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Old Sacramento -
Walking on History
John A. Sutter
arrived in the
Indians had been inhabiting the land for at
least 10,000 years. Dominated by the Nisenan and Maidu tribes,
dwelling in huts built of willow samplings, their idyllic existence
would soon come to an end as trappers and traders came to the area.
John Sutter first
arrived on August 13, 1839 at the divergence of the American and
Sacramento Rivers with a Mexican land grant of 50,000 acres. The next year, he and his party established
Sutter’s Fort, a massive
adobe structure with walls eighteen feet high and three feet thick.
Sutter called his
colony New Helvetia, a Swiss inspired name, and was the political
authority and dispenser of justice in the new settlement. Soon, the
colony began to grow as more and more pioneers headed west. Unfortunately, these many trappers and traders spelled a death knell
Native Americans as the new residents bore diseases and
ailments for which the
Indians had developed no immunity.
The first store in the area was
established by Samuel Brannan near the
Sacramento River, taking advantage of the convenient waterfront
location and another settlement sprang up called
Within just a few short years,
had become a grand success, owning a ten-acre orchard and a herd of
thirteen thousand cattle. Fort Sutter became a regular stop for
the increasing number of immigrants coming through the valley. In 1847, Sutter hired
James Marshall to build a sawmill so that he
could continue to expand his empire. However, in January of the
following year, Marshall discovered gold.
Sutter pledged all his
employees to secrecy, but within a few months, the word was out and
the gold rush was on.
Sacramento boomed and became a prime trading center for the many
miners flooding the area.
John Sutter, Jr. arrived in 1848 to help
his father in managing his holdings. Much to his father’s
chagrin, John, Jr. soon partnered with Samuel Brannan in laying out the
Sacramento rather than New Helvetia, two miles to the south. Eventually this led to the estrangement of father and son, and John,
Jr. departed to Mexico. However, the town of
Sacramento continued with its plans, becoming the first
incorporated city in
make matters worse, Sutter's
workmen soon abandoned him to seek their own fortunes in the gold
fields. His land became filled with squatters who destroyed his crops
and butchered his herds.
Sutter, too, got
caught in the gold fever, filing multiple claims that he would later lose
to the United States after they took the land from Mexico. By 1852,
Sutter's colony of New Helvetia had been destroyed and
bankrupt. He spent the rest of his life seeking compensation for his
losses from the state and federal governments, and died disappointed on a
trip to Washington, D.C. in 1880.
Sacramento experienced its first devastating flood and just two years
later, was virtually wiped out by the high waters.
Though an aspiring
proposal was made to raise the city above flood water, nothing became of
it. However, the city survived and became the
capitol in 1854. Finally, when another flood devastated the city in
1862, wagonloads of dirt were hauled in and the street level raised with
thousands of cubic yards of dirt in an attempt to prevent another
As the gold rush began to
Sacramento became the center for the developing commercial agriculture
When modernization came
to the city in the 21st century, the commercial district gradually moved
east and the area of Old
became a virtual slum. However, in the mid 1960s the city began to
redevelop and refurbish the area.
The 28 acres encompassing the location
today has more historic buildings condensed in one area than any other in
the west. Moreover, it has become a National Landmark, with a
portion designated as a
State Historic Park.
1850s lithograph portraying a diverse crowd of
on the western shore of the
with its wood plank sidewalks and picturesque three-story
buildings, caters to more than 5 million annual visitors. The National
Registered landmark provides a Public Market, two museums, excursion
cruises along the water front, a hotel, and numerous restaurants and
boutique like shops.
is located downtown and is convenient to reach by all freeways. From any
direction take Interstate 5 to the J Street exit and follow the signs.
Abundant covered parking at reasonable rates is available; enter at 3rd
and J Streets. Also, there are a limited number of metered,
90-minute on-street parking spaces.
© Kathy Weiser,
Legends of America,
updated March, 2014.
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Old Town Sacramento
has a beautiful display of historic buildings, Kathy Weiser, July, 2009. This image available for
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