Johann August Sutter

2.9 Johann August Sutter, excerpts, Die Besitznahme des Landes durch die Vereinigten Staaten, Der Bau der Mühlen und die Entdeckung des Goldes, Das Goldfieber, Der Zusammenbruch, in Neu-Helvetien, Lebenserinnerungen des Generals Johann August Sutter, transcribed and edited by Erwin E. Gudde, Frauenfeld und Leipzig, 1934, p.83-110
[Transcribed memoirs of Johann August Sutter, excerpts on taking of possession by the United States, the construction of the mills and the discovery of gold, the goldfever in the goldrush, and the collaps]

a) Background

A biographer of Johann August Sutter in J. P. Zollinger, Johann August Sutter “Der König von Neu Helvetien, Sein Leben und sein Reich”, Zürich 1930, emphathically commenced his foreword as follows: “It is fair to say, that the year of 1839 marks the beginning of the history of the United States on the pacific ocean. At that time, that is exactly before 100 of years, it happened, that the man came through the golden arches (Goldene Tor), who formed first strong point for the American Union on that coast and who built the first provisional bridge across the vast sea of deserts and stones between the Missouri and the Pacific. The man’s was Johann August Sutter (translation by the editor”).

As said above, Johann August Sutter has a controversial biography, regardless if one tries to understand his life from a Swiss or from an American end and perspective. We include this pioneer of the Wester Movement in the United States in an Anthology on Swiss law and legal culture, because law played a decisive role in the building and particularly in the falling apart of General Sutters possessions in the State of California and because thereafter he had used law for many years in order to obtain an indemnity from Congress in Washington DC. Law and legal institutions finally were of no avail in protecting General Sutter’s properties which he had acquired based upon various grants by the Mexican government before California becoming a State in the Union. We are looking through many lenses at an early stage of the emerging property law in the State of California. Law and legal institutions apparently were not a consolidated part of the governmental organization of the United States at this moment of time.

The Swissness of the inclusion of Johann August Sutter in the Anthology lies in the fact, that General Sutter always stayed a Swiss and that he called his venture “Neu-Helvetien” (New-Helvetia) alluding to the latin name of Switzerland Confederatio Helvetica. We therefore include Johann August Sutter as a witness of American law and legal culture at the time.

From a broader perspective of legal culture, the fate of Johann August Sutter after fifty years of anonymity became known throughout the Western world through works of literature based upon his life story, in which the reference to law played a specific and has an above average function. As early cases of “law and literature” this merits to be subsumed in a broader concept of legal culture. We therefore include parts of the novel of Blaise Cendrars “Gold”, a Swiss writer of World Literature (see text 2.10), as well as of Stefan Zweig (see text 2.11). A part of American law thereby became a part of World Literature in the early 20th Century. Sutter’s life has been the basis of many movies (see biography Wikipedia). In 1866 he was painted in Washington while petitioning to Congress for an indemnity by the Swiss painter Frank Buchers, who was sent to Washington to paint the great victors of the Civil War.

Biographers argued that the writers Blaise Cendrars and Stefan Zweig had to a large extent distorted the personal life of Johann August Sutter and that after 50 years of oblivion the life of Johann August Sutter should be studied again and the results should be published again. In 1938 the biography of the Swiss historian J.P. Zollinger Johann August Sutter, Der König von Neu-Helvetien, Sein Leben uns sein Reich, appeared.

In 1934 the text at hand Neu-Helvetien, Lebenserinnerungen des Generals Johann August Sutter, (New Helvetia, memoirs of the General Johann August Sutter) was published. This narrative and transcript of Erwin Gustav Gudde, a German historian, of the life of Johann August Sutter is based on Sutters personal memoirs, letters and other personal reports. Gudde worked at the University of California and tried to shed more light on the private life of Johann August Sutter. He used the memories dictated by Johann August Sutter to the Californian historian Herbert Howe Bankroft. The manuscripts until the time of publication had been in the Bankroft Library of the University of California.

The text at hand is as close as the editor could come to include an original text of Johann August Sutter In this Anthology.

b) Summary

The text at hand is a series of excerpts of the transcript of the German historian Erwin Gustav Gudde of the memoirs of Johann August Sutter as described above. We characterize the chapters of the short book reprinted as follows:

The pages on Das Kaufangebot der Regierung und das zweite Erscheinen Fremonts (the offer to purchase of the government and the second appearance of Fremonts) deals with the visit of a Mexican delegation to make an offer to purchase the property. Because of the unknown fate of the inhabitants on the properties the offer was refused. He further describes the third visit of the American emissary Fremont.

The pages Die Besitznahme des Landes durch die Vereinigten Staaten (the taking of possession of the land by the United States). It first describes Sutter’s last dealings with the Mexican government and the unrest in the region. He then describes the taking of possession of the region by the United States. It partly describes how the stars and stripes flag was raised on his fort and how he defended the fort against the uprising of Californians. A New York Corps of Volonteers would arrive in May 1847and in Summer 1847 the war was over and California was in the possession of the Americans. Most of the American troops withdrew, the battalion of volonteers stayed in New Helvetia until the beginning of the gold rush. After most of them deserted to dig for gold, the regiment had to be disolved.

The pages Der Bau der Mühlen und die Entdeckung des Goldes (the construction of mills and the discovery of the gold) describe the launch of many of the settlers ventures. It describes the construction of a settlement and the building of two mills in summer of 1847. It partly describes the presence of a battalion of 800 – 1000 warmen who came to California to take sides with the Americans in the Mexican war. After their mission was accomplished, the battalion was dissolved and the majority of the soldiers started to work for Sutter. The text describes the request of his partner Marshall for a secret meeting. Marshall showed Sutter a few ounces of gold, which they started testing. The discovery apparently was not totally unexpected for Sutter, Sutter immediatelly realized, what that would mean to his ventures. He informed his workers and asked them to keep it secret for six months.

The following pages Das Goldfieber (the gold feaver) describe Sutter’s account of what has happened in the days thereafter. After confirmation, that gold truly had been found, Sutter describes how group after group of his peoples started the search of gold. Sutter did not want to leave New-Helvetia. He became a partner of a company co-owned by Marshall to be involved in the matter relating to gold. Because of a lack of surveillance of animals it became difficult to keep the animals under control. I In March and April the first curious people from San Francisco came to the fort, and moved on to the mountains. Sutter describes how merchants, doctors, attorneys, left their families in San Francisco in order to dig for gold. Schools had to be closed, since teachers started to wash gold with their students, soldiers left their units, sailors their boats. Most of the gold was waisted in alcoholic beverages.

In the final pages Der Zusammenbruch (the collapse) Sutter describes that with the increase of people looking for gold from the United States, from South America and from Europe morale and discipline decayed. Nobody was there, to protect him, everybody had deserted him. Horses were driven away and stolen, animals were slaughtered by bandits who became immediatly rich. Sutter describes the arrival of his older son and his attempt to use him as an agent and other people to sell and educate people in a tradition of trust. He was unable to handle this new business methods.

It is noteworthy that the legal proceedings are not mentioned in Guddes transcript of the memoirs of Johann August Sutter.

c) Text

You can find a scan (PDF) of the original text here:
A_2.9_SUTTER_Besitznahme des Landes

© Prof. Jens Drolshammer,,

Comments (0)