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Sutter's Fort State Historic Park

See What Life Was Like When the First Argonauts Reached California

Visit Sutter's Fort State Historic Park to get an authentic look at pioneer life in the early 1800s. John Sutter didn't build his fort in order to discover gold or for the benefit of the California Gold Rush 49ers. He built it as a home for himself and as the pivot point for the agricultural empire he dreamed of building.

John Sutter spread the word about the fertile soil and agricultural opportunities of the Sacramento River valley, and encouraged other settlers to join him in his ventures.

When they arrived, Sutter's Fort gave them a place to stop and regroup, and John Sutter often gave them supplies and equipment to help them get a new start.

But things got out of hand for John Sutter when James Marshall discovered those bits of gold in the American River at what was supposed to be Sutter's sawmill in Coloma California. Soon it was Gold Rush 49ers who were coming, not settlers.

And, whether they came overland by covered wagon or traveled around the Horn, most ultimately ended up at New Helvetia - Sutter's name for his Fort - before continuing on in search of the gold fields.

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The Story of Johann Augustus Sutter

Johann Augustus Sutter in 1878; Photographer UnknownJohann Augustus Sutter in 1878; Photographer Unknown

Known to us as John Sutter, Johann Augustus Sutter was a German/Swiss immigrant who played a huge role in the settlement of Northern California!

His contributions are celebrated at the restored and renovated Sutter's Fort, originally built by Sutter in the late 1830s, long before the California Gold Rush.

John Sutter first came to the United States in 1834, when he was 31 years old, to try to rebuild his fortunes after he failed at several business ventures in his homeland.

In order to do so, he left behind his wife, Anna, and their 5 children, planning to send for them when he could.

I always wonder how the women and children who were left behind managed to support themselves while their men were gone, don't you? Sutter didn't send for Anna and the children until 1850! What did they do for sixteen years?

It wasn't until mid-August, 1839 that Sutter made his way to the area now known as Sacramento. He traveled up the Sacramento and American Rivers to the spot where 28th and C Streets meet today - only about one mile from where he built New Helvetia, which is now known as Sutter's Fort.

In the beginning years of New Helvetia, Sutter made quite a lucrative series of businesses for himself - he was engaged in farming, fur trading, distilling whiskey and brandy, tanning, brewing beer, and many other activities that brought in money and provisions for him and his Samoan and Indian workers, and made life a little more comfortable.

Sutter was also involved in efforts to entice more settlers to come to California. He wanted to see the land settled and was establishing himself as the purveyor of all goods with his cattle and horses, hunting and trapping enterprises, distillery, flour mill and bakery, blacksmith shop, carpenter shop, freight and passenger ferries to and from San Francisco, and his newest project - the sawmill that James Marshall was building for him.

John Sutter and his fort and trading post were the target destination for settlers newly arrived in California - which was exactly what Mr. Sutter had in mind.

Travel to Sutter's Fort Today; See the Real Pioneer Life of Yesterday

Sutter's major contribution to the settlement of Northern California - apart from the obvious one that he owned the sawmill where James Marshall first discovered gold - was the sanctuary and assistance he offered to settlers who came from all over the world.

He often provided free accommodations and supplies to the new arrivals at his settlement who had been wiped out by the mere process of getting to California. And he was instrumental in recruiting settlers to begin the journey from back East in the first place!

One of Many Bedrooms by Suzi RosenbergOne of Many Bedrooms at Sutter's Fort by Suzi Rosenberg

At certain times of the year, you'll also find special events and reenactments to help you understand life in California during the 1800s.

Living History Days, when the fort returns to 1846 with costumed docents who become historical characters who might actually have visited the Fort in 1846.

Pioneer Demonstration Days, when you can participate in the activities being demonstrated by period-costumed docents - see what it took to accomplish life's tasks in the 1840s.

John Sutter's Bakery by Suzi RosenbergThe Sutter's Fort Bakery by Suzi Rosenberg

Summer Interpretive Program, which runs from Memorial Day through Labor Day weekend, perfect timing for a summer excursion when the kidlettes are getting bored with their school holidays.

We took our boys many times throughout their growing up years and they never tired of our visits. There's always something new going on at Sutter's Fort State Historic Park.

Recently we stepped inside the fort anew with out grandkidlettes (ages 4, 6, and 8 at the time) and they were fascinated. The boys especially loved the cannons and old rifles. The day we were there, a gentleman demonstrated the art of leather stamping, and another was cooking lunch at the bee-hive oven - both were dressed in period costumes.

Reenactment of a Pioneer Woman; Photo by Suzi RosenbergSutter's Fort reenactment of a Pioneer Woman; Photo by Suzi Rosenberg

There's also the State Indian Museum right next door to the fort, with its Native American artifacts, photographs, and basket collection. Enjoy the hands-on area where you can try using Indian tools, and visit the Museum Store for Native-made jewelry, gourds, and other items.

And it's all set in a beautiful park setting - right in the middle of modern-day Sacramento! Sutter's Fort is a perfect second stop while you're in Sacramento as part of your California Gold Rush explorations - the first stop being Old Sacramento, which is only about two-and-a-half miles away!

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Sutter's Fort is only one of the ways that you can step back in time to the California Gold Rush days:

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