A Column By Jack D. Forbes
Native American Studies
University of California, Davis

The Honoring of a Slaver is Challenged

The city of Davis, California, has made the news for its flip-flop, by 3-2 decisions of its city council, on the question of renaming "Sutter Place," a name which honored Johann Suter (now Sutter). Sutter, a German-born man who later became a Swiss citizen, absconded to North America, abandoning a wife, four children, and leaving many debts.

Sutter, in 1839, reached the Rio Sacramento with three cannons and some armed retainers. He realized that his future power would depend upon American labor and on having good relations with the villages in the immediate vicinity of his planned fort and trading post. His project was the establishment of a little empire under his own control with labor being supplied largely by California Native laborers, both willing and unwilling. Sutter soon became involved in the slave trade, a business made necessary for him because he was always getting goods on credit from coastal ranchers and often could not pay except with young captives.

One of the reasons that Sutter wanted to proceed to the Rio Sacramento, according to historian Hubert Howe Bancroft, was because he did not want Mexican officials to be able to interfere "with his Indian policy, his methods of obtaining laborers...." ( History of California, v.4, p. 129). While Sutter made friends with the local Ochecumne village and other nearby neighbors, he did not neglect to aid "his Indians against their foes." This led to the capture of laborers. "From the first he was in the habit of seizing Indian children, who were retained as servants or slaves, at his own establishment, or sent to his friends in different parts of the country. But he always took care to capture for this purpose only children from distant or hostile tribes.... (v.4, pp. 137-8).

On April 21, 1845 Sutter wrote to Consul Thomas Larkin that he would soon send some more Indian children when he made another raid. Another rancher complained that:"As many as 30 Indians were sent down at a time [by Sutter], but they did not give very good satisfaction." Thus, as Bancroft notes, "The captain [sic] still sold Indian children and the labor of older captives to his creditors around the bay." (It should be noted that Sutter lied about being a captain in the French Army, among other tall tales he told). (v.4, pp. 544, 610, 611n.).

Sutter's possession of captive girls and boys coupled with his despotic power seems to have led to some serious abuses. According to Heinrich Lienhard, a Swiss who lived at Nueva Helvecia and wrote a book called A Pioneer at Sutter's Fort, 1846-1850, Sutter was a sexual predator against very young girls:

In the anteroom adjoining his office, a group of Indian women were invariably waiting. According to rumor, they belonged to Sutter's harem. One of them was his favorite; I was told she was kept there all the time. At first it seemed odd to meet young Indian girls of ten or twelve who had once belonged to this harem....I have never forgotten two pretty little girls of eleven or twelve who I first saw in Sutter's anteroom. Soon the most attractive of the two failed to come and play with the other....the poor girl died suddenly....An influential squaw who lived in Sutter's anteroom at that time had a sister who had married a native of Tahiti, called John. John, who spoke English quite fluently, was a close friend of Charley Burch, and told the latter what the favorite had told her sister about the sudden death of the young girl; the child had been criminally attacked, and the person who could give the most information about the identity of the culprit was Sutter himself. (pp.75-6).

Sutter had a reputed common-law wife, Manawitte, a Hawaiian woman but as he grew older he "seemed to prefer young Indian girls and finally gave Manawitte to Harry [a Hawaiian] ...." Manawitte was said to have been the mother of several of Sutter's children. (pp.76-7).

According to James Clyman, who visited the fort in 1846:

The Capt. [Sutter] keeps 600 or 800 Indians in a complete state of slavery and I had the mortification of seeing them dine I may give a short description 10 or 15 Troughs 3 or 4 feet long ware brought out of the cook room and seated in the Broiling sun all the laborers grate and small ran to the troughs like so many pigs and feed themselves with their hands as long as the troughs contain even a moisture.(Robert F Heizer, The Other Californians ,pp.19-20).

At meetings of the Council, Native Americans turned out in force, with many students and others giving eloquent testimony against Sutter, however, this had no effect on the three council members who voted to retain the Sutter name, clearly indicating that Sutter serves as some kind of ikon for those who admire predatory but successful men. The excuse was used that removal of the Sutter name might lead to attacks on names such as Cortez, forgetting that many people have the Cortez name. Jayne Cortez is a well-known Black poet! In any case, no one had challenged any names but Sutter's.

[Professor Jack D. Forbes, Powhatan-Delaware, is the author of COLUMBUS AND OTHER CANNIBALS, AFRICANS AND NATIVE AMERICANS, RED BLOOD and other books.]

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