The Coastal Post - November, 1996

Discovery Of Gold Destroys Sutter


Did you know that Sutter bought Fort Ross when the Russians left in 1841? He entered into a bargain he couldn't possibly keep. He agreed to buy everything in the place for $30,000, plus a $2,000 down payment. In the deal were 3,500 head of cattle as well as a sea-going launch, lumber, tools and enough ammunition to supply Sutter's Fort-then called New Helvetia-for many years.

Produce from his farming lands was to continue until the final payment, $10,000 in cash, was due after four years. He was not able to meet either of these requirements. The document, written in French, contained the statement "with the consent of the Emperor of all the Russians" that Sutter's Fort, "together with all movable and fixed property," was to serve as collateral.

Poor Russians. They couldn't know that Sutter never kept an agreement. In fact, in business affairs, he was a liar, although he never thought of himself as such.

Sutter acquired Fort Ross in December, 1841, and tacked it onto his vast holdings in the Sacramento Valley. He had a fast-growing community there. For instance, he took in all the surviving members of the Donner Party, and he sent two rescue missions-though they arrived too late-to the stranded. He trained his Indians into a fighting force, incurring adverse reactions from his superiors, one of whom was General Vallejo. Sutter wrote him a curt letter demanding to be allowed to continue, and that no obstacle should be put in the way of the party of men he sent with his message. This letter showed how Sutter's attitude had changed since he had purchased Fort Ross. He was a big man now; even bigger than General Vallejo.

The fact that he had mounted cannon on the walls of Sutter's Fort, together with the widely-held belief that he had formerly been a professional soldier (he hadn't) convinced many that Sutter was a threat to California, still under Mexican rule. Mexico's hold on California was becoming less secure. They had no money to send troops to the area, nor professional soldiers to lead them.

Sutter threatened to keep New Helvetia under the protection of France as an independent state. This was the time when both France and England and the United States were looking hungrily at California. The Russians were already out; after they sold Fort Ross, they went home.

By then New Helvetia was equipped with a blacksmith shop and horses were shod there. A young Virginian, Henry W. Bigler wrote in his diary, "Captain Sutter seemed to have everything in the shape of cattle, horses, mules, grain. Several of our boys concluded to stop here and go to work for Captain Sutter."

A number of Mormons had come to California, where they hoped to establish their church, instead of in Salt Lake City. The group at Sutter's Fort grew larger. Sutter wrote "I have several hundred workmen in the harvest feed them I have to kill four and sometimes five oxen daily."

Sutter's many enterprises continued to create a growing demand for lumber, not only in the fort, but in fast-growing San Francisco. Finally, he decided to build a sawmill on the American River. Little did he know what would be found on the site. He entered into an agreement with James W. Marshall to erect the mill near the place now known as Coloma. Twenty-five workers, 17 of whom were Mormons, set about to construct the Mill.

On the morning of January 24, 1848, they discovered gold. At first, Sutter and Marshall wanted the find to be kept secret, but the news leaked out, and the Gold Rush was on. Soon people on the East Coast sold their farms-everybody was a farmer those days-and either went by covered wagons across the plains and over the mountains, or around Cape Horn. The most adventurous went via Panama and hoped they'd catch a boat to San Francisco. Marin was founded by these people who were the first to be disillusioned with the gold fields, and wound up farming the lush valleys of Marin.

Sutter said plaintively "My best days were just before the discovery of gold." And indeed they were.

Oscar Lewis wrote in Sutter's Fort: "One of the major ironies of John Sutter's story-and his life was a succession of ironies-is the fact that although the Gold Rush projected both him and his fort into world-wide prominence, its ultimate effect was to leave him financially and spiritually bankrupt, and to reduce the establishment which was his chief monument from the position it had once held as the only outpost of civilization in California's great interior valley to the status of a mere way station on the route to and from the gold fields."

The Gold Rush horde overran his valley, stealing horses, mules and cattle, and most of his retainers, both natives and whites, deserted him and rushed pell-mell to the diggings. There was also a threat from the Russian-American Fur Company, which had sold Sutter Fort Ross 17 years earlier, that unless the long-overdue balance was promptly paid in full, an attachment would be made on Sutter's property, wherever located.

When his son arrived from Switzerland, Sutter transferred to him his properties, livestock and possessions, including 1,500 horses, 50 mules, 600 head of cattle, 20 saddles and bridles and the schooner, Sacramento. Young Sutter, who had only been in the country two months, and had no business experience, suddenly found himself in control of wealth of truly epic proportions. No wonder the 22-year-old felt inadequate. To make thing worse, his father had long been drinking, and was rarely not drunk.

Sutter had long wanted to establish a city to be called Sutterville, but as Sacramento, now a town of 3,500 inhabitants, rose to prominence, Sutter's Fort declined. It was already falling into ruin.

Mrs. Sutter, and three of their four children, joined her husband on the Feather River, where he had retired in 1850. She had become a dour old woman-and you could hardly blame her-as she had been left behind in 1834 with all four children, and her husband had rarely even written to her. The children had demanded preferential treatment on the way to California, believing that their father was "the wealthiest man in California."

They eventually moved to Lititz, where everyone spoke German, and were relatively happy until John Sutter died in 1880; wife Anna followed him in 1881.

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