In California, fourth grade is the year of California history and learning about the Gold Rush. Living in Placer County, in the heart of Northern California’s gold country, we have a unique opportunity to visit important historical sites and give our kids the opportunity to experience history first hand.
We were so excited when my oldest started fourth grade. I went on several awesome field trips as a fourth grader and I was looking forward to Natalie having the same experience. But unfortunately, there were no field trips. None.
It was up to my husband and I to take our kids’ education into our own hands and create opportunities for them to learn outside the classroom, to see, touch, taste, smell, and experience history first-hand.
Our family field trips were way more fun that we expected them to be. They became family adventures and we still look for historic events and sites to visit today.
The first Living History event we found was a hands-on history day at Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento.
Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park, located in the heart of midtown Sacramento, offers regular living history events re-create life and activities of Sutter’s time. The Hands-On History Days feature staff in period costumes demonstrating the tools, skills, food, and games of the early Californians.
I was thrilled to find a living history day that worked in our schedule. Some of the demonstrations and activities available to see and participate in include:
- Tour the fort’s sleeping quarters with period furnishings and clothing
- See weavers making blankets
- View cooking demonstrations and taste the foods made
- Tour Sutter’s living quarters
- Visit the Blacksmith shop
- Visit the Carpentry shop
- Talk to trappers and traders
- Stop by the trade store, which offers books, pioneer crafts, and gifts
- See Sutter’s cannon fired (never actually fired to defend the fort)
Today, my oldest just finished seventh grade and my son just finished fourth grade, and we went back to Sutter’s Fort again for a refresher history lesson. But this time we went during the day, during the week — and it was empty.
No one was at the park and we pretty much had it all to ourselves except for a couple of other families. It was definitely not as fun as visiting for a living history day, but the trade-off is that we could listen to all of the audio recordings in each room of the fort uninterrupted and actually hear them. We also didn’t have to wait to enter any of the rooms or view any of the exhibits.
If you have the chance to visit Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park in Sacramento, California during a living history day and during the week when it’s almost empty, you should totally do it! Two different experiences, both really cool.
History of Johann Sutter and Sutter’s Fort
Johann Augustus Sutter (John Sutter) was born in 1803 in Germany near the Swiss border. He fled Switzerland in 1834 to escape debt and a troubled marriage, leaving his family behind and sailing to the United States to seek his fortune. From 1835 to 1839 we he worked his way across the west as a swindler and trader, reinventing himself as he went. In 1939 he reached the American River with dreams of building an agricultural empire.
In 1839, John Sutter received a land grant in the Sacramento Valley from the Mexican government. He used the land to create a flourishing agricultural empire and named it New Helvetia (New Switzerland.) This empire established Sacramento’s earliest settlement and the first non-Indian settlement in California’s Central Valley.
Building The Fort
Construction began on Fort Sutter in 1840. The adobe compound had was 2.5 feet thick and 15-18 feet tall. While the actual measurements are unknown, reports claim the fort measured 425 feet by 175 feet. The reconstructed compound we visit today is slightly smaller than the original fort. Inside the fort walls were sleeping quarters, carpenter and blacksmith shops, a gunsmith, distillery, bakery, grist mill, and blanket factory, with Sutter’s office and living quarters in the fort’s central building.
Sutter’s Fort was a popular emigrant destination. Sutter provided shelter and supplies to many weary settlers, some of who became skilled workers at the fort. In 1847, Sutter and his employees helped rescue the Donner Party, after being trapped in the Sierra by the worst snows on record.
Also in 1847, Sutter hired James Marshall to build a sawmill on the American River, 50 miles east of the fort. On January 24, 1848, Marshall discovered a shiny nugget in the mill’s tailrace. It was tested at Fort Sutter and it proved to be gold. This gold discovery site is now the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park.
News of the discovery caused the start of the 1949 Gold Rush, which brought a flood of miners to the area. Sutter was cheated out of most of his property. As his debts mounted, he transferred title of his remaining holdings to John A. Sutter Jr. The fort was eventually sold for only $7,000 and Sutter never regained his empire.
By the late 1850s, Fort Sutter lay in ruins, but the central building remained intact. The site was purchased by the Native Sons of the Golden West in 1891 and presented to the people of California.
The fort was reconstructed between 1891 and 1893, then in 1947, it became part of the California State Park system.
Visiting Sutter’s Fort
Today, Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park in Sacramento is a center for living history that provides a glimpse into beginnings of Sacramento in the early 19th century and an educational opportunity for children and adults alike.
After visiting Sutter’s Fort, you should definitely make plans to visit the State Indian Museum and California Indian Heritage Center — it is right next door, so you can just walk on over through the park. It’s also not a very big museum, so it’s a perfect to add-on to compliment your family day trip.
Also, if you’ve got little ones, pack a picnic lunch and enjoy the afternoon relaxing under a shady tree while they run around and burn off some energy!
- Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park is located at 2701 L St, Sacramento, California 95816 in midtown Sacramento between K and L Streets and 26th and 28th Streets
- Open daily 10:00 am to 5:00 pm — Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day
- Metered parking Monday through Saturday, free parking on Sunday