San Francisco History

The Beginnings of San Francisco


John Augustus Sutter was born of Swiss parents in Kandern, Baden, February 15, 1803. He served his time in the Swiss army and was, for a time, an officer in the force of citizen soldiery of that republic. Having failed in business in Burgdorf, Bern, he sailed for America in 1834, leaving behind him his family who joined him some years later in California. Landing in New York in July 1834, Sutter went to St. Louis and later to Santa Fé. In New Mexico Sutter met men who had been in California and who told him of that country's climate, lands, and cattle. He formed a party of seven and started from St. Louis in April 1838 for California by way of Fort Hall, Walla Walla, Fort Boisé, and Fort Vancouver, arriving at that point in October, six months from St. Louis. There being no vessel soon to sail for California, Sutter sailed for Honolulu. From Honolulu he sailed for the American coast April 20, 1839, as supercargo of the English brig Clementina, landing first at Sitka, thence down the coast to San Francisco bay which he entered July 1st. He brought with him three or four white men and eight or ten kanakas for his California rancho. He also brought letters of introduction to the Spanish officials from James Douglas of the Hudson's Bay company at Vancouver, from Russian officials at Sitka, and from prominent merchants at Honolulu. From the United States consul at Oahu he brought a letter to General Vallejo. In these letters he is referred to as formerly a captain in the French army and was supposed to have been a captain in the famous Swiss guard of Charles X. Proceeding to Monterey he was well received—his letters opening all doors, and his pleasing manners confirming the impressions created by his recommendations. Unfolding his colonization scheme to Governor Alvarado he was by him advised to announce his intention of becoming a Mexican citizen; to go into the interior and select any unoccupied tract of land that might suit him, and to return to Monterey in a year when he should be given his papers of naturalization and a grant of his land. This suited Sutter and he returned to San Francisco, visited Vallejo at Sonoma and the Russian agent at Ross. Vallejo advised him to settle in Sonoma or Napa, but Sutter had decided on the Sacramento valley before coming to California. He wished to be far enough away from the Californians to be independent—to set up, as it were, a little province of his own. Chartering a small flotilla from Nathan Spear, he embarked his colony and his goods and set out for the Sacramento, the fleet being under command of William H. Davis. For eight days they sailed up the Sacramento river and on the afternoon of the last day entered the mouth of the American river and landed on the south bank; unloaded the cargoes; pitched the tents and mounted the cannon—three brass pieces which Sutter had brought from Honolulu. Thus the beginning of Sacramento: the inhabitants being, Captain Sutter, three white companions—names unknown—ten kanakas including two women; an Indian boy from Oregon; and a bull dog from Oahu. The site selected for the settlement was about a quarter of a mile from the landing, on high ground where two or three grass and tule houses were built by the kanakas on wooden frames put up by white men. These were ready for occupation early in September and before the rains came Sutter had completed an adobe house roofed with tules. A number of recruits were obtained before the end of the year and Sutter had them all at work hunting, planting, and preparing for the next season's trapping operations, while the rancho was stocked with horses and.cattle.

Sutter named his establishment Nueva Helvetia and in August went to Monterey to receive his naturalization papers; and as soon as the proper steps could be taken he was appointed commissioner of justice and representative of the government on the frontier of the Rio del Sacramento.

In 1841 Sutter employed Jean J. Vioget to make a survey and map of the region to be used in his application for the grant of land that had been promised him, and on August 15th filed his petition and diseño with the governor who made the grant August 18th of eleven square leagues (48,825 acres) on the Sacramento and Feather rivers.

Sutter pursued a wise course with the Indians and was very successful in his dealings with them. He treated them with uniform kindness and justice but with constant vigilance and prompt punishment of offenses. He had unusual tact in making friends, and he not only kept the Indians of the Sacramento on friendly terms but succeeded in obtaining from them a large amount of useful service.

