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JOHN A. SUTTER AND THE CALIFORNIA GOLD RUSH
SUTTER'S MILL AND GOLD DISCOVERY SITE
MAY 13 - 20, 2007
SUTTER MILL REPLICA
This Replica of Sutter's Mill was based on Research from many Sources - a Drawing by James Marshall, an old Photograph of the Mill, and the Results of several Excavations made on the original Mill Site. The Building is 50 Feet long, 20 Feet wide, and 39 Feet high; and 19,000 Board Feet of Lumber were used in Construction. The Structure is assembled with wooden Pegs - no Nails were used. As in the original Mill, all Timbers were adzed by Hand. The Replica was placed here because the original Site is now inundated. The Placerville Lumber Company donated much of the Material and the El Dorado County Historical Society raised Funds for its Construction.
This Plaque dedicated by James W. Marshall
Chapter No. 49, E Clampus Vitus
on January 20, 1968
JAMES WILSON MARSHALL
James Marshall arrived in the "Collumah", Valley home of the Nisenan, on May 18, 1847 to map the Site for a Sawmill he was to build in Partnership with John Sutter. On August 18, Marshall returned with a Crew, mostly Mormons, to build the Mill. On Monday morning, January 24, 1848, while inspecting the Tailrace downstream of the partially completed Mill, Marshall picked up a Flake of pure Gold. The Valley, the Lives of Marshall and the Nisenan, and the Land called California were forever changed.
Dedicated January 24, 1998
California's Gold Discovery Sesquicentennial
Grand Parlor, Native Sons of the Golden West
California State Parks
(Observation: The plaque seems to contain a "typo" - The date of the find should say January 28, not 24)
To this day, Swiss/German John A. Sutter and his partner James W. Marshall are being credited with initiating the California Gold Rush in 1848. But who was "Captain" / "General" Sutter, for whom the City of Sutter Creek in California was named?
Throughout history Sutter remains a controversial figure and while he is being perceived as an enterprising, sympathetic and supportive figure in the early American settlement of Mexican California, he is also accused of being a liar, cheat, smuggler, slaver and alcoholic. Because Sutter kept inventing new stories about his past to serve his needs in any given situation, it is nowadays rather difficult to tell truth from myth.
John Augustus Sutter, whose name was originally Johann August Suter, was born on February 15, 1803, in Kandern, Baden, Germany, just 13 miles north of Basel, Switzerland.
SUTTER'S MILL SITE
This Rock Monument marks Site of John A. Sutter's Saw Mill
in the Tailrace of which James W. Marshall discovered Gold,
January 24, 1848, starting great Rush of Argonauts to California.
The Society of California Pioneers definitely located and marked
site in 1924. Additional Timbers and Relics, including original
Tailrace unearthed in 1947, were discovered after Property became
State Park. Marshall Monument, overlooking this Spot, was erected
following Movement inaugurated in 1886 by Native Sons of the
Tablet placed by Historic Landmarks Committees
Native Sons and Native Daughters of the Golden West,
January 24, 1946 on Centennial of Gold Discovery.
Johann August Suter, aka John A. Sutter
Sutter, after becoming a Mexican citizen to qualify for the land grant, named his prize Nueva Helvetia or New Switzerland (later named Sacramento).
He writes in his diary: "I got a General passport for my small Colony and permission to select a Territory where ever I would find it convenient, and to come in one Years time again in Monterey to get my Citizenship and the title of the Land, which I have done so, and not only this, I received a high civil Office, 'Representante del Govierno en las fronteras del Norte, y Encargado de la Justicia'."
With the help of Indian labor, Sutter went on to establish a productive agricultural empire in the Sacramento Valley. Sutter was also friendly with the early travelers to California, treating them with great hospitality. This wasn't what he had promised the Mexican government.
In the Californian revolt of 1846 against Mexico, Sutter sided with the Americans and within a few years he was prospering, with thousands of head of cattle, horses, and sheep.
Sutter came to the foothills in search of a place for a saw mill. Sutter did have some men in the area of what is now Sutter Creek whipsawing lumber by hand, but he needed much more wood for his ambitious plans.
On August 27, 1847, Sutter and James W. Marshall entered into an agreement to construct a saw mill on the American River at a place known to the Indians as "Collumah."
