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Cultural and Ethnic Diversity at Sutter’s Fort

Updated: Jan 15, 2020

By Jared Jones and Steve Beck

John Sutter’s settlement of New Helvetia (New Switzerland) was a dynamic melting pot of cultural and social ethnicities – even before -- “Sutter’s Fort” became synonymous with the discovery of gold, and tens of thousands of people from all over the World rushed into the region in 1849.

Sutter was a German-Swiss entrepreneur accompanied by three white men, a German, Belgian, and Irishman and ten Hawaiians, two of whom were women. William Heath Davis, an American-Hawaiian sailor, was Sutter’s guide to the confluence of the Rio de Sacramento and Rio de Los Americanos in August of 1839. Sutter’s land grant was surveyed by a Frenchman. He built his settlement in the heart of land occupied by thousands of California Native Indians; to his west was the Spanish-Mexican Rancho Culture; along the coast was the Russian settlement of Fort Ross; to the north were the English Hudson Bay Company settlements in Oregon; and from the east came the burgeoning tide of “American” emigrants looking for opportunity in Sutter’s new settlement.

In its early days Sutter’s Fort became a haven for fur trappers displaced by the failing beaver trade in the Rocky Mountains, for sailors who “jumped ship,” and for men escaping from their past lives and misdeeds. But Sutter’s settlement soon became a destination for farmers and families looking for a better life in a new land. Sutter’s neighbor to the north was John Sinclair, a Scotsman. To the east was William Leidesdorff, a Dutch-African. To the southeast were Americans William Daylor and Jared Sheldon. To the south were the American Rhoads Family and the German Charles Weber. They all acquired land from the Mexican government and they lived amongst at least 35 permanent villages of Native People. Sutter’s Fort was guarded by an army of Sacramento Valley Natives, drilled by German officers; they carried French muskets, and were dressed as Russian sailors. The Fort was truly an eclectic ethnic enclave. The historian Seymour Dunbar wrote of Sutter’s Fort, “…the life of all people and all nations has been profoundly affected by things that found their origin within its walls.”

Native People