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

The New Helvetia Diary (a log book of daily events at the Fort) lists 30 different groups of Native People as having visited or worked at the Fort. The workers came from many local and coastal tribes and they offered various skills to help business at the Fort be successful. Sutter later described them as, “My most trusted workers.” They were employed in positions such as bakers, cooks, vaqueros, farmers, guardsmen, millers, wool spinners, weavers, and other jobs. It was California Indians that showed Sutter how to make mud-bricks and it was Indians who built the Fort. It is important to note that they worked alongside other ethnic groups at the Fort. Many of the vaqueros were enlisted by Sutter to fight in the Revolution of 1845 and by the U.S. Military during the Mexican-American War. This is a list of some of the Natives at the Fort.


One of Heinrich Lienhard’s servants. Usually mentioned with another Indian named Konnock. Noted as working as a shepherd (A Pioneer at Sutter’s Fort, 164).


Nisenan (Southern Maidu) from the village of Walagumne on the Sacramento River.

He was the headman of the native people who lived on the land where Sutter wanted to build his Fort. Anashe became Sutter's friend and ally. Anashe was one of the first Natives to meet Sutter when he arrived to Sacramento (John Sutter, 62).


Eastern Miwok (village of Muquelemne on the Mokelumne River); Lancero; He was a trusted vaquero and was one of Sutter’s lancers who accompanied Sutter whenever he left the Fort. Bruno served in Company H of the California Battalion during the Mexican-American War.


Vaquero; Local Indian Man; One of Sutter’s Cowboys


Nisenan; Wagon driver; mentioned in the New Helvetia Diary


Local Nisenan man from the village of Mimal on the Feather River; Agricultural laborer; Employed as a worker at Sutter’s garden near Mimal


Eastern Miwok (village of Muquelemne on the Mokelumne River); Lancero; He was a vaquero and was listed as the Orderly Sergeant for the Indian Infantry in Sutter’s 1845 army. He was also one of Sutter’s mounted bodyguards.


Eastern Miwok (from the village of Ochehamme on the Sacramento River); Indian Garrison; Listed as a soldier in the Indian Infantry Company, he was possibly one of the local Indians enlisted by American Lieutenant Edward Kern in 1846 to protect Sutter’s Fort while the California Battalion was campaigning in Southern CA. during the Mexican-American War. In November 1846, the garrison at the Fort stood at 21 cavalrymen (Including Sutter – the rest were Indians) and 29 Indian infantrymen.

Homobono, Ensign:

Local Indian man; Translator; could read and write in Spanish as he was an ex-mission Indian and he helped with the muster role as mentioned in Sutter’s Reminiscences; He is listed as being an officer of the Indian Infantry of the 1845 army in the New Helvetia Diary. He performed the service of a translator during daily operations at the Fort.


Eastern Miwok (village of Muquelemne on the Mokelumne River); Lancero; Listed as being on furlough in 1847, he was a vaquero and probably served as one of Sutter’s mounted lancers who accompanied him on his journeys outside the Fort walls.


He is mentioned as Comock in the New Helvetia Diary. He is an Indian boy, who was Heinrich Lienhard’s servant. He worked well as a translator during Lienhard’s travels.


Eastern Miwok; Indian Guard; He is named as being in Sutter’s Indian Infantry Company in 1847. He stood guard at the gate and kept night watch.

Munut, Bill:

Eastern Miwok (village of Sagayacumne on the Mokelumne River); Lancero; Bill was a vaquero and was probably one of the mounted lancers who acted as Sutter’s personal bodyguard.


Eastern Miwok (village of Muquelemne on the Mokelumne River); appointed Mayor Domo of the vaqueros on July 20, 1847 over John Canaca, as mentioned in the New Helvetia Diary; He seems to be the most important of Sutter’s vaqueros. He learned the vaquero skills at the mission at San Jose. Olimpio was often dispatched to different villages to bring in workers and he served as a guide to important visitors and courier for important mail. He accompanied Sutter to the gold fields and transported gold to Sonoma. In 1848, Olimpio was made Keeper-of-the-keys for the entire Fort.


Local Indian headman of the Northern Valley Yokuts (village of Lakisamne on the Stanislaus River); He was one of the local chiefs who brought laborers to the Fort to work in the fields, gardens, general unskilled labor.


Eastern Miwok from the village of Muquelemne on the Mokelumne River. He was most active in bringing workers for Sutter, who regarded Rufino as one of his most loyal followers. In1845 he was appointed as a Second Lieutenant in Sutter's army. However, Sutter had him executed when Rufino murdered his own brother-in-law.


