Photographer, Michael A. Melton © 2002








The first permanent settler with in the limits of what is now Sacramento County, who is known to history, and who initiated European civilization, was Captain John A. Sutter. The following sketch of his life was condensed from a lecture delivered in New York, April 6, 1866, by General Dunbar in Sutter's presence, and published in the Sacramento Union May 10 following:


Sutter was born of Swiss parents, in the Ground Duchy of Baden, February 28, 1803. Reared an educated in Baden, young Sutter entered the military service of France as Captain under Charles X., and remained there until he was thirty years of age. At this period, yielding to his pioneer impulses, he embarked for New York, and arrived there July, 1834. His object was coming to the New World was to select a place and prepare the way for a colony of his countrymen in the West. He first located at St. Charles, Missouri; but the vessel containing his effects was sunk, his property lost, and he abandoned the place of his first choice.


After sojourning in St. Louis for a time, he made a journey of exploration to New Mexico, where he met hunters and trappers, who had traversed Upper California, and they describe to him the beautiful sun-lit valleys, the verdure-covered hills and the magnificent mountains of that remarkable land. These accounts resolved him to make California the field of his future operations.


The only way of reaching the Pacific Coast at that time was to accompany trapping expeditions of the English and American fur companies. On the 1st of April, 1836, Sutter joined Captain Tripp, of the American Fur Company, and traveled with his party to their rendezvous in the Rocky Mountain region. Thence, with six horsemen, he crossed the mountains, and after encountering many dangers, arrived in Fort Vancouver. Not finding it practicable to go south from Vancouver by land, he embarked on a vessel bound for Sandwich Islands, hoping to find an opportunity of sailing thence to the California coast. He sailed from the Islands in a vessel bound for Sitka, and from there down the coast. The vessel was driven by gales into the Bay of San Francisco, on July 2, 1839. (The point at which San Francisco now stands was then called Yerba Buena.) The vessel was boarded by a governmental officer, with an armed force, who ordered Sutter to leave, saying that Monterey, ninety miles southward, was the port of entry. Permission, however, was obtained to remain forty-eight hours for supplies.


On reaching Monterey, Sutter told the Governor, General Alvarado, that he desired to occupy and colonize a section of country in Upper California, on the Sacramento River. The Governor warmly approved his plan, as he was desirous that the upper country should be subdued and settled. He informed Sutter that the Indians in that country were hostile, that they would not permit the whites to settle there, and that they had robbed the inhabitants of San Jose and the lower settlements of their cattle, etc.; but he readily gave Sutter a passport with authority to explore and occupy any territory which he should consider profitable for his colony, and requested him to return in one year, when he should have his citizenship acknowledged and receive a grant of such lands as he might desire.


Sutter returned to Yerba Buena, then containing scarcely fifty inhabitants, engaged a schooner and several small boats, and with a company of 10 whites started to ascend the river with no guide, as no one could be found in Yerba Buena who had ever ascended the Sacramento River. After eight days' search he found the mouth of the Sacramento. Reaching a point about ten miles below the present site of Sacramento City, he encountered a party of 200 Indian warriors, who exhibited every indication of hostility. Fortunately, two or three of the Indians understood Spanish, and Sutter soon soothed them by an assurance that there were no Spaniards in his party,--against whom the Indians were particularly hostile,--and explained to them that he came only to be a peaceable citizen.


Guided by two Indians, who could speak Spanish, Sutter made his way up the Sacramento to Feather River, and ascended the latter streams some distance; but, on account of the alarm of some of his men, returned down the Sacramento River to the mouth of the American, and on Aug. 16, 1839, landed his effects upon the south bank of that stream, a little above the mouth and near where the city of Sacramento is now located. Here he informed the disappointed whites that they might leave him if they wished, but that the Kanakas were willing to remain. Three of the whites left, with a schooner, for Yerba Buena. Three weeks later Sutter removed to where he built the Fort which has since become famous. But little did he think then that he was to be the most important instrumentality in the founding of a magnificent empire. His companions were six wandering whites of various nativities and eight Kanakas, who were ever faithful to him, and who constitutes his "colony" and his army. By their aid he was to hold his ground, subdue and colonize a district of country entirely unknown, and inhabited only by wild and roving tribes of hostile Indians. This portion of Upper California, though fair to the look upon, was particularly solitary and uninviting. It was isolated and remote from civilization. The nearest whites settlement was a small one at Martinez. The Indians were of that class known as "Diggers."


