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The Story of the 1848 Gold Rush and How It Shaped a Nation
By Fred Rosen
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2005 Fred Rosen
All rights reserved.
Looking out over the far western wall of his fort at a newly planted white oak tree, Colonel John Sutter felt very, very good. Before him lay the culmination of his life's work, the fort he named after himself.
It was a rectangular compound that had been built on a hill with a sweeping view of the surrounding countryside. In the eastern yard of the fort were built into the walls, one after the other and stretching around, the stable, bakery stores rooms, weaving room, immigrant room, storeroom, and cooper's shop. In the far end of the rectangle were the beehive oven and the fire pit, next to a small grove of birch trees.
On the west side, that yard consisted of the same configuration of rooms built into the walls. There was a carpenter's shop, trade store, guest quarters, a gunsmith shop, blacksmith shop, storage rooms, and the guardroom. On the far western side of the western yard were two covered work areas and a fire pit. In the middle of the yard was the well, and next to it, the fort's bell.
The western and eastern yards met at the south gate, twenty feet high and made of rough hewn logs. If that didn't look imposing enough, there were two gun platforms on either side of the gate, each containing a two-thousand-pound cannon. Directly in front of the gates stood Sutter's headquarters.
As Sutter continued to look over his domain, beyond the fort, about five miles south, he could see Sacramento Harbor, unobstructed by anything but trees. Tents had sprung up along the banks of the Sacramento River. It was likely that in the very near future, a real town might be established. If it was, Sutter's Fort, the only bastion of civilization in the northern California wilderness, would likely get the credit ... and the settlers money.
John Sutter would tell anyone he knew in California that he had been a member of the Swiss Guard, the elite group of Swiss mercenaries that was charged by the Vatican centuries ago with the responsibility of protecting the pope. During the middle of the French Revolution, for example, when the mob stormed the palace looking for Louis XVI, it was the Swiss Guard who mounted a valiant though vain defense of the monarchy. It was of that long and proud tradition that John Sutter claimed to be a part.
That he lied completely about being a member of this honorable group should shame him. Instead, it informs his modesty in believing that the public would not accept the real truth, nor that it would do his businesses any good. It was hard to tell where the real John Sutter stopped and the exaggerated one began.
In truth, John Sutter was not born a captain and he wasn't born in Switzerland. He was born in Germany in 1803, in the town of Baden. His birth took place during the first year of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which would later play such a profound role in his life. Sutter's father was Swiss-born. That made John Sutter a citizen of the Swiss village of Runbenberg, where his daddy and great-granddaddy before him had been born.
When he was about twelve years old, Sutter became a publisher's apprentice in a book publishing house in Basel, on the Rhine. Sutter noticed how people could be judged by what was printed about them. It was there that he learned the value of the printed word, including the effect of manipulating it. He never forgot that.
Seeking a better financial future, he left publishing and became a store clerk. In 1826, the twenty-three-year-old Sutter married Anna Dubeld. The next day, his first son was born. Once again wasting no time, two years later in 1828, he started his own dry goods business. Sutter had an ear for language and spoke and wrote four — English, French, German, and Spanish. It was of invaluable use in his business because he could talk, in their own language, to just about anyone except Asians.
But despite his gifts, for the first time in his young life, a business venture didn't prosper; his debts grew. Even so, he spent lavishly for clothing, books, and entertainment. During those years, he trained in the Swiss militia, not the Swiss Guard. He rose to the rank of underlieutenant, not captain.
John Sutter was charming and handsome. He looked dashing in a self-designed uniform that made him look like some form of Prussian nobility. He had a gift for conversation and making friends. These were all fine attributes, he knew. He also knew that despite all that, his life on the Continent was over.
There was no way to avoid his business debts; there was only one way for him to survive financially. He was thirty-one years old and bogged down. So in 1834, John Sutter left Switzerland for good. He took his clothes and his books but left behind his wife and five children. He would send for them when his fortunes had improved. It was a not uncommon arrangement for any immigrant male at the time.
It meant that the husband would go ahead, to America. Handbills circulating on the Continent said that fortunes could be made there. Sutter had noticed advertising that particularly highlighted the opportunities in the western territories of the United States. Sutter was on deck when the ship he had sailed on from Europe came into New York Harbor. The hustle and bustle on the Wall Street wharves must have energized his entrepreneur's spirit. Seizing immediately on the opportunities to be made on the frontier, Sutter headed West and settled in the slave state of Missouri. From there, in 1835 and 1836, he joined trading caravans headed for Santa Fe.
