John Sutter (born Johann August Sutter; February 23, 1803–June 18, 1880). 

It is with great interest, fascination, and wonderment when I read the three- part article about John Sutter submitted by Renate Voelcker. 

Renate sounds so enthusiastic about sharing what she learned of German born Sutter while attending high school in Germany.

I really appreciate her taking the time to order an English translation authored by her teacher Stefan Zweig and offering it to be published in the Ledger Dispatch.

As so often is the case, much of original meanings or understandings are lost in translation or misinformation passed along to those in Germany from the United States. 

I will try to rectify many of what I view as problematical areas and back up those corrections with footnotes stating the source.

A bit of background about me:

As a retired educator, I think back to 1962, my first year of teaching, where I was teaching 7th and 8th grade Science. The text books were so out dated and the scientific information in the text books was just not accurate. I had to nearly re- write the text book so the students were getting the best up-to-date scientific facts I could find.

I think this might be the case with Zweig’s Sutter paper. He may not have had to the resources to get the correct facts. This does not mean the entire article is wholly wrong, but I find some significant parts to be misinforming the reader of the facts. 

I will give an example of something that touched my funny bone. 

Zweig talks about Sutter traveling to different locations by “buffalo”  pulled wagons. It is obvious to me that these were oxen pulled wagons. In my 40 plus years of doing research on the western migration, I never read where buffalo were raised and trained to pull wagons. Zweig also has Sutter, in 1837, “selling all his possessions, and equips an expedition with wagons and horses and herds of ‘buffalo’…” Maybe herds of cattle but most certain surely not buffalo.

As some of you may know, I have doing research on the westward migration for over 40 years. I have studied California and Amador County history and have written three books  related to my research. 

I was hired by the State of California to be a Park Interpretive Specialist at Sutter’s Fort for ten summers because of my background of study. This job required an intimate knowledge of John Sutter.

Before I continue, I would like to give my overall opinion of man John Sutter, I say that John is one of my favorite “Scoundrels.” In my view many, if not all the mid-nineteenth century characters, were scoundrels of one degree or another. Some I hold in high regard, and others not so much, but scoundrels none the less.

His name is often spelled in different ways, John Augustus Sutter, or Johann August Sutter. Many believe that his original name was Johann August Suter,  pronounced “Sooter.”

Sutter was a complex man who had an engaging personality with the self-confidence that was welcomed and trusted at first, by most everyone he met.

He loved people, especially women, fine food, and clothes. John put on lavish parties beyond his means.  He borrowed to a fault and was equally as generous.  

John had ambition and ego that exceed his ability to fully achieve his dreams.

He tended to embellish his place in life. One example: He presented himself as a Captain of the French Army  under King Charles X, when in fact he was soldier in the Swiss Army like every young and able-bodied man was in that republic. However, for a time he was an officer in the force of citizen-soldiery.  


Johann August Sutter — Part 1

Zweig has John leaving Europe in haste (true) and arrived in New York July 7 (1834), staying for two years performing all kinds possible and indeed impossible occupations.

The research confirms that Sutter did not linger in New York but rather set out immediately for the west, determined to put as much distance as possible himself and the Swiss authorities.  I can find nothing in the literature about him holding all the various occupations that Zweig wrote about.

Zweig’s paper glosses over Sutter’s travels from New York to Fort Vancouver (Washington) and omits some information I feel is important regarding Sutter’s business practices and his ethics.

Here is a brief sketch of his adventures from New York to Fort Vancouver.

Upon leaving New York, Sutter traveled to Ohio, and after a short stay, continued onto St. Louis, Missouri. There he became a part of a German community, many of whom were involved with the Santa Fe (New Mexico) trade business. In 1836 employee Sutter joined in his first trip to Santa Fe with a trade company and did well. So, when he returned he convinced sixteen men to invest in “his” new trade company to Santa Fe.  

This trading adventure turned out to be a failure and Sutter lost nearly everything. Rather than return to St. Louis and face those sixteen investors, Sutter decided to take what little money he had and depart for Westport (Kansas City, Missouri) to start over. 

When Sutter arrived in Westport, in his most charming way, he was able to borrow money, buy a farm, and build a hotel, all on credit. He soon found himself over his head in debt, again. On April 1, 1838, Sutter left town unannounced in the early morning. 

Sutter left with members of the trapping American Fur Company arriving at Fort Vancouver (Washington) in October.  

Zweig has Sutter joining up with two officers, five missionaries, and three women who set off in “buffalo” (oxen) wagons. 

It is difficult to know why Zweig did not mention that they were all part of an American Fur Company party heading west to the annual mountain men rendezvous at todays Riverton, Wyoming, with six mule-driven wagons, a total company of about 60 people. 

It was along this journey that Sutter met many trappers who told him about the virtues of California. As usual, Sutter made a positive impression on all those he met. 

Sutter continued for Fort Vancouver, the Pacific headquarters for the Hudson’s Bay Company, a Canada-based fur trading company.

During his travels, Sutter would request letters of introduction from prominent people that represented himself as a character of wealth and high standing. This practice continued for most of his life. 

Fort Vancouver to California

Fort Vancouver turned out to be quite the institution of learning for Sutter. He would carefully watch the daily and busy routine of a well-operating establishment. He inspected the bakery, granary, storehouse, smithy, cooper’s shop, flour mill, stockade, boat shed, and salmon house. Sutter’s initial plan was to travel overland to California. However, it being winter time with the mountains covered with snow blocking overland travel, Sutter decided to go to California by ship. 

But then there were no ships going directly to California. So, Sutter booked on the ship Columbia, headed for the Sandwich Islands,  arriving in Honolulu on December 9, 1838,  hoping there he could get a ship to California.

