John Sutter arrives in California

John Augustus Sutter, the man most responsible for the 1849 California gold rush, led a life of contrasts much like those that can be seen in the San Francisco street that bears his name. Stretching from the heart of downtown out to Presidio Boulevard, Sutter Street rises across Nob Hill, once the home of gold rush tycoons and railroad barons, before plunging into the fringes of the Tenderloin, one of the city’s more colorful districts. Sutter’s life also rose and fell between great success and bitter failure.

Johann August Sutter ca. 1835

Johann August Sutter ca. 1835

Although he was born in Kandern, Germany in 1803, Sutter’s early years were spent in Switzerland, but in 1834 he left his wife, his children and a number of angry creditors behind and fled to New York. He soon found his way to the Missouri Territory where he entered into an unsuccessful trading mission to Santa Fe, then, in April 1838, made the long trek to Fort Vancouver in the Oregon Territory.

By now Sutter had his mind set on California, but with no way to get there he sailed to Honolulu in what was then the Sandwich Islands. There he managed to get financial help for his plans. Accompanied by ten Sandwich Islanders known as Kanakas, and after a detour to Sitka, Alaska, he arrived at what was then the tiny village of Yerba Buena on July 1, 1839 only a few blocks from the street that now bears his name.

Yerba Buena Cove 1837

The next year Sutter took a small boat up the largest river he could find and found himself in the middle of California’s vast central valley, the ideal place for the empire he now planned to build. Where the Sacramento and the American Rivers meet Sutter started work on the centerpiece of his new colony, an eighteen-foot high, adobe walled fort around which the city of Sacramento would eventually grow.

Sutter's Fort, near Sacramento City, California

Sutter’s Fort, near Sacramento City, California

Only a handful of Europeans, perhaps a 1000, were in California when Sutter arrived, but he had seen the trend to westward expansion from the United States, so in order to secure a land grant he became a Mexican citizen on August 29, 1840, and in June he was given 48,827 acres in the best agricultural area in North America. John Sutter was on his way to fame and fortune at last—or so he thought.

Next in Part 2 – John Sutter and the discovery of gold


  1. These people who started new colonies, new ventures were an amazing group of people. Not always the most upstanding or pious, but oh so worth studying. Doris

    • Well said. Doris, and the initial bunch of people who came west to California in 1849 was a cross section from the most ambitious to the most desperate. But all in all they were a determined and clever bunch filled with a get it done attitude.

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