Sutter's Fort State Historic Park
Between K-L Sts & 26th-28th Sts.

Sacramento, CA

September 24, 2006

As we travel it's always fascinating to find a historic area right in the middle of a big city. While we were staying near Sacramento I read about a historic fort located in the heart of the city. As we approached the Fort the site seemed incongruous with the surrounding high-rise buildings. Unlike most State forts you see this one was originally a non-Indian settlement that was built by a man by the name of John Augustus Sutter. 
John Sutter was born in 1803 at Kandern, Baden, Germany, where his father managed a paper mill. Sutter became an apprentice in a book publishing house as a teenager in Basel on the Rhine. By the age of 23 he was working as a clerk and married Annette Dubeld. His subsequent ventures as owner of a dry goods and drapery shop proved to be financial failures. In 1834, at the age of 31, Sutter sailed for New York, leaving his wife, five children, and his debts behind. Sutter would not be reunited with his family for 16 years.
Arriving in America in 1835, Sutter is believed to have joined trading caravans headed for Santa Fe, NM. In 1838 he traveled with the American Fur Company and eventually journeyed to the Hudson's Bay Company Pacific headquarters at Fort Vancouver in Washington State.
During his stay at the fort, Sutter observed how a fort was run.  He also set out to acquire letters of recommendation which he would later use to establish credit.
From Canada, Sutter sailed to Honolulu on the Hudson's Bay Co. ship Columbia.  Stranded there for four months waiting for further passage, he used his letters of recommendations to impress leaders on Hawaii, in turn collecting even more influential endorsements.  He finally boarded the trading ship Clementine for Sitka, Alaska.  With him were eight working class Hawaiians.  Sutter sailed to Yerba Buena's harbor (San Francisco) on July 1, 1839, but heeded Mexican orders to put in at Monterey, the official port of entry.  In mid-August of 1839, Sutter and his laborers sailed on the schooner Isabella and two smaller boats up the Sacramento River and eventually up the American River, landing at the intersection of 28th and C Streets in present day Sacramento.  His laborers promptly built the first buildings of the Colony which were grass structures. Sutter was skilled in Indian affairs and overly generous to settlers.  A polished gentlemen, he valued books and kept his vision of settling the new frontier uppermost.
In the summer of 1840, Sutter, using both his growing work force and local Indians, began building what would become an adobe fort.  The walls were 2.5 feet thick and 15-18 feet high.  The compound was 320 feet long.  Sutter's Fort was larger than Fort Laramie and half the size of Fort Vancouver.  His headquarters was the Central Building, a three floored structure located in the middle of the Fort compound.  He had quarters for some of his workers, a bakery, blanket factory, blacksmith shop, carpenter shop and other workshops within the fort.  He located a tannery on the American River.  Dwellings for guests and his vaqueros were  also outside the fort.  Probably no more than 50 people stayed inside at any one time prior to 1845.  A maximum of 30 people could have used the fort during daylight hours.
Wheat farming, barley, peas and beans, cotton, for trading, plus a successful whiskey and brandy distillery provided Sutter, his Indians and staff, with food and provisions.  He exported wheat to Russian Alaska.  He issued passports to the American immigrants who were first his guests, later his customers.
The "New Helvetia" (New Switzerland) land grant was given to Sutter in 1841 by Governor Juan Alvarado.  Sutter had become a Mexican citizen in 1840 to qualify for his grant which contained approximately 11 leagues of land or 47,827 acres.  He was expected to maintain order among the Indians and to secure the land for Mexico in return.  By 1845, Sutter had 1,700 horses and mules, 4,000 cattle, and 3,000 sheep at New Helvetica.  In February 1845, Gov. Meiceltorena needed military assistance against a revolt and so he appointed Sutter "Captain of Sacramento Troops" and gave him the "Sobrante" land grant of 33 leagues.  The U.S. Supreme Court declared this land grant invalid in 1858.