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New Switzerland

Granted to:  John Augustus Sutter in 1841 by Governor Juan B. Alvarado

Size:  48,800 acres

Location:  Sacramento, Yuba, & Sutter Counties

Helvecia is the Latin form of the name of Switzerland, a country in Europe.  It was common for immigrants to the New World (America) to name their new home after their former home.  Perhaps they felt that carrying the name of their previous country or city to their new place made the new place seem more like their actual home.


The land along the Sacramento River and its tributaries was considered, in the 1830s, to be a wilderness.  The Spanish padres at the missions around San Francisco Bay knew it only as the home of the Wintun, Maidu, and Miwok Indians.  They did not have much contact with these Indians.  Once in a while, soldiers from the presidio at San Francisco would be sent into the Sacramento Valley to try to capture some Indians who had left the missions.  A few explorers came through the valley to the pueblos (towns) of San José and Yerba Buena.  For the most part, though, until 1830 this land was left to the Indians and to the deer, elk, wolves, and coyotes.


Johann (or John) Augustus Sutter was born in 1803 in Bavaria (in Germany), but lived as a boy and young man in Switzerland.  He became a merchant there, running a store, but he had a hard time making a living for his wife and four children.  In 1834, in order to escape going to prison for his debts, Sutter left his family and fled to the United States.

Soon after landing in New York, he heard about the Mexican land called Alta California on the Pacific Coast.  It took Sutter several years to make his way west.  Rather than taking the rough route over the mountains to California, he went northwest and down the Columbia River.  From there he took a ship to Hawaii (then called the Sandwich Islands), then back to Alaska, and eventually down the coast to California.


By the time he got to California in 1839, John Sutter had decided that he wanted to establish a colony of Swiss and German settlers here.  He told his plan to the Mexican Governor, Juan B. Alvarado. 

Alvarado was concerned about the land in the Sacramento Valley.  Without any settlements there, the Mexican officials had not been able to control the Indians. Also, they wanted to stop the Canadian fur trappers who had begun working in that area. Governor Alvarado liked Sutter, and he liked his plans.  He thought that if Sutter became a Mexican citizen, he could help to govern that part of California for Mexico.

So Governor Alvarado told John Sutter to go up the Sacramento River and find the land that he wanted.  Sutter was to come back in a year to file the papers for the land grant.


There were about 24 people with Sutter when he set out, traveling upriver in two small ships.  After exploring several smaller rivers and seeing many Indians, Sutter chose a place on the American River near where it flows into the Sacramento River.  Here, he decided, he would build his colony.

Some of the people went back downriver on the ships.  Of those who stayed with Sutter there were  ten Hawaiians, one Indian, one German, one Belgian, and one Irishman.  The Hawaiians built grass huts with thatched roofs made by tying together bundles of tule reeds.  These were the first houses on Sutter's land. 

Sutter soon made friends with the Indians by giving them gifts of blankets, beads, and shirts.  The Indians helped him to build an adobe house.  Sutter got cattle to stock his ranch from a ranchero (rancho owner), Ygnacio Martinez, whose rancho was in the Sacramento delta area.  Sutter also had a road cut through from his little settlement to the Sacramento River, where he built a wharf.


When the one year was over, Sutter returned to Monterey and became a Mexican citizen.  He then filed a petition for a land grant.  This grant for 48,000 acres was made official in 1841, signed by Governor Alvarado.  Sutter's land, Nueva Helvecia, reached from the Sacramento River to beyond present-day Marysville, including land on both sides of the Feather River.

Governor Alvarado also made Sutter the official representative of the Mexican government for the Sacramento Valley.


In some ways, Sutter used his land much as other rancheros did.  He worked at building up a large herd of cattle.  He planted wheat and other crops, including a try at growing cotton.  He soon had several hundred Indians working for him.

Sutter, like other rancheros, was a generous host.  He welcomed any travelers who came through the Sacramento Valley.  He gave them lodging, food, and horses to continue their journey. 


One way in which Sutter's rancho differed from most other ranchos was in the buildings.   In 1841, Sutter built a fort.  The wall around the fort was 18 feet high (according to a report that Sutter wrote) and three feet thick.  There was a second wall built inside, about 17 feet from the first one.  A roof covered the area between the two walls.  There were several bastions (towers) for the cannons.

Inside Sutter placed quarters for his soldiers, a bakery, leather and blacksmith workshops, and a carpentry shop.  Sutter's home, called Casa Grande, was in the center of the fort.  It had three rooms.

Sutter trained Indians to be soldiers, to guard his fort.  The cannon and uniforms for the soldiers came from Fort Ross, on the northern California coast.  Sutter purchased all the equipment at Fort Ross in December 1841, when the Russians decided to abandon it. 


Perhaps because of his generosity, Sutter got more and more in debt.  He also began to have problems with the Mexican officials.  Governor Alvarado saw that Sutter was helping more Americans to settle in the Sacramento Valley.  This was not what Mexico wanted.

In 1846 American rebels captured Mexican General Vallejo at Sonoma.  Vallejo was brought to Sutter's Fort to be held as a prisoner.  It was not long before Mexico surrendered California to the United States.

Then came the worst trouble of all for Sutter.  Gold was discovered on his land.  In the rush for wealth, gold seekers killed Sutter's cattle, trampled his fields, and laid claim to parts of his rancho.  In spite of his protests to the U.S. government, Sutter lost his land.


The city of Sacramento, laid out in 1848, is on Sutter's rancho.  The partially restored fort is now California  Historical Landmark No. 525

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