John Sutter and the discovery of gold in California

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.

Fort Ross 1841

Fort Ross 1841

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.


  1. Just read both posts about John Sutter. He was an example of what it takes to be successful. You don’t give up. If you fail, you move on and try again. People that fail and give up, seldom succeed at anything.

    I’ll have to wait to see how the California gold rush changed his life since you left me hanging.

    • Sutter was a very complex man. He ran out on a wife, a family and his creditors in Europe but had the moxie to cross the wilds of North America when almost no one else had done it. He must have heard about the Sacramento Valley from fur trappers at Fort Vancouver, because he decided to settle there well before he had ever set foot on the land. Sutter had a huge dream and the determination to carry it out, and was doing extremely well with it, but for some reason the discovery of gold was like a poison to him. So many men became incredibly rich during the gold rush, but, ironically. the two men who should have made the most from it, Sutter and Marshall, were both ruined by it.

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