On January 28, 1848, Marshall met secretly with Sutter to show him what he had discovered at the Coloma saw mill - Gold. Sutter traveled to Coloma the next day and begged his workers to keep the discovery a secret for 6 weeks, but the secret apparently didn't even last two weeks.
Once the secret was out, Sutter's laborers began to desert him, as Sutter writes in his diary on March 7: "The first party of Mormons employed by me left for washing and digging Gold and very soon all followed, and left me only the sick and the lame behind. And at this time I could say that everybody left me from the Clerk to the Cook."
The location where James W. Marshall found
that famous piece of gold on January 28, 1848
Soon a torrent of people descended on the Mother Lode, beginning slowly in 1848 and building to a torrent the following year. The hopeful adventurers included both travelers from around the world as well as residents of the towns that had been established throughout California. In the spring of 1849, the non-Indian population of California was about 14,000. This grew to nearly 100,000 by the end of 1849, and to more than 250,000 by 1852.
Sutter was understandably upset about the financial losses he suffered; his mills were left incomplete, the newcomers swarmed across his lands.
Sutter, after seeing the gold used to pay the high prices in his store, agreed with his Indian laborers to make a trip to gather gold for themselves, and set off on an expedition with about 100 Indians and 50 Hawaiians. They made camp about ten miles above Mormon Island, on the south fork of the American River.
This quickly became crowded, so Sutter broke up the camp and moved south to Sutter Creek. While the work went well, three or four "traveling grog-shops" moved to the area, and soon Sutter's laborers were showing up unable to work from drinking and gambling the night before. Sutter determined to cut his losses, and returned to Fort Sutter, and made no further attempts to find gold.
On May 25, 1848 Sutter writes in his diary:
"All the other Circumstances you know all yourself, perhaps I have repeated many things which I wrote in the 3 first sheets, because I had them not to see what I wrote, and as it is now several months I must have forgotten. Well it is only a kind of memorandum, and not a History at all, Only to remember you on the different periods when such and such things happened.
I need not mention again, that all the Visitors has allways been hospitably received and treated. That all the sick and wounded found allways Medical Assistance, Gratis, as I had nearly all the time a Physician in my employ. The Assistance to the Emigrants, that is all well known. I dont need to write anything about this.
I think now from all this you can form some facts, and that you can mention how thousands and thousands made their fortunes, from this Gold Discovery produced through my industry and energy, (some wise merchants and others in San francisco called the building of this Sawmill, another of Sutter's folly) and this folly saved not only the Mercantile World from Bankruptcy, but even our General Gov't. but for me it has turned out a folly, then without having discovered the Gold, I would have become the richest wealthiest man on the Pacific Shore".
Sutter did try, with partners, to become a merchant to all the miners, but after being cheated by his partners, and with creditors hounding his every step, Sutter determined that the only way to avoid losing everything was to deed his land to his son, John Sutter, Jr.
Late in 1849 Sutter sold his Fort for $7,000 and moved to Hock Farm, near Yuba City. That same year, Sutter was nominated for governor of California, but one of his contemporaries commented "How can a man in his senses think that responsible men would ever vote for a man like Sutter, who is drunk more than half of the time?"
In 1865 Sutter's home at Hock Farms was burned to the ground by a disgruntled worker. Sutter then decided to seek compensation from the United States Congress for his help in colonizing the State of California. Sutter and his family moved to Pennsylvania in 1871 due to his poor health. Sutter continued to fight for compensation from the U.S. Congress for his help in colonizing California. On June 16, 1880, Congress adjourned before passing a bill, which would have given him $50,000. Two days later, John Augustus Sutter died.
Despite the many contradictory stories about Sutter, that would make it difficult to tell fact from fiction, one thing most historians and scholars agree on is, that Sutter deserves renewed attention as an agent of Euro-American expansion. He led the way for commercial enterprise and settlement in California's Central Valley, with Sutter's Fort at its strategic center. In more ways than he knew, Sutter helped link this interior country to a rapidly developing world economy, making it a significant part of a wider American West.
