Sacramento: Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park

Sutter's Fort 027If you’re ever in Sacramento, Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park is spot you must visit.  Growing up in Sacramento, this was a regular outing on school field trips, so I take it for granted.  My husband, however, hadn’t been before, and he thought it was amazing.  It was fun to see the fort through the eyes of my husband and son.

A bit of history…

Johann Augustus Sutter, a Swiss-German immigrant, was a central figure in early California history.  He arrived in the California Central Valley in the 1830s, with dreams of building an agricultural empire.  In those days, California was owned by Mexico, so Sutter was granted Mexican citizenship, was given a 48,827 acre land grant, and began building the fort.  In return, Sutter was given the job of maintaining order among the local native-American tribes and was given authority to issue land grants and passports to immigrants.  He was later made “Captain of Sacramento Troops” and given even more land.  His property ultimately covered nearly 300 square miles, between Sacramento and Redding.

The fort was built in the 1940s, creating a center where travelers could find shelter and stock up on supplies.  The compound had sleeping quarters, a small store (the only one within a hundred miles), a gunsmith and carpentry and blacksmith shops, a distillery, bakery, grist mill, and a factory where blankets were made.  Of course, there were dwellings outside the fort walls, too.  On the surrounding lands, Sutter grew wheat, barley, peas, beans, and cotton, and raised cattle.  Life was good for a short while.

Then it all collapsed.  Gold was discovered in the foothills in 1948 by James Marshall, a Sutter employee who was sent to Coloma to build a sawmill on the American River.  The result was the 1949 California Gold Rush, during which Sutter lost most of his property to miners and cheats.  Most of the workers who maintained the fort ran off to the foothills in the hopes of making their fortunes in gold.

The fort fell to ruins, but was luckily purchased by the Native Sons of the Golden West in 1891 as a gift to the people of California.  The fort was rebuilt and later, in 1947, became part of the California State Park system.  For a more detailed history of the fort, visit this page on the California State Parks website… History of the Fort.


Visitors may wander the grounds of the fort and explore the many rooms decorated in details of the period.  We were lucky to visit Sutter’s Fort on one of their monthly “Hand-on History Days”, a day each month when the fort comes to life with volunteers wearing clothing of the times, demonstrating activities, tools, and games.  On Saturday, the theme was “Hard Working Women on the Frontier”, so we had the pleasure to meet and converse with a mid-wife, a recent immigrant, an immigration clerk, and a shop worker.  We also “met” a vaquero, a gunsmith, a baker, a blacksmith, and a carpenter.  Very cool!  If you’re going to visit, I highly recommend doing so on one of these special “Hand-On History Days”.  To find upcoming events, check out the calendar here… Events.

Visiting with kids?  The ranger at the entry booth gave our son a “History Hunt” activity sheet to complete during his visit.  He had a lot of fun searching each room of the fort, trying to locate each of the items on the list.  For older kids, the paper has a list of questions to be answered, such as “What is a “vaquero”?”  When the questions on the sheet were completed, my son showed the ranger and, as a reward, received a Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park Coloring Book.  The one we received is specific to the history day we attended… “Women on the Frontier”.  The book includes not just pictures to color, but tons of information about what work women performed on the frontier, how they dressed, how they prepared food, and what tools they used for cleaning.  This is a great follow-up book to continue learning about California history after the visit to the fort.

Interested in going?  Visit the California State Parks website for directions, entry fees, and hours… Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park.

Photos from our visit on Saturday…

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  1. This is such a fun reminder for me! I grew up traveling between Los Angeles and Red Bluff at least twice a year to visit my aunt, uncle and cousins. Sacramento was unavoidable! This is one of the greatest spots! My husband works for Union Pacific Railroad and we’ve been trying to figure out a good time to revisit Sacramento for some railroad related interests, and I’ll make sure we visit this state park. This represents such a fascinating piece of California history!


    1. Yes, this is just the kind of place you would love! And, yep, Sacramento is unavoidable, with all the major freeways (5, 99, 50, and 80) converging right there. 🙂 For us, my parents live there, so it’s a destination in itself.


  2. I love historic parks! I have taken my kids to see Vicksburg, Fort Pulaski, and many others. You should travel east some time to see al the colonial and civil war era stuff.


    1. We’ll definitely head east one of these days. I have fond memories of a trip to DC and the surrounding areas when I was in 2nd grade.


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