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John Augustus Sutter

John Sutter, c. 1835
Born 15 February 1803 (1803-02-15)
Kandern, Baden-Württemberg, Germany
Died June 18, 1880 (aged 77)
Washington D.C.

John Augustus Sutter (February 15, 1803 – June 18, 1880) was a Swiss pioneer of California known for his association with the California Gold Rush by the discovery of gold by James W. Marshall and the mill making team at Sutter's Mill, and for establishing Sutter's Fort in the area that would eventually become Sacramento, the state's capital. Although famous throughout California for his association with the Gold Rush, Sutter died almost poor, having seen his business ventures fail while those of his elder son, John Augustus Sutter Jr., prospered.




Early years

The birthplace of John Sutter in Kandern, Baden-Württemberg, Germany.

John Augustus Sutter was born Johan Suter on February 15, 1803 in Kandern,[1] Baden, Germany, when his father came from the nearby town of Rünenberg in Switzerland. He went to school in Neuchâtel, Switzerland and later joined the Swiss army, eventually becoming captain of the artillery. Debts incurred in business dealings, however, compelled Sutter to leave Europe for the United States. In May 1834, he left his wife and five children in Burgdorf, Switzerland, and with a French passport he came on board the ship Sully which travelled from Le Havre, France, to New York City where it arrived on July 14, 1834.

The New World

In North America, John Augustus Sutter (as he would call himself for the rest of his life) undertook extensive travels. Before he went to the U.S., he learned Spanish and English. Together with 35 Germans he moved from the St. Louis area to Santa Fe, then moving to the town of Westport. On April 1, 1838, he joined a group of missionaries, led by the fur trapper Andrew Dripps, and went along the Oregon Trail to Fort Vancouver in Oregon Territory, which he reached in October. With a few companions, he went on board the British bark Columbia which left Fort Vancouver on 11 November and laid at anchor in Honolulu on 9 December. Sutter wanted to settle in California, but the only vessel riding at anchor in the harbor was the brig Clementine — Sutter managed to be signed on as unpaid supercargo of this brig freighted with a cargo of provisions and general merchandise for the Russian colony of New Archangel, now known as Sitka, Alaska. The Clementine hoisted anchor on April 20, 1839, with Sutter together with 10 Kanakas, two of them women, a few companions, and a Hawaiian bulldog. From the Russian colony at Sitka, where he stayed one month, Sutter traveled by sail to Yerba Buena, now San Francisco, at that time a tiny poor mission station. The Clementine arrived in Yerba Buena on July 1, 1839.

New Helvetia

John Sutter, 1866

At the time of Sutter's arrival in California, the territory had a population of only 1,000 Europeans, in contrast with 30,000 Native Americans. It was at that point a part of Mexico and the governor, Juan Bautista Alvarado, granted him permission to settle; in order to qualify for a land grant, Sutter became a Mexican citizen on August 29, 1840. The following year, on 18 June, he received title to 48,827 acres (198 km²). Sutter named his settlement New Helvetia, or "New Switzerland," after his homeland, "Helvetia" being the Latin name for Switzerland. Sutter employed Native Americans of the Miwok and Maidu tribes, Kanakas, and Europeans at his compound, which he called Sutter's Fort; he envisioned creating an agricultural utopia, and for a time the settlement was in fact quite large and prosperous. It was for a period the destination for most California-bound immigrants, including the ill-fated Donner Party, for whose rescue Sutter contributed supplies.

Contemporaneous illustration of Sutter's Fort

A Francophile, Sutter threatened to raise the French flag over California and place New Helvetia under French protection, but in 1847 the Mexican land was occupied by the United States.[2] Sutter at first supported the establishment of an independent California Republic but when United States troops briefly seized control of his fort, Sutter did not resist because he was outnumbered.

