John Augustus Sutter (February 15, 1803 - 1880) was a Californian famous for his association with the California Gold Rush (in that gold was discovered by James W. Marshall in Sutter's Mill) and for establishing Sutter's Fort in an area that would later become the capital of California, Sacramento.Even though most California school children know his name, he was a commercial failure who resented the fact that his son (John Sutter Jr) had succeded where he had failed.
Sutter was born as Johann Augustus Suter (the second t was added later) on February 15, 1803 in Kandern, Baden, Germany. His father came from a nearby town in Switzerland. Sutter incurred debts in his business dealings and had to leave Europe. He undertook extensive travels and was helped by friends to come to New York. With 35 other Germans he went to Santa Fe. He traveled to Honolulu and Oregon. From the Russian colony at Sitka, Alaska he traveled by sail to San Francisco, at that time a tiny poor mission station.
At the time when Sutter came to California, it had 5,000 European and 30,000 Indian population. It was a part of Mexico and the governor Alvarado de Monte Rey granted him permission to settle. In order to qualify for a land grant, Sutter became a Mexican citizen on August 29 of 1840. The following year, on June 18, he received title to 48,827 acres. Sutter named his settlement "Nuevo Helvetia" or New Helvetia (after his homeland). Sutter employed various groups of people, Indians, Kanakas and Europeans at his compound called Fort Sutter. He has a vision of creating an agricultural utopia, and for a time the settlement grew very large and prosperous. It even became the destination for most California-bound immigrants (including the ill-fated Donner Party, whom Sutter tried to rescue).
In 1847 the Mexican land was handed over to the United States. Sutter at first supported the establishment of an independent California Republic but when Union troops came to briefly seize control of his fort, Sutter did not resist because he was outnumbered. Then in 1848 gold was discovered on his sawmill in Coloma along the American River. Sutter's attempt at keeping this quiet failed when merchant and newspaper publisher Samuel Brannan returned from Sutter's Mill to San Francisco with gold he had acquired there and began publicizing the find. Masses of people overtook the land and destroyed nearly everything he had worked for. In order to keep from losing everything, however, Sutter deeded his remaining land to his son, John Sutter,Jr. The younger Sutter saw the commercial possibilies of the land and promptly started plans for building a new city he named Sacramento (after the Sacramento River). The elder Sutter deeply resented this because he had wanted the city center to be in nearby Sutterville.
Sutter won a lawsuit in the High Court of California for reembursement of his losses associated with the Gold Rush. He started to receive a pension of $250 a month and moved to Lititz, Pennsylvania. From there he personally petitioned congress in his case of seeking reembursement for his losses. In 1880 the Federal government was ready to grant this, but before he could receive any reembursement, he died on June 18th.
Had he been able to enjoy his findings, he would have been one of the wealthiest men in the world.