* For explanatory note, see Preface.



Gen. Sutter was born March 1st, 1803, in the Grand Duchy of Baden, where his early boyhood was passed. His father, who was a clergyman of the Lutheran Church, afterwards removed to Switzerland, and settled there with his family. He purchased for himself and heirs the rights and immunities of Swiss citizenship. The statement, in the volume entitled “Annals of San Francisco,” that “John A. Sutter was the son of a Swiss of the canton Berne,” is incorrect. Our subject received a good education, both civil and military.


Early in life he married a Bernese lady, and was blessed with several children. At the age of thirty-one, he determined to gratify a desire he had  long cherished, to emigrate to the United States. Not knowing whether or not he should settle permanently in the “Great Republic,” he concluded to leave his family behind him. He arrived at New York in July, 1834. After visiting several of the Western States, he settled in Missouri, and there resided for several years. At St. Charles, Missouri, he made, before the proper tribunal, his declaration to become a citizen of the United States. During his residence in Missouri, he made a short visit to New Mexico, where he met with many trappers and hunters, returned from Upper California, whose glowing descriptions confirmed his previous impressions, and excited within his breast an ardent desire to behold and wander over the rich lands and beautiful valleys, to breathe the pure air and enjoy the unrivaled climate, of that then almost unknown region. Upon returning to Missouri, he determined to reach the Pacific by joining some one of the trapping expeditions of the American or English Fur Companies. But great obstacles were to be surmounted, and long years were to intervene, before his feet would rest upon the virgin soil of California. On the first day of April, 1838, the General was enabled, for the first time, to connect himself with a trapping expedition. On that day, he left the Missouri with Captain Tripp of the American Fur Company, and travelled with his party to their rendezvous in the Rocky Mountains. There he parted with the expedition, and with six horsemen, crossed the mountains, and after encountering the usual lot of dangers and hardships, arrived at Fort Vancouver.


Having before learned that there was no know land-communication with California from the valleys of the Columbia or Willamette in winter, and there being then a vessel of the Hudson Bay Company ready to sail from Fort Vancouver to the Sandwich Islands, Gen. Sutter took passage in her, hoping to find at the islands some means of conveyance to California. Only one of the men who had remained with him thus far, consented to accompany him. On reaching the islands, he found no prospect of a conveyance, and after remaining five months, as the only means of accomplishing his purpose, he shipped as supercargo, without pay, on an English vessel, chartered by a party of Americans, bound for Sitka.


After discharging his cargo at the latter place to the full satisfaction of the charterers, Gen. Sutter, with their authority, directed his vessel southward, and sailed down the Pacific Coast, encountering heavy gales. He was driven into the bay of San Francisco in distress, and on the second day of July, 1839 just five years after the date of his arrival in New York from Switzerland anchored his little craft opposite Yerba Buena, now San Francisco.


He was immediately waited upon by a Mexican official, with an armed force, and ordered to leave without delay, the officer informing him that Monterey was the “port of entry.” He succeeded, however, in obtaining permission to remain forty-eight hours to get supplies.


A few days later, upon arriving at the “port of entry,” Gen. Sutter waited upon Governor Alvarado and communicated to him his desire to settle in Upper Califoria, on the Sacramento. Gov. Alvarado expressed himself much gratified upon learning his visitor’s wish, particularly when he understood his desire to settle on the Sacramento; saying the Indians in that quarter were very hostile, and would not permit any whites to settle there; that they robbed the inhabitants of San José and the lower settlements of their horses, cattle, etc. He readily gave Gen. Sutter a passport, with power to settle any territory he should deem suitable for his colony and purposes, and requested him to return to Monterey in one year from that time, when his Mexican citizenship would be acknowledged, and he would receive a “grant” for the land he might solicit.


Thereupon, the General returned to Yerba Buena and chartered a schooner, with some small boats, and started upon an exploring expedition on the Sacramento river.


Upon diligent inquiry, he could not find any one at Yerba Buena who had ever seen the Sacramento river, or who could describe to him where he could find its mouth; the people of that place only professed to know that some large river emptied into one of the connected bays lying northerly from their town. Gen. Sutter consumed eight days in the effort to find the mouth of that river.


