Finding Gold Ain’t All Good

Reader Contribution by Sam Moore
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A view of Sutter’s Fort, circa 1849.

I recently came across a story in an old American Thresherman magazine titled Gold Ruined This Thresherman, about Captain John A. Sutter, owner of Sutter’s Mill where gold was found on January 24, 1848, triggering the California gold rush.

Sutter was Swiss, although he was born in Baden, Germany. He married in 1826 and then experienced a series of business failures. Deeply in debt by 1834, he left his family in the care of his brother and immigrated to the United States. He ended up in St. Louis where he worked as a merchant and dreamed of becoming a big rancher in California.

In 1838, Sutter travelled overland to Vancouver with a party of trappers. He then went on a trading mission to the Hawaiian Islands where the Hawaiian King presented him “… with a bodyguard of eight husky young Kanakas.” The next trip was to Sitka, Alaska, then still a Russian possession.

In 1839, Sutter took a cargo from Sitka to Yerba Buena (present day San Francisco), but was refused a landing by the Mexican authorities. Continuing on to Monterey, Sutter met the Mexican governor of California and not only got permission to discharge his cargo at Yerba Buena, but the authority to sail up the Sacramento River and select a piece of unoccupied land upon which to establish a colony. He agreed to become a Mexican citizen and was granted absolute title to the land.

Captain Sutter chose a 48,000 acre tract near the site of modern day Sacramento and built a secure fort, which he named New Helvetia, after an old Roman name for Switzerland. He grew the first wheat in the area, which he taught his Indian employees to thresh using flails, and established a flour mill to grind the wheat. He bought thousands of horses and cattle and hired as many as three hundred Indians to care for them and the crops and to work in the tannery he established. Becoming quite prosperous, Sutter sent for his family in 1844.

Sutter’s fort became a regular stop for Americans coming to the territory and, when the Mexican War began in 1846, Sutter, the somewhat less than loyal Mexican citizen, conspired with General John C. Fremont to win California from Mexico for the United States.

Sutter was building a large new flour mill and badly needed lumber, as did the growing village of Yerba Buena. He hired a mechanic from back east named James W. Marshall to set up and run a saw mill to provide the lumber. On January 24, 1848, while checking the tail race of the mill, Marshall found a few flakes of a metal that looked like gold.

Marshall and Sutter tested the flakes with nitric acid and verified that they were indeed gold, but agreed to keep the find a secret, as they knew the lure of gold would create havoc and siphon away the labor they needed for the mill.

Of course, the secret couldn’t be kept, and in March the story appeared in a San Francisco newspaper. The cat was out of the bag and people all over the country became convinced that millions of dollars’ worth of gold was just lying around waiting to be scooped up.

Hordes of gold seekers converged on Sutter’s Mill and the surrounding country. The newcomers fed their horses, mules and oxen on Sutter’s standing grain, and themselves on his cattle. Even the millstones for the new flour mill were stolen.

Sutter’s Indians abandoned the cattle, the flour mill and the tannery. Thousands of cow hides spoiled while the tanners went off in search of riches. Sutter had hired a doctor to minister to his Indians and this man left to sell pills to the miners for a dollar apiece.

At first, Sutter tried to join the rush. He took a few remaining Indians and his Hawaiian Kanakas and set up a mining camp. As he later wrote: “I found that it was high time to quit this kind of business, and lose no more time and money. This whole expedition proved to be a heavy loss to me.”

Apparently, in spite of the losses he’d incurred during the early stages of the “Rush,” Sutter still had his land. However, after the United States took over California, Sutter’s Mexican title to the land became suspect to many Mexican haters and land grabbers. Squatters took over most of his domain and went to court to invalidate his title.

Sutter won in the district court, where his title was upheld, but in 1858 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the Captain, who moved his family to a nearby farm he owned. Finally, in 1865, someone burned his house to the ground and Sutter had had enough.  

He moved to Lancaster County, Pa., where he lived among the Moravians. The State of California, recognizing that Sutter had been ill-treated, paid him a $250 pension for a few months, although this was soon revoked.

In 1857, Sutter wrote: “By this sudden discovery of the gold, all my great plans were destroyed. Had I succeeded…, I would have been the richest citizen on the Pacific shore. Instead of being rich, I am ruined.”

Captain Sutter spent the rest of his life trying to get compensation from the State of California or the federal government, and was in Washington D.C. in 1880, petitioning Congress for relief when he died. Sutter and his wife are buried in a Moravian cemetery in Lititz, Pa.

The original fort, with its two and a half foot thick adobe walls, is still standing in Sacramento and may be visited by the public.

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