1 letter with chip in the bottom edge (1 x 4 in.; 25 x 102 mm), costing approximately eight words, otherwise the letters are in near fine condition, clear and legible, remainder of the documents with some occasional wear or paper repairs.
It was at John A. Sutter mill in Coloma that gold was found in January 1848, sparking the California gold rush and the greatest westward migration in American history. Any letters penned by Sutter from California in the 1840s are rare and quite desirable. The six present here provide important information on Sutter's business activities, his financial dealings and hardships, his relations with Indians, fur traders and the Russians, and his interactions with merchants in San Francisco, whom he supplied with timber, hides, agricultural products, etc. The correspondence also offers insight to Sutter's character and personality, as he often writes in a deeply personal tone. All of the letters were written from Sutter's Fort at "New Helvetia", and were sent to another important figure in the early history of California, Jean Jacques Vioget, a fellow Swiss immigrant, one of the first residents of San Francisco, and a prominent businessman, trader, and surveyor. Along with the six letters—which are all in Sutter's hand and written in French (accompanied by English language translations)—is a collection of twenty-two additional manuscripts and printed forms detailing Vioget's career, providing insight into the life and activities of this little-known but important figure in the early history of the settlement of San Francisco.
"Captain" John A. Sutter was born Johann Augustus Sutter in 1803 in Baden, Germany, of Swiss parents. Early in life he worked in a printing, publishing, and bookselling firm in Basel, before marrying in 1826 and opening his own dry goods and drapery store. He also served in the Berne militia for a time. When his business failed he emigrated to the United States, arriving in New York in 1834, and then travelled to the German colony at St. Louis. He became involved in the Santa Fe trade (making two journeys to the Southwest himself) before setting out for California (via Hawaii and Alaska), where he arrived in 1839. Sutter ingratiated himself with the various political leaders of California, and was granted by the Mexican government an estate of nearly 50,000 acres at the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers. His land was meant to be an outpost guarding the frontier of Alta California against incursions by Indians and Russian fur traders. Sutter named the region "Nueva Helvetia" (New Switzerland), later commonly called "New Helvetia," and presided over the region as nearly an absolute ruler. Sutter constructed a strong fort, worked the land with the labor of some one thousand Indians, and began cultivating the region, also building a mill, raising cattle, and offering help to immigrants to the region.
From the early 1840s, Sutter had to defend his land against fur traders, hostile Indians, and squatters. Often in these letters he complains of the losses he had sustained due to the activities of interlopers such as trader Michel La Framboise, chief of the Hudson's Bay Company, or due to betrayals by his former business associates. Paradoxically, the situation only worsened when Sutter's millwright, James Marshall, discovered gold at Sutter's Mill on Jan. 24, 1848. Soon Sutter's land was overrun by prospectors who killed his cattle and used his crops. The years covered by these letters coincide with what have been called "Sutter's years of expansion and material accumulation" (Six French Letters). During this time he hired Jean Jacques Vioget to make a map of his lands in January 1841 (he made another such map in 1843), and Vioget served as a witness to Sutter's purchase of Fort Ross from the Russians in December 1841. Vioget also functioned as a contact and agent for Sutter in San Francisco, helping Sutter buy and sell goods, as well as arranging for transportation of Sutter's products.
A letter dated 28 August 1842 effectively conveys the financial difficulties that Sutter often fell into, and the measures that his creditors in San Francisco would take to collect what they were owed. Sutter begins by complaining to Vioget that his ship, the Sacramento, has been detained in San Francisco, and embargoed the ship on behalf of merchants looking to collect from Sutter: "I don't know why this man [Eulogio Celis, the aggrieved merchant] acts so bitterly. I paid him a large bill last spring, and now he surely knows that I can't pay anything until next winter...I understand that you will take the place of Mr. Celis; for this reason I take the liberty to apply to you, sir. As a fellow countryman, I dare hope that you are willing to bring to bear all your influence so that such things can no longer happen and that they will give me time, as to any Californian. I shall indeed pay what I owe. Considering briefly my situation since the beginning of my establishment, I do not believe that any reasonable man will take strenuous steps against me, especially since I am ready to pay the interest."