Sutter thought he could make money by investing in real estate. He bought a hotel and dry goods business in Westport, Kansas (now part of Kansas City). Neither proved profitable. Sutter tried selling whiskey and tobacco to the Indians. He soon found that sales of the former did not sit too well with the settlers, who had to reap the "benefits" of Sutter's liquor when the Indians got drunk and started "acting up."
Not staying around to lick his wounds or deal with his creditors — again — Sutter got a job with the American Fur Company that took him to the Hudson Bay Company's Pacific headquarters at Fort Vancouver (now in Washington State). Always on the lookout for a little adventure with his profiteering, Sutter booked passage on the company's ship Columbia, then embarking for Honolulu, Hawaii.
When Sutter got to Honolulu, he decided to look for a connecting passage to the town of Yerba Buena in the Gulf of San Francisco, off the California coast. Unfortunately, Sutter couldn't find any ships going there. He was stranded in Honolulu for three months before he could get one. That time, though, proved much to his liking. He enjoyed the climate and the people, finding the latter particularly industrious. Sutter began formulating an idea to exploit this.
John Sutter finally boarded the trading ship Clementine, bound for Sitka, a small Russian town on the Alaskan coast. This time, Sutter was not alone. He was accompanied by eight Hawaiian workers in his employ. Once in Alaska, Sutter lost no time in booking them all passage on to Yerba Buena, where they arrived on July 1, 1839. Sutter was now under the law of the Mexican government.
Taking stock of where he found himself, Sutter realized that Yerba Buena was nothing more than a tent city, with an occasional clapboard structure. Horse dung and mud blended with other foul-smelling detritus to make the streets a squishy obstacle course. There was no sewer system. It clearly was not to his liking. Yet there was something in this odoriferous metropolis that made John Sutter's genius take form.
Sutter immediately noticed that without four walls, there could be no protection. In this section of the country, there were few if any permanent structures. Worse, this was not land under the control of the U.S. government, which could then dispatch troops to protect it. This land was under the control of the Mexican government, which was as corrupt as they come.
What Sutter saw was a place desperately in need of a refuge, a fort, to protect against marauding Indians or vaqueros. It would be a place that people could seek out for refuge, protection, sustenance, fortitude — and, of course, services that John Sutter would gladly supply at a fair price. He conceived of this place as a self-sufficient entity that he would christen New Helvetia (New Switzerland), in honor of his mother country.
It was John Sutter, underlieutenant of the Swiss militia, who landed that day in Yerba Buena. But it was Captain John Sutter of the Swiss Guard who sailed out of Yerba Buena Harbor in mid-August as a visionary, an entrepreneur, and an explorer all rolled into one. What he intended when they got to where they were going was to literally carve a trading empire out of the wilderness. That meant, of course, getting a lot of people who were already there quite angry at him.
Indians, Mormons, Californios — the native vaqueros — all of them had more right to the land than Sutter could ever have. But Sutter also knew from his experience as a debtor that it helped to have the law, whatever it was, on your side in any dispute. Plus, Sutter was cognizant enough to know that on a day-to-day basis, there was no rule of law except who had the bigger army.
Accompanying Sutter were his Hawaiian laborers and Indians he had decided to employ as well. They sailed on the schooner Isabella, with two other ships carrying their supplies, up the Sacramento River, to its confluence with the America River, and docked. Setting foot on the dock, Sutter saw that the place was no better in terms of permanent structures than Yerba Buena was. Sutter and his companions called the place Sacramento.
Sutter had no intention of settling in such a dump. He preferred going inland; he needed higher ground, which would be easier to defend. Sutter had his laborers build some makeshift grass structures for shelter. They would take the winter to get ready to implement his vision. To make that vision a reality, in the summer of 1840, John Sutter became a Mexican citizen, thus protecting his future property rights.
Next, followed by his Hawaiians and a growing workforce of Indians — he employed hundreds of Indians as field hands, weavers, cooks, and drivers, and paid them in clothing, food, and shelter — Sutter moved inland, about five miles from the Sacramento docks. Sutter decided to situate his fort on a high, dry patch of ground that offered a commanding view of the surrounding countryside, lush with maple, oak, birch, and aspen fir.
Sutter's design called for walls 2½ feet thick and 15 to 18 feet high. The interior was 320 feet long. Sutter began building an adobe fort in the fall of 1840. When completed in 1841. Sutter's Fort was larger than the U.S. Army's Fort Laramie.
Inside the compound, the central building of Sutter's headquarters was in the middle, directly in front of the gates. The building was three stories high and made of strong oak timbers; its top floor gave Sutter a platform from which to view his own private, burgeoning empire. Sutter had constructed quarters for some of the workers, a bakery, blanket factory, blacksmith shop, carpenter shop, and other shops dotted around the fort, fitting snuggly within the walls. On the nearby American River he located a tannery.