In 1848, gold was discovered when James W. Marshall and he began the construction of his sawmill in Coloma, along the American River. As Marshall dug into the ground, he noticed some gold flakes and started to bring them to Sutter's attention. Together, they read an encyclopedia entry on gold and performed primitive tests to confirm whether it was precious metal. Sutter concluded that it was, in fact, gold, but he was very anxious that the discovery not disrupt his plans for construction and farming. At the same time, he set about gaining legitimate title to as much land near the discovery as possible (Cherry, Page 106). Sutter's attempt at keeping this quiet failed when merchant and newspaper publisher Samuel Brannan returned from Sutter's Mill to San Francisco with gold he had acquired there and began publicizing the find. Masses of people overran the land and destroyed nearly everything Sutter had worked for. In order to keep from losing everything, however, Sutter deeded his remaining land to his son, John Augustus Sutter Jr. The younger Sutter, who had come from Switzerland and joined his father in September 1848, saw the commercial possibilities of the land and promptly started plans for building a new city he named Sacramento, after the Sacramento River. The elder Sutter deeply resented this because he had wanted the city to be named Sutterville and be built near his New Helvetia domain. The younger Sutter didn't seem to be quite interested in the Gold Rush. Instead, he moved south to Mexico where he was named consul of the U.S. in Acapulco, becoming a fixture of the port. There had a relationship with Carmen Rivas and had 3 children. He later married Nicolasa Solis and had five children. He served for 24 years using the name Juan A. Sutter. He continued living in Acapulco long after his term as consul had ended. In 1897, John A. Sutter Jr. died and was buried there by his wife and children; his remains were relocated to Sacramento in 1964.

Land grant challenge

Camp Union, Sutterville (State Historical marker and fort pillar)
Camp Union, Sutterville (State Historical marker)

Sutter's El Sobrante (Spanish for leftover) land grant was challenged by the Squatter's Association, and in 1858 the U.S. Supreme Court denied its validity. Sutter sought reimbursement of his losses associated with the Gold Rush. He received a pension of US$250 a month not as a reimbursement of taxes paid on the Sobrante grant at the time Sutter considered it his own. He and wife Nanette moved to Lititz, Pennsylvania. The proximity to Washington, D.C. along with the reputed healing qualities of Lititz Springs appealed to the aging Sutter. He also wanted three of his grandchildren (he had grandchildren in Acapulco, Mexico, as well) to have the benefits of the fine private and Moravian Schools. Sutter built his home across from the Lititz Springs Hotel, the present-day General Sutter Inn. For more than fifteen years, John Sutter petitioned Congress for restitution but little was done. On June 16, 1880, Congress adjourned, once again, without action on a bill which would have given Sutter US$50,000. Two days later, on June 18, 1880, John Augustus Sutter died in a Washington D.C. hotel. He was returned to Lititz and is buried in God's Acre, the Moravian Graveyard. Mrs. Sutter died the following January and is buried with him.


General Sutter grave in Lititz, PA Moravian Cemetery

In addition to the links found below, Sutter Street in downtown San Francisco, California is named for John A. Sutter. Sutter's Landing, Sutterville Road, Sutter Middle School, Sutter's Mill School, and Sutterville Elementary School in Sacramento are all named after him. The Sutterville Bend of the Sacramento River is named for Sutter, as is Sutter Medical Foundation, a non-profit medical system in northern California. The City of Sutter Creek, California is also named after him. In Acapulco, Mexico, the property that used to belong to John Sutter Jr. became the Hotel Sutter, which is still in service.

In literature

Scholarly studies

  • Albert L. Hurtado, John Sutter: A Life on the North American Frontier (2006) University of Oklahoma Press, 416 pp. ISBN 0-8061-3772-X.


  • Blaise Cendrars L'Or (1925) (Sutter's Gold), a novel
  • Luis Trenker Der Kaiser von Kalifornien, 1936
  • Stefan Zweig narrates Sutter's story in one of his Sternstunden der Menschheit called Die Entdeckung Eldorados (The discovery of eldorado).


  • Days of '49 (1924)
  • California in '49 (1929)
  • The Kaiser of California (1936)
  • Sutter's Gold (1936)
  • Kit Carson (1940)
  • "The Pathfinder" (The Great Adventure, 1964)
  • Fortune (1969)
  • Donner Pass: The Road to Survival (1978)
  • The Chisholms, CBS miniseries, role of Sutter played by Ben Piazza (1980)
  • California Gold Rush (1981)
  • Dream West (1986)
  • General Sutter (1999)


  • Sutter's Mill - Dan Fogelberg (High Country Snows Album) (1985)
  • Alles Gold vo Kalifornie - Polo Hofer (Xangischxung Album) (2002)

See also


  1. ^ Eric Howard, John Sutter, California and Californians, Vol. 4.[database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: The Generations Network, Inc., 1998. Original data: Hunt, Rockwell D., ed. California and Californians. Vol. IV. Chicago, IL, USA: Lewis Publishing, 1932. pp. 36, 37.
  2. ^ Chalmers, Claudine (March/April 1998). "The French in Early California". Ancestry Magazine 16 (2). Retrieved 2007-10-08. 

External links


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