Historic California Posts, Camps,
Stations and Airfields
(Fort New Helvatia,
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
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
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..
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,
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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