Historic California Posts, Camps, Stations and Airfields
Sutter's Fort
(Fort New Helvatia, Fort Sacramento)
Sutter's Fort, 1841
by Justin M. Ruhge
In the previous histories of forts in California, the power behind the events of their constructions were the Kings and Emperors in Europe. In this story of Sutter's Fort, an individual with a vision is the force behind the construction. This action is the beginning of what will become the future Mexican "land grant" baron ranches in California during the latter days of the Mexican period and into the American settlement of the greater part of California. The transition from world empires to the common man on the land had begun. The story of Sutter's Fort has been told many times in numerous volumes. H. H. Bancroft was probably the earliest to publish based on direct testimony from John Sutter himself. It is not the purpose of this work to repeat the life history of Sutter but to concentrate on the fort that he created.
Sutter arrived at New York in July 1834 at the age of 31 from his home in Burgdorf, Switzerland, leaving behind his wife Anna and four children. After spending the next five years in various business pursuits, Sutter worked his way across the western American wilderness by way of St. Louis, Oregon, Hawaii and Sitka, Alaska, finally arriving at Monterey, on July 3rd 1839.
His intention was to establish an inland empire as far removed from the Spanish settlements as possible where he could conduct himself as he saw fit. The country was well populated by the Native Americans whom he planned to use to develop his empire. During his travels, Sutter had gathered around him a small core of persons dedicated to his cause and loyal to him. Sutter had to become a Mexican citizen to qualify for a land grant. With his position and plans laid out before the Mexican Governor Alvarado, Sutter set off for the interior to select a site for his empire.
Chartering two schooners named Isabella and Nicolas and purchasing a four-oared pinnace, Sutter embarked on August 9 with eight or ten kanakas, three or four white men who had come with him and two or three others engaged at Yerba Buena besides the crews of the two schooners.
The vessels were loaded with stores of provisions, ammunition, implements and three small cannon, which had been brought from Hawaii. After exploring the Sacramento, Feather and American Rivers, Sutter selected a site for his planned settlement about a quarter mile inland on high ground near a pond fed from the American River. At first, tule houses were built by the kanakas in the Hawaiian style, but by the fall of 1839 an adobe structure 40 feet long with a tule roof was completed. It was divided into three apartments, in one of which Sutter lived, while the other two served as kitchen and blacksmith shop. The new settlement was christened in honor of Sutter's homeland, Nueva Helvecia or New Switzerland.
In 1840, Sutter began work on the walls of the Fort. He was concerned for the safety of the settlers because of possible attacks from the overwhelming numbers of Native Americans in the area. As we have seen, many times in this history, California was heavily populated by the indigenous people who resented intruders into their territory. The Native American tribes made endless raids on each other and on the Europeans when they appeared. Slavery was practiced by the indigenous people on each other and then by the Europeans.
In August of that year, Sutter went down to Monterey where he took the final steps to become a Mexican citizen on August 27th. The fact that Sutter was a good Swiss Catholic and had good references for his character helped to speed things along. In addition, Sutter was duly authorized by Jimeno Casarin, Governor Alvarado's secretary, to "represent the departmental government at Nueva Helvecia, being endowed with all the civil authority necessary for the local administration of justice, the prevention of robberies by adventurers from the United States, the repression of hostilities by savage Indians, and the checking of the illegal trapping and fishing carried on by the Company of Columbia, for which purpose he might even resort to force of arms if necessary." In
fact he was constituted, as he soon had occasion to sign himself, as the Justice of the Peace on the Sacramento River frontier. Sutter had probably a force of twenty white men at New Helvetia by the end of 1840 with which to enforce the peace.
In 1841-42 work was continued, chiefly by Native American laborers on the Fort. The Fort was a structure of adobe with walls eighteen feet high, and three feet thick enclosing an area of 500 by 150 feet. At the southeast and northwest corners projecting bastions, or towers, rose above the walls of the rectangle and contained in their upper stories cannon, which commanded the gateways in the center of each side except the western. Loopholes were pierced in the walls at different points. Guns were mounted at the main entrance on the south and elsewhere, and the north side seemed also to be protected by a ravine. An inner wall, with the intermediate space roofed over, furnished a large number of apartments in the California style and there were other detached buildings both of wood and adobe in the interior. Some of the wooden buildings were brought from Fort Ross when it was sold to Sutter. His headquarters was in a central building, a three-story structure in the middle of the rectangle with wooden staircases at the middle on opposite sides of the building. He had quarters for some of his workers, a bakery, gristmill, blanket factory, and workshops within the Fort. He located a tannery on the American River. Dwellings for guests and his vaqueros were also outside the Fort. No more than 50 people stayed inside at any one time prior to the immigration of 1845. A maximum of 300 people could have used the Fort during the daylight but it would have been crowded. The design of Sutter's Fort seemed to be a mix of that of the Spanish presidios and Fort Ross. The corner bastions were similar to the Russian design but of adobe. The walls were of the Spanish adobe design instead of redwood as in the Russian Fort. The central building for the "management" was similar to the Russian idea although of adobe instead of redwood.
The armament, as early as 1842, consisted of two brass fieldpieces and a dozen or more iron guns of different kinds brought from Hawaii and purchased from different vessels. In a letter to the California Pioneers published in their Bulletin, dated July 12, 1879, Sutter states the he got six larger cannon in 1841 from the captain of an American vessel who brought them from South America expressly for him, one brass fieldpiece only from the Russians and a few others, including 2 brass pieces from other vessels at different dates. John Bidwell, a caretaker for Sutter at Fort Ross in 1842, states that about 40 rusty guns and one or two small brass cannon were obtained from the Russians. However there are rumors that the iron guns were lost when the raft carrying them from Fort Ross to Yerba Buena was overturned at the entrance to the bay and lost. But no written information is available to back up these rumors. So it is likely that Sutter got most of his guns from Fort Ross.
Sutter had a survey of New Helvetia made in the early part of 1841. A map or diseno was drawn to show Sutter's claim. Thus armed, Sutter went down to Monterey in June for his grant. His petition to Alvarado was dated June 15th. On the 18th the grant was made for eleven square leagues bounded on the north by the Three Peaks and latitude 39 degrees 41'45"; on the east by the margins of Feather River; on the south by latitude 38 degrees 49'32"; and on the west by the Sacramento River - the eleven leagues not including lands flooded by the river, in all about 47,827 acres. The conditions were that Sutter "shall maintain the native Indians of the different tribes of those points in the enjoyments and liberty of their possessions, without molesting them, and he shall use no other means of reducing them to civilization but those of prudence and friendly intercourse, and not make war upon them in any way without previously obtaining authority from the government."

