John Sutter must have felt like he was on top of the world. In June 1841 he gained title to seventy-six square miles of prime land, an area ninety-nine times larger than Monoco. Then, in December, he bought the entire contents of Fort Ross from the Russians on credit at a fire sale price. He now had all the arms, ammunition and hardware he needed to establish his colony in California’s central valley, plus herds of sheep, cattle, and horses, a number of Russian cannon of which twelve were usable, and a small boat he promptly put in service between his new fort and the village of Yerba Buena at the mouth of San Francisco Bay.
Like a medieval lord in his castle, Sutter was now the most powerful man in California. Even the Bear Flag Revolt and the war with Mexico were mere speed bumps to his ever-increasing power. At his height he employed hundreds of people, native Miwok Indians, local Mexicans, American emigrants, and forty-four more Kanakas from the Sandwich Islands. By his own account he raised forty thousand bushels of wheat with no trouble, had twelve thousand head of cattle, two thousand horses and mules, and thousands of sheep and pigs. He built a tannery, a brewery, a flour mill. Everything men needed fell under his sway and now that the United States had taken control of California more Americans would be coming. Sutter himself said his best days were just before the discovery of gold.
By 1847 he felt a need for a better source of lumber, so he sent James Marshall into the foothills to find a site for a sawmill, and Marshall chose a spot on the American river about fifty miles upstream from the fort. Sutter bought the land, called Coloma, from the local Miwok Indians and Marshall started work on the mill. Then, in January 1848, Marshall came to the fort with a handful of nuggets of almost pure gold that he had found in the tailrace of the new sawmill. Both men knew that the gold discovery would cause them great difficulty and agreed to keep it secret for six weeks, but it’s doubtful that Sutter knew then the true depth of the changes the gold would cause to his growing empire.