By Lee Foster
(Author’s Note: This article is about California’s John Sutter’s Vision and his Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento. This is also an updated chapter for the next edition of my book Northern California History Weekends. When all the 52 chapters are revised, a new edition of the book will appear.)
Sacramento and the surrounding Delta have long been the land of visionaries.
First came John Sutter, the Swiss entrepreneur, who carved out a trading and agricultural settlement at the confluence of the Sacramento and American Rivers in 1839.
In 1848 James Marshall, a sawmill worker for Sutter, discovered traces of gold in a millrace at Coloma, 30 miles to the east of Sacramento.
In the years that followed, hundreds of thousands of gold seekers from around the globe converged on Sacramento. They paid their way to San Francisco or came as deckhands and jumped ship in San Francisco harbor. From there, they often took a steamer, such as the Delta King, up the river. They passed through the Delta and on to Sacramento, where they provisioned for the trip to the mines.
The Delta—both then and now—has some of the richest farmlands in the world. A few early arrivals realized that fortunes could be made in selling provisions. For example, you could sell eggs or apples for a dollar apiece. Food and hardware, such as picks and gold mining pans, were in demand. Leland Stanford, who owned a hardware store, saw his future in provisioning the miners. He would later become a railroad builder, a governor, and a university founder.
The Historic Story
Before the arrival of John Sutter, California Native Americans flourished here in great numbers. They lived off hunting tule elk, deer, and migrating ducks. They also fished for the countless salmon in what is now the Sacramento River. Where the land pushed higher than the marshes, there were thousands of valley oak and black oak trees. The Native Californians harvested those acorns, estimated to supply half of the Indian diet.
Today you can see many Indian artifacts near Sutter’s Fort at the California State Indian Museum (2618 K St., Sacramento; 916/324-0971; http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=1044). Hunting and fishing gear, basketry, dance regalia, musical instruments, and a hand-carved canoe are among the items on display.
In 1841 Johann Augustus Sutter received a 48,000-acre land grant from the Mexican Governor Alvarado, who was then in charge of California. On the land Sutter built a whitewashed fort, which he named New Helvetia after the Latin word for his native Switzerland. You can visit this preserved treasure. Sutter’s Fort: 2701 L St., Sacramento; 916/445-4422; https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=485.
Sutter’s Fort Today
The fort is now located in Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park. Exhibits include the work places of carpenters, coopers, and blacksmiths.
It’s impressive to see today, as you stick your head into a room and get your personal audio explanation, how detailed was Sutter’s vision. Because he had 4,000 sheep, Sutter arranged for a skilled wool blanket maker to set up shop. Sutter attracted skilled entrepreneurs from across America and Europe to participate in his vision.
It is worth mentioning that Sacramento’s early history is not a story of Spanish-Mexican settlements, as is the rest of California to the south. San Francisco and Sonoma were as far north as the Spanish colonial thrust of missions, forts, and settlers reached.
In the early 1800s it looked as if the northern part of present-day California might fly the flag of Russia. The Russian settlement at Fort Ross was built to harvest sea otter furs and grow crops for the Russian settlements in Alaska. Ultimately, Fort Ross failed as a business venture, which was the Russian colonial rationale. Sutter bought up all the Russian remnants of value and had them transported to his inland fort.
The Gold Discovery of 1848
One of the most decisive events in the history of California was, of course, the accidental discovery of traces of gold by James Marshall in 1848. Sutter employed Marshall to harvest and saw logs at Coloma on the American River. Marshall detected the gold flakes in a millrace at his saw milling site. There were initial efforts to determine if the discovery was gold, which proved true. Then there were efforts to hide the good news, which was not possible.
In the next two years, miners overran Sutter’s agricultural lands and destroyed his property. Sutter never fully recovered, eventually dying an impoverished and unappreciated man.
It’s poignant to visit Sutter’s Fort and imagine what California would have been like if gold had never been discovered. In 1841, before the Gold Rush, Sutter had a grand vision. He would set up a pattern of hospitality and initiative for the first settlers who came across the Sierra in wagons to California.
In the 19th century you would have journeyed to the gold mines by boat, paddle wheeler from San Francisco, through the Delta, and up the Sacramento River to Sacramento, the gateway to the gold mines.
Later when the mines petered out—and the true gold of agriculture became the obvious treasure—efforts were made to join Sacramento with the East by means of a railroad across the Sierra Nevada.
Today speedy Interstate 80 joins San Francisco to Sacramento, which is 90 miles northeast. Enthusiasts for the nostalgia of an earlier era will take a more leisurely route between San Francisco and Sacramento. Highway 160 from the East Bay snakes along the levees of the Sacramento River Delta, passing small towns such as Walnut Grove and the agricultural abundance found in pear orchards.
Be Sure to See
Sutter’s Fort is at 2701 L Street in Sacramento. The California State Indian Museum is just around the corner, 2618 K Street.
Best Time of Year
Anytime is good, but times of re-enactment at Sutter’s Fort are particularly enchanting. Four times a year, Hands on History events are held at Sutter’s Fort. (Call 916/445-4422 for exact dates.) Locals play the historic characters, including Sutter and Marshall. Participants re-create the skills of the day, such as cooking over an open fire or sewing clothes.
Three elegant historic mansions form the 10-room Amber House Inn of Midtown (1315 22nd St., Sacramento; 916/444-8085; https://www.amberhouse.com). The B&B serves breakfast only, but there are many good restaurants within walking distance.
Old Sacramento, not far from Sutter’s Fort, has several good restaurants. One is The Firehouse, a brick building that was one of the first restorations in the area. Try the Snake River Farms eye of rib Delmonico or the double-cut local brined pork chop. The Firehouse is at 1112 2nd St.; 916/442-4772; https://www.firehouseoldsac.com.
For Further Information
Contact Visit Sacramento (1608 I St., Sacramento; 916/226-5783 or 888/461-2075; https://www.visitsacramento.co). Sutter’s Fort is at 27th and L Sts., Sacramento (916/445-4422, https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=485).