After finding it, and ascending the river to a point about ten miles below the place where Sacramento city now stands, he encountered the first large party of Indian; there were about two hundred of them, all armed and painted for war; they exhibited every mark of hostility, save an actual outbreak. Fortunately, there were two among them who understood Spanish, and with whom the General engaged in conversation. He quieted them by assurances that there were no Spaniards (against whom they were particularly exasperated) in his party; that he wished to settle in their country, and trade with them. He showed them his agricultural implements and commodities of trade, which he had provided for the purpose, and proposed to make a sort of treaty with them. He futhermore explained to them the advantages which they could mutually derive from each other. Pleased with these assurances, they became contented, the crowd dispersed, and the two who spoke the Spanish language accompanied the General and his party as far as the mouth of the Feather river, to show them the country. All other parties of Indians seen, fled at the sight of the vessel and boats.


Parting with his two Indian interpreters and guides at the mouth of the Feather river, Gen. Sutter ascended the latter stream a considerable distance, when a few of his white men became alarmed at the surrounding dangers, and insisted upon returning, which the General was constrained to do.


On his descent, he entered the mouth of the American river, and on the 15th day of August, 1839, landed at the point on the south bank of that stream where he afterwards established his tannery, in the present bounds of Sacramento city. On the following morning, after landing all his effects, he informed the disaffected whites that all who wished to return to Yerba Buena could do so; that the Kanakas were willing to remain, and that he had resolved to do so, if alone. Three of the whites determined to leave, and he put them in possession of the schooner, with instructions to deliver her to her owners. They set sail for Yerba Buena the same day.


Three weeks thereafter, Gen. Sutter removed to the spot upon which he afterwards erected FORT SUTTER. This old Sacramento landmark is still standing; but its weather-beaten walls are crumbling into dust; no hand is ready to strengthen and protect them, and not long will the venerable structure remind the early pioneer of the virgin days when the discovery of gold had not yet given the land over as a prey to the adventurous and the lawless.


In the early days of the settlement, Gen. Sutter encountered many troubles with the Indians, who organized secret expeditions, as he afterwards learned, destroy him, and his party; but, directed by an overruling Providence, he defeated or frustrated all their machinations, and those who were at first his greatest enemies, came to be his best and most steadfast friends.


The General now devoted himself energetically to agriculture and stock-raising. It will be seen that he became very wealthy and prosperous.


In the fall of the year 1839, he purchased of Señor Martinez, who resided not far from San Francisco bay, three hundred head of cattle, thirty horses, and thirty mares. During that fall, eight more white men joined his colony. When he commenced those improvements that resulted in the erection of SUTTER’S FORT and his establishment there, he had much trouble in procuring suitable lumber and timber. He floated some down the American from the mountains, and was also compelled to send to Bodega on the sea-coast, a distance of several hundred miles.


In August, 1840, he was joined by the five men who crossed the Rocky Mountains with him, and whom he had left in Oregon. His colony now numbered twenty-five men, seventeen whites and eight Kanakas. During the fall of this year, the Mokelumne Indians became troublesome by stealing the live-stock of the settlers; they even threatened the destruction of the settlement, and compelled Gen. Sutter, by their acts and menaces, to make open war against them. He marched with his forces thirty miles in the night-time to the camp of the Indians, (where they were concentrating large forces for a movement against him) and attacked them some two hundred warriors with such effect that they retreated, and being hotly pursued, they sued for peace, which was readily granted, and ever afterwards mutually maintained.


Shortly after this encounter, Gen. Sutter purchased one thousand more head of cattle and seventy-five horses and mares. His colony continued to increase by the addition of every foreigner, Americans and others, who came into the country; they sought his place as one of security.


The trappers he furnished with supplies, and purchased or received in exchange their furs; the mechanics and laborers he either employed or procured them work.


In June, 1841, he revisited Monterey, the capital where he was declared a Mexican citizen, and received from Gov. Alvarado a “grant” for his land by the name of “New Helvetia,” a survey of which he had caused to be made before that time.


Thereupon, he was honored with a commission from the Governor, of “Representanté del govierno en las froneras del norte y encargado de la justicia.”


