In the middle of a commercial area of Sacramento is a big compound, set behind high, white defensive walls. This is Sutter’s Fort, originally called New Helvetia (New Switzerland), and it is this historic place that inadvertently gave rise to the city of Sacramento, and the establishment of agriculture in California.
It was established by John Sutter, a Swiss immigrant who received a land grant from the Mexican government of 50,000 acres (20,230 ha) of fertile Sacramento valley. He cultivated the land, growing crops and running herds of cattle. He was the first nonindigenous settler to do so in the area.
Sutter started his compound in 1840; by the height of his success he owned 150,000 acres (60,700 ha) of rich, cultivated land. In 1847 he famously sent help to the Donner Party, a group of settlers caught in a snowstorm. As a result his fort became known as a temporary shelter for travelers. In 1848, a carpenter named James Marshall found gold. Word traveled rapidly and Sutter’s employees left to seek their fortunes in the Californian goldfields. People flocked to the area and Sutter’s cultivated lands were destroyed. Despairing, he deeded his remaining acreage to his son, Augustus Sutter, who set about building what would become the city of Sacramento. The old fort compound has been restored to its 1847 appearance, based on a photograph, and is now a California State Historic Landmark.