Sutter’s Fort

We’ve seen that the Spanish settled in California, followed closely by the Russians, and how other colonial nations arrived to hunt for animal pelts but the one thing I didn’t touch upon was the arrival of the Swiss.

Yes. The Swiss.

When thinking of colonial powers, the Swiss don’t rank high or even show up in the history books as a powerful colonial nation, even though they settled heavily in places like Argentina and the United States (notably in Pennsylvania and South Carolina).

But in California, it started with one man named Johann Suter (later John Sutter) who came to California from Switzerland in 1839 and settled a large tract of land in Sacramento, which he called New Helvetia (New Switzerland). The goal was to bring other settlers to New Helvetia and build an agricultural and trade colony.

Sutter originally didn’t start in California; first, he left his family in Switzerland and travelled extensively through the Eastern United States, Oregon and eventually to Hawaii where he met Russian traders who told him about Alto California where land and furs were abundant. It was in Hawaii that he made the decision to head to California via Alaska. Before he could do this, he became a Mexican citizen so he could legally purchase land in Mexico.

When he arrived in the Sacramento area it was a rather comical event. He landed with an invasion force that consisted of a handful of Hawaiian men, a few friends he’d met during his travels, and a bulldog. He fired canons off to the side in goodwill and basically told the Indigenous Americans that he came in peace. I think they were so flabbergasted by his entry that they wished him good luck and said that if he wanted to build a fort, he better build it on a hill so it doesn’t flood.

He took their advice and the first buildings built on the hill were Hawaiian huts. Later came adobe buildings and much later came the fort walls. The reason Sutter built the fort was to attract settlers. It seems that settlers had such a bad impression of Indigenous American people that they wouldn’t come to an area unless they knew they were “protected” from the “savages.” It didn’t matter that Sutter’s workers were Indigenous Americans who lived with and were friends with Sutter.

It was the Miwok, Maidu and Hawaiian Kanakas that helped Sutter build the adobe fort and walls. Sacramento later became a major destination for settlers coming to California.

There are two major things that Sutter is known for… the first of which I will cover in the next post.

The second is for being actively involved in the rescue of the Donner-Reed Party, who got trapped in the Sierra Nevada during their wagon trek to California. Three rescue attempts were made from the Fort to bring back survivors (48 of 87 survived) and a fourth to bring back possessions and bury what remained of the bodies.

After being rescued, Sutter’s Fort was the destination for many of the survivors. Early in the trek, 9-year old Patty Reed disobeyed her parents when she was told to throw out all her toys to lighten the load on the wagons. Instead, she hid a little dollhouse doll and kept it with her throughout the journey. It would later become one of the only surviving artifacts from the trek; all else was either left behind or lost to the Sierra Nevada. The doll was later gifted to the Fort where it is now on display.

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