Reproduced from The History of California by H. H. Bancroft, Vol. IV, pg. 230.
Sutter's Fort in 1849 from The Journal of John Hovey 1849-1851, Newberryport, Mass. Note the bridge across the slough from the American River. Courtesy of the Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

Sutter's grant became an extensive farming and ranching operation. Wheat, barley, peas, beans and cotton were raised with the help of Native American labor. Tradesmen were hired from all nations to help provide implements for the Fort and the ranch. Business was developed around furs, whiskey, brandy distilling, and beer brewing. Wheat was exported to Russian Alaska. As a Justice of the Peace, Sutter issued Mexican passports to American immigrants who were first his guests, and later his customers.
By 1845 the ranch had 1,700 horses and mules, 4,000 cattle and 3,000 sheep. Sutter established his own home guard with fifty Native Americans whom he trained, armed with muskets and had dressed in military uniforms. The Fort became famous as a temporary refuge for pioneers between 1841 and 1849. Sutter provided free shelter and supplies to weary settlers. He recruited settlers for his settlement not only in this country, but also in Switzerland and Germany. Sutter helped rescue the stranded Donner Party of pioneers in 1846-47.
The Fort was so renowned that many foreign expeditions came to visit it as well as many itinerant artists. The U. S. military occupied the Fort during the early days of the Conquest to be discussed in a later section. As a result, several drawings and photographs of the Fort come down to us and are shown in this history. The many visitors during this time are reviewed in The History of California by H. H. Bancroft, Vol. III and IV.
Among those who visited the Fort in 1842 was the "King's Orphan". He set out from Yerba Buena aboard a schooner carrying supplies to Sutter's Fort. His comments on this visit are as follows: "Although not very distant from the mouth of the river in a straight line, the settlement of Captain Sutter was reached only after many turns of the river. So we arrived at the embarcadero late in the evening, having seen only one hut and some sheep pens on the right side of the river all the passage up. At the embarcadero, or port, were some huts situated under the shade of lofty sycamores and oaks...New Helvetia lay two and half miles from this landing. The road, over a level and well-timbered ground led to a higher ground, clothed with timber, where the fort and habitations were located. (Upon learning of the arrival of the schooner, Sutter dispatched a horse to the embarcadero to carry the visitor to the Fort.) I arrived very early in the morning just as the discordant notes of the Mexican drums were calling the people to assemble for labor. I alighted and proceeded immediately to pay my compliments to the Captain. Although he was very busily employed distributing orders for the day, he most hospitably received and made me at home under his roof." Wheat was being harvested in the nearby fields and before being sent with their sickles, rakes, and other tools, the Native American crews were brought inside the enclosure and given their morning meal. The method of feeding the Native Americans shocked the visitor who made the following comments: "I must confess I could not reconcile my feelings to see these fellows being driven, as it were, around some narrow troughs of hollow tree trunks, out of which, crouched on their haunches, they fed more like beasts than human beings, using their hands in hurried manner to convey to their mouths the thin porridge which was served to them. Soon they filed off to the fields after having, I fancy, half satisfied their physical wants." Sutter and his guest then sat down to their own breakfast, which was served in a small building detached from the dwelling house, and under the same roof as the kitchen. Their meal bore no likeness to that served the Native Americans. It consisted of excellent beefsteak, tea, butter with coarse bread, eggs, beans, etc.
