Thursday, October 30, 2008

From Benecia to Sutterville

This is a somewhat atypical article from me. Pardon the lack of citation and links. I have much to do today. Yet I wrote this after doing a bit of research over the years, and in a burst of Wikibraining. Amazing what changed in the world in such a short amount of time, based on the lives of so few people in the geographic region. -Pete.
Gregg Valley said:
> benicia is a cool little place. quaint, lots of history... did you know it is a former state capitol? building still stands... 1854 i think.
That's news to me. Checking out Wikipedia... here it is! From Feb 3, 1853 til Feb 24, 1854.

What I did know was, following the 1848 Mexican-American War, when California was made a state, the U.S. government was keen to move their power away from Monterey, where the Spanish and Mexican governments had held sway.

Let's perfect my fuzzy memory of California history.

Monterey as Capitol
• 1776 - 1822 - Spanish capitol of Alta California
• 1822 - 1846 - Mexican capitol of Alta California
• 1846 - 1849 - Capitol of the quasi-independent California Republic during Mexican-American War; HQ of US military governorship; til US State Constitutional Convention

In 1849, they voted to move to San Jose, then kept moving upstate further from the traditional capitol.

• 1849 - 1850 - San Jose; California as state ratified
• 1850 - 1853 - Vallejo
• 1853 - 1854 - Benecia
• 1854 - Today - Sacramento

You've got to wonder why move? Who owned the Sacramento land? Because they really got sway over the placement of the state capitol. Part of this was purposeful racism and nationalism, to back away rapidly and purposefully from the historic presence of the Spanish-Mexicans Californios. Basically, the desire to have a "white" capitol.

So who was it?

John Sutter. Yes, the same French-speaking Swiss immigrant that the Gold Rush mill is named after. He's the one that got his way.

In 1841, he created a settlement called New Helvetia (New Switzerland). Though he tacitly became a Mexican citizen the year before to get the land grant, as soon as it was established, he threatened to put the land under the protection of the French.

His dream came true when the U.S. government took an interest in his fortified settlement in 1847, during the progress of the war. And then, he hit paydirt, literally, when men working for him at his sawmill at Coloma struck gold in 1848. Within one year, the "miner forty-niners" were racing from all over to be near Sacramento, Sutter's Fort, and Sutter's Mill. All of which he founded.

Got to credit the man for trying to land grab. A Squatter's Rights group eventually had most of his claims quashed. The US government began to rule out of his favor, and refused to do much to respond to his lawsuits or ownership claims. He eventually had to move back east to Pennsylvania.

Thus, the Benecia capitol was a make-shift home, as Sutter consolidated power. It was the height of his influence over the world, and his lasting legacy. Though it disappointed his father immensely. He had wanted the city to be called Sutterville. Instead, the son named his town after the Sacramento River which flowed beside it.


  1. Hmmm. Sure, Money had something to do with Sacramento being chosen as California's capital; however, I suspect that geography was also a consideration, given Sacramento's positioning in the San Jaoquin Valley and relative proximity to the shipping port of San Francisco. The money-geography thing's kinda circular.

    A good read, a part of which addresses your subject matter, is Irving Stone's "Men to Match My Mountains." Stone lends particular insight into the designs Russia, England, and France had upon California and how they in turn influenced those of the United States.

  2. True. Geography had a lot to do with it. The Sacramento River is a vital waterway, a highway to the center of the state.