An Adventurer’s Roundabout Journey

young John Sutter

Fleeing from creditors in his native Switzerland, John Augustus Sutter landed in New York in 1834, near penniless. Nevertheless, he disembarked with trunks of books and clothing, and big dreams.  He became a trader between St. Louis and Santa Fe, and lived in Westport (now Kansas City) for a time, places where he learned of bucolic Mexican-owned California and its rumored opportunities for settlers. Getting there took many months. Leaving Westport in the spring of 1838, Sutter journeyed overland to Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River. He boarded a trading vessel to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), in hopes of connecting with a California-bound ship, but ended up stranded in Honolulu for five months. Finally, Sutter arranged to deliver cargo to San Francisco Bay on the ship Clementine—on the condition that he first make a delivery to the Russian outpost at Sitka, Alaska. Arriving in Yerba Buena (now San Francisco) in July 1839, he was refused permanent admittance to the harbor and told to sail to the official port of entry at Monterey. There, he met with Governor Alvarado and gained permission to proceed with his by now grandiose plans for a settlement in California’s interior. A month later Sutter sailed up the Sacramento River with his little crew in two small sailing vessels and a pinnace, intending to go far enough inland to avoid official surveillance and interference. After several days of navigating a virtually unexplored wilderness, Sutter found a suitable site two miles east of the confluence of the Sacramento and American Rivers. It was August 12, 1839, more than a year and thousands of miles after leaving the American States, when he unloaded his boats near a rise of ground where he built a walled compound known to all subsequent immigrants as Sutter’s Fort. 

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