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.