Johann August Sutter

Johann August Sutter 

Johann August Sutter (February 15, 1803 – June 18, 1880) was a Swiss pioneer of California known for his association with the California Gold Rush by the discovery of gold by James W. Marshall and the mill making team at Sutter’s Mill, and for establishing Sutter’s Fort in the area that would eventually become Sacramento, the state’s capital. Although famous throughout California for his association with the Gold Rush, Sutter saw his business ventures fail while those of his elder son, John Augustus Sutter, Jr., were more successful.For a list of works and bibliography see Wikipedia.

Early Years
John Augustus Sutter was born Johann August Sutter on February 15, 1803 in Kandern, Baden, Germany, when his father came from the nearby town of Rünenberg in Switzerland.
Johann went to school in Neuchâtel, Switzerland and later joined the Swiss army, eventually becoming captain of the artillery. At age 23, Johann married Annette Dübold, the daughter of a rich widow. He operated a store but he was more interested in spending money than making it. Because of family and mounting debts, Johann faced charges that would have him placed in jail. So he decided to dodge trial and ventured to America; he styled his name to Captain John Augustus Sutter.

In May 1834, he left his wife and five children behind in Burgdorf, Switzerland, and with a French passport he boarded the ship Sully which travelled from Le Havre, France, to New York City where it arrived on July 14, 1834.

The New World
In North America, John Augustus Sutter (as he would call himself for the rest of his life) undertook extensive travels. Before he went to the U.S., he had learned Spanish and English in addition to Swiss French. Together with 35 Germans he moved from the St. Louis area to Santa Fe, New Mexico Territory, then moved to the town of Westport, Oregon Territory. On April 1, 1838, he joined a group of missionaries, led by the fur trapper Andrew Dripps, and went along the Oregon Trail to Fort Vancouver in Oregon Territory, which they reached in October. With a few companions, he went on board the British bark Columbia which left Fort Vancouver on 11 November and laid at anchor in Honolulu on 9 December. Sutter wanted to settle in California, but the only vessel waiting at anchor in the harbor was the brig Clementine — Sutter managed to be signed on as unpaid supercargo of this brig freighted with a cargo of provisions and general merchandise for the Russian colony of New Archangel, now known as Sitka, Alaska. The Clementine hoisted anchor on April 20, 1839, with Sutter together with 10 Kanakas, two of them women, a few companions, and a Hawaiian bulldog. From the Russian colony at Sitka, where he stayed one month, Sutter traveled by ship to Yerba Buena, now San Francisco, at that time a tiny poor mission station. The Clementine arrived in Yerba Buena on July 1, 1839.

Relationship with Native Americans
Sutter had to make peace with the Indians. Over time, the Indians and Sutter became friends, and the Indians built a house for Sutter. Sutter called the place New Helvetia or “New Switzerland.” Sutter’s Fort had a central building made of adobe bricks, surrounded by a high wall with protection on opposite corners to guard against attack. It also had workshops and stores that produced all goods necessary for the New Helvetia settlement.

Sutter employed Native Americans of the Miwok and Maidu tribes, Kanakas, and Europeans at his compound, which he called Sutter’s Fort; he envisioned creating an agricultural utopia, and for a time the settlement was in fact quite large and prosperous. It was for a period the destination for most California-bound immigrants, including the ill-fated Donner Party, for whose rescue Sutter contributed supplies.

Beginning of Sutter’s Fort
(Main article: Sutter Fort, Wikipedia)
At the time of Sutter’s arrival in California, the territory had a population of only 1,000 Europeans, in contrast with 30,000 Native Americans. It was at that point a part of Mexico and the governor, Juan Bautista Alvarado, granted him permission to settle; in order to qualify for a land grant, Sutter became a Mexican citizen on August 29, 1840 after a year in the provincial settlement. He identified himself as ‘Captain Sutter of the Swiss Guard’. The following year, on 18 June, he received title to 48,827 acres (197.60 km2). Sutter named his settlement New Helvetia, or “New Switzerland,” after his homeland, “Helvetia” being the Latin name for Switzerland.