Sutter goes on to explain to Vioget why he has been tardy in sending Indian laborers to Yerba Buena, and updates his countryman on the situation at his estate: "I pray you not to be angry because I haven't sent you the Indians. I could not because I need them myself; and at present I haven't enough; but with the return of the little ship, I shall send you six men. My work is increasing from day to day, even more since I am building another establishment in the upper part of the Feather River because the animals no longer have enough to eat here."
The theme of Sutter's finances is recurring, with him often seeking Vioget's intercession. In a letter of 2 February 1843, Sutter details to Vioget his plans to pay his accounts, the progress and growth of his business enterprise, and his difficulties with fur traders treading onto his land and using up his resources: "Yes, sir, I can assure you that everything is going better at present. If the good Lord gives me a good crop this year, I shall have more than enough to pay my debts, except to the Russians; but that is different. As for me, I am neglecting nothing and am doing more than my utmost. I hardly ever sleep at night, and I assure you that the trouble that I had last year has made me ten years older. You would find me completely changed. I am getting all the pelts by myself to pay my debts, and I am sending everyone something on account...I think that when I pay something to everyone, people will see that I am doing my best and will have a little more patience in waiting for the remainder." Sutter complains that he is being hindered in his attempts at fur trapping by incursions onto his lands by hunters from the Hudson's Bay Company, and vents his anger at Michel La Framboise, chief of the company: "If that cursed party of hunters from the Hudson's Bay Company had not come this year against the orders of the government, I would have had a good fur-trapping season. At present, my Indians are bringing me a few beaver pelts, that's all. The first trip was rather good; but now they are selling them secretly to the Canadians, giving four or five good pelts for one red wool scarf or a red handkerchief, etc., and that hurts me a great deal. According to my orders from the government, I have forbidden La Framboise to trap beavers; but in spite of that, he still does as he pleases."
Despite these troubles Sutter remains optimistic about his business prospects, and he concludes by describing for Vioget the great activity on his lands: "In a few days my new steam distillery will produce a great deal of the spice of life. There is still one pump to finish, then everything is done. That will be a pretty income for me. I also have a mill that grinds ten fanegas of wheat a day. I plan to establish a tannery in the American manner with a mill to grind oak bark. I have a good master tanner; and in a little while I will be able to sell tanned leather, which is a very good article in this country. Along with the cow hides, the hunters are furnishing me with deer and elk hides that I will have tanned in the same way. I also have a hatter who makes woolen hats ordered for the Indians. I have some Indian rope makers who are making shoes for my people. Next summer I will have all the blankets for my Indians manufactured right here because I have nearly 2000 sheep for which I have a very good shepherd from New Mexico. You see, sir, that the expenses of the establishments are beginning to diminish, and I no longer have so much need of outsiders. I won't keep any but the most necessary people, such as the blacksmiths, carpenters, tanners, etc."
In the final letter, dated 14 June 1843, Sutter writes Vioget of a scheme by Charles W. Flugge—who had been his friend and served as his legal adviser, business manager, and representative—to steal land from him. It is on this occasion that Sutter asks Vioget to make him another map of his lands, which he could then use in his claims against Flugge. Sutter encapsulates his difficulties as the pioneering landowner in the region, and his feeling of being taken advantage of by his former associates, when he writes: "Isn't it too bad that after having sacrificed everything, after having enormous expenses, and risking my life, etc., to become established here; in a word, pulling chestnuts out of the fire, others want to come and eat them."
These six letters were translated by students at C.K. McClatchy High School in Sacramento and were published in 1942 in a limited-edition volume called Six French Letters: Captain John Augustus Sutter to Jean Jacques Vioget 1842-1843. A photocopy of that volume accompanies these letters, as do alternate English language translations of the letters. The quotes from the letters excerpted below are taken from the text of Six French Letters.
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