|John Augustus Sutter’s once-thriving farming community in California fell victim to the Gold Rush. Portrait of John Sutter by Frank Buchser, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/.|
The current high price of gold is wreaking environmental destruction in many places around the world, sometimes interfering with local people’s ability to farm and garden. This isn’t a new situation, as John Koster explains; it is, however, far more widespread now than in the past, as are its harmful effects.
By John Koster
John Augustus Sutter dreamed that California, with its mild rainy winters and perennial sunshine, could become an agricultural paradise. The dream was deferred in Sutter’s lifetime when gold was discovered on his land, leading to tragedy for Sutter himself and for the Indians who had joined his enterprise. The dream came back only after the gold ran out.
Born in 1803, Johann August Sutter was raised and educated in Switzerland and later became a captain in the Swiss Army. At 23 he married heiress Annette Dübold. The dashing young officer put their money into a store but neglected the business and was soon in enough debt to risk jail. He fled to France, and later, adopting the name Captain Sutter, traveled widely, including to St. Louis, Oregon and California – by way of Hawaii, where he recruited eight Hawaiian men, two women and a bulldog for the journey to California. After a stop in Sitka, then Russian territory, Sutter landed in California at Monterey and later visited Yerba Buena – “good grass” – later called San Francisco.
The authorities told Sutter and his Hawaiians to keep moving, but after some of his diplomacy, they reconsidered. The elegant Spanish grantees, about 1,000 people, and their ex-convict Mexican soldiers controlled coastal California, but the white and mestizo population was so small that enormous amounts of land still belonged only to the vastly larger number of indigenous Indians, sometimes interactive with missionary priests, sometimes still tribal. Sutter was Catholic, Swiss, a soldier, and was amenable to politics, so Mexican governor Juan Bautista Alvardo let him settle after all. After a year in California, Sutter declared himself a Mexican citizen and received a grant of 48,827 acres, which he named “New Helvetia” (the Roman name for Switzerland).
Sutter and his Hawaiians and a few whites, along with tribal Indians who came to trade and stayed on, constructed Fort Sutter, a bastion armed with cannons and centered on a store and his own house – and today part of Sacramento.
The local Indians included the Miwok tribe, who lived in conical lodges made of fallen branches and raised ceremonial tobacco but no food crops. They hunted, foraged for wild berries and herbs, and caught fish. The Maidu, another, slightly more developed tribe, built pits in the ground as foundations of their houses, and had learned to leach tannin out of acorns to make acorn flour. They too hunted and fished, and made ornate baskets so tightly woven that only a magnifying glass could spot the pattern of the weave. Some of their baskets could even hold water and be used for cooking, not over a fire but with hot stones dropped in them. Once these mellow Indians discovered that Sutter would deal fairly with them, some became regulars around Fort Sutter.
The Mexican authorities gave Sutter more than 500 cattle, 50 work and riding horses, and 25 breeding mares on credit, and Sutter and his workforce began agriculture, California style – raising half-wild cattle and selling their hides, tallow and some of their meat.
Sutter’s blacksmith shop began to turn out iron plowshares, and after a memorable rain in the winter of 1839-1840, his settlers began to plant wheat. The Indians also picked wild grapes, and Sutter built a distillery to turn them into brandy.
He also bought all the Russian real estate claimed in California for $30,000 in credit, to be paid for in four installments with wheat. Unfortunately, the wheat harvests for the next two years were poor due to drought. In 1843, the land barely produced enough wheat to replace the seed from the previous year’s sowing. Brandy, lumber, deer hides and tallow, beaver and otter skins, salmon and sturgeon continued to be the staple products. Sutter also had factories producing furniture, hats and blankets.
“This valley is only beginning to send out a ten-thousandth part of what this land can produce,” an undaunted Sutter told a supporter. He began to move the agricultural equipment from the Russian territories to New Helvetia – including large circular threshing floors where the Russians used horses to trample out their wheat.
The endlessly patient Indian women kept hauling water from the pond to the vegetable gardens, sometimes in their marvelous waterproof baskets, to irrigate potatoes, cabbages, beans, peas, corn, parsnips, melons and lettuce – foods they had never seen before.
Feeding his retainers by gardens and game, Sutter was able to send 300 of his tamer cattle to Don Antonio Suñol, one of his tolerant creditors. The wilder cattle were headed for the matanza, the annual roundup and slaughter. The novillas, wild young steers, averaged about 200 pounds of prime meat per animal, and this meat was smoked. The steers also produced about 100 pounds each of tallow, sent down the Sacramento River to be shipped to the soap and candle works of South America. The best steers also produced about 50 pounds of manteca, fat from between the hide and the ribs, prized in California kitchens and made into home cooking oil in Monterey.
