Captain John Augustus Sutter, California!
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John Augustus Sutter !

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Captain John Sutter

Have you ever wonder why all auctioneers are called colonel? Is it a level in which they graduate from auctioneer school, or do they just like the sound of the title. In the 1800's, captain was a title frequently used as well. Not everyone called captain was in the military, nor did they fight in any wars. It seemed to be a reference used to just separate leaders from followers. So much was the case as Captain Sutter.

Born in Switzerland, John Augustus Sutter had gone bankrupt and his only hope to escape imprisonment for his debts was to leave. His quick departure led him to America. Where he began telling large tales of his adventures in the Swiss Military, although the records show he was never in the army. Building his inflated ego after some kind of military leader.

In 1838, he headed for California by a very indirect route. Traveling with fur traders overland until he came to Hudson Bay Company post in Vancouver, for which he boarded a ship bound for Honolulu, then north to Sitka, and finally making his way to San Francisco. Styling himself as "Captain Sutter," in August of 1839, he started to build his ranch at what is now Sacramento. At this time the Mexican Government had control over the territory. But after becoming a Mexican citizen, he was able to receive a grant of 48,818 acres, then secured appointment as the local political and military authority for the area.

Sutter built a fort, which had an excellent strategic location, directly on the immigrant route from Missouri to Willamette rivers overland to San Francisco Bay, and dominated the northern half of California's great Valley. Inside his fortress he had stores, workshops and his central headquarters. On the adjacent fields, Sutter raised wheat and cattle, along with some fruit. Later he developed interests in industrial ventures, which lead him toward future profits, but left him deeply in debt with the present deficits. To build his work force he tried to find as many whites as were available, but depended most on the lazy and inexperienced local Indians. Sutter's biggest downfall was his kind heart, not refusing to give employment to anyone, and his generosity to immigrants, which created more problems. His only financial success lay in the emigration from the United States which was increasing, but ever so slowly.

One of his projects more important to California history was Sutter's Sawmill. For this he took in a partner, one James Marshall, thirty-three, a moody but very skillful at carpentry and farming. Forty-five miles from the fort was a stand of oak and pine for which the sawmill could work from. The plan was to build a log dam from the south side of the stream to divert water into a dry channel. A third of the way down the channel was to be deepened into a race for which the mill would be built. Marshall was put in charge of building the mill. After their first trail at the mill they found out the tailrace was not deep enough. So they began digging again, removing rocks by day and flooding it at night to wash out the sand and gravel.

BOn the morning of January 24, 1848, Marshall inspected the tailrace to see what had happen the night before. About two hundred yards below the mill his eyes caught the glitter beneath the water and he removed the material for inspection. It was too heavy for mica, and after pounding it on the stones found it to be too malleable for copper. He had made the biggest discovery this country will ever know. Gold, this find would soon be heard around the world. People from all walks of life, every country in the world would soon embark on the adventure of their lives. Even though this was not the first strike in California, for early in the 1840's a single mine was discovered in southern California, but nothing more was developed from it. From the gold found at Sutter's Mill came the famous rush.

The fact that Sutter did not find gold but rather his employee did, did not stop the historical stories about Sutter's Gold. Sutter and Marshall were to keep the story a secret, but secrets do not stay secret for very long. After the word got out it was still some time before the world would believe the story. In the States, president James K. Polk, on December 5th, included the story in his message to Congress. After that the fever gripped the nation and the rest is history.

The gold rush that followed caused the downfall of Sutter. All of his employees left him, the land was over run by gold diggers, the United States Supreme Court held invalid his major land grant from the Spanish. The final results was that Sutter lost everything and as an old man in Pennsylvania live a rather middle-class life and died broke. Not all good things come, to those who find gold!

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