An artist’s depiction of Sutter’s Fort, 1849. (George Victor Cooper/Bancroft Library, U.C. Berkeley)

The sorry story of John Sutter

The owner of the California property where gold was discovered died broke.

Swiss pioneer John Sutter arrived near the confluence of the Sacramento and American Rivers on this week in 1839. He built a fort, persuaded the Mexican governor to grant him a massive expanse of land, and made plans to construct a city. Needing lumber, Sutter established a sawmill in the foothills and hired carpenter John Marshall to help. Then, in 1848, something glittered in the mill water. The Gold Rush was on.

John Sutter, circa 1850. (California State Library)

Sutter’s workers stampeded into the goldfields. Squatters swarmed his land, destroying his crops and livestock. As his business ventures unraveled, Sutter took to drinking. By 1852, he was bankrupt. He moved to the East Coast and lobbied Congress for redress over the loss of his property. But little was done. In 1880, as California hummed with new wealth and enterprise, Sutter died alone at a Washington hotel, bitter and poor. 

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