By Claudia Newcorn
Deep inside downtown Sacramento on protected remnant of what was once acres of gently rolling hills sits a lesser known State Historic Park: Sutter 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 instead.
A Land Grant Leads to Gold
Sutter received a land grant from the Mexican government in 1939 and founded New Helvetia (new Switzerland) on a low hill overlooking a water slough. His 150,000 acres of the region’s rich soil allowed him to create an extensive agricultural settlement which became a stopping point for pre-gold rush pioneers, many whom likewise settled in the area.
Sutter Fort is a true fort, with three-foot thick and 18-foot high walls, protective cannons poised in the corner towers, and a large courtyard. Ringing the fort on the interior walls is a series of “rooms” parsed out into such services as the blacksmith’s shop and weaving center, all essential to the daily life in the 1800s.
Sutter’s son joined his father, and started selling land parcels along the Sacramento River where 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, hot-footing it to the hills 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 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 took the initiative to restore the fort, a process completed 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. From weaving looms, rifles and blacksmith tools; to butter churns, cook pots, string beds and blankets, what are now museum items were gathered to help recapture history. Perhaps the most poignant is a doll carried by a member of the Donner Party, part of a large collection donated by the family of Martha J. Reed Lewis. Today, it would be likely impossible to assemble the extensive array of goods that fascinate visitors to the fort.
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 tall buildings, Sutter Fort is an island in Sacramento. Towering eucalyptus, pine and oak trees have grown nearby along a 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.
The huge courtyard features a pioneer wagon and encampment under a spreading oak. The original central building sits off center; climb to the top floor to view two of the many rooms.
I was surprised at how much time I spent; there is so much to see. At virtually each of the “rooms” that ring the fort’s interior wall, there is an audio tour, explaining its history and contents. Background stories and quotes add depth and a new perspective to what people’s lives were like nearly 200 years ago. There is a bakery, basketry, grist mill… 15 different history “stations”.
I learned about “cooperage” and how wooden buckets were designed to swell when filled with water to make them watertight. I was boggled at 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 a blacksmith held; they made and repaired anything to do with metal, from horseshoes to plowshares. Climbing into the towers, I inspected the cannons and equipment used to raise them– an ingenious pulley and counterweight mechanism; the cannons were never used to defend the fort.
Open year ‘round, Sutter 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.
To learn more visit bit.ly/CalPARKS. 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.