Where the Cal­i­for­nia dream started

Escalon Times - - LIVING - By DEN­NIS WY­ATT

SACRAMENTO — The cra­dle of mod­ern­day Cal­i­for­nia civ­i­liza­tion is not San Fran­cisco or Los Angeles.

It’s Sacramento, or more pre­cisely, Sutter’s Fort.

John Sutter’s de­sire for two things set the stage for Cal­i­for­nia to bal­loon from 92,597 res­i­dents in 1860 — the fed­eral Cen­sus did not count Na­tive Amer­i­can In­di­ans at the time — to be­ing on the cusp of 40 mil­lion res­i­dents to­day. They were his dreams of an agri­cul­ture and the need for lum­ber to build it.

Hired hand James Mar­shall — who was ob­tained by Sutter to build a sawmill on the Amer­i­can River near mod­ern-day Coloma — found the first shinny nugget in the mill’s tail­race on Jan. 24, 1848.

Be­cause of the Gold Rush that trig­gered — and the boom that turned Sam Fran­cisco from an out­post to a world-class city in less than two decades — Sutter’s Fort has got­ten the short-end of the stick when many think of Cal­i­for­nia his­tory.

Ad­mit­tedly, my first visit to Sutter’s Fort on a third grade class trip may have helped whet my in­ter­est in Cal­i­for­nia his­tory as only see­ing a “fort” with gar­ri­son, black­smith stores, and other cool stuff can in­trigue a 9-year-old boy. It wasn’t un­til a re­turn visit as an adult that I re­ally ap­pre­ci­ated what is within the walls of the re­stored fort in the 2700 block of L Street in cen­tral Sacramento.

The fort that was built in 1840 was the civ­i­lized hub of the Cen­tral Val­ley and North­ern Cal­i­for­nia out­side of Sam Fran­cisco. Some ex­perts say as many as 300 peo­ple worked at the fort on some days to sup­port Sutter’s vast agri­cul­tural em­pire that stretched be­tween what are to­day the cities of Sacramento and Red­ding and cov­ered nearly 300 square miles. Per­haps as many as 50 peo­ple at the max spent the night within the fort’s wall. The fort was not much more than ru­ins by the time 1960 rolled around.

The care­fully re­stored fort — the work was done be­tween 1891 and 1893 — gives a fairly thor­ough ac­cu­rate glimpse of what life was like back in the 1840s. The in­ter­pre­ta­tive days that fea­ture do­cents dressed in pe­riod clothes do­ing var­i­ous tasks needed day-to-day 175 years ago are well worth the ad­di­tional ad-


A visit to the fort is def­i­nitely a low-key ex­cur­sion con­ducted by pri­mar­ily self-tours. Ac­tu­ally, that is the charm of Sutter’s Fort. It is a place you can wan­der through at your leisure and soak up his­tory.

Thanks to how the fort was re­con­structed makes it easy to put your­self back in the 1840s within the adobe walls that are 2½ feet thick and up­wards of 18 feet high. A dis­tillery, grist mill, blan­ket fac­tory, gun­smith, car­pen­ter shop, sleep­ing quar­ters, black­smith shop were all nes­tled up against the fort’s walls. Sutter’s per­sonal quar­ters — and the of­fice where his­tory has it Mar­shall and Sutter ex­am­ined that fate­ful rock — were in the build­ing in the cen­ter of the fort. Out­side the walls were of build­ings for live­stock and such, cor­rals and dwellings.

The re­con­structed for is 312 by 156 feet. Some his­toric cour­ses say the fort was re­ally 425 by 175 feet al­though that is not known with any de­gree of cer­tainty.

It is, by the way, the old­est re­stored fort in the West.

Sutter was also smart enough to build on high ground to the east of what would be even­tu­ally known as Old Sacramento and down­town where the State Capi­tol is lo­cated that was the sub­ject of floods in the early years un­til the ground was raised and lev­ees built.

The other nice thing about go­ing to Fort Sutter’s is the wide ar­ray of nearby choices for ad­di­tional his­tor­i­cal sites to visit as well as dining op­tions.

Among the his­toric sites and state parks in Sacramento are:

Old Sacramento that fea­tures two of my fa­vorite Sacramento area restau­rants — The Fire­house as well as Frank Fats. You will also find a well re­stored one-room school house in Old Sacramento as well as the his­toric water­front.

The Cal­i­for­nia Rail­road Mu­seum that fea­tures the West­ern Hemi­sphere’s largest col­lec­tion of his­toric en­gines and rolling stocks. It is lo­cated next to Old Sacramento.

The Gover­nor’s Man­sion and 16th and H Street.

The Cal­i­for­nia State In­dian Mu­seum at 26th and K Street.

The Cal­i­for­nia Mu­seum for His­tory, Women and the Arts.

The Le­land Stan­ford Man­sion.

The State Capi­tol Mu­seum. The Ea­gle Theatre.

Pho­tos cour­tesy State of Cal­i­for­nia Parks

TOP PHOTO: Mu­si­cians per­form dur­ing an in­ter­pre­tive day event. MID­DLE PHO­TOS: Fort rooms that have been re­stored. BOT­TOM PHOTO: Part of the fort’s court­yard.

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