Diversity at New Helvetia

The colony that John Sutter gathered around him in California was nothing if not diverse. When John Bidwell made his way to John Sutter’s settlement in November 1841, he found Sutter living amongst a motley crew gathered from the far corners of the world. Sutter needed all kinds of workers, and got them wherever he could find them.


John A. Sutter in 1850, the earliest photograph.

His clerk, Octave Custot, was a Frenchman. Two of his fur trappers were men he had picked up on his way to California: Nicolaus Allgeier from Germany and Sabastian Keyser from Austria. There were the Scotsman John Sinclair, a former merchant in Hawaii, and the Irishman John Chamberlain, a blacksmith who had deserted from a whaling ship. In the summer of 1841 Sutter had hired several workmen in Monterey, including “a Negro . . . a good cooper — the first darkey in the valley.”

When the French attaché Count Eugene Duflot de Mofras visited in September 1841 he reported “30 white men, including Germans, Swiss, Canadian, Americans, Frenchmen and Englishmen” all working away at “cutting wood, operating forges, or in carpentry.” New Helvetia was a bustling place. The men were all living with Indian or Californian women, and quite a number of mixed-race children were running around.

The largest number of Sutter’s workforce were the Miwok and Nisenen Indians that he had attracted to work for him as vaqueros and field laborers. They worked for the desirable trade goods that could only be bought at Sutter’s store, and Sutter kept a good stock of clothing, metal goods, beads and blankets with which to pay the Indians. Sutter was also not above using violence against the Indians if that would keep them in line.

Perhaps the most surprising members of this international cast of characters were the Kanakas, or Hawaiians, that lived with Sutter. How did Sutter come to have Hawaiians living at New Helvetia? Stay tuned and I’ll tell you about the Kanakas next time.

(Information in this post is from John Sutter: A Life on the North American Frontier, by Albert L. Hurtado.)



About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
This entry was posted in John Sutter, Kanaka, New Helvetia, Sutter's Fort. Bookmark the permalink.

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