In December 1841, Sutter bought the Russian post at Fort Ross consisting of houses, mills, tannery, live-stock, and implements, for thirty thousand dollars to be paid in four yearly installments. The Russian agent also gave Sutter a certificate of transfer of the land occupied by them but as they had no title they could convey none to Sutter. He removed the personal property to New Helvetia, including the guns, seventeen hundred cattle, nine hundred and forty horses, and nine hundred sheep. In 1843-4 the fort, which he had begun in 1840, was completed.

It is quite evident that Sutter had an idea that he could create an establishment that would be in a position to maintain at least a sort of independence of the Mexican government. He is described by visitors of that period as living in a principality sixty miles long by twelve broad in a state of practical independence, colonizing his lands and employing an army of workmen in raising crops and in hunting the beaver. Wilkes predicts that it will not be long before New Helvetia becomes in some respects an American colony, {Wilkes Nar. v. 262-3. Ringgold's report.} while De Mofras says that Monsieur Sutter can trade independently of the custom house or the Mexican authorities. {Mofras Explor. i. 457.} It is not surprising that, fostered by a benign government that gave him the land for nothing, he waxed fat and kicked; and when Vallejo and others objected to some of his doings he talked of bringing in men from the Willamette and the Missouri, of Shawnees and of Delawares, and of raising the standard of the republic of California.

Sutter made strong objections to the operations of the trappers of the Hudson's Bay company in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys and peremptorily ordered the brigades to discontinue their visits. Not recognizing Sutter's authority the trappers paid no attention to his orders, but in 1841 Chief Factor James Douglas came to Monterey and arranged for permission to employ thirty hunters in California agreeing to pay a duty on each skin taken. Sutter, prevented from interfering with the company's operations, endeavored to stir up strife among the trappers and enlist them under his banner of revolt, but Vallejo was assured by Sir George Simpson, governor of the company, that none of his men or his agents would enter into any political engagements with Sutter or any one else of an unfriendly nature towards him or the governor.

From 1841 regularly organized parties of American immigrants came across the plains to California and also from Oregon. Lying on the direct route both from the Missouri and the Willamette, Sutter's fort was the general rendezvous where all Americans were kindly welcomed and found succor and temporary employment until they could arrange with the authorities for permission to remain and settle in California. Sutter encouraged the immigration which was profitable to him and assisted the immigrants in many ways. He was generous to a degree and no appeal to him was made in vain. He gave freely whether remuneration was expected or not. He assumed the right to grant passports to foreigners which gave offence to the authorities, being contrary to the laws and against the express orders from Mexico. The alcalde of San Juan Bautista complained that foreigners holding passes from Sutter were catching the wild horses and were buying those stolen from the ranchos. In 1844 a militia company was organized at New Helvetia and Sutter was made captain. He made several expeditions against the predatory Indians of the north and did good work in protecting the frontier.

In taking up arms in the quarrel between Micheltorena and Alvarado Sutter did a blamable and foolish thing. The foreigners in California were too ready to interfere in the domestic affairs of the province, and there was too much talk about their "rights" and how they proposed to protect them. Alvarado had been Sutter's friend and benefactor and he turned his arms against him. Vallejo wrote Sutter entreating him to reflect before taking a step that must seriously disturb the friendly relations existing between the Californians and foreigners; but Sutter would not listen. Micheltorena was going to give him and his friends large grants of land in addition to what they already had, and also other lands which Sutter could parcel out among those of his followers who did not wish to become Mexican citizens. These considerations overbalanced any Vallejo could urge and Sutter marched to meet the enemy with one hundred mounted riflemen under Captain John Gantt, one hundred Indians under Ernest Rufus, and a brass field piece in charge of eight or ten artillerymen. Dr. John Townsend, later alcalde of San Francisco, and John Sinclair, later alcalde of Sacramento district, acted as aides-de-camp; Jasper O'Farrell was quartermaster, Samuel J. Hensley, commissary, and John Bidwell, secretary. Before entering the San Fernando valley Sutter had Micheltorena sign a grant of what was known as the Sutter general title, twenty-two leagues in the Sacramento valley. Before the fight began Pio Pico, who was in command of the parliamentary army and who would, as first vocal, succeed Micheltorena, assured Sutter and his men that Micheltorena's grant and promises were worthless because lands could only be granted to Mexican citizens. He told them, however, that they would not be disturbed in their present occupation of lands, and that as soon as they chose to become citizens he would give them legal titles. On this they abandoned Micheltorena and remained out of the fight; the story of which is told in chapter xii. The grant of twenty-two leagues was thrown out by the United States supreme court as illegal. The New Helvetia grant of eleven leagues by Alvarado in 1841 was confirmed after it had passed for the most part out of Sutter's possession.

