Dining at an Outback Outpost
In August 1839, after several days of sailing upstream on the Sacramento River, a Swiss citizen named John Sutter arrived in the Sacramento Valley. He was accompanied by a few Islanders he had hired during his stop-over in the Sandwich Islands, plus three white men of various talents who had decided to throw in their lot with Sutter, and his ambitious plans to build a trading post in the wilderness.
After landing on the American River a mile or so east of that river’s confluence with the Sacramento, the party moved to a rise of land about a mile inland, where they set up tents and Hawaiian-style brush huts. They had cooking utensils, seed for planting wheat, and a few supplies—but for many months their diet consisted solely of wild game roasted over open fires, augmented with wild onions and berries. Bread, domestic vegetables, coffee, tea, and sugar were costly items that had to be acquired from Monterey merchants, or the American trading ships that patrolled the coastline, necessitating many days’ travel downriver.
Sutter planted wheat fields in his first year, but until 1841, his establishment was just a fur-trapper’s station, a base for the trapping parties Sutter himself organized, to gather fur pelts to trade for needed supplies.
Sutter received a land grant in 1841, and commenced construction of a trading post built of mud-brick. He named his outpost New Helvetia (New Switzerland) but everyone else called it Sutter’s Fort—because it was fortified by high walls, with two bastions projecting from diagonal corners. When completed, the structure contained a large kitchen to feed the dozens of fur trappers, tradesmen, and others who lived there, or came to conduct business, or merely stopped in to find and connect with wandering acquaintances.
All needed to be fed . . . and so, as he advanced his farming and trapping frontier, Sutter traded furs (and later, a fiery brandy he distilled from wild grapes) for more seed wheat, tree cuttings, corn, beans, raw sugar, dried meats, cocoa, cheese and vegetable seeds. He established a salmon fishery, installed a crude grist mill to grind his wheat into flour, planted fruit tree saplings, and set out vegetable gardens. He built an outdoor oven, a dome-shaped structure called a horno. In late 1841 he purchased Fort Ross from the departing Russians, acquiring—among many other things—herds of cattle, sheep, and swine, wheeled carts, and a wealth of kitchen equipment.
The cooks Sutter hired needed to be innovative: many times coffee was unavailable, and they had to make do with dried peas or acorns as a substitute. Over the years, the cooks at Sutter’s Fort included William Daylor, John Henry Brown, George Davis, David Dewey Dutton, and a man of African-American descent known only as Myers. They used lidded, heavy cast-iron pots called Dutch ovens because these pots heated evenly with only a small heat source—versatile kettles that were prized possessions because so many different foods could be cooked in them. The heavy lid, when set properly, helped to create a pressure cooker.
When the explorer John Charles Frémont and his men appeared in March 1844, half starved from having crossed the Sierra in winter, Frémont recorded the luxurious repast he and his party enjoyed as Sutter’s guests: bread and butter, milk, beef, pork, potatoes, and “wonderful” salmon.