Johann August Suter was born in Kandern, Baden-Württemberg, on 15th February, 1803. After being educated in Switzerland he was sent to a military academy. He later claimed he served in the Royal Swiss Guards but research has indicated that this regiment never existed.
In 1826 he married Annette Dubold. They ran a shop together but it was not a success and he built up considerable debts. He decided to emigrate to the United States, leaving his wife and five children in Burgdorf. He arrived in New York City on 14th July, 1834. He moved to St. Louis where he changed his name to John Sutter.
Sutter made trading trips to Sante Fe (1835 and 1836) before deciding to join a group of missionaries who wanted to move to Oregon in 1838. His journey took him along the Oregon Trail to Fort Vancouver. In 1839 he moved to Yerba Buena (San Francisco), that was under the control of Mexico. The following year Sutter established the colony of Nueva Helvetia (New Switzerland), which became a centre for trappers, traders and settlers in the region. The venture was a great success and within a couple of years Sutter was a wealthy businessman. Sutter had tremendous power over the area and admitted: "I was everything, patriarch, priest, father and judge." The historian, Josiah Royce, has commented: "In character, Sutter was an affable and hospitable visionary, of hazy ideas, with a great liking for popularity, and with a mania for undertaking too much."
Sutter purchasing 49,000 acres at the junction of the Feather and Sacramento rivers in 1841. This site dominated three important routes: the inland waterways from San Francisco, the trail to California across the Sierra Nevada and the Oregon-California road. John Bidwell was the head of a wagon train from Missouri when he arrived in California in October 1841: "Sutter received us with open arms and in a princely fashion, for he was a man of the most polite address and the most courteous manners, a man who could shine in any society. Moreover, our coming was not unexpected to him. It will be remembered that in the Sierra Nevada one of our men named Jimmy John became separated from the main party. It seems that he came on into California, and, diverging into the north, found his way down to Sutter’s settlement... Through this man Sutter heard that our company of thirty men were already somewhere in California. He immediately loaded two mules with provisions taken out of his private stores, and sent two men with them in search of us."
Sutter now decided to build a frontier trading post at modern day Sacramento. Completed in 1843 Sutter's Fort had adobe walls eighteen feet high. Described as a "European-style fort - thick walls, gun towers, a great gate, the most ambitious fortification in California to that time". The fort had shops, houses, mills and warehouses. He also had blacksmiths, millers, bakers, carpenters, gunsmiths and blanket-makers.
Lansford Hastings wrote in 1845: "Captain Sutter's fort, on the Sacramento, and the other, at a farm about forty miles above that place, about the same time, that the main body of the party, arrived at the Sacramento, opposite New Helvetia, the whole company, received every possible attention, from all the foreigners in California, and especially, from Captain Sutter, who rendered every one of the party, every assistance in his power; and it really appeared, to afford him the greatest delight, to be thus enabled, to render important aid, to citizens of his former, adopted country."
William Sherman was another visitor to Sutter's Fort: "At that time there was not the sign of a habitation there or thereabouts, except the fort, and an old adobe-house, east of the fort, known as the hospital. The fort itself was one of adobe-walls, about twenty feet high, rectangular in form, with two-story block-houses at diagonal corners. The entrance was by a large gate, open by day and closed at night, with two iron ships guns near at hand. Inside there was a large house, with a good shingle-roof, used as a storehouse, and all round the walls were ranged rooms, the fort-wall being the outer wall of the house. The inner wall also was of adobe. These rooms were used by Captain Sutter and by his people. He had a blacksmiths shop, carpenters shop, etc., and other rooms where the women made blankets. Sutter was monarch of all he surveyed, and authority to inflict punishment even unto death, a power he did not fail to use. He had horses, cattle, and sheep, and of these he gave liberally and without price to all in need. He caused to be driven into our camp a beef and some sheep, which were slaughtered for our use."
In 1847 John Sutter and James Marshall went into partnership in the building of a sawmill at Coloma, on the South Fork of the American River, upstream from Sutter's Fort, about 115 miles northeast of San Francisco. Another man who worked for Sutter, John Bidwell, commented that "rafting sawed lumber down the cañons of the American river was a such a wild scheme... that no other man than Sutter would have been confiding and credulous to believe it practical."
On 24th January, 1848, Marshall noticed some sparkling pebbles in the gravel bed of the tailrace his men had dug alongside the river to move the water as quickly as possible beneath the mill. He later recalled: "While we were in the habit at night of turning the water through the tail race we had dug for the purpose of widening and deepening the race, I used to go down in the morning to see what had been done by the water through the night...I picked up one or two pieces and examined them attentively; and having some general knowledge of minerals, I could not call to mind more than two which in any way resembled this, very bright and brittle; and gold, bright, yet malleable. I then tried it between two rocks, and found that it could be beaten into a different shape, but not broken."
That night John Sutter recorded in his diary: "Marshall arrived in the evening, it was raining very heavy, but he told me he came on important business. After we was alone in a private room he showed me the first specimens of gold, that is he was not certain if it was gold or not, but he thought it might be; immediately I made the proof and found that it was gold. I told him even that most of all is 23 carat gold. He wished that I should come up with him immediately, but I told him that I have to give first my orders to the people in all my factories and shops."
The gold was then showed to William Sherman: "I touched it and examined one or two of the larger pieces... In 1844, I was in Upper Georgia, and there saw some native gold, but it was much finer than this, and it was in phials, or in transparent quills; but I said that, if this were gold, it could be easily tested, first, by its malleability, and next by acids. I took a piece in my teeth, and the metallic lustre was perfect. I then called to the clerk, Baden, to bring an axe and hatchet from the backyard. When these were brought I took the largest piece and beat it out flat, and beyond doubt it was metal, and a pure metal. Still, we attached little importance to the fact, for gold was known to exist at San Fernando, at the south, and yet was not considered of much value."
James Marshall continued with building the saw-mill: "About the middle of April the mill commenced operation, and, after cutting a few thousand feet of lumber was abandoned; as all hands were intent upon gold digging." John Sutter later recalled: "Soon as the secret was out my laborers began to leave me, in small parties first, but then all left, from the clerk to the cook, and I was in great distress... What a great misfortune was this sudden gold discovery for me! It has just broken up and ruined my hard, restless, and industrious labors, connected with many dangers of life, as I had many narrow escapes before I became properly established."
This started the Californian Gold Rush and by the end of 1849 over 100,000 people from all over America had arrived in search of gold. William Sherman reported: "Already the gold-mines were beginning to be felt. Many people were then encamped, some going and some coming, all full of gold-stories, and each surpassing the other." Sutter's men also joined the Gold Rush and he was now unable to protect his property. His sheep and cattle were stolen and his land was occupied by squatters. In 1852 Sutter went bankrupt and it was not until 1864 that he received compensation from the state of California.
John Sutter died on 18th June, 1880.