Western Trips

Monday, August 1, 2011

John Sutter's New Helvetia And How It Ended With The California Gold Rush

If you're exploring early California history and the 1849 Gold Rush in particular there is no other way to do it than to learn about a remarkable man by the name of John Sutter. For Californians Sutter's name is directly connected with the fabulous Gold Rush years and that connection couldn't be any more direct because the Gold Rush first began at John Sutter's new sawmill in the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

The Sierra Nevada Foothills

The area where this story occurred is in the Sierra Nevada foothills along the American River. This is east of present day Sacramento California.

The Sierra foothills region is a beautiful area with gradually rolling hills extending eastward all the way to the top of the mountain chain. The trail at the summit in this part of the Sierra's is called Donner Pass and was the area involved in the Donner Party tragedy that happened in the mid 1840's. Any California vacation itinerary should include this history rich area including Sutter's Fort, Pollock Pines and to the south Angels Camp and Sonora which were bustling gold mining towns.

It's a magnificent area to tour and you'll learn much about California's gold mining era and the people who took part in it. Another fun educational and low cost family road trip.

John Sutter

John Sutter was a Swiss-American who migrated to California in 1840 with a 12 league land grant from the Mexican government. Alta California was originally ruled by Spain with their building of twenty-one missions. During the 1820's Spain was ejected by the Mexicans and Mexico offered land grants to settlers.

Sutter's intentions were simple. He wanted to cultivate his land to the highest degree and at the same time add to his holdings when the opportunity arose. Eventually he acquired the area of Bodega Bay, just north of San Francisco and also Fort Ross, built by the Russians during their fur trapping explorations. The Russians having tired of their North American exploits seemed more than willing to sell their parcels especially in light of both the Mexicans and newly arriving Americans approaching their doorstep.

The result of all this was that John Sutter virtually created a country within a country. He named his vast holdings New Helvetia. An interesting fact about John Sutter is that with his vast accumulation of land and his extensive enterprises on that land including agriculture and cattle raising, his desire for accumulating money in itself was not a top priority. History books point out that Sutter was just as happy with achieving success working the land to it's potential as he was with the resultant accumulation of wealth. A money hoarder he was not. The fact stands out because in that era most pioneers were obsessed with wealth. Sutter was ambitious in a way that other Californians were not. He was always looking for opportunities to get more land and to employ more Indians and add to the tremendous municipality that was his.

On a small rise of land on the American River he built a fort. The fort served as the center for all activities related to his holdings. While Sutter employed Indians to work his land holdings there were also a number of hostiles in the area so the fort served as protection as well.

Inside the fort was a blacksmith shop, his granaries, his store rooms and his arsenals. Everyone knew where Sutter's Fort was and travelers used it as a stopping off point and immigrants aimed for it. Sutter named his empire New Helvetia in honor of the ancient Roman title of his fatherland. John Sutter did not exaggerate. His crude stockade became the heart of the entire region. Down by the river was a small pier where boats from San Francisco discharged and stowed their cargoes.

Sutters next plan for expansion involved lumber. He wanted good pine and cedar. The plains of the Sacramento Valley were great for growing wheat and peas and for cattle pastures but they didn't grow the kind of timber he so badly needed. The foothills had the type of trees required and Sutter decided to send his best carpenter, John Marshall, up into the hills to find the ideal spot to erect his sawmill.

A sawmill needed water for power and Marshall finally found just the right place on the American Fork. Up to this point, everything appears to be going Sutter's way once again, but who would ever expect that the very spot that John Marshall chose to build the sawmill that would expand Sutter's grand empire, would in reality mark the beginning of John Sutter's eventual downfall. Ironic but true.

While Marshall was supervising the sawmill construction he just happened to spot gleaming yellow flakes in the nearby water. Not entirely sure whether this was gold he was looking at or perhaps merely fools gold, Marshall decided to keep his discovery silent until he could ascertain what it was he found.

Marshall unexpectedly paid a visit to John Sutter back at the fort and asked to meet with him privately. Sutter was filled in on what Marshall found and the two men tested the samples brought in by Marshall. By all available tests they determined that what Marshall had found in the river truly was gold.

Gold was the last thing on Sutter's mind. His goals involved agriculture, livestock and lumbering...not gold mining. He never tried to accumulate gold. In fact, the gold he did own, mostly old Spanish pieces, he often times gave out to needy travelers who stopped by Sutter's Fort. California gold was not a preoccupation for John Sutter

At this point Sutter envisioned what would happen to his New Helvetia empire if word got out that vast amounts of gold were to be found in the Sierras. There would be no practical way to keep the gold seekers out of the area. His agricultural business would be ruined by the onslaught of outsiders as well as by the desertion of his workers in their quest for riches in the mountains. There would be nobody left to harvest the grain or cut down the timber. How do you keep something like this a secret? The answer is simply that you can't. The other question was..who's gold was this?

Who Had the Rights to Sutters Gold?

