Deep inside downtown Sacramento on a protected remnant of what was once acres of gently rolling hills sits a lesser known State Historic Park: Sutter’s Fort. Founded 177 years ago by Swiss immigrant John Sutter, and beautifully restored, it grants a unique perspective on the beginnings of our capital city – and how it almost was named Sutterville.
A Land Grant Leads to Gold
Sutter received a land grant from the Mexican government in 1839 and founded New Helvetia (new Switzerland) on a low hill near a slough. His 150,000 acres of rich soil allowed him to create an extensive agricultural settlement which became a stopping point for pre-gold rush pioneers, many whom settled there.
Sutter’s Fort is a true fort, with three-foot thick and 18-foot high walls, protective cannons poised in the corner watchtowers, and a large courtyard. Ringing the fort on the interior walls are a series of “rooms” parsed out into such services as the leather shop and weaving center, all essential to daily life in the 1800s.
Sutter’s son started selling land parcels along the Sacramento River where the riverboat trade was flourishing. As Sutter’s settlement grew, he sought ways to access more resources, including lumber from the foothills, and started construction of a sawmill in Coloma. As every California student knows, gold was discovered there in 1848. For Sutter, the outcome was devastating. Workers and residents abandoned Sutterville to join the gold rush.
For the next 40 years, its walls and surrounding outlier buildings crumbled into decay, leaving only the central building’s shell. It became an interesting relic for visitors from the river town that that would become today’s Old Town Sacramento.
The Nation’s Oldest Restored Fort
In 1891, the Native Sons of the Golden West realized that a critical piece of local history was disappearing, and began restoration, completing it in 1893. It marked the beginning of a preservation movement that spread across the U.S.
Their timing was pivotal in saving not just the fort, but furnishing it with the period pieces of daily life. Today, it would be likely impossible to assemble this fascinating and extensive array of goods. From weaving looms, rifles and blacksmith tools; from butter churns, cook pots, string beds and blankets, what are now museum items were collected to help recapture history. Perhaps the most poignant is a doll carried by a member of the Donner Party.
Donated to the State Park system in 1947, the fort has undergone subsequent restorations, some for preservation, others to improve the accuracy of portraying it as it was in 1846.
A View from Within
Surrounded by older homes and modern buildings, Sutter’s Fort is an island in Sacramento. Towering trees have grown along a nearby remnant of the slough, and the fort’s whitewashed walls glow in the sunlight. As you amble through the main wooden gate, it’s as if today “shuts off” and you step into the past.
There is so much to see – plan to spend several hours. The huge courtyard features a pioneer wagon and encampment under a spreading oak, near to the original central building. At virtually each of the 15 different history “stations” or rooms that ring the fort’s interior wall, there is an audio tour. Background stories and quotes add depth and perspective to what people’s lives were like nearly 200 years ago.
I learned about “cooperage” and how wooden buckets were designed to swell when filled with water to make them watertight, and was amazed the array of ammunition and rifles early settlers used, some so long they needed a tripod to support the muzzle! I gained new appreciation for the important role of blacksmiths – they made and repaired anything to do with metal, from horseshoes to plowshares. Climbing into the watchtowers, I inspected the cannons which never needed to be used to defend the fort.
Open year ‘round, Sutter’s Fort periodically has special “living history” events where costumed docents recreate the era. School groups have the opportunity to participate in special programs that help bring history to life.
If you go:To learn more, visit www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=485; do download the brochure. Weekdays are less busy. Wear comfortable walking shoes, not just for the fort, but because you may have to park a couple of blocks away.