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Sketch of Gen. John A. Sutter
The Donner Party's Benefactor
The Least and Most that Earth can Bestow
The Survivors' Request
His Birth and Parentage
Efforts to Reach California
A Puny Army
Ross and Bodega
Effect of the Gold Fever
The Sobrante Decision
A "Genuine and Meritorious" Grant
Gen. Sutter's Death
Mrs. E. P. Houghton's Tribute.
Zealous in sending supplies and relief to the suffering Donner Party, earnest in providing shelter, clothing, and food to all who were rescued, Captain John A. Sutter merits more than a passing mention in this history. From the arrival of Stanton at Sutter's Fort with the tidings that a destitute emigrant train was en route for California until the return of the fourth relief party with Lewis Keseberg, Captain Sutter's time, wealth, and influence were enlisted in behalf of the party. Actuated only by motives of benevolence and humanity, he gave Stanton and the various relief parties full and free access to whatever he possessed, whether of money, provisions, clothing, mules, cattle, or guides. With all due deference to the generosity of Yerba Buena's citizens, and to the heroic endeavors of the noble men who risked their lives in rescuing the starving emigrants, it is but just and right that this warm-hearted philanthropist should be accorded the honor of being first among the benefactors of the Donner Party. His kindness did not cease with the arrival of the half-starved survivors at Sutter's Fort, but continued until all had found places of employment, and means of subsistence. Pitiful and unworthy is the reward which history can bestow upon such a noble character, yet since he never received any remuneration for his efforts and sacrifices, the reward of a noble name is the least and the most that earth can now bestow. In view of his good deeds, the survivors of the Donner Party have almost unanimously requested that a brief biographical sketch of the man be inserted in these pages.
At midnight on the twenty-eighth of February (or first of March), 1803, John A. Sutter was born in the city of Baden. He was of Swiss parentage, and his father and mother, were of the Canton Berne. Educated in Baden, we find him at the age of thirty a captain in the French army. Filled with enthusiasm, energy, and love of adventure, his eyes turned toward America as his "land of promise," and in July, 1834, he arrived in New York. Again breaking away from the restraints of civilized life, he soon made his way to the then almost unknown regions west of the Mississippi. For some years he lived near St. Charles, in Missouri. At one time he entertained the idea of establishing a Swiss colony at this point, and was only prevented by the sinking of his vessel of supplies in the Mississippi River. During this time he accompanied an exploring party into the sultry, sand-covered wastes of New Mexico. Here he met hunters and trappers from California, and listened to tales of its beauty, fertility, and grandeur which awoke irresistible longings in his breast. In March, 1838, with Captain Tripp, of the American Fur Company, he traveled westward as far as the Rocky Mountains, and thence journeying with a small party of trappers, finally reached Fort Vancouver. Finding no land route to California, he embarked in a vessel belonging to the Hudson Bay Company, which was ready for a voyage to the Sandwich Islands. From Honolulu he thought there would be little difficulty in finding passage in a trading vessel for the Coast of California. Disappointed in this, he remained at the Islands some months, and finally shipped as supercargo of a ship bound for Sitka. In returning, the vessel entered the Bay of San Francisco, but was not allowed to land, and Monterey was reached before Sutter was permitted to set foot upon California soil. From Governor Alvarado he obtained the right of settling in the Sacramento Valley. After exploring the Sacramento, Feather, and American Rivers, finally, on the sixteenth of August, 1839, he landed near the present site of Sacramento City, and determined to permanently locate. Soon afterward he began the construction of the famous Sutter's Fort. He took possession of the surrounding country, naming it New Helvetia. One of the first difficulties to be overcome was the hostility of the Indian tribes who inhabited the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys. Kindness and humane treatment were generally sufficient to cause these Indians to become his allies, yet in more than one instance he was obliged to resort to arms. Considering the size of his army, there is a sort of grim heroism in the fact that he successfully waged at times a defensive and at times an aggressive warfare. His entire army was composed of six white men, who had been collected from different parts of the world, and eight Kanakas.
Dunbar, in describing Sutter's situation, says: "This portion of upper California, though fair to look upon, was peculiarly solitary and uninviting in its isolation and remoteness from civilization. There was not even one of those cattle ranches, which dotted the coast at long intervals, nearer to Sutter's locality than Suisun and Martinez, below the mouth of the Sacramento. The Indians of the Sacramento were known as 'Diggers.' The efforts of the Jesuit Fathers, so extensive on this continent, and so beneficial to the wild Indians wherever missions were established among them, never reached the wretched aborigines of the Sacramento country. The valley of the Sacramento had not yet become the pathway of emigrants from the East, and no civilized human being lived in this primitive and solitary region, or roamed over it, if we except a few trappers of the Hudson Bay Company."