Sutter's Fort as sketched by William Rich Hutton in April 9, 1849. Note the slough off the American River in the foreground. Courtesy of the Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

At the time of the visit of the "King's Orphan", industrial activity at the Fort, though less diversified than it later became, was already well advanced. In the sheds ranged about the inner sides of the walls the visitor saw the distillery, where a fiery native brandy, aguardiente, was being made from home-grown wheat and wild grapes that grew along the river banks. He was also shown the shops where a carpenter, a blacksmith, a cooper, and a saddler were at work. Outside the walls were corrals where the domestic animals were kept, and an adobe building used to store wheat, corn and other farm products. A little distance away was an assemblage of huts where the Native American workers lived, and to the rear of the Fort, a large pond bordered with fine willows and other trees. The pond was a slough off the American River, which "could have been a most valuable asset, ornamental and useful, providing water for both domestic use and for irrigating the newly laid out kitchen garden. However, it had been unpardonably neglected and had thus become a source of colds and fever.
Twenty four cannons and other smaller artillery pieces all in good order are placed to defense of the place." It appears from this observation that the Russian cannon did make it to Sutter's Fort after all!
Sutter had planned a gradual development of settlements on his land grant and all was going well in that direction. He had a booklet published in Darmstadt, Germany showing his Fort and advertising for settlers from Germany and Switzerland. For awhile, his Fort was taken over by the American Army during the conquest of California in 1846-1847 when Sutter raised the Stars and Stripes over the Fort. Shortly after, the Fort was returned to Sutter. But the world changed in January 1848 when gold was discovered at Sutter's sawmill 50 miles north on the American River. This event triggered an avalanche of humanity from the entire world that came to Sutter's land on their way to the gold fields. This tide was so overwhelming that Sutter lost control of his land grant and in so doing had to sell the Fort for $7,000 in 1849. At the same time the towns of Sutterville and Sacramento were founded on the banks of the Sacramento River, which drew settlers to the new locations.
The changes in the fortunes of the Fort are recounted in letters from J. A. Moerenhout, French Consul at Monterey, to the Minister of Foreign Affairs in Paris. When Moerenhout first visited the Fort in July 1848, he had found the scene there one of "frightful confusion." Men on horseback and afoot were milling about outside the walls, while loaded wagons were moving in and out of the gates, "some bringing goods from the Sacramento landing, others taking them to the different mining regions. The open space within the enclosure (walls of the Fort) were piled with heaps of merchandise being offered for sale and the noise made by the crowds of buyers was such that one would have thought himself either in a Turkish bazaar or in one of the most frequented market places in Europe." The Frenchman added that "M. Sutter was not in his quarters and I had a great deal of trouble finding him in the midst of all the crowd and tumult, but when he was informed of my arrival he soon came and received me with his usual affability."
Space at the Fort was then at a premium, and merchants, gamblers, and many others were eager to occupy quarters of any sort and to pay the owner well for the privilege. "All around the courtyard inside, it is divided into chambers or rooms, eighteen by thirty feet in width, all occupied and rented for gold." The central building, which the visitor termed the armory, was said to command $500 per month and the rooms on the inner side of the walls from $150 to $200 each. "The total of the rent, according to what M. Sutter told me, came to eighteen hundred dollars a month, not including some housed outside, one of which was used as a hospital. The whole enterprise soon would bring him, he hoped, from two to three thousand dollars per month."