There is nothing I have found in any material describing the ship Columbia as “rickety” which Zweig stated.

But, again, there were no ships to set sail to California in the near future. Being anxious to get to California, he found the ship Clementine, anchored in Honolulu Bay, was scheduled to sail to Alaska and onto California. 

After a few months of exceptionally good relationships with the Hawaiian officials and receiving glowing letters of introduction from them and the monarchy, Sutter signed onto the Clementine as the supercargo and in April 1839 sailed for Sitka, Alaska.  

There he presented himself well to the Sitka officials and he was able to obtain more glowing letters of introduction that would be helpful to him in California. 

Zweig stated that Sutter was getting into endless difficulties off the coast of Alaska. Again, I think something got lost in translation. When sailing from Alaska to California, the ship encountered rough seas and storms for most of the journey to California. 

Sutter arrived in a port of entry Monterey, the capitol of California, on July 3, 1839, by way of Yerba Buena.  When he left Honolulu, Sutter had purchased, on credit, some military armaments and enlisted three white men, ten Kanakas (Hawaiians) of which two were women, an Indian boy from Oregon, and a large bulldog from Oahu to join him to California. 

With his many glowing letters of introduction, Sutter planned to live in the Sacramento Valley and set up a small colony. He approached Mexican California Governor Juan B. Alvarado with his plan and his many glowing letters of introduction. The governor advised Sutter to officially announce his intention of becoming a Mexican citizen, go into the interior and select any tract of unoccupied land that would suit him. Then to return in a year to receive his papers of naturalization and a grant for his land.


Sutter in California

Sutter agreed to the terms for receiving a land grant. He then made plans to meet with important people. From Monterey Sutter returned to Yerba Buena, then continued north to meet Mexican General Mariano Vallejo at Sonoma. Then proceeded onto Fort Ross  to meet with Alexander Rotchef, the appointed Russian Manager of the Company’s settlement. 

With his many letters of introduction, he was received warmly by both Vallejo and Rotchef who welcomed him to California.   

After returning to Yerba Buena, he went to work preparing for a trip up the Sacramento River by boat. 

He arranged with rancheros round the Bay to supply him with cattle, on credit. He purchased a four-oared pinnace, chartered two schooners which were loaded with the ten Kanakas, three white men, his dog, cannons he purchased from the Hawaiians, along with stores of provisions, ammunition, and implements. He additionally employed five sailors from Yerba Buena. 

He set out exploring the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta searching for the mouth of the Sacramento River. 

Zweig had Sutter going up the bank of the “Sacramento river by horseback with 150 Kanaks, thirty “buffalo”-drawn wagons etc.” In all the extensive research I have done, none supports the idea that Sutter traveled overland on this first exploring expedition.  Zweig wrote about a “gigantic wave of fire etc.” Again, I have no idea the basis for this or where it came from.

Zweig goes on to say that Sutter’s venture was “hugely successful.”

This is a statement open for great debate.

Sutter eventually landed about two miles up the American River from the confluence with the Sacramento River, where those five sailors deserted and returned to Yerba Buena with the chartered schooners.

It did not take long for Sutter to engage local Indians and put them to work making large adobe bricks that would become his massive fort.

In the meantime, Sutter and his helpers lived in tents and in about a dozen tule  structures built by the Kanaks. 

It would take about two years before Sutter’s agricultural enterprise even began to produce crops and commodities. During that time, to survive, they lived on the local game and food supplies he bought-on credit. 

After that one year, Sutter returned to Monterey to receive his citizenship papers on August 29, 1840.

It would take another year before Sutter received a land grant of approximate 48,820 acres or 11 square leagues.  The grant, named New Helvetia, was bounded on the north by the Sutter Buttes, on the west by the Sacramento River, on the east by the Feather River, and on the south at 38° 49’ 12” — which is just south of the present City of Sacramento.

In 1844, during the California Mexican civil war, Governor Manuel Micheltorena awarded Sutter an El Sobrante grant of, about 97,640 acres or 22 square leagues. This land encompassed a large segment of the Sacramento Valley expanding his original grant.

Sutter never did own any property in San Francisco as stated by Zweig.

Zweig goes on and talks about “building houses, barns and grows crops and provided supplies Fort Vancouver, the Sandwich Islands and all the ships that put in to the coast of California.” That may have been Sutter’s dream, but it did not happen as Zweig described. What Sutter did do was to purchase cattle, seed, and numerous products from many different people, some with what little cash he had and the rest on credit.

There is not space enough to go into detail of all the goods Sutter needed and acquired from many sources. The following is just one example Sutter’s on credit business practices.

In 1840 Sutter began to build with his growing work force, what would become an adobe fort with walls of 2½ feet thick and 15-18 feet high. The compound was 500 feet long and 150 feet wide. It had one canon bastion on the northwest corner and one on the southeast corner. 

Rooms were built around the interior wall to provide space for the various trades that would keep the fort busy every day. This was the most imposing structure in California at that time.

In 1841 Russia decided to abandon Fort Ross. Sutter made one significant purchase: the fort  and the town of Bodega Bay  from the Russians for $30,000, mostly on credit.  He was able to make a down payment of $2,000 and the remainder in promised produce for Sitka. Payments were to be made each year in wheat and other produce for the next four years.  Time would show that Sutter was not able to completely fulfill this commitment as promised. 

This may have been what Zweig was referring to when his wrote, “New Helvetia grows to tropical gigantic proportions.”

Zweig goes on to say, “He is the lord of New Helvetia, one of the richest men in the world.” 

I find this comment interesting considering that Sutter was deeply in debt for entire time he was in California.