John Augustus Sutter

John Augustus Sutter (1803-1880), German-born American adventurer and colonizer, is generally regarded as one of the founding fathers of California.

Born in Kandern, Baden, on Feb. 15, 1803, Johann August Sutter (as he spelled the name before he Anglicized it) grew to manhood at Rünenberg, Switzerland. He possibly attended a military academy there, and he served in the army. He married in 1826, but after failing in business he emigrated to the United States in 1834.

Sutter settled at St. Charles, Mo., where he became a trader. Twice he made unsuccessful trading trips to New Mexico. He left Missouri in 1838, one jump ahead of his creditors. From Oregon he sailed to Honolulu and to Alaska, arriving in San Francisco in July 1839. He received a land grant from the Mexican governor of California of approximately 50, 000 acres, which he decided to locate at the junction of two rivers in northern California. Employing former mission Native Americans, he cleared land, dug irrigation ditches, planted crops, and erected a fortified post. Soon he was growing wheat, ranching, milling, mining, fur trading, salmon fishing, and shipping. He predicted that California's greatness lay in agriculture and commerce.

Sutter became a Mexican citizen in 1841, and his wife and child joined him at what came to be known as Sutter's Fort. Short, heavy, and bald, except for a fringe of gray hair, he proved a genial, expansive host to Americans arriving in Mexican California. His fort became the focal point of the Bear Flag Revolution, which quickly merged into the Mexican War and ended with California in the hands of the United States. Sutter was a delegate at the constitutional convention of 1849 and a candidate for governor in the first election following statehood.

In January 1848 one of Sutter's employees discovered gold on Sutter's property. This triggered the famous gold rush of 1849, during which Sutter's employees deserted him, his herds disappeared, his fields fell into ruin, and his lands were overrun by squatters searching for gold. He began drinking heavily and by 1852 was bankrupt. Even when the Federal courts upheld his Mexican land grant, he could not afford the court costs to recover it and was left almost penniless. The state of California paid him a pension of $250 per month from 1864 to 1878. He moved to Lititz, Pa., in 1873 but spent his winters in Washington, D.C., pushing a petition in Congress for his relief. He died in Washington on June 18, 1880, still awaiting passage of his bill.

Further Reading on John Augustus Sutter

The Diary of Johann August Sutter (1932) contains good autobiographical detail. An early and somewhat derogatory biography is Thomas J. Schoonover, The Life and Times of Gen. John A. Sutter (1895), while Julian Dana, Sutter of California (1936), is eulogistic. A balanced treatment is Richard Dillon, Fool's Gold: The Decline and Fall of Captain John Sutter of California (1967). See also Oscar Lewis, Sutter's Fort: Gateway to the Gold Fields (1966).

Additional Biography Sources

Dana, Julian, Sutter of California; a biography, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1974.

Dillon, Richard H., Fool's gold: the decline and fall of Captain John Sutter of California, Santa Cruz: Western Tanager, 1981.

John A. Sutter's last days: the Bidwell letters, Sacramento: Sacramento Book Collectors Club, 1986.

John Sutter and a wider West, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.