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Sutter's Fort
(Fort New Helvatia, Fort Sacramento)
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.
by Colonel Herbert M. Hart, USMC (retired)
Executive Director, Council on America's Military Past

"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


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