Soon after his return to his settlement, he was visited by Captain Ringgold, of the United States Exploring Expedition, under Commodore Wilkes, with officers and men, and about the same time, by Mr. Alexander Rotcheff, Governor of the Russian possessions, “Ross & Bodega,” who, during his stay, offered to sell to Gen. Sutter the Russian possessions, settlements, and ranchos of Ross & Bodega. The terms were such as induced him to start with Rotcheff for those possessions and examine the same; after which he made the purchase of the land and posessions for the sum of $30,000 the personal property for a few thousand dollars more. The live-stock then consisted of over 2,000 head of cattle, over 1,000 head of horses, 50 or more mules, and over 2,000 head of sheep, the greater part of which were driven to New Helvetia, the residue left on the premises in the charge of an agent whom he kept on the property to hold posession of the same.


This increase of his resources, together with the natural increase of his stock, besides several smaller lots purchased from other parties, enabled him the more rapidly to advance his settlement and improvements.


In the year 1844, he petitioned Governor Manuel Micheltorena for the grant or purchase of the “sobrante,” or surplus, over the first eleven leagues of the land within the bounds of the survey accompanying the Alvardo grant, which the Governor agreed to let him have; but, for causes growing out of political troubles then disturbing the public repose, the grant was not finally executed until the 5th of February A. D. 1845; during which time he had rendered valuable military services, and advanced to the Governor large amounts of property and outlays, exceeding in value the sum of $8,000, to enable it to suppress the Castro rebellion; in consideration of all which he acquired, by purchase and personal services, the lands called the “sobrante,” or surplus.


At that time he also received from the last named Governor, the commission of “Commandante militar de las fronteras del norte y encargado de la justicia.” After this time the war between the United States and Mexico came on; and although Gen. Sutter was an officer under the Mexican Government, and bound to it by his allegiance, yet, upon all occasions, such was his respect toward the citizens and the institutions of the United States, that whenever any party of American citizens, civil or in military service, visited him, his unbounded hospitalities were uniformly and cordially extended to them; and when the country surrendered to American forces, the General, who had for some time been convinced of the instability of the Mexican Government, upon request, did, on the 11th of July, 1846, hoist the American flag with good heart, accompanied by a salute of artillery from the guns of his fort.


Soon after, Lieutenant Missroon, of the United States Navy, came up and organized a garrison for Sutter’s Fort, principally out of his former forces, of whites and Indians, and gave to Gen. Sutter the command, which he maintained until peace returned. He was then appointed by Commodore Stockton Alcalde of the District, and by Gen. Kearny Indian Agent, with a salary of $750 per annum; but a single trip in the discharge of his duty as Indian Agent cost him $1,600, which induced him to resign that office.


Gen. Sutter was now in the full tide of prosperity. His settlement continued to grow and his property to accumulate until the latter part of January, 1848. He had then completed his establishment at the fort; had performed all the conditions of his grants of land; had, at an expense of at least $25,000, cut a race of three miles in length and nearly completed a flouring mill, for the benefit of himself and the country, near the present town of Brighton; had expended towards the erection of a saw-mill near the town of Coloma about $10,000; had sown over a thousand acres of land in wheat, which promised to yield of over 40,000 bushels, and had made preparations for other crops; was then the owner of about 8,000 head of cattle, over 2,000 head of horses and mules, over 2,000 head of sheep, and over 1,000 head of hogs; and was in the undisturbed, undisputed and quiet possession of the extensive lands granted him by the Mexican Government. From the centre of his broad domain could be seen, as far as the eye could stretch on every hand, a prospect to gladden the heart of the husbandman. But a sad change was about to take place in the affairs of the old PIONEER: a grand event was about to transpire, which, while it would delight and electrify the world at large, was yet destined to check the growth of the settlement at Sutter’s Fort and cast a blight upon its prosperity. Gen. Sutter’s mill were soon to desert him, his possessions, his riches, his hopes, were soon to be scattered and destroyed before the impetuous charge of the goldhunters.


On the night of the 28th of January, 1848, JAMES W. MARSHALL, the millwright employed upon the saw-mill before mentioned, arrived at the Fort from the mountains, and informed Gen. Sutter that he had found in the mill-race dug for the saw-mill, some pieces of metal having the appearance of gold, which he exhibited, and which, upon application of the proper test, was found to be, indeed, GOLD.


Marshall, one day, having allowed the whole body of water to rush through the tail-race of the mill for the purpose of making some alterations in it, observed, while walking along the bank of the stream early in the following morning, numerous glistening particles among the sand and gravel, which had been carried off by the force of the increased body of water. Collecting several pieces, he hastened to his employer- and the great discovery was soon known.


