Sutter's Fort -- revisiting the original `California dreamer'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

John Augustus Sutter has been called a visionary, a fool, a pioneer, a loser. And to some extent, all seem to be true of the Swiss 'emigr'e who founded an outpost of civilization in what was then (in 1839) the trackless wilds of northern California. Today, Sutter's name can be found on businesses and street signs all over this sprouting capital city, but all that remains of his would-be personal empire, New Helvetia, is a rectangle of thick, white-washed adobe walls near the center of town.

Sutter's Fort is no glittering tourist attraction; nothing here will take your breath away, but, if you let it, the place will definitely make you think -- and wonder -- at the scale and the fragility of men's dreams.

We walked through the fort's sturdy wooden gates not long after they opened one warm morning. Few others had preceded us, which made possible an exclusive tour with Kari Bockstahler, a student at Sacramento State University and an intern with the State Park Service.

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Guided by Kari, we follow the perimeter of the mud-brick fortress, where one workshop or sleeping area is wedged against another without a break. The first room we stick our heads into is the Indian guardroom, where some of Sutter's native militiamen were billeted in fair comfort by the standards of the day. Hanging on the walls or laid out on the stretched cowhide bunks are a few of the colorful uniforms the resourceful Swiss managed to scrounge for his personal army.

New Helvetia had a perennial shortage of skilled workmen to keep Sutter's economically fragile enterprise supplied with such basics, and that was one reason the ``immigrants' room'' a little farther around the wall, with its rough-hewn beds and other rustic furnishings, was a very important place.

Sutter counted on populating his domain with immigrants who had pushed west in search of a better life and land of their own -- and had brought their old trades with them. His scouts would journey into the mountain passes to shepherd parties of settlers back to New Helvetia.

Sutter himself would turn out in his finery, welcome the newcomers to his haven, and give them the best meal they'd had since they left Missouri. Some immigrants, like James Marshall, the carpenter who later found the nugget that burst Sutter's dreams, stayed on to become valued foremen and associates.

The whole fort, in fact, was really a kind of small-scale industrial center. Grain from the nearby wheat fields was ground there, wool was woven into cloth, pelts stacked and shipped off, firearms repaired, candles made, and even shoes cut and stitched together. It was all part of Sutter's dream of a self-sufficient empire, and it is reproduced in remarkable detail in the various craftsmen's quarters, which are stacked and hung with the tools and raw materials of the trades, from blacksmith's sooty gear

to the molds, wicks, and tallow vats of the candlemaker.

In the central building, Kari shows us the dining room where the master of New Helvetia entertained such honored guests as John C. Fremont, the ambitious (some said arrogant) army officer and explorer who later had a run for the presidency. On these occasions, Sutter set the best table his lands could provide: roasts of beef, salmon, fruits, and juices, for instance. Sometimes, however, the local cuisine might overpower a visitor. A gentleman by the name of Pierson B. Reading once demanded that Sutter' s cook tell him what was in the pudding he'd just sampled. ``Why, sir,'' the cook is reported to have replied, ``it's regular Christmas plum pudding, Mexican style.'' The ingredients? Beef tallow, sour wild grapes, chili powder, and black pepper.

Back on the perimeter, we look in on what is perhaps the fort's most dramatic scene -- the ``gold discovery room.'' Lifelike models portray a grave-looking Sutter and an excited James Marshall discussing the find that would bring a rush of mankind to California. The mass of newcomers overran Sutter's lands and overwhelmed the ever-fragile economy of New Helvetia. Eventually, Sutter was driven east in a desperate effort to gain reimbursement from the US government for his losses. Reimbursement nev er came, and the embittered man died nearly penniless in 1880.

Our stay in the fort over, we thank Kari for what had been a piquant taste of history and set course for the next stop -- the Gold Discovery Park, an hour and a half drive up Interstate 50 to Placerville and then north on state Highway 49 through the oak and pine-dotted hill country on the doorstep of the Sierra Nevada.

The drive takes you through land permanently marked by man's thirst for gold -- square miles of scrub vegetation clinging to endless piles of tailings left by the dredgers who scoured for precious metal through the 1920s.

On entering the valley that cradles the village of Coloma, signs direct you to the James Marshall monument -- a bronze likeness of the gold discoverer set on a knoll overlooking the town and the swift-flowing American River. The statue points permanently to the spot where, in 1848, Marshall found a gleaming nugget in the tailrace of a sawmill he was building for Sutter. Down the trail from the monument nestles a replica of the painfully Spartan cabin Marshall lived in during his later years. The man who

found the first gold, like his friend and employer Sutter, was trampled by the gold rush. His attempts at prospecting proved fruitless, and he too eventually died a pauper.

On either side of Highway 49, which bisects Coloma, stand buildings that evoke the Old West: blacksmith and gunsmith shops, a saddle and harness shop, a boxish little post office, the reconstructed quarters of Mormon workmen and Chinese immigrants.

The boom lasted only a short time in Coloma before the scent of richer strikes lured the prospectors away. A squat, rather nondescript stone pillar marks the exact spot near the edge of the river where Marshall made his discovery. A distance away from the rushing stream stands a full-sized model of the sawmill that Sutter believed to be the key to his empire-building dreams. One can walk the ramp up to the mill, survey the peaceful countryside that only 150 years ago swarmed with gold-hungry humanity -- and ponder the ironies of history.

Sutter's Fort and buildings of the Gold Discovery State Historic Park at Coloma are open daily, 10 to 5.

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