Born and reared in the atmosphere of royalty and refined society of Europe, with a liberal military education, gentle and polished in manners, and of unbounded generosity of heart, we find Sutter successfully planting his little colony in the midst of the wild Digger Indians of the Sacramento country. At length a few pioneers came stealing over the border, then the solid tramp of masses was heard, and then came a human deluge, that overwhelmed our bold Swiss pioneer.


The first tide of immigration was entirely from Oregon. In the fall of 1839 there was an accession of eight white men, and in August, 1840, five of those who had crossed the Rocky Mountains with Sutter, and whom he had left in Oregon, joined him. During the fall of that year the Mokelumne Indians, with other tribes, became so troublesome that open war was made against them; and after a severe but short campaign they were subdued, and an enduring peace established. Other bands of Indians organized secret expeditions to destroy the colony, but by force and strict vigilance their machi-nations were defeated, and Sutter conquered the entire Sacramento Valley, by bringing into willing subjection many of those who had been his fiercest enemies. In time he made them cultivate the soil, built his fort, care for the stock, and make themselves generally useful. In the subsequent military history of California, Sutter and his Indians were a power. Traffic increased apace. He sent his hides to San Francisco, furnished the trappers with supplies, and received in exchange or by purchase their furs. The mechanics and laborers who came he employed, or procured them work.


In June, 1841, Sutter visited Monterey, then the capital of the country, was declared a Mexican citizen, and received from Governor Alvarado a grant of the land upon which he had located--eleven "leagues"--under the title of "New Helvetia." The Governor also gave him a commission. Returning to his colony, he was shortly afterward visited by Captain Ringgold, both United States Exploring Expedition, under Commodore Wilkes, with officers and men. About the same time Alexander Kotchkoff, Governor of the Russian Possessions in California visited Sutter and offered to sell him all the possessions of his government known as Ross" and Bodega. Excepting the bargain, Sutter came into possession of the vast extent of real estate, besides 2, 000 cattle, 1, 000 horses, fifty mules and 2, 500 sheep, most of which were transferred to New Helvetia.


In 1844 Sutter's improvements were extensive, and the amount of his stock was large. During that year he petitioned Governor Micheltorena for the grant or purchase of the surplus over the first eleven leagues of land with in the balance of the survey accompanying the Alvarado grant, and this petition was granted Feb. 5, 1845, in consideration of Sutter's valuable services and his expenditure of $8, 000 in the suppression of the Castro rebellion.


About 1844 small bodies of emigrants began to find their way to California direct from the States, striking Sutter's Fort, the first settlement after crossing the mountains. Year by year these parties of immigrants increased in size, until after the gold discovery, when they could be counted by thousands and tens of thousands. It was then that the value of Sutter's settlement and that generous qualities of the man became strikingly apparent. No weary, destitute immigrant reached his fort who was not supplied with all that he needed and sent on his way rejoicing. Frequently he even sent supplies in advance to those coming through the Sierras. Year after year he did this, without thinking of any return. On one occasion a solitary immigrant was just able to reach the fort and reported that his companions were at some distance back dying of starvation. Sutter immediately caused seven mules to be packed with supplies, and, attended by two Indian boys, started with the immigrant for the scene of distress. On arriving, everything was seized by the crazed wretches and devoured.


Other starving immigrants arriving, they killed the Sutter's seven mules and ate them. Then they killed the two Indian boys and ate them. Said Sutter, referring to the circumstance afterward with much feeling, "They ate my Indian boys all up."


During the war between the United States and Mexico, Sutter was a Mexican citizen, and representative of the Mexican Government on the frontier; but his sympathies were naturally with the United States. Whenever any party of American citizens, civil or military, visited him, his unbounded hospitalities were uniformly and cordially extended to them. When the country surrendered to the United States forces, with joy he raised the American flag, July 10, 1846, and fired a salute from the guns of his fort. In 1849 he was a member of the Constitutional Convention; at the first state election was a candidate for Governor, and was afterward a Brigadier-General in the State militia.