He was the son of Swiss Johann Jakob Suter, a foreman in a paper mill whose family had been simple peasants (possibly cobblers as the surname Suter implies) who had come from and maintained ties to the village of Ruenenberg, Baselland, Switzerland. His mother, Christina Wilhelmina Stober, was a clergyman's daughter from Grenzach, Baden, Germany, located farther up the Rhine River.
It was generally well known that Suter liked to appear in uniform. Most of his portraits show him dressed as a military officer. As a result of the battle of Leipzig in 1813, Czar Alexander of Russia, Emperor Joseph II of Austria, and King August Wilhelm of Prussia met in nearby Basel, Switzerland on, January 1, 1814, to establish headquarters for their campaign against Napoleon.
During these years Kandern had its share of troops quartered in town, and their colorful military garb no doubt presented an exciting spectacle to a boy just approaching his teens. It's therefore easy to believe that Suter's later fascination with military matters was a carry-over from this period in his life.
Suter left his small German village at the age of fifteen to attend school in nearby Neuchatel, Switzerland. He then began an apprenticeship with a publisher/bookseller/printer in Basel, but soon would lose interest in that trade. He then took a position as a clerk in a draper's shop in nearby Aarburg, where he met Annette Duebeld, who later would become his wife. They soon moved to Annette's hometown of Burgdorf, Bern, where Annette's mother, a widow, possessed assets. The couple married on October 24, 1826 and on the following day, Annette gave birth to Johann August Suter, Jr.
Despite Johann's residence in Burgdorf, Swiss custom dictated that the Suter family's official hometown would remain Ruenenberg. In his adopted town of Burgdorf, he was considered a stranger without certain rights, and he was at a disadvantage when competing with the native businessmen for profits and social advantages. John's mother-in-law, however, backed him in a dry goods firm called "Johann August Suter & Co." True to a later pattern, he took on an irresponsible partner in the business who soon left him burdened with considerable debt.
During this period Suter did spend time in the military, but he never became an officer in the "Swiss Army", left alone the elite "Swiss Guard", as he later claimed. But according to some research, Suter had actually volunteered for the reserve corps in Bern in 1828. Within three years the young man had advanced to the rank of first under-lieutenant of the second center company of the third battalion. Yet, despite his later statements, Suter never served in the Spanish campaign of 1823-24; nor is it likely that he fought under Charles X at Grenoble in July 1830.
While serving part-time as a military reservist, Suter tried to make a success of his dry goods business. Not content to wait for customers to come to the Burgdorf store, he traveled the countryside to obtain orders from farmers. Handicapped by his status as a stranger, he failed to succeed and as a result piled up a debt of more than 50,000 francs. Apparently his tendency to overreach himself financially, to expand his business on borrowed funds while hoping for a miraculous upturn in his fortunes, was already pronounced long before he reached California.
By mid-May of 1834, Suter had secretly liquidated all of his assets. Abandoning his wife and by then five children, he headed for the French port city of Le Havre with no intention of ever returning. On June 9, 1834, Suter's creditors started bankruptcy proceedings against him, and the court issued a warrant of arrest on June 12. When Annette's mother died six months later, she left her daughter 25,000 francs, but this legacy remained tied up in the estate until 1862, when John Sutter finally satisfied his Swiss creditors. For more than a decade Annette Duebeld Suter, the deserted wife and young mother, remained virtually a charity case, waiting vainly for her errant husband to rescue her from poverty and disgrace.
Meanwhile Suter landed in New York in July 1834 and set out immediately for the West in the company of two Germans and two Frenchmen. Eventually he arrived in St. Louis, where he met Johann August Laufkotter from Westphalia. These two adventurous newcomers to America then traveled together for more than two years. To mask his legal problems in Switzerland, Suter (now Sutter) invented a new personal history for himself, featuring an enviable childhood, a military education with a bogus captaincy, and an accomplished Swiss family at home. As a result of the experience with his mendacious friend, Laufkotter has left us a rather critical account of Sutter's trading, gold mining, and smuggling activities in the Santa Fe area, and later in Westport, Missouri, where Sutter settled briefly in 1837. From Laufkotter we also learn about Sutter making a local German saloon his headquarters, his first experience with Indian employees, his sexual attachments with young Shawnee Indian women and his repeated financial collapse. It was also becoming apparent, that Sutter had a drinking problem and that his alcoholism soon became a major handicap to his business activities. By the late winter of 1837-38 Sutter once again prepared secretly to skip out on his debtors and left for Oregon. He also lived in Hawaii and Alaska before arriving in California on July 1, 1839.
