian slaves to fellow California businessman William A. Leidersdorff to help pay off a debt. Leidersdorff, although Sutter and most others had no idea, was a black man (of Danish-African ancestry) who apparently saw nothing wrong with having native American slaves ( see “Westerners” in the February 2001 issue of Wild West).
Whatever the frequency of Sutter’s kidnappings and sale of California Indians, inhumane business was sufficiently extensive and troublesome to force Governor Alvarado to intervene. He explained: “The public can see how inhuman were the operations of Sutter who had no scruples about depriving Indian mothers of their children. Sutter has sent these little Indian children as gifts to people who live far from the place of their birth, without demanding of them any promises that in their homes the Indians should be treated with kindness. Sutter’s conduct was so deplorable that if I had not succeeded in persuading Sutter to stop the kidnapping operations it is probable that there would have been a general uprising of Indians within the Northern district under Sutter’s jurisdiction as a Mexican official.”
With the beginning of the California Gold Rush in 1849, self-proclaimed “Captain Sutter of the Royal Swiss Guard of France” fell victim, like the Indians whose labor and lives he had taken, to a new, gold-crazed, socially unstable and economically rapacious California. Within two decades of the gold rush, the Indian population had been reduced dramatically by disease, homicide and the disruption of traditional food sources.
Despite American exploitation and increased extermination of the California Indians, it is difficult to accept historian Richard Dillon’s conclusion that “in comparison with most Americans and Mexican Californians, (Sutter) was pro-Indian, in a decidedly paternalistic way.” There is little evidence to support such a generous characterization. Instead, it appears that his popular image of Christian charity, based on his compassionate treatment of the early American immigrants to Mexican California, needs to be re-evaluated in light of his Indian policy. This is especially appropriate because Sutter was given the official responsibility of overseeing Indian relations in the Sacramento Valley, and under the terms of his land grant, maintaining “the native Indians of the different tribes…in the enjoyment and liberty of their possessions, without molesting them…(or) making war upon them in any way without previously obtaining authority (from) the government.” Obviously, he wantonly violated and neglected his responsibility as the official supervisor of Indian affairs in his assigned territory.
While Sutter had to perform his duties in an often volatile Indian environment in an isolated part of Mexico’s raw California frontier, it is clear beyond any reasonable doubt that he, the American immigrants’ friend and supporter, was also an exploiter and enslaver of the often hapless California Indians. While some may regard John Sutter as a tragic figure in Western history, the Indians’ ultimate fate that he helped to precipitate was a far greater tragedy.
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