Sutter’s Frontier Fort

<i> The Grimms are free-lance writers/photographers living in Laguna Beach. </i>

While bread is baking in an outdoor beehive oven, women spin wool in the shade of a tree. Other folks dip wicks into hot wax to make candles and stir beef stew in an iron kettle over an open fire.

Such activity was common nearly 150 years ago at one of California’s earliest settlements, Sutter’s Fort, and it continues today. Costumed volunteers re-create pioneer life so visitors can see how people lived in frontier times.

Weekend Activities

The entire fort turns back the clock Nov. 12-13 and other special Living History Days during the year, but you’ll usually find some activities from early times also happening most weekends.


And at the adjacent State Indian Museum, life styles of the state’s first inhabitants are recalled in exhibits and photos. Visitors can buy Indian-made items during the annual Indian Arts and Crafts Christmas Fair Nov. 25-27.

Even if you miss those special days, California history comes alive any time you visit Sutter’s Fort and the State Indian Museum.

Both are open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day. Admission to each is $1 for adults and 50 cents for youths 6-17. (On Living History Days, adults pay $2, children $1.)

Sutter’s Fort was the state’s first inland settlement, established in 1839 by John Sutter, a German-born Swiss immigrant. He sailed up the Sacramento River to the American River and found high ground for his fort that was built with Indian labor.


After becoming a Mexican citizen in 1840, Sutter was awarded a land grant of about 48,000 acres, which he named Nueva Helvetia (New Switzerland) for his homeland. Within five years his rancho was self-sufficient with fields of wheat, cotton and other crops, as well as hundreds of cattle, sheep and horses.

Various Workshops

Its nucleus was Sutter’s high-walled adobe fort, a compound about the size of a football field. Inside, around the perimeter, were various workshops, a kitchen, living quarters and a brandy distillery. A 2 1/2-story building in the center served as Sutter’s headquarters.

One deal he made there was with James Marshall to build a sawmill in the Sierra foothills, and that was the inadvertent cause for the downfall of Sutter and his fort. Marshall discovered gold at the mill site in 1848, triggering the rush to California’s Mother Lode.

Activity moved to the river front, where a new settlement named Sacramento welcomed the invasion of boats filled with goods and people seeking gold. Sutter soon lost his fort and land holdings to conniving businessmen, squatters, bad debts and legal disputes. Eventually he moved to Pennsylvania, where he was buried in 1880.

Sutter’s important role in California’s pioneer days is recalled at the reconstructed fort, which became a state historic park in 1947. Pick up an audio device at the entrance gate for a narrated tour at your own pace; plan to stay at least 90 minutes.

The only original structure is in the center of the compound with offices for Sutter, a clerk and a doctor, and the dining room where Sutter dined with visitors. Read his Christmas dinner menu for 1845, which featured four beef dishes with red peppers, garlic and beans; the Indians got burro meat and mush.

Going counterclockwise around the fort are a guard room, the granary, the cooper’s shop where barrels were made and the saddle room that’s filled with leather works. Other exhibits are in the shop rooms used by the gunsmith, carpenters, blacksmith, and hat and boot makers.


A fire may be going in the candle shop to melt paraffin into which wicks are hand-dipped 50 times. You may buy handmade candles in the trade store, a gift shop featuring items of earlier times. Among them are Indian arrowheads, powder horns, pottery, beads, felt hats and frontier dolls.

A battered doll on display in the museum belonged to a survivor of the ill-fated Donner Party, who recuperated at the fort after being rescued from the Sierra snow. You’ll also see some of John Sutter’s personal objects and other pioneer relics.

During the next Living History Days, Nov. 12-13, visitors can talk with “Sutter,” a volunteer in costume who affects a German accent. He and the 30 or so others who play roles of people at the fort in 1846 also deny knowledge of anything beyond the mid-19th Century.

Tours By Candlelight

The time warp for visitors is especially real on Saturday night, when tours of the fort are conducted by lantern and candlelight. Living History characters carry on life as it was in pioneer times, and you get to sample some of the food and drink of that period. Reservations are required for the Nov. 12 candlelight tours that begin at 7 p.m. Call (916) 445-4209.

For more information about Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park, phone (916) 445-4422. The entrance is on L Street at 27th Street.

Around the corner at 26th and K streets is the State Indian Museum, built in 1940 and recently renovated. Before any Europeans arrived, California was home for more than 100 Indian tribes. Their art and culture is displayed in such exhibits as hunting, dancing, games and money.

You’ll see an amazing variety of baskets, including some with feathers woven in, and others no larger than a fingernail. Pottery and clothing also reveal the artistry of California’s Indians. Their traditional homes and boats were distinctive too.


During the three days that follow Thanksgiving, you can buy unusual gifts in the museum at the Indian Arts and Crafts Christmas Fair. Look for necklaces of clam shell discs, pillows with Indian designs and hand-printed holiday greeting cards. For more information, call (916) 324-0971.

To get here from Los Angeles, drive north on Interstate 5 to Sacramento’s J Street exit. Follow that one-way street through town to 26th Street and turn right to the two-block-square fort and museum grounds. Park at meters on surrounding streets.

Round trip from Los Angeles to Sutter’s Fort and the State Indian Museum is 775 miles.