Sutter’s Fort where Sacrememto now sits was the destination that all of the earlier California Trail settlers sought until about 1849. Notice the significance of that date? 1849 in California meant only one thing–GOLD! Besides. What else would they have named their football team?
Sutter’s Fort today sits in the heart of midtown Sacramento. You can see a full scale replica of it which takes up an entire city block. The replica is built around Sutter’s main building which still stands. This main building was his office and living quarters. It was two stories. Outside the fort were corrals, other outbuildings, and dwellings.
Back in the 1840s this was all in the wilderness, and the fort became a place of respite for the journeying settlers who had just crossed the mountains. Mr. Sutter had quite an operation here.
The fort was built before the US purchased California. He employed both the area’s Indians and Hawaiians to build it. He had traveled extensively before coming here and brought the Hawaiians with him. The fort set very near the American River.
There were several rooms where the settlers’ and their families were allowed to stay until they were able to get their own properties settled. There was a blacksmith shop, a trading store, a gunsmith shop, a blanket factory, a jail, a carpenter’s shop, a cooperage (where barrels were made), a weavers’ room, and a grist mill. It was a very self-sufficient fort.
Sutter was a generous man. He sent out one of the rescue parties along with supplies to find and help the Donner party, who had been snowed in in the mountains by one of the worst snow falls on record. A doll that belonged to one of the surviving Donner children is on display at the fort.
Sutter grew beans, wheat, barley, and peas. He fur traded, and he had a distillery too. He also raised livestock, and later he partnered with a man by the name of Marshall to build a sawmill about 40 miles up the American River.
The sawmill, though, changed Sutter’s life forever; because while Marshall was having the tail race for the sawmill dug, he noticed something flashing in the sun. It was gold, and Mr. Sutter’s operation at the fort came to a screeching halt. Overnight, all his employees quit and became gold seekers.
And they all lived and worked in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, miles away from the fort. Too far away. His businesses ceased to exist.
We drove east out to the site where his sawmill was located at the edge of the Sierra Nevadas. It is a state park now. We enjoyed seeing where all of this took place.
There’s Gold in Them hills!
When Sutter’s partner James Marshall found the gold, he brought it back to Sutter’s Fort. They did a simple test and found it was indeed gold. They tried to keep it a secret, but one of the sawmill employees tried to sell a piece of it, and the word spread like wildfire. This caused the 1849 Gold Rush.
But there is an inside story to this that I read in a book called “Green Russell and Gold” by E. Spencer and B. Mead. It said, “It was a former Georgia woman, Mrs. Peter Wimmer, who in the year 1848 spread reports back home (to Georgia) of gold in California. Her husband was working for Captain Sutter and she was cooking for his crew at the time James Marshall turned up the first particles of gold in Sutter’s mill race. Marshall and Captain Sutter tried to keep the find a secret, but news of that sort soon leaks out. Nor was Mrs. Wimmer one to withhold such information, especially when she saw the men pour vinegar on a shining substance, and test it by boiling in her soap kettle….”
She sent word back to north Georgia, where the Russell Brothers and Solomon Roe lived. Solomon Roe is my 4th great grandfather, and one of the Russell brothers was his brother in law.
So we drove out from Sacremento about forty miles to the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. This is where Sutter’s partner James W. Marshall saw something glittering in the water.
Here in 1848 he found gold in the stream bed, and it set off one of history’s largest human migrations. You cannot talk about the California Trail without talking about the California Gold Rush, which started right here.
I believe that my GGGG Grandfather Solomon Roe traveled here for this gold rush. I’ve written about him before. The Roe family is entwined with the Russell family. Solomon Roe’s sister Mary was married to Levi Russell, one of three Russell brothers who would become famous during the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush later.
The Russell family was involved in the North Carolina Gold Rush in the early 1800s. I have not researched whether the Roe’s were too. Both the Russell and Roe families moved to the Georgia Gold Rush by 1832 and were involved in the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush in the late 1850s. I have direct evidence that Solomon Roe was a part of both the Georgia and Pike’s Peak gold rushes.
I know the Russell brothers went to the California Gold Rush, too. There is evidence that the Russell brothers took a party of men from Georgia to these gold fields. I believe Solomon was one of them, as his sister was already married to Levi Russell by that time. So I have a reason why I’m so interested in the California Trail and in this site.
Since the Russell party did not get here until at least August of 1849 or later, I believe this is where they came first–to where the first gold was discovered. I don’t believe they went to the fort first, but they may have gone there later.
They did well in the gold rush, and I know that Green Russell went back to Georgia via the American River, San Francisco, Panama, and New Orleans–mostly a water route. He did this by ship and then came back with another party of Georgia men to California, again by trail.
When gold was discovered, California was nothing more than backwater and wilderness. Nine days after the discovery of gold and after the Mexican-American War, the US was granted California as part of a treaty. Neither Mexico’s or the American government knew anything about the gold.
Only a few hundred American settlers had found their way to California by this time, but the Gold Rush changed everything. By 1852 California’s population ballooned to over 200,000 people.
The gold made California what it is today, only much quicker. California is the only state in the west that was never a territory. It went straight to being a state. The transcontinental railroad was built because it was important that California be tied to the east as quickly as possible.
Today the Gold Discovery park has tree-lined paths so visitors can visit a full-size replica of Sutter’s sawmill and several buildings that once were part of historic Coloma, the town that grew up around the mill. One can pan for gold with hands but only in designated areas. One can step to the edge of the river to the exact place where he found the gold. There is also a gold discovery museum on site.
Chuck and I walked down to the South Fork of the American River to the exact site where the tail race was dug and gold was found. I know that the Russell Party came right here, because that is what they did when they were trying to figure out where the gold washed down from. They were seasoned veterans at this. It was good to stand again where Solomon Roe ‘may’ have once stood.