John Sutter was born on February 15 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 Dübeld, and
the two were married in Burgdorf on October 24 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
9 of 1838. From there he sailed to the Russian colony at Sitka, Alaska, and thence to Yerba
Buena, where he arrived on July 1 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 1 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 29 of 1840. The following year, on June 18,
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. The walls enclosed about
five acres. They were of adobe blocks about two and one half feet thick, bastions five feet
thick, and under the bastions the prisons.” Cannons protected 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; large 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 goldseekers. 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 7 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 settled down in the Moravian town
of Lititz, Pennsylvania, around 1871, but he never gave up the fight.
On June 16 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.