Sutter's concept was for his domain to be self-sufficient. He had his workforce plant acres of barley, peas, and beans. He hired vaqueros to run cattle. And then he did something that was absolutely brilliant: he advertised in the eastern papers that his fort was the place the stop, the haven, for pioneers going West.
To further protect his investment, Sutter put his Swiss militia training to good use, training his own private army of Indians. Sutter maintained an Indian guard of fifteen mounted cavalry and twenty-five infantry. He did not hesitate to punish any tribes he suspected of raiding his property. Sutter's Indian guard was so respected on the frontier that no one ever attacked his fortress.
The business that Sutter the entrepreneur knew would come, came. Russia had a problem supplying its colony in Alaska, which stretched out across the territory down the western coast of the continent. Sitka, for example, was actually easier to supply from California than Russia. Seeing this, the Russians made a deal with John Sutter to begin exporting wheat to Sitka and other Russian towns in Alaska.
Sutter established a successful trading business with pioneers and Indians alike, specializing in everything from furs and cotton to whiskey and even brandy from his own personal distillery, on the eastern side of the fort.
Unfortunately, the land on which he had his fort was still owned by the Mexican government. Despite the improvements he had made, the Mexicans still owned the land.
Sutter applied to Mexican governor Juan Alvarado for a land grant. Only a Mexican citizen could be granted one, and since Sutter had taken care of that in 1840, that legal hurdle had been surmounted. Seeing an opportunity for the Mexican government to make money through Sutter's prosperity, Governor Alvarado officially deeded Sutter eleven leagues of land, or 47,827 acres! Alvarado made it clear in the grant that Sutter was to maintain order among the Indians and "secure the land for Mexico in return."
Returning to his fort with the grant in hand, Sutter carried something else in his other. Handing the Mexican flag to one of his men, he ordered that it be raised above the fort. Anyone who came to Sutter's Fort would know instantly that they were on Mexican land. Sutter began to see a flow of settlers into his fort, who came for respite, supplies, and shelter.
They partook of the goods and services he offered. Business was good, good enough for Sutter to buy Fort Ross, in nearby Alta. To Sutter it was just another deal; he bought the fort on $30,000 credit, which he agreed to pay off in four years with a combination of produce and coin. In return, Sutter got Fort Ross's supply stores, lumber, cannon, hardware, and livestock.
For the U.S. government, the deal was even better. The Russians owned Fort Ross and were the next-to-last foreigners to get out of the United States and its contiguous territories. Mexico was to be next — that had to happen eventually. For the country to expand, they needed all foreign powers off of it. Russia was now one less country to worry about.
He made regular trips to the territorial capital in Monterey, where he established himself as a political presence. In 1844 he met William Maxwell Wood, a ship's surgeon, on one of his regular visits there.
"Captain Sutter was a man of medium or rather low stature, but with a marked military air," Wood later wrote. "He wore a cap and a plain blue frockcoat; a mustache covered his lips. His head was of a very singular formation, being flat and well shaped behind and rising high over the crown, with a lofty and expanded forehead. His manners were courteous."
For the first time since leaving Switzerland, Sutter was beginning to enjoy life. Part of that was his love of waffles. Sutter liked them made from wild duck eggs and coarse grain flour from his own mill, cooked on an open fire in a rectangular iron pan that had been divvied up into numerous small, square indentations that gave the waffle its unique shape.
By 1845, Captain John Sutter of the Swiss Guard was prospering. He owned 4,000 head of cattle, 1,700 horses and mules, and 3,000 sheep. He was doing well. While no more than 50 people stayed inside the fort at any one time, a maximum of 200 could use the fort during daylight hours.
Sutter even got to help out his adopted country of Mexico in a military capacity. That happened in February 1845, when the governor needed military assistance against a revolt. He appointed John Sutter "Captain of Sacramento troops" and gave him a land grant of 33 leagues, which superseded his previous one.
With his businesses going well, Sutter finally sent for his wife and children. They joined him from Europe. Everything was looking up. His control of the frontier trade through his fort was unrivaled. His agricultural and cattle interests were extensive. He had plans for a new sawmill to help supply the lumber needs of settlers. There was no reason to assume anything would change that. With his businesses flourishing, Sutter was now poised to become the multimillionaire he had always wanted to be.
A long way from the plains of Lambertsville, New Jersey, where he'd grown up, a middle-aged James Marshall, thirty-three years old, rode his horse through the soaring Sierra Nevadas. In one way or another, he had been traveling for the past decade.
Excerpted from Gold! by Fred Rosen. Copyright © 2005 Fred Rosen. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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