As soon as he could prepare himself, the General returned with Marshal to the mill, where he remained until the 5th day of February, during which time he became satisfied of the existence of abundance of gold at that place. All the hands there at work were in Gen. Sutter’s employ: he urged them not to speak of the discovery until he could return to his fort and have his grist-mill finished, which would require six weeks longer, and secure hands to finish planting his crops; for if the discovery should be known all his hands would desert him.


He returned to his fort, but at the end of a week or ten days a rumor had existed that a gold mine had been discovered at Sutter’s mill: it rapidly spread, and soon the reality was known to all. Its subsequent history is largely intermingled with the history of the times. The immediate effect was that Gen. Sutter was deserted by all his mechanics and laborers white, Kanaka, and Indian. The mills thus deserted became a dead loss: he could not hire labor to further plant or mature his crops or reap but a small part after the grain had ripened. Few hands were willing to work for even an ounce of gold a day: the industrious could make more than that in the mines. Consequent to this discovery there was an immense immigration, composed of all classes of men, many of whom seemed to have no idea of the rights of property.


The treaty between the United States and Mexico guaranteed to the Mexican who should remain in the country a protection of his property. Gen. Sutter regarded himself doubly entitled to that protection, either as a Mexican or as a citizen of the United States, (which latter he became by virtue of that conquest and his original declaration) and that he held a strong claim upon his country’s justice.


His property was respected for a season; but when the great flood of immigration which poured into California in the years 1849 and 1850, found that money could be made by other means than mining, many of the new-comers forcibly entered upon his land and commenced cutting and selling his wood and using his grass, under the plea that his land was vacant and unappropriated land of the United States. Lawyers were found who sustained them in their trespass and advocated their rights, although there were none who came from any part of Christendom who had not heard of the General’s claims and large landed estates, the full justice given to and recognition of which by the Mexican Government is shown by the following fact: When Don Andres Castillero, a senator from Mexico, visited Gen. Sutter, in company with the Californian authorities, they offered him, by authority and in the name of the Mexican Government, either the sum of $100,000, or the property of the mission of San José,  with the live-stock thereon, and orders for cash on the Custom-House, in exchange for New Helvetia. Both of these then very handsome offers were declined, contrary to the advice of the late Pierson B. Reading and others, for the reason that, by giving up that point, New Helvetia, considered to be, and called by the Mexicans “La llave de la California” key to California the American citizens and other immigrants would have lost all protection which Gen. Sutter’s then considerable power and position vouchsafed to them.


Another class of men, without any pretext but that of power and address, commenced stealing his horses and butchering his cattle, hogs and sheep: the first were taken off some distance and exchanged or sold: the meat was sold to the immigrants. Up to the first day of January, 1852, the settlers, under the pretence of preëmption claims, had occupied all his lands capable of settlement or appropriation; and the other class had stolen his horses, mules, cattle, sheep, and hogs, save a small portion used and sold by Gen. Sutter himself. One party of five men of this second class, during the high waters of 1849-’50, when his cattle were partly surrounded by water near the Sacramento river, on his lands in Sutter county, killed and sold the beef of enough of them to derive $60,000; after which they left for “the States.”


Having beheld his power decline and his riches take wings, Gen. Sutter removed to the west bank of the Feather river, and took up his residence on Hock Farm. Here, in the midst of his family, which had recently arrived from Europe, he led the quiet, useful life of a farmer, in the county which bears his name. He has patiently devoted many long years to efforts to regain some portion of that opulence which his energy won, and which he continued to enjoy, until the event occurred which enriched his country and impoverished him. He is now at Washington, where he has been for considerable time, engaged in pressing his claims upon the general government, for remuneration for the losses and injuries he sustained at the hands of the immigrants of ‘49.


Gen. Sutter is strongly attached to California, and as soon as his business duties permit, he expects to return, and pass, in the peaceful pursuits of husbandry, amid the scenes of his former prosperity, the sunset of his life.



Transcribed by: Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.

Source: Shuck, Oscar T., “Representative & Leading Men of the Pacific”, Bacon & Co., Printers & Publishers, San Francisco, 1870. Pages 11-21.

© 2008 Jeanne Sturgis Taylor.












San Francisco County