Dark history spurs name debate

Gold pioneer Sutter's slavery leads Davis council to rename street
By: Michelle Miller, Journal Staff Writer
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It's a story told to schoolchildren about a pioneer immigrant who built the first settlement in Sacramento and inadvertently set off the California Gold Rush - but John Sutter's historical reputation as an owner of Native American slaves has sullied his image, some say. The Davis City Council last week voted to change the name of Sutter Place to Risling Court after years of controversy. Here in the heart of gold country, many streets, businesses and even a county are stamped with his name. Many locals think yanking his name off of landmarks is revising history.
In the Know: Sutters dream for California
John Augustus Sutter (Feb. 23, 1803 June 18, 1880) was a Swiss man born in Germany as Johann Augustus Sutter. He left his country in May 1834 for New York City, after which he undertook extensive travels to St. Louis, Santa Fe, Alaska and Hawaii. In 1839 he arrived by boat in Yerba Buena, now San Francisco.
At the time of Sutters arrival in Mexican California, the territory had only a population of only 5,000 Europeans, in contrast with 30,000 Native Americans. It was at that point a part of Mexico and the governor Juan Bautista Alvarado granted him permission to settle. In 1841, he received title to 48,827 acres of land. Sutter named his settlement Nuevo Helvetia, or New Switzerland, after his homeland. Sutter employed variously Indians, Kanakas and Europeans at his compound, which he called Fort Sutter; He envisioned creating an agricultural utopia, and for a time the settlement was in fact quite large and prosperous. It was for a period the destination for most California-bound immigrants, including the ill-fated Donner Party, whom Sutter strived to rescue.
On Jan. 24, 1848, gold was discovered near his sawmill in Coloma along the American River by James Marshall. Sutters attempt at keeping this quiet failed when merchant and newspaper publisher Samuel Brannan returned from Sutters Mill to San Francisco with gold he had acquired there and began publicizing the find. Masses of people overtook the land and destroyed nearly everything Sutter had worked for.
Auburn bears its own Sutter Street, but residents there were proud of the name. Although she certainly doesn't condone slavery, Kathy Olson, a resident on Sutter Street, thinks it's an appropriate name given our gold mining heritage. Other nearby streets include Chana Drive and Marshall Way, named for Claude Chana, an Auburn prospector once employed by Sutter and James Marshall, who discovered gold at Sutter's sawmill in Coloma on Jan. 24, 1848. "U.S. presidents owned slaves and we're not knocking them out of the history books," Olson said. "I think it's very appropriate to name streets after the original settlers." Ken Yeo, 79, another Sutter Street resident said it was an honor to live on the street. "He did so much for California," he said. "A lot of things you'll notice through history people try to change. But almost every town around here has a Sutter Street." The controversy doesn't appear to affect Gold Country residents - the street name in Auburn has never been challenged and the Amador County city of Sutter Creek has never considered changing its name, either. But as historians have uncovered the darker truths about settling the Old West, Sutter has had a footnote attached to his chapter in the history books for his mistreatment of Native Americans. Much of the information comes from letters and journal entries written by Sutter's contemporaries. His manager, Pierson Reading, wrote, "The Indians of California make as obedient and humble slaves as the Negro in the South." Many historical accounts describe how he treated American Indians, locking them in squalid pens or rooms to prevent them from going back to their homes and feeding them at troughs like animals. Other accounts say Sutter raped Native American woman as young as 12. UC Davis American Indian Studies professor emeritus Jack Forbes has come out against honoring Sutter, who he calls a rapist and enslaver, with a street name. Other historians say mistreatment of the Indians was common at that time. In the times of the Gold Rush, it was not uncommon for miners to use native Americans as a workforce, which sometimes exposed them to mistreatment. The state Legislature at one point even put bounties on the ears and heads of natives, said David Kuchera, Sierra College California history professor. But today we are left with a debate over assigning schools, streets and landmarks with the names of historical figures, many of whom, including trapper and guide Kit Carson and explorers Christopher Columbus and Francisco Vazquez de Coronado, had shady reputations, he said. "I think we should not attempt to romanticize historical figures," Kuchera said. "You have to look at people in history who had an impact for their flaws as well and determine now if something is worthy of their name. People of different groups may have been affected by those flaws and have legitimate concerns about elevating their name, but there were also people who benefited by what they did and may seek to celebrate their names." Kuchera said it might have been particularly important for Native American activists in Davis, a university community with one of only a few American Indian studies departments in the nation, to not glorify Sutter's name on a street. Sutter Place in Davis will now be named after David Risling who helped develop the Native American studies program at UC Davis and founded the DQ University for American Indian students in Davis. He died last year. Sutter Place was named so because of the Sutter Davis Hospital. The street name change, however, did not affect the hospital's address. No costs will be incurred in changing stationary used by the hospital, said Sara Hyde, communication coordinator for the Sutter Health Sacramento-Sierra Region. "We support the efforts to name Sutter Place David Risling Way," Hyde said. "It's a wonderful way to raise the consciousness of Native American history and a good tribute to a good person. It's important to acknowledge his contributions." The Sutter hospitals, including Sutter Auburn Faith Hospital, get their name from the first Sutter hospital which was built in 1923 on the former site of the tent hospital that served Sutter's Fort. In 1988, the new Sutter General Hospital was built on the same site. Because the hospital's name arose from its location near Sutter's Fort, there is no reason to change its historic name, Hyde said. The United Auburn Indian Community has donated thousands to the Sutter Auburn Faith Hospital Foundation, most recently an outright $30,000 grant and pledged $30,000 more in matching funds for a new infusion center that will bear its name. "These things have to be considered on a case-by-case basis," Doug Elmets, spokesman for the United Auburn Indian Community, who also represents the Rumsey Band of Wintun Indians in Yolo County. "What transpired in Davis seems appropriate for the situation." But people outside the Sutter Auburn Faith Hospital Wednesday didn't seem to mind the name. "It's silly they're talking about this now," said Nancy Skjold, 66, of Newcastle, in reaction to the Davis street name change. "It's so ridiculous (to change the name)." The Journal's Michelle Miller can be reached at