Sketch of Sutter's Fort by Thomas A. Ayers in 1854 showing dilapidated walls and bastions (Detail). Note Flora's Garden in the foreground, The hand water pump in the right foreground and the slough in the left foreground. Courtesy of the Society of California Pioneers, San Francisco.
The Casa Grande was all that remained of the original fort when this photograph was taken in 1888. Courtesy of the California Parks and Recreation Department, Sacramento.

On September 1, 1849 J. A. Moerenhout again visited the Fort and describes the dramatic change of conditions there: "The growth and importance of this new settlement (Sacramento City) has exhibited are among the marvelous things that are happening in this country. Last year, I was at this place at the same season and there was not a house or even a tent there. Only a few little schooners lay in the port and the only business of any importance was a trade or barter carried on at the Fort of New Helvetia. Now there is a town of 3,000 to 4,000 inhabitants there, with a quay lined with fine buildings, streets laid out and with a large volume of business that increases as communication with the placers and the interior becomes more regular and easy, and where thirty-five ships were at anchor, the smallest of which was fifty to sixty tons. Sutter's Fort has lost all importance since the founding of the settlements on the Sacramento River. In the Fort itself there is still a hotel and a few stores, but its business is languishing and there is no longer any stir and activity as prevailed there at the time of my visit in 1848."
Anna, Sutter's wife, came to California with the children in January 1850. Sutter retired to his Hock Farm on the Feather River near Marysville with this family until June 21, 1865 when his home was burned down by an arsonist destroying many valuable records and historical objects.
The Fort in the meantime began to slowly decay. The inner buildings, except for the Casa Grande in the middle, were razed by lumber looters and the adobe walls dissolved from neglect. The Native Sons of the Golden West purchased the remains of the Fort in 1890 and donated it to the State of California in 1891. The California Legislature agreed to accept reconstruction and maintenance of the Fort property. Reconstruction began in 1891 based on the Grunsky Map. Later modifications are based on the Kunzel map published in Darmstadt, Germany in 1848. In 1947 Sutter's Fort became part of the California State Park System.
Just what happened to the original cannon at the Fort is not known. Today the cannon on display are reproductions. An interesting story surrounds the so-called "Sutter Gun" obtained from the Russians by Sutter when he acquired the assets of Fort Ross. This gun was a bronze three-pounder cast in Saint Petersburg, Russia in 1804. It was one of many cast at that time from the same patterns. Sutter used this gun to salute the American raising of the Stars and Strips over the Fort in 1846. He also had it "requisitioned" by the Army to be used in the conquest of California, although it was never used in anger. It was returned to him after the battles were over and he took it to his Hock Farm where he used it to salute passing boats of settlers on the Feather River. When Sutter decided to leave California in 1865, he donated the "Sutter Gun" to the Society of California Pioneers in San Francisco. There it was displayed outside the Society's Museum on 814 Montgomery St. until 1886 when it was moved to a new Museum at 4th St. and Pioneer Place. This building was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake and fire, as was the "Sutter Gun". An iron replica of the "Sutter Gun" is on display at Sutter's Fort State Park today along with six other iron guns of various heritages.
An amazing fact of history is that there are two Sutter's Forts in California, the original one in Sacramento and a replica in Taft, California. Patterned after Sutter's Fort, building began on November 11, 1938 by the Works Progress Administration (WPA). It took 83 workmen 18 months to build the Fort of native adobe mud brick made at the site. The architect was W. Francis Parsons. Dedication of the completed structure was on May 22, 1940. The Fort measures 360 feet by 200 feet, over 1,000 feet around the outside walls. The walls are 14 feet high.
The central building is patterned after Sutter's Casa Grande but with an auditorium and offices on the side. The original auditorium at Taft was damaged in the 1952 earthquake and rebuilt to safety specifications.
Sutter used the "Sutter Gun" to fire salutes for passing vessels on the Feather River at his Hock Farm where he retired from 1850 to 1865. Courtesy of the Sutro Library at the California State Library, Sacramento..
The "Sutter Gun" displayed in front of the Pioneer's Museum in 1867 on 814 Montgomery Street in San Francisco. Courtesy of the Society of California Pioneers, San Francisco.
Upper, plan view of the restored Sutter's Fort. Note the slough in upper left. Lower, aerial photograph of the restored Sutter's Fort as it appeared in 1990. Courtesy of the State of California Department of Parks and Recreation, Sacramento.