Eastern Miwok (village of Cosumne on the Cosumnes River); Lancero; He was a vaquero and was probably one of Sutter’s mounted personal lancers who guarded him on trips outside the Fort’s walls.


Local Indian Man; Vaquero; One of Sutter’s cowboys.


Local Indian Man; Vaquero; One of Sutter’s cowboys.


Local Indian man; Sawyer; Employed at New Helvetia in 1847 to saw wood. Tomeha, Olel, and Sholsia are mentioned on November 30, 1845 of the New Helvetia Diary for leaving with Dennis Martin for Peraltas Redwoods and to be paid 12 dollars a month for their work.


Local headman of Sequamne on the Mokelumne River, an Eastern Miwok village. He contracted with Sutter to bring laborers to the Fort.


Eastern Miwok (village of Muquelemne on the Mokelumne River); Lancero; He was a vaquero and was probably one of Sutter’s personal lancers who guarded him on journeys.


This is the list and background information on the Hawaiians that helped Sutter establish New Helvetia. The numbers have been disputed but most historians have determined that there were 8 men, 2 women, and possibly one child of Hawaiian descent. They remained at the Fort as employees and some integrated into the local Indian tribes. They helped to construct his fort and built the first frame houses (thatched them with grass) in Sacramento. They were considered expert sailors and piloted Sutter’s riverboats.

Davis, William Heath:

Business Associate; Born in Hawaii of an American father and a Hawaiian mother, Davis was destined to be one of the most respected businessmen in California. He captained the fleet which took Sutter up the Sacramento River to establish New Helvetia. Davis was only 17 years old at the time. He sold Sutter goods and transported Sutter’s wheat to Yerba Buena. Davis’ uncle was Nathan Spear. His narrative on life in California, Sixty Years in California, it highly respected and is frequently referenced by historians.

Footooi or Hukui or Kukui:

Harry’s brother. He drowned in the Suisun Bay in 1847.

Harry or “Kanaka Harry”:

Harry and his wife Manuiki came with Sutter to California from the Sandwich Islands, the original party who founded New Helvetia. He was an experienced sailor. Worked as a vaquero at the Fort and became Mayor Domo. Eventually, Sutter put him in charge of the Native American laborers at Hock Farm.


Daughter of Mahuka and Ellen Mahuka.

Kelley, John:

Although he was an experienced sailor, Kelley became a vaquero in New Helvetia. He married a Nisenan woman and remained in New Helvetia until the Gold Rush. His Hawaiian name was Ioanne Keaala O Kaaina.

Mahuka, Ellen:

Wife of Mahuka

Mahuka or “Sam Kapu”:

One of the original Hawaiians to accompany Sutter to New Helvetia; his children intermarried into Maidu and Miwok villages.


He first visited CA in 1824 on a whaler. He helped navigate Sutter’s expedition to New Helvetia. Maintop was running a schooner on the Sacramento River for Sutter when gold was discovered.

Makama or Jim Makana:

Also known as “Jim Crow” or “Yankee Jim”


Brother of Manuiki. He was employed as a cook on one of Sutter’s riverboats.


One of the Hawaiian women and was part of the original party to found New Helvetia. She married Harry at Sutter’s Fort. She cooked and sewed for the men. She was believed to be Sutter’s “girlfriend” for a period of time before her marriage to Harry.

African Descent

There is little mention of black individuals in the Central Valley in the 1840s. Whenever an individual was discussed, they were mainly referred to as “the negro” or “the black man.” Hardly ever were their names given. This group has slipped through the cracks of history and historians today still try to stitch together a narrative to try to discuss early black history in California.


In Sutter’s Reminiscences, there is mention of a cooper working for Sutter that was of African descent. He is noted for his craftsmanship and expertise in barrel and bucket making.


Noted for being large in size (Lienhard, 144). Jim traveled to the Fort from Washington. When Lienhard first meets Jim, Jim was washing gold. He worked alongside Indians at the Fort.

William A. Leidesdorff:

Father was Danish and his mother was black Creole. He reached California in 1841 and acted as an agent for the Russians at Fort Ross and he was Vice-Consul for the United States. He was one of the prominent men at Yerba Buena and is mentioned in the majority of records of that period. He owned a steamer by the name of ‘Sitka’ that made voyages for many notable men in history such as Lansford W. Hastings. Leidesdorff engaged in many trade transactions with Sutter, especially for wheat. Leidesdorff died of brain fever in 1848 at the early age of 38.

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