Kanakas in California

When John Sutter came to California it could hardly have been by a more roundabout route. Born in Switzerland, he migrated to America in 1834, leaving behind his considerable debts (thousands of francs) and his considerable family (wife and five children). After spending a few years on the Missouri frontier, he once again escaped his troubles by heading west, this time with a fur-trading company. Arriving at Fort Vancouver in the Oregon Territory in 1838, he planned to immediately travel down to California where he hoped to carve out his own little barony, but bad winter weather and Indians made him reconsider.


Map from The Sacramento Bee.

Sutter wasn’t a man to wait around all winter for the weather to clear up. Instead he took ship for Hawaii, figuring that from there he could get another ship bound for California. But months went by and no ship left for California. Sutter put the time to good use. He made useful contacts among the Americans and Europeans and told exaggerated tales of his military experience in Europe. He gathered a considerable amount of trade goods on credit (he was always good at that.) He met King Kamehameha III and other high-ranking Hawaiians and impressed everyone with his genial charm and fine clothes.

After several months of waiting he finally left on a ship bound for  . . . Sitka, Alaska. With him he took ten Kanakas. At this time it was typical for an Hawaiian Alii (a chief) to contract out commoners (Kanakas) who were under him. Sutter was supposed to pay them ten dollars a month and return them to Hawaii in three years. He did neither.

The Kanakas, eight men and two women, were invaluable to Sutter in establishing himself in California, once he got there. He set sail for Sitka on April 20, 1839, spent a month there, and arrived at San Francisco Bay in July. By August, with the permission of the Mexicans, he was sailing through the delta and up the Sacramento River to found his colony.

Arriving at the confluence of the Sacramento and American Rivers, the Kanaka men went to work building grass huts as shelters. They trained Indian workers in farming and herding. “I could not have settled the country without the aid of these Kanakas,” Sutter declared in his memoirs. The two women were “very useful in teaching the Indian girls to wash, sew, etc.” At least one of them also became Sutter’s substitute wife.

The Kanakas stayed with Sutter. Their physical resemblance to the local natives helped them make friendly contact with the Indians. The men intermarried with native Californian women, and there are today Miwok tribal members who can trace an Hawaiian strain in their ancestry. With the Gold Rush came more Hawaiians, and “Kanaka” became a name on the map, including a Kanaka Bar on the Feather River.

A diverse place indeed — California!



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.
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