Out of this solitude and isolation, Sutter, as if with a magician's wand, brought forth wealth and evolved for himself a veritable little kingdom. Near the close of the year 1839, eight white men joined his colony, and in 1840 his numbers were increased by five others. About this time the Mokelumne Indians became troublesome, and were conquered. Other tribes were forced into submission, and Sutter was practically monarch of the Sacramento and San Joaquin. The old pioneers speak with pride of the wonderful power he exerted over these Indians, teaching them the arts of civilization, forming them into military companies, drilling them in the use of firearms, teaching them to till the soil, and making them familiar with the rudiments of husbandry. The vast herds of cattle which in process of time he acquired, were tended and herded principally by these Indians, and the cannon which ultimately came into his possession were mounted upon the Fort, and in many instances were manned by these aborigines. Hides were sent to Yerba Buena, a trade in furs and supplies was established with the Hudson Bay Company, and considerable attention was given to mechanical and agricultural pursuits.
In 1841, Sutter obtained grants from Governor Alvarado of the eleven leagues of land comprised in his New Helvetia, and soon afterwards negotiated a purchase of the Russian possessions known as "Ross and Bodega." By this purchase, Sutter acquired vast real and personal property, the latter including two thousand cattle, one thousand horses, fifty mules, and two thousand five hundred sheep. In 1845 Sutter acquired from Gov. Manuel Micheltorena the grant of the famous Sobrante, which comprised the surplus lands over the first eleven leagues included within the survey accompanying the Alvarado grant.
As early as 1844 a great tide of emigration began flowing from the Eastern States toward California, a tide which, after the discovery of gold, became a deluge. Sutter's Fort became the great terminal point of emigration, and was far-famed for the generosity and open-heartedness of its owner. Relief and assistance were rendered so frequently and so abundantly to distressed emigrants, and aid and succor were so often sent over the Sierra to feeble or disabled trains, that Sutter's charity and generosity became proverbial. In the sunny hillslopes and smiling valleys, amidst the graceful groves and pleasant vineyards of this Golden State, it would be difficult to find localities where pioneers have not taught their children to love and bless the memory of the great benefactor of the pioneer days, John A. Sutter. With his commanding presence, his smiling face, his wealth, his power, and his liberality, he came to be regarded in those days as a very king among men. What he did for the Donner Party is but an instance of his unvarying kindness toward the needy and distressed. During this time he rendered important services to the United States, and notably in 1841, to the exploring expedition of Admiral Wilkes. The Peacock, a vessel belonging to the expedition, was lost on the Columbia bar, and a part of the expedition forces, sent overland in consequence, reached Sutter's Fort in a condition of extreme distress, and were relieved with princely hospitality. Later on he gave equally needed and equally generous relief to Colonel Fremont and his exploring party. When the war with Mexico came on, his aid and sympathy enabled Fremont to form a battalion from among those in Sutter's employ, and General Sherman's testimony is, "that to him (Sutter) more than any single person are we indebted for the conquest of California with all its treasures."
In 1848, when gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill, near Coloma, quoting again from Dunbar: "We find that Captain Sutter was the undisputed possessor of almost boundless tracts of land, including the former Russian possessions of Ross and Bodega, and the site of the present city of Sacramento. He had performed all the conditions of his land grants, built his fort, and completed many costly improvements. At an expense of twenty-five thousand dollars he had cut a millrace three miles long, and nearly finished a new flouring mill. He had expended ten thousand dollars in the erection of a saw-mill near Coloma; one thousand acres of virgin soil were laid down to wheat, promising a yield of forty thousand bushels, and extensive preparations had been made for other crops. He owned eight thousand cattle, two thousand horses and mules, two thousand sheep, and one thousand swine. He was the military commander of the district, Indian agent of the territory, and Alcalde by appointment of Commodore Stockton. Respected and honored by all, he was the great man of the country."
Subsequently he was a member of the Constitutional Convention at Monterey, and was appointed Major General of militia. Would that the sketch of his life might end here; but, alas! there is a sad, sad closing to the chapter. This can not be told more briefly and eloquently than in the language of the writer already mentioned:
"As soon as the discovery of gold was known, he was immediately deserted by all his mechanics and laborers, white, Kanaka, and Indian. The mills were abandoned, and became a dead loss. Labor could not be hired to plant, to mature the crops, or reap and gather the grain that ripened."
"At an early period subsequent to the discovery, an immense emigration from overland poured into the Sacramento Valley, making Sutter's domains their camping-ground, without the least regard for the rights of property. They occupied his cultivated fields, and squatted all over his available lands, saying these were the unappropriated domain of the United States, to which they had as good a right as any one. They stole and drove off his horses and mules, and exchanged or sold them in other parts of the country; they butchered his cattle, sheep, and hogs, and sold the meat. One party of five men, during the flood of 1849-50, when the cattle were surrounded by water, near the Sacramento river, killed and sold $60,000 worth of these - as it was estimated and left for the States. By the first of January, 1852, the so-called settlers, under pretense of pre-emption claims, had appropriated all Sutter's lands capable of settlement or appropriation, and had stolen all of his horses, mules, cattle, sheep, and hogs, except a small portion used and sold by himself."
