Biography of John Sutter, Owner of Where California Gold Rush Began

Engraved portrait of an elderly John Sutter
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John Sutter (born Johann August Suter; February 23, 1803–June 18, 1880) was a Swiss immigrant in California whose sawmill was the launching spot for the California Gold Rush. Sutter was a prosperous pioneer and land baron when one of his sawmill workers found a nugget of gold at the mill, on January 24, 1848. Despite the rush for gold and fortune that ensued on his land, Sutter himself was driven into poverty.

Fast Facts: John Sutter

  • Known For: Sutter was a settler and founder of California and his mill was the launching spot for the California Gold Rush.
  • Also Known As: John Augustus Sutter, Johann August Suter
  • Born: February 23, 1803 in Kandern, Baden, Germany
  • Died: June 18, 1880 in Washington, D.C.
  • Education: Possibly a Swiss military academy
  • Spouse: Annette Dubold
  • Children: 5
  • Notable Quote: "After having proved the metal with aqua fortis, which I found in my apothecary shop, likewise with other experiments, and read the long article “gold” in the 'Encyclopedia Americana,' I declared this to be gold of the finest quality, of at least 23 carats."

Early Life

Johann August Suter was a Swiss citizen born on February 23, 1803, in Kandern, Baden, Germany. He went to school in Switzerland and possibly served in the Swiss Army. He married Annette Dubold in 1826 and had five children.

Leaving Switzerland

In early 1834, with his shop failing in Burgdorf, Switzerland, Suter abandoned his family and set off for America. He arrived in New York City and changed his name to John Sutter.

Sutter claimed a military background, saying he had been a captain in the Royal Swiss Guard of the French king. This claim has not been proven by historians, but as “Captain John Sutter,” he soon joined a caravan headed for Missouri.

Traveling West

In 1835, Sutter was moving farther westward, in a wagon train headed for Santa Fe, New Mexico. For the next few years, he engaged in several businesses, herding horses back to Missouri and then guiding travelers out to the West. Always close to being bankrupt, he heard about opportunity and land in remote regions of the West and joined an expedition to the Cascade Mountains.

Sutter's Peculiar Route to California

Sutter loved the adventure of travel, which took him to Vancouver. He wanted to reach California, which would have been difficult to do overland, so he first sailed to Hawaii. He hoped to catch a ship in Honolulu bound for San Francisco.

In Hawaii, his plans unraveled. There were no ships bound for San Francisco. But, trading on his purported military credentials, he was able to raise funds for a California expedition which, oddly, went by way of Alaska. In June 1839, he took a ship from a fur trading settlement at what is today Sitka, Alaska to San Francisco, finally arriving on July 1, 1839.

Sutter Talked His Way Into Opportunity

At that time, California was part of Mexican territory. Sutter approached Governor Juan Alvarado and impressed him enough to obtain a land grant. Sutter was given the opportunity to find a suitable location where he could begin a settlement. If the settlement was successful, Sutter could eventually apply for Mexican citizenship.

What Sutter had talked himself into was not a guaranteed success. The central valley of California at that time was inhabited by Native American tribes who were very hostile to white settlers. Other colonies in the area had already failed.

Fort Sutter

Sutter set out with a band of settlers in late 1839. Finding a favorable spot where the American and Sacramento Rivers came together, on the site of present-day Sacramento, Sutter began building a fort.

Sutter dubbed the little colony Nueva Helvetia (or New Switzerland). Over the following decade, this settlement absorbed various trappers, immigrants, and wanderers who were also seeking fortune or adventure in California.

Sutter Became a Casualty of Good Fortune

Sutter built up a huge estate and by the mid-1840s, the former shopkeeper from Switzerland was known as “General Sutter.” He was involved in various political intrigues, including disputes with another power player in early California, John C. Frémont.

Sutter emerged unscathed from these troubles and his fortune seemed assured. Yet the discovery of gold on his property by one of his workers on January 24, 1848, led to his downfall.

Discovery of Gold

Sutter attempted to keep the discovery of gold on his land secret. But when word leaked out, the workers in Sutter's settlement deserted him to search for gold in the hills. Before long, word had spread worldwide of the gold discovery in California. Crowds of gold seekers came streaming into California and squatters encroached on Sutter's lands, destroying his crops, herds, and settlements. By 1852, Sutter was bankrupt.

Death

Sutter eventually returned East, living in a Moravian colony in Lititz, Pennsylvania. He traveled to Washington, D.C. to petition Congress for reimbursement for his losses. While his relief bill was bottled up in the Senate, Sutter died in a Washington hotel on June 18, 1880.

Legacy

The New York Times published a lengthy obituary of Sutter two days after his death. The newspaper noted that Sutter had risen from poverty to being the "wealthiest man in the Pacific coast." And despite his eventual slide back into poverty, the obituary noted that he remained "courtly and dignified."

An article about Sutter's burial in Pennsylvania noted that John C. Frémont was one of his pallbearers, and he spoke of their friendship back in California decades earlier.

Sutter is known as one of the founders of California, whose Fort Sutter was the site of present-day Sacramento, California. His rise from poverty to wealth and his descent back to poverty is marked by a profound irony. The gold strike that created so many fortunes was a curse for the man on whose land it began and led to his ultimate ruin.

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