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John Sutter: A Life on the North American Frontier

Author(s):Hurtado, Albert L.
Reviewer(s):Doti, Lynne Pierson

Published by EH.NET (September 2006)

Albert L. Hurtado, John Sutter: A Life on the North American Frontier. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006. xvii + 416 pp. $35 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8061-3772-X.

Review for EH.NET by Lynne Pierson Doti, Department of Economics, Chapman University.

Billed as “the definitive biography of California’s renowned gold-rush entrepreneur,” this book is a long overdue update on all the available information about John Sutter. Although the amount of material gathered by the author certainly justifies the term “definitive biography,” even the author would probably question labeling John Sutter as a “gold rush entrepreneur.” One of the best-known facts about this renowned Swiss transplant is that he was ruined by the gold rush.

Sutter earned the title entrepreneur. He took risks and regularly tried new ventures. His entrepreneurial life started in Switzerland, but at age 32 he left his wife and five children for the United States to avoid his debts. He traveled to New York, then St. Charles, Missouri, in 1835, but quickly left there with his European wardrobe as his contribution to a trading venture to New Mexico. This venture apparently earned him enough to return with wine, seven mules and cash. His success sent Sutter to New Mexico again. But he was back in Missouri in less than a year. The next year, facing debtors’ court, Sutter left Missouri and by the end of the year was in Hawaii. He celebrated the 4th of July, 1839 in Monterey, California. Governor Alvarado was also present at that celebration, and promised Sutter land in California’s central valley if he would settle it and become a citizen of Mexico. Sutter agreed, planning to model his settlement after the prosperous cattle ranch owned by Guadalupe Vallejo and staffed by local Indians. Within months Sutter was residing in a grass house, erected by his Hawaiian workers, in what would become Sacramento. By 1841, he was a Mexican citizen and had heavily-encumbered but vast acreage under his control. Sutter’s Fort soon became a destination for every visitor to California and the first stop for settlers.

Apparently gregarious, and probably an alcoholic, Sutter was a generous host and collected companions, workers and hangers-on wherever he went. At his fort in Sacramento, he lived in a rich stew of French, British, Germans, Hawaiians, Russians, Mexicans, New Mexicans and Native Americans from tribes all over the west. Adding to this melting-pot community were over one hundred children, most of whom had mixed parentage.

The Mexican War of 1846 to 1848 was a confusing affair in California. Sutter mostly supported the American side, but also spent a great deal of time during the war fraternizing with his Mexican friends. When he was keeping the Mexican Commander Vallejo prisoner at his fort (commandeered by Fremont), Sutter was chided for inviting the prisoner to dine with him. United States victory in the war increased the population in California and Sutter began expanding his production of horses, cattle and wheat. The horses and cattle supplied the military and other ranchers; much of the wheat was exported to Russia. Hock Farm, his home north of the fort, supplied his own and local needs. A new flour mill was planned, and his role in American history was assured when construction of a lumber mill revealed a rich vein of gold. At this point, Sutter’s financial situation should have improved further. Notoriously, Sutter marked this as the beginning of his ruin. He eventually lost title to all of his land. The title to some of the land was lost because of difficulties in staking claims in the administrative void between the end of Mexican rule and statehood. There were other reasons. While Mexican grants were honored under the Treaty of Hidalgo, Sutter’s grants were not specified correctly. Even on land that clearly belonged to Sutter, squatters took up residence. Downtown Sacramento developed along the river, land Sutter had avoided due to periodic flooding, instead of in Sutter’s safer subdivisions. Above all, Sutter trusted people who clearly should not have been trusted, over-encumbered his property and paid too little attention to business. “He was a poor businessman,” notes Hurtado early in the book (p. 65).

Sutter’s family joined him during the gold rush, but his son August, who came first, seemed to have even less sense than his father. In 1850 the Sacramento property was sold to satisfy debts. After that, Sutter and his wife lived at Hock Farm, in debt, and often on the charity of friends and the state government. When they lost their home to an arsonist in 1865, Sutter and his wife moved to Washington, D.C. where he received a pension from the federal government. With August’s financial assistance, Sutter built a home in Lititz, Pennsylvania in 1871. He spent time lobbying Congress in support of his property claims and died in 1880 in Washington, D.C.

Is this “the definitive biography of California’s renowned gold rush entrepreneur?” Normally there isn’t much to think about in the dust-cover blurbs, but this comment sums up what is great about this book and also what is disappointing. There is a huge amount of information here about John Sutter, but even knowing perhaps all there is to know, the reader is left without any new understanding of this enigmatic figure.

While Sutter is left, perhaps forever, as an enigma, this book is one of the most important additions to California history in the last decade. The research is extensive and taps many original sources. There is information on financial, agricultural, military and trade history for the1840s and 50s. Hurtado also expands the work he did in Indian Survival on the California Frontier in exploring the native tribes and their lives as they connect with Sutter.

Lynne Pierson Doti is the David and Sandra Stone Professor of Economics in the Argyros School of Business and Economics at Chapman University. She is writing a financial history of California.

Subject(s):Business History
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century