Imagine that you’re John Sutter, and you’re in luck. But not necessarily good luck.

First, some background:

John Sutter looks like a prosperous businessman in
John Sutter looks like a prosperous businessman in this portrait, and that’s how he thought of himself. But he died broke - and a broken man. (Online Archive of California)

You may have heard of the San Francisco 49ers, a professional American football team. Its name is taken from the year 1849, when thousands and thousands of men rushed to California, hoping to strike it rich.

A year earlier in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, a carpenter had discovered gold - great big nuggets of it - in the South Fork of the American River as he was building a sawmill for John Sutter.

Sutter was a Swiss immigrant - a wanderer and a dreamer who tried many ventures in Europe, New York, and the American Midwest before seeking his fortune in fertile but largely undeveloped land in what is now central California.

At the time, in the 1840s, it was part of a remote province belonging to Mexico.

Sutter talked local Mexican officials into allowing him to build a fort on the Sacramento River to protect what he envisioned as a new agricultural empire. "New Switzerland," he called it.

When his carpenter, James Marshall, found gold near a mill owned by Sutter high in the Sierras, he told his boss about it, and the two of them decided to keep it secret while they hired men to pan the gold. Instead, the miners stole most of what they found.

Only in America-Poor John Sutter

Word of the discovery spread, and before long, mobs of gold-seekers descended upon the American River, overrunning Sutter’s land.

This is where the great California gold rush began
This is where the great California gold rush began in 1849, when James Marshall, a carpenter working for John Sutter, found the first nuggets. Marshall posed there a year later. (Wikipedia Commons)

So Sutter gave up the mining idea and tried to start a town, called "Sutterville," nearby. He’d thought he’d make money selling supplies and plots of land. But his agents cheated him, and he went broke.

Within a year John Sutter had given up his California dreams entirely and slunk off to Washington, D.C., where he would later die, alone and penniless, in a hotel room.

Sutter’s Mill is now a ghost town. The settlement around Sutter’s Fort grew into what became Sacramento, California’s capital city.

But Sutter’s name can still be found there. The fort has been restored as a California state historic park and tourist attraction.