Monday, September 07, 2009

Sutter's Fort: Where California Began

Sutter's Fort (Photo by Lee Foster; Courtesy of Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau)

John Augustus Sutter, who is often called the father of California, might not recognize some of what he helped create—such as surfers, lowriders and Hollywood —but he would feel right at home in his old fort.

Still standing on a city block (2701 L Street) in the center of Sacramento, Sutter's Fort has the distinction of being the Capitol City's first building. Erected in 1841, the fort provides a special glimpse into the lifestyles of California's earliest settlers.

The adobe brick building has been carefully restored to most resemble its original appearance. The unfortunate reality is that the fort was allowed to deteriorate and, by the late 1850s, all that remained was the three story central building.

In 1890, the Native Sons of the Golden West purchased the site, and then donated it to the state of California. Reconstruction began in 1891 and in 1947 the fort became part of the California State Park System.

Today, the fort is worth a visit. Standing outside of the whitewashed fort, you view thick walls and small portals and begin to have a sense of how important this place must have been when California was an unknown land.

Once inside, an informative self-guided tour is available. As part of the admission fee, the park system loans visitors a unique plastic guide stick, which is a small, handheld radio that receives broadcast information about the fort at various, marked spots.

Along the way, you find out that John Sutter was born in Kandern in the Duchy of Baden, to Swiss-German parents in 1803. He married Annette Dubeld in 1826 and some time later opened a dry goods and drapery shop. While he did well for a time, the business soured and he traveled to America to escape his debtors, leaving his wife and five children behind.

In 1834, Sutter arrived in New York, then headed west. He stopped in various communities along the way, including Missouri and Kansas, but never seemed to settle. Anxious to reach California, he took a circuitous route, traveling first to Hawaii, then Alaska, before reaching his goal.

Sutter arrived in Yerba Buena (now known as San Francisco) in July 1839. He spent several weeks persuading the Spanish authorities to allow him to start a settlement in California's Central Valley.

In August of that year, Sutter finally received his permission and set out from Yerba Buena in three ships, traveling a waterway now called the Sacramento River. The party landed about a mile from the location of Sutter's Fort and made camp.

A year later, work began on the fort. The walls of the structure were 2.5-feet thick and from 15 to 18-feet high. The entire complex was 320-feet long, 150-feet wide and featured a three-story central building, which became Sutter's headquarters.

Sutter quickly gained a reputation as a gracious host. He welcomed new settlers to the area and, according to records, planned to create an independent financial empire supported by the abundance of crops that could be harvested in the region.

The Spanish Government accepted him as a naturalized citizen of Mexico in 1840 and he received a large land grant of nearly 50,000 acres (he also purchased Fort Ross near Mendocino from the Russian government that year). Later, the Spaniards gave him a second grant of nearly 100,000 acres.

However, in 1844, California became the site of the Bear Flag Revolt, an effort by U.S. citizens to take the state from the Spanish. Caught in the middle, Sutter lost control of the fort for a short time, and then eventually lost his lands.

Of course, the second major event of this period was the discovery of gold in California. Ironically, it was one of Sutter’s employees, James Marshall, who discovered gold on the nearby American River.

Recognizing that the influx of large numbers of gold-seekers might destroy his dreams for California, Sutter first attempted to keep the discovery a secret. But the news spread and, just has he feared, Sutter soon became locked into a struggle with homesteaders and claim-jumpers for control of his lands.

By 1849, Sutter's empire had unraveled. He was forced to sell the fort to pay his debts. In 1865, he and his wife (she had finally joined him in California in 1850) moved to Washington D.C. He would spend the rest of his life unsuccessfully trying to gain compensation from the U.S. Government for the loss of his property. He died in 1880.

In addition to providing background on Sutter, a guided tour of the fort takes you through the structure’s many rooms and chambers, most of which have been renovated in recent years.

Sutter's Fort State Historic Park is a three and a half hour drive from Fallon via U.S. Highway 50, then west on Interstate 80 to the N Street exit. Follow the signs to 2701 L Street in downtown Sacramento.

The fort is open daily, except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $4 for adults, $2 for children 6-17 and free for children 5 and under. For more information call 916-445-4422.

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