In 1940, the Taft Fort held all federal, state and county offices. The south wing was also the county hospital, and many babies were born there until 1951 when the Westside Hospital was built. Thousands of children received their vaccinations at the County Health Clinic at the Fort.
During World War II, the Fort held the local draft board office where all local soldiers received their call-up notices and discharge papers. During the Korean War, a National Guard unit was stationed at the Fort. They drilled in the back parking area and built the additional adobe lean-to structures to house arms and vehicles.
In 1980 a building study was done because of the development of large cracks in the outside walls. The Fort was declared unsafe for a major earthquake and all county offices were moved leaving the Fort vacant for several years. Due to the efforts of Assemblyman Trice Harvey, the Fort was dedicated as a State Historic Landmark on March 8, 1980. It was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on July 22, 1981. This saved the building from being demolished. In 1985 the Fort was given to the West Kern Oil Museum. Seven years later in December 1992, the Fort Preservation Society was formed and became the owner of the Fort. It now holds several offices and is also used for weddings, parties, school events, public functions, class reunions and other community events. This historic structure has been saved for future generations to come. Imitation is the best compliment to the Fort that Sutter built.
References: The references for Sutter's Fort are as follows: The History of California by H. H. Bancroft, Vol. III, IV, 1886; The Life and Times of Gen. John A. Sutter by T. J. Schoonover, 1907; Echoes of the Past About California by General John Bidwell; In Camp And Cabin by Rev. John Steele, 1928; California Pictorial by Jeanne Van Nostrand and Edith M. Coulter, 1948; Sutter's Fort by Oscar Lewis, 1966; Fool's Gold by Richard Dillon, 1967,1981; Sutter's Fort State Historical Park-Brochure; Kern County Historical Society-Brochure on The Fort, Taft.
Sutter's Fort
by Colonel Herbert M. Hart, USMC (Retired)

"Riding up to the front gate, I saw two Indian sentinels pacing to and fro before it, and several Americans . . . sitting in the gateway, dressed in buckskin pantaloons and blue sailor shirts, with white stars worked on the collars. I inquired if Captain Sutter was in the fort. A very small man, with a peculiarly sharp red face and most voluble tongue, gave the response. He was probably a corporal. He said, in substance, that perhaps I was not aware of the great changes which had taken place in California, that the fort belonged to the United States, and that Captain Sutter, although he was in the fort, had no control over it."

Thus Edwin Bryant, author of What I Saw in California, learned that a new order was on the land. This was in 1846, just a few days after the Bear Flag Revolt had collapsed at Sonoma.

Inside, Sutter was the unhappy host to a detachment of American soldiers and sailors. He was also in the process of becoming a lieutenant of dragoons at $50 a month with the assignment as second in command of his own fort. In command was Edward M. Kern, 23-year-old topographer for Captain John Fremont's survey party, assigned this new responsibility when Fremont became the kingpin of the revolt.

Both Kern and Sutter were performing another role at that moment, one for which neither had much enthusiasm. When the Bear Flag revolutionists took Sonoma, they captured General Mariano Guadaloupe Vallejo, his brother Salvador, and Victor Prudon. The General's brother-in-law, an American named Jacob Leese, had accompanied them to Sutter's Fort as interpreter-and somehow became the fourth prisoner by the time the party arrived.

