Reinterpreting Sutter's Fort

Press Release

California State Parks Seeks Public Input in Developing a More Inclusive and Historically Accurate Interpretation at Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park

SACRAMENTO, Calif.— California State Parks is gathering public input on a proposal to fundamentally change the way history is interpreted at Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park (SHP) as part of State Parks’ Reexamining Our Past Initiative. With this effort, a more inclusive and historically accurate history will be shared with the thousands of school children and visitors that annually tour the National Historic Landmark site located in California’s capital, Sacramento.

Sutter’s Fort SHP has long served as an iconic memorial site principally dedicated to telling the story of Swiss immigrant John Augustus Sutter’s ambitious achievements in the early half of 19th century. Interpretation programs have presented mostly positive narratives of Sutter’s role in supporting American settlement leading up to gold discovery in 1848, through the very beginnings of the development of Sacramento, and California’s rapid
ascension into American control and statehood two years later. However, California Native American oral histories and contemporary scholars make clear that there is a more complex story to John Sutter that has yet to be fully acknowledged. Sutter’s role in coercing labor, enslaving, assaulting, and murdering Indigenous people is well documented, and the traumatic experiences are remembered by the surviving descendants to this day.

“While Sutter’s Fort SHP focused on John Sutter’s role as Sacramento’s founder and a pioneer of the California dream, the park missed talking about the real impact of Sutter and on the Native American people,” said John Fraser, Capital District Superintedent. “State Parks is committed to telling a more accurate and inclusive story so that everyone will feel comfortable visiting this historic park and reflect on its complex past.”

California State Parks has spent this past year consulting with Tribal Nations who are sharing their perspectives about what the site means to them and helping to develop interpretation content for their previously untold stories.

In collaboration with State Parks, the National Park Service has approved California State University Sacramento to update the original 1961 National Historic Landmark nomination for the site. This work will provide a broader context for better understanding the diverse cultures and complex history of Sutter’s Fort, including the late 19th century efforts by the Native Sons of the Golden West and the State of California to restore and preserve the site.

State Parks is hosting two virtual workshops to seek public input on proposed language for the interpretation mission, vision, goals, and themes being developed for the park’s Interpretation Master Plan on Wednesday, March 23 and Thursday, April 14 from 6:00-8:00pm. Those interested in attending the virtual workshops should register by clicking the corresponding date above.

The Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park Interpretation Master Plan is part of a larger effort within State Parks’ Reexamining Our Past Initiative. Among its goals, the initiative seeks to address interpretive programs and exhibits in California’s State Park System that fall short of fully contextualizing the state’s history. The initiative was started in 2020 when State Parks joined with other California State Agencies to redress discriminatory names within the state park and transportation systems. This followed the national conversation about racist public memorials in 2019, as well as Governor Newsom’s formal apology to Native Americans and the creation of the California Truth and Healing Council that same year.

Overview of Plan Goals

The Draft Interpretation Master Plan for Sutter’s Fort identifies 11 goals that will guide future interpretive programs.  Explore the goals in the slides below and participate in the survey to offer your feedback!

Represent an inclusive, complex, and accurate history of Sutter’s Fort’s role in the colonization of California
Foster an environment for visitors to study the full complexity of history through current scholarship and varying perspectives of the cultures, events, people, and institutional history associated with Sutter’s Fort.
Explore the changes to California catalyzed by Sutter’s Fort including the consequences of those changes on Native people and on native lands over time.
Promote the stewardship of Sutter’s Fort SHP rooted in the values of ongoing learning, truthful representations of the past, and a diversity of historical perspectives.
Cultivate an inclusive visitor experience by removing barriers for engagement and encouraging the involvement of underserved and underrepresented audiences.
Support the ongoing development and refinement of a wide range of visitor experiences that encourage both new and repeat visitors.
Expand Sutter’s Fort SHP outreach efforts to build relationships with new and geographically distant audiences.
Promote educational programming that is inclusive, complex, and relevant to a wide range of student grade levels.
Nurture partnerships for the development of interpretation with Native American tribes, cultural institutions, community organizations, universities, historically relevant places, and all groups of people with cultural connections to the Fort.
Explore the effects of colonial commerce and industry on Indigenous life, land, and resources.
Enable staff and volunteers to deliver high quality, thematic interpretive services focused on inclusion, complexity and accuracy.

Interpretive Timeline

Sutter’s Fort SHP may look frozen in time, but there’s been more change here over the years than you might think. Scroll through the timeline to learn how the Fort has been interpreted and reinterpreted throughout its history.

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