History of the Donner Party

Chapter XXI.

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
New Helvetia
A Puny Army
Uninviting Isolation
Ross and Bodega
Unbounded Generosity
Sutter’s Wealth
Effect of the Gold Fever
Wholesale Robbery
The Sobrante Decision
A “Genuine and Meritorious” Grant
Utter Ruin
Hock Farm
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
========
$325,000

“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.”

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