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John Sutter: A Life on the North American Frontier

by Albert L. Hurtado, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2006, $34.95.

The man himself may not be as well-known as his fort and mill, but a modern biography of the influential Westerner still took a long time to materialize. A Swiss expatriate, John Sutter (1803-80) has long been overshadowed by Sutter’s Fort—the capital of Sutter’s colony, New Helvetia, and now located in Sacramento—and Sutter’s Mill, the site on the South Fork of the American River where gold was discovered by Sutter employee James Marshall on January 24, 1848. Beginning in 1839, John Sutter conquered the Sacramento Valley and built an empire on a shoestring. But in 1849, with gold discovered on his land and the future seemingly golden, everything began to fall apart for him.

Albert Hurtado, a University of Oklahoma professor who was born and raised on lands formerly owned by John Sutter in Sacramento, calls Sutter “one of the great characters in the history of the American West.” The California years are the most important ones for sure, but the author spends time with Sutter in Missouri, New Mexico and Hawaii as well in this detail-rich 416-page biography. “His experience,” says Hurtado, “opens a window on many of the important episodes of western history that fundamentally influenced Mexico and the United States between 1834 and 1860—the Santa Fe Trail, the fur trade, overland immigration, the American infiltration of Mexican California, the Mexican War and the California Gold Rush.” Sutter does not come across as heroic; he squandered all his opportunities and blamed the gold rush for ruining him. As Hurtado puts it, “Sutter ruined Sutter…[with] his needy ego, drunkenness, and inattention to details.” And while Sutter is still famous, his fame may forever be dwarfed by his old mill stream and what was discovered there.


Originally published in the February 2007 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here