Sutter's Fort -- revisiting the original `California dreamer'
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.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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.
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.