Sutter's Fort: Crucible of the Gold Rush

Sutter's Fort

John Sutter came to California as an enterprising pioneer. He had dreams of raising cattle, sheep and wheat for the growing populations in the Pacific Northwest. He was on the verge of achieving his dream when gold was discovered.

The discovery of gold was the ruin of Sutter. His employees left to look for gold and fortune seekers helped themselves to whatever they could take from Sutter or his property.

Ironically, the seeds of the gold rush were unknowingly planted by Sutter himself.

The demand for lumber at the fort, in the cities of California and in the Hawaiian Islands was great. John Sutter felt his proximity to the forests and rivers of the valley made a water-powered mill a rewarding enterprise.

Due mostly to the infancy of archaeology and a lack of funding during the restoration, the current state park differs in many ways to the fort Sutter built. Here is a look at the fort just prior to the discovery of gold:

1 The main building

A three-story building, this is the only part of the original fort that exists today. It was the hub of the fort's operation. It housed: Sutter's business office, where accounts were created, cattle registered, and inventories tallied; the dining hall, where the residents of the fort were served their meals; the doctor's room, where various wounds and ailments were taken care of, broken bones set, and rashes and simple fevers treated; and Sutter's private office, where Sutter launched industrial and agricultural efforts and probably discharged his duties as a Mexican official.

2 Bastion
Protecting the fort from attack, two towers were armed with two types of cannons. One kind shot iron balls to stop attackers at a distance. The other kind was like a giant shotgun, shooting bags of musket balls, against attackers and their ladders along the wall of the fort.

3 Kitchen
Serving mostly bread and beef, the kitchen fed the fort's residents and visitors, who might number as many as 50 people at one time. This number swelled at planting and harvest time, to perhaps 150 to 200 workers.

4 Temporary home
These three rooms were Sutter's home during fort construction.

5 Carpenter's shop
Second in importance only to the blacksmith, the fort's carpenters made everything from the roof shingles to the windows and doors to the tables and chairs, beds and cupboards, even some of the cooking utensils. The molds for the adobe bricks and the cannon carriages were also made by the fort's carpenters.

6 Blacksmith's shop

Possibly the most important craftsman of the fort, the blacksmith made many essential items: hinges for the gates and doors, fittings for carriages, shoes for horses, lanceheads for defense, knives for cooking and tools for other craftsman. If the smith didn't make the original item, he was often asked to repair it.

7 Gunsmith's shop
Whether the gun belonged to the individual settler, or was part of Sutter' s arsenal, a skilled craftsman was needed to repair or replace broken parts.


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8 Coal storage

9 Guardroom
Posted on either side of the main gate, a member of Sutter's garrison would greet visitors to the fort and inquire as to their business.

10 Grain storage

11 Bakery
Two men were employed as bakers at the fort. They produced the bread that was eaten daily by the employees. The bakers used an outdoor beehive-shaped oven, called a "horno." They prepared a fire in the horno, heating the adobe bricks to the correct temperature.

12 Blanket factory
Part of Sutter's overall plan to establish industry at the fort, sheep were raised for wool and weavers were hired to make blankets. Natives were trained to supply any additional labor needed. The final product would be sold or traded to the local natives in return for goods or labor.

13 Grain storage

14 Cooper's shop

Holding wet and dry items, barrels were an important method for storage used all over the fort. A barrel maker, called a cooper, would be called upon to make wooden buckets, barrels, butter churns, drinking casks and large tubs.

15 Private rooms
Sutter provided free room and board at the fort to new immigrants, making it a popular destination for Europeans and Americans settling in California.

16 General store

17 Jail

Located under the southeast bastion, the jail confined drunks or brawlers or served as a holding cell for those awaiting trial or punishment. As the civil authority of the area, Sutter was charged with enforcing the laws and issuing punishment.


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A Carronade
Used to defend the fort walls.

B Cast iron pot
Cooked mostly meat.

C Spinning wheel
Used to turn wool into thread.

D Beehive shaped oven
This oven was called a horno.

E Hamer and anvil

Used to shape metal.

F Carpenter's plane
Used to shape wood.

G 1848 Colt
The 1848 Colt was favored by Wells Fargo.

H Butter churn
These churns were made by coopers.

The fort and the park

Numerous differences exist between Sutter's Fort and the state historic park on the fort's location:

* The fort was 428 by 178 feet with 18-foot walls. The park is 320 by 129 feet with 15-foot walls.

* The fort's east wall was 129 feet long. The park's is 137 feet long.

* At the fort, enclosed corrals abutted the north and south walls and the three room abode occupied by Sutter during construction abutted the western wall of the central building. None of these are represented at the park.

Sources: California Department of Parks and Recreation, "Dogtown Territorial Quarterly"

Bee graphic: R.L. Rebach

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