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John Sutter & the Gold Rush: Facts, Timeline & Sutter's Mill

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore John Sutter and the California Gold Rush. First discovered at Sutter's Mill in 1848, the Gold Rush ruined Sutter's empire in the Sacramento Valley.

King of the Castle

When someone achieves all of their dreams in life - be it owning a house, having a family, or being the head of a multi-billion dollar corporation - the satisfaction can truly make one feel like one of the old kings from history. Whereas millions of prosperous people in America figuratively feel like kings, the nineteenth-century rancher and entrepreneur John Sutter was nearly a literal king in California in the mid-nineteenth century! Ironically, it was gold found at Sutter's Mill by James Marshall in 1848 which would quickly bring Sutter's empire crashing down.

Early Life

John Sutter was born in Baden, present-day Germany, to Swiss parents in 1803. In 1834, in some financial difficulty, Sutter immigrated to the United States where he found work in Missouri as a trader to the pioneers headed west along the various trails. In 1838, Sutter set off west himself, arriving in Oregon at Fort Vancouver. From there he took several ships to ports around the Pacific, including Hawai'i and Russian settlements in Alaska before arriving in San Francisco Bay in late 1839.

California

Once in California, Sutter contacted the local Mexican authorities with a request for land. The local Mexican governor saw it as an opportunity to place a settlement between their coastal settlements and the Native Americans that occupied the territory and the encroaching Americans further east and granted Sutter virtual fiat power over 50,000 acres in the Sacramento Valley.

Within a few years, Sutter had built a massive settlement, with prosperous farms and orchards along with thousands of head of cattle. He soon moved the rest of his family from Europe to California and Sutter soon built a fort and encouraged settlement in his territory, especially by American settlers traveling west.

Sutter's Mill and Gold Rush

Sutter's aid to American settlers proved fortuitous as it afforded him some level of protection after the U.S. government took control of California following the Mexican-American War. Unfortunately, although he kept his land in name, his land and empire were soon overrun by the discovery of gold at his own mill. Sutter had entered a partnership with the carpenter James Marshall to build a sawmill on the American River in Sutter's Sacramento Valley. In January 1848, Marshall discovered gold in the river.

When news of Marshall's discovery at Sutter's Mill spread, droves of Americans and internationals flocked to California in search of gold, inspiring one of the largest mass migrations in American history. The prospect of easy gold drove an estimated 300,000 people from the eastern United States and elsewhere in the world to California in less than a decade. By 1852, San Francisco had evolved in less than five years from a sleepy port settlement on the Pacific Coast to a full-fledged city of over 35,000 inhabitants. The massive influx of people caused the U.S. Congress to grant California statehood in 1850.

Sutter's sprawling estate was soon overrun by prospectors who squatted on his land, muddied his rivers, ate his crops, and killed his cattle for food. By 1852, Sutter's life was virtually ruined. His land had been spoiled by the Gold Rush and its prospectors and he was virtually bankrupt. He never financially recovered from the event, and died in Washington D.C. in 1880.

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