The situation was especially uncomfortable for John Sutter. The Vallejos were his friends, even though in recent years they had become suspicious of the military nature of his fort. To them, and especially to Governor Juan Bautista Alvarado, Vallejo's nephew, Sutter owed much of his success.

It was in 1839 that John Sutter arrived in California, armed with a carpetbag full of letters of introduction and the hint that he was a former captain in the French Army. Actually he was a bankrupt shopkeeper who had outrun his European creditors four years previously. The letters he carried had been obtained through his smooth talking meetings with government and commercial leaders-all based upon an initial few letters that he was able to parlay into many.

The Sutter self-confidence and his credentials combined to open the official doors when be arrived in California. He presented to Governor Alvarado a plan to establish a colony in the interior of the state, and asked for permission and land. Alvarado saw several advantages to the proposal. The settlement would push the frontier and authority of the government much deeper inland; an additional barrier would be placed to the incursions of Americans from the east, British from the north, and Russians from the northwest. And a presence inland might divert some Indian raids away from the coastline!

As Sutter said later, "I got a general passport for my small colony and permission to select a territory wherever I could find it convenient, and to come in one year's time to Monterey to get my citizenship and title of the land."

Sutter took his party up the Sacramento river and located his fort site after several mosquito ridden, Indian-surrounded camps. He was able to explain his mission in Spanish to at least one spokesman for each tribe he encountered. His offer of friendship and future hospitality silenced all Indian opposition.

By mid-August, 1839, the Sutter party was ashore with its supplies and equipment. As his ships turned to return to San Francisco, Sutter had his tiny brass cannon fire a nine-gun salute, the first cannon fire beard in the Sacramento Valley and a thing of amazement to both the Indians and animals crowding close to the camp.

With a few Spanish words and the offer of beads, cloth, and other trade goods, Sutter was able to arrange for Indian labor. The Hawaiians in his original party set up two thatched huts for the oncoming winter, but Sutter saw to it that a solid, one-story adobe rancho was built for him. Adobe making continued as Sutter gathered around him everyone who was willing to stay. Within a year he had "about 20 white men working for me in addition to a large number of Indians," be estimated. The white men were mostly drifters, deserters and vagabonds whom Sutter said he kept in line "because I gave them nothing to drink but water."

The Indians were controlled with ruthless but fair methods although on one occasion he nipped a mutiny at the last moment by attacking the plotters' camp, killing six. He gave the Indians at least token payment for their work, usually beads or credit to buy items in his store. His pride was a mounted guard of 12 to 15 braves under "the command of a very intelligent sergeant." Sutter outfitted them in "blue drill pantaloons, white cotton shirts, and real handkerchiefs tied around their heads."

These personal bodyguards were quartered near Sutter's bedroom, had special privileges, maintained a semblance of military atmosphere at the post, and were turned out to drill every Sunday and whenever there were visitors worthy of impressing.

A year after his arrival, Sutter was granted Mexican citizenship and, with it, title to his lands. A week later he was also appointed the official representative of the government in the Sacramento River region. This made him the interpreter and enforcer of law in a vast area and, as be said, "From that time on I had the power of life and death over both Indians and whites in my district."

With his ownership of the land confirmed, Sutter then "built a large house near the first adobe building," he wrote later. "This I surrounded with walls 18 feet high, enclosing altogether 75,000 square feet. The walls were made of adobe bricks and were two and a half feet thick. At two corners I built bastions; under these bastions were the prisons . . ."

After Sutter bought Fort Ross in 1841, his headquarters began to assume an especially military appearance, complete with bristling guns and the designation of "fort." The Mexicans began to lose faith in Sutter. By boasting of his Indian army, his ammunition stock that at times exceeded more "than the whole California government possessed," and his 10 mounted cannon and two field pieces, Sutter aggravated the government.

Sutter's activities were wide-ranging. He started most of his enterprises on credit, winning confidence and support by maintaining friendships with the authorities and actively assisting his newly adopted country. His fictitious captaincy became official when the Mexican government commissioned him to recruit a militia force to oppose the 1844 insurrection. He served in the field with his command, but ended his active military career as a prisoner.

By 1846, his worries had shifted to meeting the demands of creditors. He had patched up most of the political rivalries so it was ironic when Vallejo, with whom he had frequently disagreed, became his prisoner.