With the conquest of California Sutter was in position to become the richest and most influential man in the country. Popular, with a magnificent address and fine presence, he had the dignity and military bearing of an old officer, while his kindly nature and courtesy drew all to him and he had in a wonderful degree the art of making friends; but he failed to realize his opportunity and lacked the ability to manage and conserve his great resources. Full of energy and audacity he was without strength to hold what he had and while possessing many good and kindly qualities he was somewhat wanting in the attributes of honesty and fidelity. His posing as an officer of the Swiss guard at the French court, which he never was but which he permitted to be reported and believed, was a piece of characteristic foolishness; but notwithstanding such weakness almost all travelers were favorably impressed with and speak well of him. His hospitality was shamefully abused by the immigrants. At the time of the discovery of gold Sutter was building, in addition to his sawmill at Coloma, a grist mill on the American river where Brighton now is. It was never completed. His men deserted to the mines, after Sutter had spent thirty thousand dollars on the mill, and everything was stolen—even the stones. The immigrants stole the bells from the fort and the weights from the gates; they carried off two hundred barrels he had made for packing salmon; they stole even his cannon; they drove their stock into his yard and helped themselves to his grain and to anything else they wanted; they squatted on his land, denied the validity of his title, cut down his timber, and drove off his cattle. Sharpers robbed him of what the squatters did not take until at last he was stripped of everything. The California legislature in 1864 provided him a pension of two hundred and fifty dollars a month. This was continued until 1878 when the bill was defeated. He died in Washington D. C. in 1880, in comparative poverty.

In person Sutter was about five feet, nine inches in height and was thickset. He had a large head and an open manly face, somewhat hardened and bronzed by his life in the open air. His hair was thin and light and he wore a short mustache. Thomes wrote in 1844: "One day a flat boat came alongside, manned by ten naked Indians, and in the stern was a white man. He brought us two hundred hides and a large lot of beaver and other skins. When he came on deck Mr. Prentice (chief mate) told me the visitor was the celebrated Captain Sutter; that he lived a long way off, up the Sacramento river somewhere, and had ten thousand wild Indians under his command, a strong fort, and employed all the white men who came in his way. The captain was a short stout man, with broad shoulders, large, full face, short stubby mustache, a quiet reserved manner, and a cold blue eye that seemed to look you through and through, and to read your thoughts. * * * He was reported to be a Swiss by birth and formerly an officer of the Great Napoleon's army.” {On Land and Sea, 192.}  Bartlett  {Personal Narrative, 69.} says: "Captain Sutter has the manners of an intelligent and courteous gentlemen, accustomed to move in polished society. He speaks several languages with fluency. He is kind, hospitable, and generous to a fault; as many Americans know who have lived on his bounty. He is a native of Switzerland, fifty-five to sixty years of age, and of fine personal appearance. He was one of the officers of the Swiss guard in the Revolution of July (1830) during the reign of Charles X. After this he emigrated to the United States." Bayard Taylor {El Dorado, 158.} says: "Captain Sutter's appearance and manners quite agree with my preconceived ideas of him. He is still the hale, blue-eyed jovial German, short and stout of stature, with a broad high forehead, head bald to the crown, and altogether a ruddy, good-humored expression of countenance. He is a man of good intellect, excellent common sense, and amiable qualities of heart. A little more activity and enterprise might have made him the first man in California in point of wealth and influence."

Sutter's public career practically ended with the constitutional convention of which he was a rather ornamental member, having little influence and doing but little work. His title of general comes from his being named in 1856 major general of the Fifth division, state militia.


Source: Eldredge, Zoeth Skinner. The Beginnings of San Francisco. 1912: San Francisco.

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