Books That Inspire 2010


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John Sutter: A Life on the North American Frontier
Albert L. Hurtado


John Sutter (1803-1880) has become an icon of the Nineteenth Century American West. Once applauded as the pioneer who laid the foundation for civilization in California, he was a man of immense contradictions. Swiss by birth, he moved to California in 1839, became a Mexican citizen, and received a huge grant of land in the Central Valley of California, which he named New Helvetia. Members of the overland parties that entered California during the 1840s appreciated the supplies, jobs, and land Sutter provided them, but most of those with whom he did business regarded him as an untrustworthy charlatan—a flim flam man who regularly and systematically deceived and cheated his creditors. And while he became the symbol of opportunity, freedom, and Manifest Destiny to white settlers, he was the instrument of slavery and oppression to the Indians he turned into a labor force.

During the Gold Rush and the 1850s, Sutter lost all of his land and most of his money and influence. The California legislature provided him with a pension from 1862-1878, but he died relatively impoverished. The patriarch of the Sacramento Valley, to whom the Gold Rush had given immense opportunities for wealth and position, spent the last decades of his life claiming that he had been victimized by unscrupulous agents and lawyers, dishonest politicians, and squatters. Yet he bore the prime responsibility for his sad end.

Albert Hurtado's biography of Sutter is carefully and thoroughly researched, fair-minded, and judicious. Beautifully written, it can be read with profit and pleasure by anyone interested in the American West and anyone who enjoys the contradictions and inconsistencies in the lives of the Nineteenth Century West's "pioneer generation."

From Books That Inspire 2008.


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Donald Pisani
Merrick Professor of Western American History