Gold in California – the secret is out

The attempt by Sutter to keep secret James Marshall’s discovery of gold was as futile as trying to rope the wind. Mormon workers building the sawmill prospected down river and found more gold at a large sandbar called Mormon Island near the present day city of Folsom and now under the waters of Folsom Lake. Then on May 12, 1848 Sam Brannan, the publisher of San Francisco’s first newspaper, the California Star, went along Market Street with a glass vial full of gold and yelling that it had been found on the American River. Brannan, who also owned a store near Sutter’s Fort, had bought all the picks, shovels, and pans he could and soon became rich reselling them to miners at greatly inflated prices.

Sam Brannan’s store

Sutter had been losing workers steadily to the rush for gold, and a week after Brannan’s announcement only five men remained in San Francisco. The California gold rush was officially on and for Sutter it was a disaster. Men trampled his crops, rustled his livestock, and squatted on his land. Sutter attempted to make the best of a bad situation by becoming a merchant to the very miners who had overrun his empire but he had little experience. His partners cheated him and his creditors hounded him until, in 1849, he sold the fort and moved to his farm near modern Yuba City.

John Sutter’s Hock Farm

That same year he participated in the constitutional convention in Monterey and in September even ran for Governor but was soundly defeated. Then, after sixteen years, his wife Annette and his three youngest children finally joined him from Switzerland. They lived together in a beautiful redwood home on the farm and had a few years of peace. But squatters sued him for his property, and in 1865 someone burned his home to the ground. He went to Washington to seek restitution for all he had lost but was unsuccessful. Still, he didn’t give up. With his wife he settled in Lititz, Pennsylvania and continued to push for what was rightfully his. Then, in a Washington hotel room on June 16, 1880, two days after congress had adjourned without acting on a bill that would have given him $50,000, John Augustus Sutter died.

“By this sudden discovery of the gold, all my great plans were destroyed. Had I succeeded for a few years before the gold was discovered, I would have been the richest citizen on the Pacific shore; but it had to be different. Instead of being rich, I am ruined . . .” John Sutter

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