Johann Augustus Sutter
John Sutter was born on February 15th of 1803 in Kandern, Baden, a few miles from the Swiss border. Apprenticed to a firm of printers and booksellers, Sutter soon found the paper business was not for him. While clerking in a draper’s shop, he met his future wife, Annette Dubeld, and the two were married in Burgdorf on October 24th of 1826. A series of business failures resulted in Sutter’s decision to seek his fortune in America. At the age of thirty-one, he left his wife and four children, a step ahead of his creditors.
Upon arriving in America, Sutter headed west for Missouri where he worked as a merchant and innkeeper for several years. All the while; though, he had been dreaming of establishing his own agricultural empire somewhere out west, so in April of 1838 he joined a trapping party on their way to the Pacific Coast. The traders reached Fort Vancouver, the Pacific headquarters of the Hudson’s Bay Company, in October. Unable to leave for California immediately, Sutter sailed on the Hudson’s Bay ship Columbia for the Sandwich Islands, where he landed at Honolulu on December 9th of 1838. From there he sailed to the Russian colony at Sitka, Alaska, and thence to Yerba Buena, where he arrived on July 1st of 1839. He had finally reached California.
Sutter met with Governor Alvarado at Monterey to discuss the possibilities of establishing himself in the country. Upon returning to Yerba Buena, Sutter chartered the schooner Isabella from the firm of Spear & Hinckley, and two smaller vessels. Loaded with provisions, tools, seeds, guns and powder, Sutter led his little fleet up the Sacramento River on August 1st of 1839, in search of his dream. Two weeks later they landed near the spot where the American River joins the Sacramento and established camp.
A tent and some brush huts provided the first shelter for the small party; later, a more substantial adobe building was erected with Indian labor. In order to qualify for a land grant, Sutter became a naturalized Mexican citizen on August 29th of 1840. The following year, on June 18th, he received title to eleven leagues of land—some 48,827 acres—from Governor Alvarado. He named the grant New Helvetia after his homeland and began building his empire.
Sutter’s Fort was pretty well completed by 1844. He later recalled: “I built one large building and surrounded it with walls eighteen feet high and bastions. They were of adobe blocks about two and one half feet thick, bastions five feet thick, and under the bastions the prisons.” Cannons protect ted the walls. The Fort was also a trading post and as it occupied one of the most strategic positions in Northern California, with regards to overland trails, it became the natural objective for parties crossing the Sierras.
Sutter’s dreams of an agricultural empire were soon fulfilled as he branched out into many pursuits. He employed local Indians to sow and harvest his wheat fields; larger herds of cattle and horses grazed in fields about the fort; hunters were sent into the mountains for furs and elk skins; a distillery brewed; the blacksmith shop furnished tools; a launch carrying freight and passengers ran regularly between the Fort and San Francisco Bay. Unfortunately for Sutter, James Marshall Discovered the Gold.
As the news of the discovery spread, more and more people began traveling through the region and Sutter saw his settlement overrun with gold-seekers. They trampled his crops, stole his animals, tools and supplies, and infected his workers with gold fever. Sutter saw his empire crumbling away and there was nothing he could do about it.
In 1850, he was joined by his wife, daughter Eliza, and sons Emil Victor and William Alphonse, whom he hadn’t seen for sixteen years. As life at the Fort had become intolerable, he took his family north to Hock Farm, a ranch he had established near Marysville in 1841. The family enjoyed a few years peace in their beautiful redwood home, surrounded by vineyards, orchards and gardens of rare plants, before misfortune struck once again. Rustlers rustled and squatters overran his land, eventually taking Sutter to court over the legality of his titles. The U.S. Land Commission decided in Sutter’s favor in 1857, but a year later the Supreme Court declared portions of his title invalid. The final blow came on June 7th of 1865, when a small band of men set fire to the house, completely destroying the structure.
At the end of the year, Sutter and his wife went to Washington D.C. in hopes of gaining restitution from Congress. It was a losing battle. The man who unselfishly clothed, fed, sheltered, and rescued scores of emigrants, the man who helped build and settle the territory, the man who helped frame the State Constitution in 1849 as a member of the Monterey Convention, and the man who eventually lost most of what he owned through adverse court decisions regarding his land grants, was once again denied success. He and his wife settle down in the Moravian town of Lititz, Pennsylvania, around 1871, but he never gave up the fight.
On June 16th of 1880, Congress adjourned before passing a bill which would have given him $50,000. Two days later, John Augustus Sutter died. He was returned to Lititz and buried in the Moravian Brotherhood’s Cemetery. Mrs. Sutter died the following January.