Sunday, August 23, 2009

John Sutter and Sutter Creek

Visits to towns associated with the Gold Rush years in California have created an interest in John Sutter. So when we visited the town of Sutter Creek, this was an opportunity to learn more about the man. The photos of the town accompany a little information on Sutter.

John Sutter, for whom the city of Sutter Creek was named, was born to Swiss parents in 1803. He left his wife and either 4 or 5 children in Bern, Switzerland in 1834 and arrived finally in California in 1839 after travels that included St. Louis, Santa Fe, the Oregon country, the Hawaiian Islands and Sitka, Alaska.

Sutter convinced Mexican Governor Juan Bautista Alvarado to give him a land grant comprising 48,400 acres, which was the maximum for a private rancho in Mexican California, by claiming to be a Swiss Guard officer forced to flee the French Revolution.

After becoming a Mexican citizen to qualify for the land grant, Sutter went on to establish a productive agricultural empire in the Sacramento Valley.

While his reputation among the white settlers and travelers was positive, his reputation with the Indians was something else entirely. The successful operation of Sutter's rancho -- as with other ranchos in Mexican California -- depended in large part on Indian labor.

Contemporary visitors to Fort Sutter commented on Sutter's treatment of the Indians, including their being confined at night in rooms or holding pens without floors, beds or straw. According to one observer, James Clyman, "a Virginia-born mountain man who had no reason to sympathize with the Indians since they nearly took his life twice during attacks in the Rocky Mountains, nonetheless recalled in 1846 that Sutter fed his Indians like animals. 'The Capt. [Sutter] keeps 600 to 800 Indians in a complete state of Slavery and as I had the mortification of seeing them dine I may give a short description. 10 or 15 Troughs 3 or 4 feet long were brought out of the cook room and seated in the Broiling sun. All the laborers great and small ran to the troughs like so many pigs and fed themselves with their hands as long as the troughs contained even a moisture.'"

Nevertheless, Sutter gained a reputation for treating well the travelers who arrived at his Fort Sutter--described as being generous and obliging, offering shelter, food and clothing, as well as the opportunity to learn something about California.

Sutter came to the foothills in search of a place for a sawmill, which he needed for wood for "the small village of Yerba Buena, (now San Francisco).” On August 19, 1847, Sutter and John A. Marshall entered into an agreement to construct a saw mill on the American River at Coloma.

On January 28, 1848, Marshall met secretly with Sutter to show him what he had discovered at the Coloma saw mill -- gold.

Within about 18 months of the start of the California Gold Rush, efforts had moved from panning in streams and rivers to mining quartz veins, some deep underground. The largest of the veins -- the Mother Lode -- stretched from Oakhurst to Georgetown and produced some $3.5 billion in gold calculated in today's dollars.

Over the next year, Sutter suffered financial losses when his workers left for the mine fields. He tried his hand at mining, but was unsuccessful, as was his attempt to become a merchant to all the miners.

Late in 1849 Sutter sold his Fort and moved to Hock Farm, near Yuba City, CA. His home at Hock Farms was burned to the ground in 1865 by a disgruntled worker.

Sutter and his family moved to Pennsylvania in 1871 due to his poor health. He died of heart failure on June 18, 1880.

Sutter Creek was incorporated in September, 1854. By that time, it had grown into a significant camp, and boasted several restaurants and stores and an impressive hotel. The town was an important supply point for the surrounding mines and mining camps.

So, while Sutter’s name is associated with the Gold Rush, he never struck it rich. However, one grocer certainly did. This fellow was given an interest in the Union Mine to settle a debt at his grocery in Sacramento. On the verge of selling his share because of accumulating losses, he was persuaded to give the miners one more chance. It paid off—they struck a rich vein, with the mine producing $2.2 million in gold between 1860 and 1873. The former grocer sold his interest in the mine for $400,000 and later went on to partner in the building of the transcontinental railroad. He later became governor of California, a U.S. Senator, and founder of the University bearing his name: Leland Stanford.

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