One of my favorite historical fantasies includes the wonder of what certain places in California looked like before the modern world took over. I would love to be able to go back in time as an immigrant to California in the 1840s and be able to experience the sight of the Sacramento Valley before there was a city of Sacramento. Well, a trip to Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park doesn’t make that visualization any easier. The park is located in a quiet neighborhood on the corner of L Street and 28th, just a block or so west of Interstate 80. The fort used to be in the middle of rolling grassland in sight of the American River to the north and the Sacramento River to the west. Now it is surrounded by residential streets of Sacramento, less than two miles from the state capital.
Johann Augustus Sutter left his family in Switzerland and came to America in 1834 to escape debts and gain a fresh start. He was reportedly a huckster with a tendency to inflate his own resume, but by hook or crook he made it to California in 1839. When Sutter saw the land around the American River, he started making plans to build a farming and ranching empire. He sold his plan to the Mexican government of California and not only won Mexican citizenship in 1840, but also a land grant of 48,827 acres the following year. All he had to do was maintain order among the local Indians. He was also authorized to issue land grants and passports to American immigrants to California.
With the help of Native-American labor, Sutter built his fort with adobe walls that were two and half feet thick. The compound was reported to be 425 feet by 175 feet. Inside the fort there were carpenter and blacksmith shops, a gunsmith, a distillery, bakery, grist mill, and a blanket factory. Over the next several years, Sutter welcomed immigrants arriving over the California trail. Many new arrivals went to work for him. Eventually Sutter’s “New Helvetia” would encompass approximately 191,000 acres.
When James Marshall brought the gold nuggets to the fort in1848, Sutter initially tried to keep the discovery a secret. But once word got out, the flood of fortune seekers overwhelmed him and his holdings. Sutter lost his empire faster than he built
Although the park was surrounded by the growth of Sacramento long ago, don’t let that give you the impression that this is not an enjoyable park to visit. And if I was going to recommend a starting point for a California Gold Rush trip, this would be the place, followed by a drive up to the Marshall Discovery site. For one thing, the drive up to Coloma would give you a feel for the expanse of land that was under Sutter’s control, if even for a brief time. The fort itself is a real treat to walk through. It is on par with the mission at La Purisma for the re-creation of the shops. There are plenty of artifacts in each to view as well as a period wagon. Check the park website for a schedule of events. If possible, visit on a day when one of the “living history” events is taking place. And while outside the fort there is a quiet modern neighborhood, inside it is easy to transport yourself back to the 1840s. Imagine what an oasis this settlement must have been after arduous months on the trail.