The rains returned in 1845, and the wheat harvest was so heavy that Sutter had 500 Indians cutting the stalks with sickles, scythes, sabers, kitchen knives and cutters improvised from barrel hoops. Some used their bare hands. Laban, a 6-foot-6-inch Indian and one of Sutter’s favorites, qualified for a proper Germanic steel scythe blade fitted with a snath Laban made from a local bough.
Once the wheat was in, the grain and stalks were thrown, 2 feet deep, onto the threshing floors, where mares spent about an hour threshing them with their hooves. Vaqueros rode in to reverse the mares’ direction every five minutes.
Winnowing took longer because of California’s seasonal rain and wind. The reaping season was also the season for mild winds, generally, but when winds were sparse, an hour’s worth of threshing could take a month to winnow.
The wheat kernels were stocked in granaries, and a mule-powered mill ground them into flour as needed. Enough grain was left over in 1845 to send a brig load to the Russians for partial payment on the land they had sold to Sutter.
After another good harvest in 1847, with California now held by U.S. forces as part of the Mexican War, Sutter submitted a formal census of the domain he had started with 10 Hawaiians, three leery whites and an Indian boy – and his bulldog, later killed when he took on a grizzly bear. Sutter’s 200 square miles in the Sacramento area now comprised 160 white males, 47 white females, one black man, five Hawaiians, 50 Indian males, 15 Indian females, three half-bred Indian males and seven half-breed Indian females. (The rest of Sutter’s 150-man Indian army appears to have disbanded once the United States provided nominal protection.) Sutter’s friendship with the Miwok and Maidu tribes also led him to be appointed U.S. Indian Agent for California.
Sutter also listed 20,000 cattle, 2,500 horses, 2,000 sheep, 1,000 hogs and 70 mules. New Helvetia owned three horse-mills (for grinding grain or turning lathes and drills), two water mills, one sawmill, one tannery, 60 houses and the Fort itself.
Sutter’s desire for one more sawmill did him in, indirectly. Sutter wrote on August 27, 1847: “Made a contract with James William Marshall for a saw-mill to be erected on the American Fork.” Marshall, a jack-of-all-trades from New Jersey, set off with a couple of other whites and a handful of Indians to build a new sawmill and re-channel part of the American Fork for water power.
On January 28, 1848, as Marshall strolled beside the millrace at the American Fork, he spotted yellow metal flakes beneath the surface of the water. Marshall shouted to an Indian to bring a blackened pie pan and later rode like a madman to show Sutter the 3 ounces of gold. Sutter pledged him to silence, but word leaked, and by June sailors were jumping ship in San Francisco and the harbor was a forest of bare masts as crewmen rushed inland to pan for gold.
Gold panners came from as far as Chile and Australia, and included a component of ruffians whose behavior sent many Indians into the hinterlands, where many were subsequently shot or starved in the unfamiliar habitats. Disease and bad whisky killed most who maintained contact with whites. California anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber estimated the total Miwok population at about 11,000 in 1770. The 1910 census reported 671; the 1930 census, 491. Likewise, Kroeber estimated the Maidu at 9,000 in 1770. That dropped to 1,100 in 1910 and, in 1930, thirty. This was one of the most comprehensive genocides in history, although the Miwok and Maidu populations, mixed with other Indians and whites, have since experienced a mild resurgence.
The gold panners also destroyed much of the land and buildings Sutter had worked to develop. Sutter’s downfall was an epic tragedy for the Indians who trusted him, and a barely mitigated tragedy for Sutter himself. His wife and grown children had joined him after 17 years of separation to find him struggling to keep his estate intact without laborers. He sold New Helvetia to cover the last of his debts. A group called The Squatters Association challenged his remaining Mexican-Californian land grant, El Sobrante, and in 1858 they beat Sutter in court.
Sutter moved to Hock Farm, his last freehold in Northern California, but it burned down in 1865. Sutter was granted a small income of $250 a month in return for taxes paid on El Sobrante, so he and his wife and grandchildren moved to Lititz, Pennsylvania, a short train ride from Washington, D.C. In 1880, Sutter had a bill before Congress that would have given him $50,000 for all his lost holdings in California due to the Gold Rush. Congress adjourned on June 16, 1880, without voting on the bill. Sutter died in a Washington hotel two days later.
Sutter is remembered in the names of streets and schools, a medical center in Northern California, and his house in Lititz, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A 1936 biographical film, “Der Kaiser von Kalifornien” by Luis Trenker, shows Sutter and most of the Indians as honest and honorable. One wonders what John August Sutter would have thought of it.
John Koster is the author of Operation Snow: How A Soviet Mole In FDR’s White House Triggered Pearl Harbor and Custer Survivor: The End Of A Myth, The Beginning Of A Legend.