John Sutter began to establish Sutter’s Fort in August 1839, and the fort’s construction was completed in 1841. A Francophile, Sutter threatened to raise the French flag over California and place New Helvetia under French protection, but in 1847 the Mexican land was occupied by the United States. Sutter at first supported the establishment of an independent California Republic but when United States troops briefly seized control of his fort, Sutter did not resist because he was outnumbered.

Beginning of the Gold Rush
(Main article: California Gold Rush)
In 1848, gold was discovered in the area. Initially, one of Sutter’s most trusted employees, James W. Marshall, found gold at Sutter’s Mill. It started when Marshall and Sutter began the construction of his sawmill in Coloma, along the American River. One morning, as Marshall inspected the tailrace for silt and debris, he noticed some gold nuggets and brought them to Sutter’s attention. Together, they read an encyclopedia entry on gold and performed primitive tests to confirm whether it was precious metal. Sutter concluded that it was, in fact, gold, but he was very anxious that the discovery not disrupt his plans for construction and farming. At the same time, he set about gaining legitimate title to as much land near the discovery as possible.

Sutter’s attempt at keeping the gold discovery quiet failed when merchant and newspaper publisher Samuel Brannan returned from Sutter’s Mill to San Francisco with gold he had acquired there and began publicizing the find. Large crowds of people overran the land and destroyed nearly everything Sutter had worked for. To avoid losing everything, Sutter deeded his remaining land to his son, John Augustus Sutter, Jr. The younger Sutter, who had come from Switzerland and joined his father in September 1848, saw the commercial possibilities of the land and promptly started plans for building a new town he named Sacramento, after the Sacramento River. The elder Sutter deeply resented this; he had wanted the town named Sutterville (for them) and for it to be built near New Helvetia.

Sutter gave up New Helvetia to pay the last of his debts. He rejoined his family and lived in Hock Farm (in California along the Feather River).

Sutter’s El Sobrante (Spanish for leftover) land grant was challenged by the Squatter’s Association, and in 1858 the U.S. Supreme Court denied its validity.

John Sutter got a letter of introduction to the Congress of the United States from the governor of California. He moved to Washington D.C. at the end of 1865 after Hock Farm was destroyed by fire (June 1865).

Sutter sought reimbursement of his losses associated with the Gold Rush. He received a pension of US$250 a month as a reimbursement of taxes paid on the Sobrante grant at the time Sutter considered it his own. He and wife Nanette moved to Lititz, Pennsylvania in 1871. The proximity to Washington, D.C. along with the reputed healing qualities of Lititz Springs appealed to the aging Sutter. He also wanted three of his grandchildren (he had grandchildren in Acapulco, Mexico, as well) to have the benefits of the fine private Moravian Schools.

Sutter built his home across from the Lititz Springs Hotel, the present-day General Sutter Inn. For more than fifteen years, John Sutter petitioned Congress for restitution but little was done. On June 16, 1880, Congress adjourned, once again, without action on a bill which would have given Sutter US$50,000. Two days later, on June 18, 1880, John Augustus Sutter died in the Made’s Hotel in Washington D.C.. He was returned to Lititz and is buried in God’s Acre, the Moravian Graveyard. Mrs. Sutter died the following January and is buried with him.

In addition to the links found below, Sutter Street in downtown San Francisco, California is named for John A. Sutter. Sutter’s Landing, Sutterville Road, Sutter Middle School, Sutter’s Mill School, and Sutterville Elementary School in Sacramento are all named after him. The Sutterville Bend of the Sacramento River is named for Sutter, as is Sutter Health, a non-profit health care system in Northern California. The City of Sutter Creek, California is also named after him. In Acapulco, Mexico, the property that used to belong to John Augustus Sutter, Jr. became the Hotel Sutter, which is still in service.

The Johann Agust Sutter House in Lititz, Pennsylvania was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.

The ‘Sutter’s Gold’ rose, an orange blend hybrid tea rose bred by Herbert C. Swim, was named after him.

In Literature (scholarly studies, fiction, films, music) see Wikipedia

Reference (see Wikipedia)

Source:, Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, partially shortened by editor

© Prof. Jens Drolshammer,,

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