"I placed my best rooms at their disposal and treated them with every consideration," he wrote later. "The gentlemen took their meals at my table and walked with me in the evening. Never did I place a guard before the door of the room . . ."

When Fremont heard about the liberal treatment of the prisoners, be ordered that Sutter's assistant, John Bidwell, take charge of them. A future governor of California, Bidwell was Sutter's trusted foreman and had served with Fremont. His treatment of the prisoners was just as liberal until they were finally released upon the direct orders of Commodore Stockton in August 1846.

By this time the American flag was flying over Sutter's post, Kern in nominal command, 30 men from Company C, New York Volunteers, in garrison, and Sutter's power in an eclipse. The deluge of more emigrants and mustered-out soldiers presented him with a squatter problem bard to fight. His cattle began to disappear for the same reason.

Then came the discovery of gold at his saw mill. Overnight, his agricultural and trading enterprises collapsed, especially when the new and more convenient town of Sacramento diverted settlement and business. By 1849, Sutter lost ownership of his fort. Within 10 years, little more than the central building was left of what once bad been described as "the largest and best fortified fort in California."

TO GET THERE: Sutter's Fort State Historical Monument is at 2701 L Street, Sacramento. Site of Camp Union is at northwest corner of Sutterville and Del Rio Roads, Sacramento.

Sutter's Fort, 1847, was about 330 feet long, 183 feet wide on west side and 120 feet wide on east. This did not count extensive corrals between front gate and southeast blockhouse that extended almost 300 feet to south. Fourteen-room barracks for Indian soldiers was outside eastern walls; another dwelling was a southwest of fort. Cannon were mounted in each blockhouse and in the southeastern corner of the interior corral (where the rectangle appears). The brewery apparently had four stills in it. (Redrawn from plat by Heinrich Kunzel, 1848.)


"When the Star Spangled Banner slowly rose on the flag staff, the cannon began and continued until nearly all the windows were broken," wrote Sutter of first U.S. flag raising at sunrise, July 11, 1846. He added that his prisoners from Sonoma were confused. "I went to them and said: 'Now, gentlemen, we are under the protection of this great flag, and we should henceforth not be afraid to talk to one another . . .' They all rejoiced that the anarchy was over." This sketch was made in 1846 by Navy Lieutenant Joseph W. Revere, who raised colors at Sonoma and provided flag for Sutter. Somewhat distorted because it does not suggest broad front of the fort, view is otherwise accurate, even to showing out-buildings and slight elevation on which fort stood.

CLICK HERE to link to the California State Parks' Sutter's Fort website

"Parrallelogram about 500 feet in length and 150 feet in breadth," is the 1846 description of Sutter's Fort. "The main building, or residence, stands near the center of the area, or court, enclosed by the walls. A row of shops, storerooms, and barracks are enclosed within, and line the walls on every side . . . The principal gates on the east and south are . . . defended by heavy artillery, through portholes pierced in the walls. At this time the fort is manned by about 50 well-disciplined Indians, and 10 or 12 white men, all under the pay of the United States." Not quite accurate as to size or financial sponsorship, description is otherwise correct. View (above) from southeast overlooks area once occupied by corrals. The lagoon once behind the fort served as source of water and mosquitos; its occasional flooding damaged for. Area apparently was the site of an Indian village about 1000 B.C.; archaeologists have uncovered artifacts and 23 graves that date from ancient past. Main building (below) was Sutter's residence and Office. Here he entertained visitors, including Lieutenant William T. Sherman. Each in his memoirs mentions that other over-imbibed products of the Sutter distillery.


The main gate of Sutter's Fort was welcome view for thousands of travelers in 1840's. Much of Sutter's undoing was his generosity that put him impossibly in debt. He personally underwrote most of the aid sent from fort to stranded Donner Party in winter, 1846-7, and the 45 survivors of original 87 were his guests until their health was restored. The site of the fort was bought by Native Sons of Golden West in 1890, donated to state, and restored to supposed 1848 appearance. It was "re-restored" beginning in 1947 as new details of its construction were uncovered.

