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At Sutter's Fort: Keeping alive a golden memory

Mormon Battalion's role told by LDS docent

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Bonnie Silliman said she hated studying history in school, but the history of Sutter's Fort in downtown Sacramento has become such a passion for her as an adult that she now volunteers as a docent there.

Bonnie Silliman, a Church member dressed in period clothing as a docent at Sutter's Fort, chats with historian Gordon Frye.
Bonnie Silliman, a Church member dressed in period clothing as a docent at Sutter's Fort, chats with historian Gordon Frye. Photo: Photo by Greg Hill

A member of the Mission Oak Ward, Sacramento California East Stake, she participated a few years ago in a Church play about some of the pioneer stories of northern California. Acting didn't appeal to her, but she was interested in the costumes — period clothing from the mid-1800s. That interest, and what to do with the dress she wore in the play, led her to the fort where her willingness to serve was welcomed.

Now she joins other volunteers in period dress to take visitors around the fort and explain its story. In general, she sticks with the secular story of Johann Augustus Sutter and the fort he built. It is a history that begins in Mexican territory and ends with California part of the United States after the Mexican-American war. The fort was Sutter's headquarters and a place of refuge and protection. He ran many enterprises out of the fort and would let people stay there in exchange for their labor. Sutter also contracted to have the sawmill built, 50 miles east of the fort, where gold was discovered, triggering the California Gold Rush of 1849.

A cannon in fort's bastion.
A cannon in fort's bastion. Photo: Photo by Greg Hill

There is a connection between the fort and the early history of the Church in the area. It is passed off in one of the rooms with a small display titled: "Sutter's Mormon Workers — Eyewitnesses to the Discovery of Gold."

But giving a private tour on her own time to another member of the Church, she shares information beyond what can normally be learned in the fort.

Taking a northern route back to the Salt Lake Valley after being discharged in Southern California, 80 to 100 members of the Mormon Battalion were told to stop and work at Sutter's Fort because there weren't yet enough resources to sustain them in the Salt Lake Valley.

Sutter welcomed them, "amazed that they were talented people who knew how to write their names," Sister Silliman said. "He needed workers and they were all very skilled."

She said members of the battalion worked at such things as blacksmithing and barrel making. (She pointed out that heavy items such as wheat and nails were put in barrels that could be more easily moved by rolling.)

Sutter "was always impressed with their ability," Sister Silliman said of the battalion members. "They were honest and they worked hard."

A few of them were assigned to help build Sutter's sawmill and were there at the discovery of gold. But, she said, they worked in the gold fields only on their own time while fulfilling their contracts with Sutter.

The restored interior of Sutter's Fort gives visitors an idea of what it was like originally.
The restored interior of Sutter's Fort gives visitors an idea of what it was like originally. Photo: Photo by Greg Hill

Samuel Brannan, leader of the pioneers who traveled from New York to California on the ship Brooklyn, also played a role in the history of Sutter's Fort. Sutter had built the fort a couple of miles from the river because of flooding concerns, Sister Silliman said, then was left on his own when Brannan, who had tried to persuade President Brigham Young to move the main settlement of the Church to California, was instrumental in moving the heart of Sacramento to the river front. Separated from the city and with workers hard to come by after Brannan made certain that news of the discovery of gold was publicized, Sutter's Fort failed.

But because of its role in the history of the area, it became the earliest restoration project in the United States, she said. Beginning in the 1890s, reconstruction began around the only remaining structure, the central building where Sutter had his home and office, using his maps and journals as construction guides. Now the fort is a popular attraction in California's state capital.

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