Sutter’s Fort in downtown Sacramento turned back time to its heyday in the 1840s, when trappers, traders, farmers, musicians and blacksmiths transformed the fort into “California’s First Mall.”
Hundreds of visitors from as far away as Los Angeles entered the old white brick walls of the fort this weekend to watch horseshoes being forged, wool being spun, fry bread being cooked, butter being churned and muskets being fired. You could buy period hats, dresses, shirts and pants in the markets.
The fort once hosted “at least 12 different businesses, along with a hospital, jail and one of California’ first newspapers, the Placer Times,” said Steve Beck, history and education expert at Sutter’s Fort Historic State Park who organized the three-day “Trader’s Faire.”
The fort’s first and last business was the blacksmith’s shop, where nails, pick axes, saws, shovel heads and wagon tires were forged. “The first blacksmith was an older German guy who spoke Spanish, liked a good cup of coffee and cooked his own food,” said Dennis “Biscuits” Brehm, who worked as smithy Sunday with apprentice Tyler Zeck.
Brehm, who earned the nickname “Biscuits” for what he cooked up on a mountain mens’ retreat, said if you liked the grub at Sutter’s Fort, you’d say, “that’s some punkins!”
Outside the blacksmith’s shop, Dale Shinn mesmerized passersby with his hurdy-gurdy, a string instrument dating back to the Middle Ages that made it to Sutter’s Fort along with fiddles and mandolins.
“I think it’s really cool,” said Sarah Kim, a 4th grader from Pleasant Hill, who was watching the hurdy-gurdy player. “I like old stuff.”
Across the square, four-year-old Wesley Hartle took a shot at churning butter after spinning some yarn. “He wanted to see some cowboys, so we came here,” said his dad Jake Hartle.
Docent Diana King, who’s been churning fresh butter at the fort for 10 years, said the trick is to keep churning the heavy whipping cream for 25 to 40 minutes straight, “because if you stop you’ll have to start over.”
The fort was founded by Swiss-German adventurer Johann Augustus Sutter, who landed on the banks of the American River in August 1839 at what is now 28th and C streets with three trappers from Belgium, Ireland and Italy and 10 Hawaiians, two of them women.
He was greeted by a party of California Indians who led him to what became the site of Sutter’s Fort. Why the Indians didn’t kill them remains a mystery, Beck said, given the way Indians had been treated by the Mexican missionaries and trappers since the 18th century.
Bringing the Hawaiians, who served as his crew on the voyage from Hawaii to California, was a stroke of genius, Beck said, since they were brown-skinned, bare chested and tattooed and may have inspired the California Indians to spare their lives.
Sutter, who wrote and spoke four languages, was a thief and swindler, Beck said, but also a savvy businessman who obtained a 48,827-acre land grant and citizenship from Mexico in 1840 in exchange for promising as “alcalde” to bring peace with the Indians and control American immigration into Mexico’s northern frontier, Beck said.
That same year Sutter bought Fort Ross on the California coast from the Russians, and used it to build up Sutter’s Fort, which still has many of the original bricks, beams and mortar.
Everything changed on January 24, 1848 when one of Sutter’s employees, James Marshall, discovered a gold nugget at Coloma, brought it to the fort and triggered the California Gold Rush of 1849.
During the Gold Rush, Sutter had holdings stretching from Sacramento to Redding, Beck said. He harvested over 40,000 bushels of wheat and owned 10,000 cows, 8,000 sheep and hundreds of horses. But he ended up being swindled by the miners who wiped out thousands of California Indians.
Sutter negotiated with California Indian chiefs to send their people to work for him, and maintained an army of 40 Indian soldiers dressed as Russian sailors carrying French guns, Beck said.
By paving the way to the Gold Rush, Sutter created a ripple effect that “decimated California Indians,” Beck said, but added that California Indians fared worse in the Spanish missions.
For more information on Sutter’s Fort’s education activities – including overnight campouts – go to www.suttersfort.org or call 916-445-4422.