On the 4th of July 1839, California's Governor, Juan Bautista de Alvarado attended in Monterey, the capital of this Mexican province, a party by the U.S. Consul. During the event he was intrigued by a pudgy, square-set, purposeful but charming and somewhat mysterious stranger named John A. Sutter. Sutter impressed the governor and other guests as a Swiss gentleman seeking to settle in California. Armed with many letters of introduction from high-ranking persons, Sutter was selling himself very cleverly and was perhaps his own best public relations person. He did talk about his "tremendous prosperity just around the corner, all debts just about to be paid (or, anyway, next year) and a Swiss family at home, cultured, accomplished, educated, handsome, and resourceful, and about to join him in a few months in New Helvetia." Some insights from that time are documented by Heinrich Lienhard, who worked for Sutter:
Although willing to pose as a good husband and proud father, Sutter never did send for his wife and children. The family finally reached California in January 1850, paying their way with money provided by John Suter, Jr., the eldest son, who had joined his father on his own initiative in the fall of 1848. Some of Lienhard's observations also include the poor treatment of Indians by Sutter, the Hawaiian mistress who bore Sutter several children, and the various California Indian girls Sutter kept as "personal servants" and who he then would pass on to his friends as soon as they got "too old" for his taste.
Sutter went as far as posing as a Swiss Guard officer forced to flee the French Revolution, promising Alvarado that he would be a benefit in slowing the westward migration of Americans into Mexican California.
Sutter overwhelmed and soon convinced Alvarado to give him a land grant comprising 48,400 acres, which was the maximum for a private rancho in Mexican California. Eventually the question was not, would Sutter qualify for California, but would California satisfy Sutter?
Aligning himself with the Mexican authorities, at one point, Sutter eventually owned more than 150,000 acres of the Central Valley.
In 1844, "Fort Sutter" was completed as a frontier trading post where Sutter established the colony of Nueva Helvetia or New Switzerland (later named Sacramento), which became a center for the trappers, traders, and settlers in the region. He developed what he considered to be the real wealth of California - crops such as grapes and wheat, along with vast herds of cattle.
From 1891-93 the "Fort" underwent restoration and was donated to the State of California. In 1947 "Sutter's Fort" became a part of the California State Park System and today stands as the oldest restored Fort in the United States.
The "Fort" was not only located at a pivotal point in California - it was a pivotal point in history. This combination of big dreams, bold adventures and reality all manifest themselves at Sutter's Fort State Historic Park and help bring California history to life.
Sutter's Fort in 1849 - Lithograph by William E. Endicott from sketches by Joseph Warren Revere
Sutter's Fort in 2002 - Photograph by Michael A. Melton
John A. Sutter would soon also be known
as Captain Sutter and General Sutter
While Sutter's reputation among the white settlers and travelers was positive, his reputation with the Indians was something else entirely. The successful operation of Sutter's rancho, as with other ranchos in Mexican California, depended in large part on Indian labor.
Sutter commonly paid the Indians in shelter, food, clothing and perhaps some glass beads or other trinkets in exchange for their labor, building his fort, raising crops, caring for thousands of cattle, sheep, horses and hogs, catching fish, delivering pelts, and serving as soldiers against tribes Sutter suspected of stealing his horses.
Contemporary observers at Sutter's Fort claimed that Sutter resorted to slavery, denial of food and kidnapping to force Indians to work for him. It is said that he paid his Indian workers in cheap pieces of tin that could only be exchanged at his store for merchandise.
Sutter was inclined to harshly punish insubordinate actions by the Indians, such as leaving the harvest at New Helvetia to attend to a good hunting or acorn season. Sutter sent armed posses into the foothills to punish and capture "runaway" workers.
Sutter nevertheless gained a reputation for treating overlanders well who arrived at his Fort Sutter. In any event, visitors to Fort Sutter found John Sutter to be generous and obliging, offering shelter, food and clothing, as well as the opportunity to learn something about California.
James W. Marshall in 1884
Article in the German World Magazine July/August 2007 issue