But the day on which gold was discovered was in evil one for him. His mechanics and laborers deserted him, even the Kanakas and Indians. He could not hire laborers to plant or harvests crops. Neither could he run his mills. For a time after the immense flood of immigration poured in, his rights were respected; but it was not for long. When men found that money could be made in other ways then by mining, many forcibly entered upon his lands and cut his wood, under the plea that they were vacant and unappropriated lands of United States. By the 1st of January, 1852, the settlers had occupied his lands capable of settlement or appropriation, and others had stolen all his horses, mules, cattle, sheep and hogs, save a small portion used and sold by himself. One party of five, during the high waters of 1849-' 50, when his cattle were partly surrounded by water near the Sacramento River, killed and sold enough to about to $60,000.


Sutter, broken in purse, disheartening, robbed and powerless to help himself, remove to Sutter County and took up his residence in Hock Farm, then a beautiful piece of property, but now a waste of sand and debris. For some years he led the quiet life of a farmer there, but afterward was a continual haunter of Congress at Washington, where he sat to obtain redress from the general Government for the barefaced robberies that had been practiced upon him. In 1873 he removed to Litiz, Pennsylvania, and on the 18th day of June, 1880, died at Washington, District of Columbia.


Sutter was that generous man. His manners were polished, and the impression he made on every one was favorable. In figure he was of medium height, rather scout but well-made. His head was round, features regular, with smiling and agreeable expression, while his complexion was healthy and roseate. He wore his haircut close, and his mustache trained short, a la militaire. He dressed very neatly in a frock coat, pantaloons and cape of blue.


Such was the man to whom California owes so much, and upon whom she bestowed so little.


Captain John C. Fremont, the "Pathfinder," arrived in this country in March, 1844, and in his narrative this describes the situation of Sutter and his fort:


"Captain Sutter emigrated to this country from the western part of Missouri in 1838-' 39, and formed the first settlement in the valley, on a large grant of land which he obtained from the Mexican Government. He had at first some trouble with the Indians; but the occasional exercise of well-timed authority, he has succeeded in converting them into a peaceful and industrious people. The ditches around his extensive wheat fields; the making of sundried bricks of which his fort was constructed; the plowing, harrowing and other agricultural operations, are entirely the work of these Indians, for which they receive a very moderate compensation--principally in shirts, blankets and other articles of clothing. In the same manner, on application to the chief of a village, he readily obtains as many boys and girls as he has any use for. There were at this time a number of girls at the fort, in training for a future-woolen factories; but they were now all busily engaged in constantly water in the gardens. Mr. Sutter was about making arrangements to irrigate his lands by means of the American River. He had this land sown, and altogether by Indian labor, 300 bushels of wheat.


"A few years since, the neighboring Russian establishment of Ross, being about to withdraw from the country, sold to him a large number of stock, with agricultural and other stores, with a number of pieces of artillery and other munitions of war; for these, a regular yearly payment is made in grain.


"The fort is a quadrangular adobe structure, mounting twelve pieces of artillery (two of them brass), and capable of the making a garrison of 1,000 men; this at present consist of forty Indians, in uniform--one of whom it is already found on duty at the gate. As might be expected, the pieces are not in very good order. The whites in the employee of Captain Sutter, American, French and German, number thirty men. The inner wall is formed into buildings comprising the common quarters, with blacksmiths and other work-shops, the dwelling-house with a large distillery house, and other buildings occupying more than the center of the area.


"It is built upon a pond-like stream, at times a running creek, communicating with the American River, which enters the Sacramento about two miles below. The latter is here a noble river, about 300 yards broad, deep and tranquil, with several fathoms of water in the channel, and its banks continuously timbered. There were two vessels belonging to Captain Sutter at anchor near the landing--when a large two-mast lighter, and the other a scooter, which was shortly to proceed on a voyage to Fort Vancouver for a cargo of goods."


Nothing now remains of the fort excepting the main two-story building, which is still unprotected against the ravages of the elements and vandalism of reckless boys. The southern end was many years ago replaced with fireburned brick, and a new roof of shingles has supplanted the primitive Mexican tile. The property is owned by a gentleman in the East.



Source: An Illustrated History of Sacramento County, California. By Hon. Win. J Davis. Lewis Publishing Company 1890. Chapter II, Page 7-11.


Submitted by: Nancy Pratt Melton.

2008 Nancy Pratt Melton