Camp Union
 The 5th Infantry Regiment California Volunteers, was organized here on 8 October, 1861 and trained by Brevet Brigadier General George W. Bowie for duty in Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas against the Confederate forces. Since this was the year of the great flood, the troops aided the flood-stricken capital. Company F (Sacramento Rangers) 2d Cavalry Regiment, California Volunteers, was organized in Sacramento 25 August 1861 and later served here. This company furnished a large number of officers for other units of the California Volunteers.

The Army presence at Sacramento after Sutter's Fort was at Camp Union, now marked in Sutterville section of Sacramento. Union was founded in 1861, served as training camp for California Volunteers* throughout Civil War and as discharge center in 1866. Troops from it served in California Column, also manned forts in Son Francisco Bay and, after Civil War, in Nevada and Arizona. Flood of 1862 put Sacramento "entirely under water," according to Army report, and Union troopers went to rescue. As Brigade Headquarters near the end of Civil War, it had several political prisoners in custody but was hard-pressed to supply its fourcompany garrison; reports indicate there were no horses available nor ammunition for carbines.

This page was reprinted with permission from Pioneer Forts of the Far West, published in 1965


Sutter's Fort
California State Parks
A private trading post and fortified defense that became the foundation for modern Sacramento, it was established by a former Swiss army captain, John (Johann) Augustus Sutter, who is considered the founder of American agriculture in California. The post began as a wilderness barony flying the Mexican flag when in 1839 he accepted a 50,000 acre land grant in the rich Sacramento Valley, attesting his allegiance to the Mexican government. Sutter began his fort project in April 1840, naming it Fort New Helvetia (Switzerland), but referring to it at times as Fort Sacramento. A visiting scientist in 1843 described Sutter's fort as having "more the appearance of a citadel than an agricultural establishment." The scope and success of Sutter's enterprise were described in his own words:

Agriculture increased until I had several hundred men working in the harvest fields, and to feed them I had to kill four or sometimes five oxen daily. I could raise 40,000 bushels of wheat without trouble, reap the crops with sickles, thresh it with bones and winnow it in the wind. There were thirty plows running with fresh oxen every morning... I had at the time twelve thousand head Of cattle, two thousand horses and mules, between ten and fifteen thousand sheep and a thousand hogs. My best days were just before the discovery of gold. (Kent Ruth, Great Day in the West, p. 30)

Ironically, the discovery of gold on his property on January 24, 1848, after he had built a sawmill on the American River, ultimately led to the death of his empire. His white employees deserted New Helvetia for the gold camps, hungry riches-maddened prospectors ruthlessly violated the hospitality of his fort, stole his cattle, ejected the area's friendly Indians, and finally appropriated his lands. Sutter, "who ruled his enclave in feudal splendor, died impoverished, a victim off his own enterprise.
Kit Carson and John C. Fremont were at the fort in 1844 during the beginnings of military maneuvering against the Mexican government's presence in California. They found the fort in early 1846 to be walled and bastioned, 15 to 18 feet high, quadrangular, and built of adobe. It mounted 12 pieces of artillery and could garrison a thousand men. The main buildings were grouped within an irregularly shaped area measuring approximoaely 425 by 175 feet. The ordnance came from Fort Ross, which Sutter had purchased from the Russian-American Company. With day and night sentinels, it was considered (he largest and best fortified fort in California, which prompted the U.S. Army to take possession of the fort on July 11, 1846, when Sutter himself raised (he Stars and Stripes above its walls. The Army garrisoned the fort during part of 1847 and thereafter intermittently until 1850.

During the following 15 years the fort rapidly disintegrated. By the mid-1860s it was almost obiderated, with only the large central building withstanding the assaults of neglect and vandalism. Since the peak of Sutter's enterprise, it had been used successuvely as a trading post and agricultural empire, gamling casino, a hospital, a warehouse, a residence, and finally, to its dishonor, as a stable, a chicken house, and a pigpen. From time to time, proposals were made to preserve the old building. Finally, in the 1880's the first definite steps were taken to that end. The work of reconstruction was begun in 1891, with the intention of reconstructing the buildings and restoring the grounds as nearly as possible to their condition and appearance during the heyday of the fort. Today, the rebuilt property, located at 2701 I Street in Sacramento, is a California State Historic Landmark.




Search our Site!
Search the Web Search California Military History Online
View My Stats
Visitors since 8 December 1998
Questions and comments concerning this site should be directed to the Webmaster
Updated 3 July 2017