"There was no law to prevent this stupendous robbery; but when law was established, then came lawyers with it to advocate the squatters' pretensions, although there were none from any part of Christendom who had not heard of Sutter's grants, the peaceful and just possession of which he had enjoyed for ten years, and his improvements were visible to all."
"Sutter's efforts to maintain his rights, and save even enough of his property to give him an economical, comfortable living, constitute a sad history, one that would of itself fill a volume of painful interest. In these efforts he became involved in continuous and expensive litigation, which was not terminated till the final decision of the Supreme Court in 1858-59, a period of ten years. When the United States Court of Land Commissioners was organized in California, Sutter's grants came up in due course for confirmation. These were the grant of eleven leagues, known as New Helvetia, and the grant of twenty-two leagues, known as the Sobrante. The land commissioners found these grants perfect. Not a flaw or defect could be discovered in either of them, and they were confirmed by the board, under the provisions of the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo."
"The squatter interest then appealed to the United States District Court for the Northern District of California. This court confirmed the decision of the land commissioners. Extraordinary as it may appear, the squatter interest then appealed both cases to the Supreme Court of the United States at Washington, and still more extraordinary to relate, that court, though it confirmed the eleven-league grant, decided that of the Sobrante - twenty-two leagues - in favor of the squatters. The court acknowledged that the grant was a "genuine and meritorious" one, and then decided in favor of the squatter interest on purely technical grounds."
"Sutter's ruin was complete, and its method may be thus stated: He had been subjected to a very great outlay of money in the maintenance of his title, the occupancy and the improvement of the grant of New Helvetia. From a mass of interesting documents which I have been permitted to examine, I obtained the following statement relative to the expenses incurred on that grant:
Expenses in money, and services which formed the original
consideration of the grant $50,000
Surveys and taxes on the same 50,000
Cost of litigation extending through ten years, including
fees to eminent counsel, witness fees, traveling
expenses, etc. 125,000
Amount paid out to make good the covenants of deeds upon
the grant, over and above what was received from sales 100,000
"In addition, General Sutter had given titles to much of the Sobrante grant, under deeds of general warranty, which, after the decision of the supreme court of the United States in favor of the squatter interest, Sutter was obliged to make good, at an immense sacrifice, out of the New Helvetia grant; so that the confirmation of his title to this grant was comparatively of little advantage to him. Thus Sutter lost all his landed estate."
"But amid the wreck and ruin that came upon him in cumulative degree, from year to year, Sutter managed to save, for a period, what is known as Hock farm, a very extensive and valuable estate on the Feather River. This estate he proposed to secure as a resting-place in his old age, and for the separate benefit of his wife and children, whom he had brought from Switzerland in 1852, having been separated from them eighteen years. Sutter's titles being generally discredited, his vast flocks and herds having dwindled to a few head, and his resources being all gone, he was no longer able to hire labor to work the farm; and as a final catastrophe, the farm mansion was totally destroyed by fire in 1865, and with it all General Sutter's valuable records of his pioneer life." As difficulties augmented, Hock farm became incumbered with mortgages, and ultimately it was swallowed up in the general ruin."
For some years he received a small allowance from the State of California; but after a time this appropriation expired, and was never thereafter renewed. The later years of the pioneer's life were passed at Litiz, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and his time was devoted to endeavoring to obtain from Congress an appropriation of $50,000, as compensation for the expenditures he made for the relief of the early settlers of California. His death occurred at Washington, D. C., on the eighteenth day of June, 1880, and his remains were laid at rest in Litiz, Pennsylvania. The termination of this grand, heroic life, under circumstances of abject poverty and destitution, forms as strange and mournful a story as can be found in the annals of the present age.
In concluding this chapter, it may not be inappropriate to quote from a private letter written by Mrs. S. O. Houghton, née Eliza P. Donner, immediately after the General's death. It aptly illustrates the feeling entertained toward him by the members of the Donner Party. Writing from San Jose, she says:
"I have been sad, oh! so sad, since tidings flashed across the continent telling the friends of General Sutter to mourn his loss. In tender and loving thought I have followed the remains to his home, have stood by his bier, touched his icy brow, and brushed back his snowy locks, and still it is hard for me to realize that he is dead; that he who in my childhood became my ideal of all that is generous, noble, and good; he who has ever awakened the warmest gratitude of my nature, is to be laid away in a distant land! But I must not yield to this mood longer. God has only harvested the ripe and golden grain. Nor has He left us comfortless, for recollection, memory's faithful messenger, will bring from her treasury records of deeds so noble, that the name of General Sutter will be stamped in the hearts of all people, so long as California has a history. Yes, his name will be written in letters of sunlight on Sierra's snowy mountain sides, will be traced on the clasps of gold which rivet the rocks of our State, and will be arched in transparent characters over the gate which guards our western tide. All who see this land of the sunset will read, and know, and love the name of John A. Sutter, who fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and comforted the sorrowing children of California's pioneer days."