Step Into the Past at Sutter's Fort

EDITOR'S NOTE: Our Hometown Tourists visited Sutter's Fort on their most recent excursion.  The following blog includes two accounts by Janet Lewis and Carol Dabrowiak, detailing their visit to this Sacramento attraction.


Janet Lewis

Janet speaks to a docent at Sutter's Fort.Where can you time travel back more than 160 years without leaving town?  Maybe you know of a few places already.  But, how many times have you passed by the distinctive white walls spanning the blocks 26th-28th-K-L Streets in Sacramento without stopping and going in?  Well, you should re-discover Sutter’s Fort!

Cindy, Carol, and I did exactly that by visiting Sutter’s Fort one recent Thursday morning.  We arrived at the opening time of 10 a.m. in order to avoid August afternoon heat.

“When you walk through the gate of Sutter’s Fort you will be taking a step back in time and watching history unfold before you as the past is recreated...”  This key phrase is from the informational brochure each visitor receives upon entry along with a map of the Fort.  Sutter’s Fort also features an audio self-tour, which activated simply by leaning into each display room. 

For instance, in the cooperage I learned that for either dry or wet goods, it is easier to roll a barrel than pick up a box.  Hmmm, never really thought about that before, but it makes sense!  Then in the bakery, we heard that the residents of Sutter’s Fort ate mostly beef and bread (and vegetables when they could get them); and coffee was so scarce that they ground and roasted acorns to brew up instead! 

Fascinating as these auditory historical vignettes may be, the days at Sutter’s Fort when the costumed docent historical re-enactors are in attendance bring history to life even more!

Some highlights of our time travel excursion at this unique Sacramento museum included:

  • Janet plays "Graces" with a docent at Sutter's FortThe Pioneer Woman at a wagon in the shade of a tree told us about the journey west in a wagon pulled by yoked oxen.  She also played the hoop and sticks game called “Graces” with me and took it in good grace when I put the hoop up in the tree! 
  • The Vaquero making tooled leather decorations explained how the Californio’s tradition of decorative arts differed from the Yankee-Puritan’s concept of plainness in all things, while the fur trapper, Sam, fashioned a leather strap to mend his suspenders. 
  • Adrien explained and demonstrated the loading and firing of a French musket of the type used “back in the day” at Sutter’s Fort.  There is quite a story related to how the French muskets got there, but you will have to visit Sutter’s Fort to hear it!  Adrien also related the origins of several phrases used to this day, such as “flash in the pan” while showing how to load and fire the musket.  It went off with a satisfying loud noise and puff of gunpowder smoke!
  • The Trade Store (where I bought a souvenir chunk of iron pyrite aka “fools gold”) offers an uncommonly good selection of books -- some about the historical period and some that are replicas of books actually in use during the 1840’s and 1850’s; such as George Washington’s Rules For Courtesy And Deportment; it could fit in anyone’s pocket and be useful even today.   The Trade Store also features various high quality toys, games, and craft kits that would be just as much fun for kids of all ages now as in the olden days.

After circling the fort with the audio tour and interacting with the costume docents, it was an actual surprise to come down the stairs from John A. Sutter’s office and see the modern skyline over the white adobe walls of the Fort!  In my imagination, it had been 1850 until that very moment! 

Then, capping off our tour at noon, we witnessed the cannon firing.  Wow!  It gave off even more loud noise and smoke, along with the fun of yelling out “fire in the hole!” to warn unsuspecting 21st Century passers-by outside the Fort’s adobe walls.

Fast-forward as Carol, Cindy, and I walked two blocks and almost two centuries into the present and enjoyed lunch at Centro restaurant, where we saw people at business lunches with laptop computers up on their table!  What a lot of changes have taken place since Sutter’s day.  We are very fortunate to have the Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park right here in the middle of downtown Sacramento, where we can get a glimpse of what it might have been like in the historical past and then enjoy some great downtown Sacramento dining!  My friends and I had a great time there.

Carol Dabrowiak

Cannon fire at Sutter's FortHow many museums have you visited recently that fire off a replica of a pre-Civil War cannon during your tour?  That is one of the things that make Sutter's Fort a truly unique experience. 

It was a beautiful morning in Sacramento when my friends and I toured Sutter's Fort.  I felt like I was visiting the past nestled in the architecture of the future.  Walking into the Fort takes you back to the 1840s, before California was a state and it needed an adobe fort with cannons to defend it from enemy attacks.  But when you look back out to the horizon and you see high rise buildings and construction cranes lifting us into the twenty first century, the contrast is striking and a little jarring.

John Sutter built this fort as a way station for settlers who were heading west.  They needed temporary shelter and supplies to continue their journeys.  He befriended the travelers and provided them with lodging.  He even sent his workers to Tahoe to rescue the 47 survivors of the Donner Party.  He was California's first humanitarian.

A tour of Sutter's Fort is an interactive experience.   Docents in period costumes perform tasks that the settlers to Sacramento Valley would have performed.  A young man demonstrated how to load and fire a musket.  And he let the children hold the weapon after he fired it so they could feel the weight of it.  A woman in a long muslin dress and sun bonnet explained how families risked their lives to travel across the plains to get to California. 

A replica of the covered wagon they rode in is displayed at the fort.  The interior is about the size and shape of a pup tent, and the journey took about 4 months.  They frequently got lost or ran out of provisions. How did families survive such an experience?   I remember car trips with my siblings when we could barely be together for two hours before someone's life was at risk. 

The docent also had examples of toys and games that the children played.  These games consisted of wooden hoops and sticks and strings and involved throwing and catching -encouraging being outside.  She also played the games with the audience members.  No AA batteries needed here.  The blacksmith had children help him pump the giant bellows to fire up the coals and heat the steel rods.  He also let us examine the different tools the settlers made.

Blacksmith at Sutter's FortJohn Sutter is mostly remembered for the discovery of gold.  But gold was not discovered at Sutter's Fort.  It was discovered at Sutter's Sawmill about 50 miles east of the fort on the American River.  And it wasn't John Sutter who discovered it, but his employee, James Marshall.  After gold was discovered there was a "rush" of thousands of people coming to California to make their fortune.  Sadly, John Sutter didn't profit from it nor did James Marshall. 

There are lots of things happening at Sutter's Fort.  The docents were interesting and quirky.  They made sure everyone was gathered together for the highlight of the day.  They made us all yell "fire in the hole!" before they shoot off a large cannon that produces fire and smoke and shakes the ground.  Very Impressive!  Sutter's Fort is a fun place to visit and a fun thing to do in Sacramento.