Sutter built a sawmill in the hills but that didn't give him legal claim to the land and it's gold deposits. Keep in mind that the year all of this drama played out was a transition time for California. The U.S. acquired the territory as spoils of the Mexican-American War. Nobody was giving out free land grants at the time and the territory was administered by a military governor in Monterey California. Sutter made an attempt to have the military governor grant him this land in the foothills but he was denied. There would be no further granting of land without proper surveys.  Sutter clearly understood that this denial from the military authorities meant the eventual downfall of his New Helvetia. There was no way that he could keep things together once word of the gold discovery got out.

Word of Gold Slips Out

At first word did get out slowly but it did get out. After a very short while it got out rapidly. The California Gold Rush was on. But what was the California Gold Rush? At first it was Californians who dropped what they were doing and rushed to the foothills. The San Francisco Californian newspaper shut down after both readers and advertisers dashed off to find their riches. Sailors deserted their ships in San Francisco Bay. Of course word eventually reached the east coast of America and then another California stampede began. Some went by ship which meant either around Cape Horn or through the Panama Isthmus and others traveled overland either along the Platte Road and Oregon Trail or if in winter most likely along the Santa Fe Trail. Emigrants to California didn't just include Americans. Upon receiving word of the gold finds, people from all over the world descended upon northern California. The gold hysteria was on.

The gold rush of California was now in full swing. When prospectors reached California they wasted no time. With tremendous energy they pushed their way up the rivers and creeks and dug into every nook and cranny of the hills. This same scenario played out some years later when silver was discovered near Virginia City Nevada. Some of the early diggings were amazingly rich. One prospector reported that one spoonful of the red earth at his particular find yielded about $8.00 worth of gold. Further south on the Stanislaus River a miner took out a whopping $26,000 of gold from his small claim before he moved on to other areas.

 This was typical about the California Gold Rush. Many prospectors would take in a bit of gold in one area and then move on. They never knew if just around the next bend lay a much larger lode. The key was to arrive there before others did. The photo below left were the ruins of Sutter Fort circa 1900 before it's restoration.

John Sutter's Downfall Begins

All of the concerns and fears that John Sutter had about the influx of thousands upon thousands of gold seekers can best be described in an editorial published by the editor of San Francisco's Alta newspaper in the early 1850's.

 He wrote, "Men come to California in the hope of speedily becoming rich. Bright visions of big lumps of gold and large quantities of them, to be gathered without any severe labor, haunt them night and day before they reach here. Here they hope to find a land where the inevitable law of God that man shall earn his bread by the sweat of his brow has been repealed, or at least for a time suspended. They come here with this hope, and it takes but a few short weeks to dispel it. They are disappointed; their impatient desire for the attainment of speedy wealth seems to have no prospect of gratification. Temptations are about them on every hand. They drink and they gamble. They associate with men who, in their eastern homes, would be shunned by them as the worst of their kind. They forget the admonitions of their mothers and sisters, given them at parting. They forget the purity of their early youth, the hopes of their riper manhood. They sink lower and lower, until they become thieves, robbers and desperadoes". This bit of editorializing describes fairly well what John Sutter's New Helvetia turned into.

As for John Sutter...through all this craze he tried to continue his ranching. His diary entries at that time were filled with comments about loaning livestock and saddles to those heading to the hills in search of gold. Nothing from that point onward would be the same for John Sutter. There was no bucking the tide and his New Helvetia was disappearing rapidly.

While his attempts to legitimize his land holdings continued, they were not successful and they were further challenged by the Squatters Rights laws at the time. In 1858 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the squatters which of course was another blow to Sutter's campaign for reimbursement. Sutter and his wife relocated to Pennsylvania and he was able to acquire a $250 per month pension but not the $50,000 lump sum reimbursement he was seeking. His struggle for payment from the U.S. Government continued up until 1880 when Congress adjourned again without taking any action. The same year John Sutter died in Washington D.C. His wife died months later and both are buried in Lititz, Pennsylvania.

You'll also enjoy our Western Trips article about a self guided tour of the old Central Pacific Railroad sites between Auburn California and Donner Pass. This was part of the western link of the first transcontinental railroad. See Rails, Tails and Trails

John Sutter's Fortune Was Lost Due to the California Gold Rush

One of the things of course that makes the story of John Sutter so unique is that he almost appears to be the only man who lost a fortune because of the gold rush in California. Certainly many others failed to find their El Dorado but they didn't start out with a fortune in the first place. In Sutters case he amassed a fortune by working the land to it's fullest potential and other men's quest for sudden wealth caused him to lose his.

You will be quite pleased by adding this region to your California vacation itinerary. Sutters Fort is now a state historic park and visits to such nearby towns as Placerville, Angels Camp, Murphys and Sonora offer the tourist many ways to learn more about California's gold mining era.

 In all of these towns you will find excellent museums, restored structures from the 1800's as well as opportunities to pan for gold yourself. There is still gold to be found along the rivers and streams of the Sierra Nevada foothills. Another related story is the Argonaut Mine Disaster in Jackson California. The websites below will give you much more information to help plan your California vacation.

Sutter's Fort State Historic Park is located in midtown Sacramento between K and L Streets and 26th and 28th Streets, Sacramento, CA.

Sutters Fort State Historic Park 

Angels Camp 

Murphys California 

Sonora California