Reinterpreting Sutter's Fort

Frequently Asked Questions

When a member of the public comes to a park, they are coming to experience some sort of resource. That could be a natural resource like a grove of old-growth redwoods, or it could be a cultural resource like a historic site. The process of informing the public about that resource is called “interpretation.” In one of the foundational texts on the topic, Freeman Tilden defines interpretation as an “educational activity which aims to reveal meanings and relationships through the use of original objects, by firsthand experience, and by illustrative media, rather than simply to communicate factual information.” Thus, all the signage, talks, tours, displays, pamphlets, activities, and demonstrations that you might experience at a park fall under the broad umbrella of “interpretation.”

All California State Parks are managed according to a set of planning documents. A Park’s General Plan lays out in broad terms how that park should be developed, operated, and managed. A General Plan includes an element describing how the park should be interpreted. A more focused interpretive planning document, such as an Interpretation Master Plan, may be necessary to further elaborate the interpretive direction laid out in a General Plan. A new interpretation planning document may be especially useful prior to the creation of new interpretive facilities or programs.

All parks go through regular revisions to their planning documents to make sure that they are staying current with best practices. The last major planning documents that address interpretation at Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park are now over 30 years old. Over time, our understanding of the history of this site has continued to evolve. In particular, historians have worked to paint an increasingly accurate and complex picture of the ways that the Fort impacted the lives of California Native people. In that same time, the best practices for educating the public about the more painful aspects of our shared history have also changed. The previous interpretation planning documents for the Park over-relied on living history concepts. While living history was effective for communicating certain aspects of the Park’s history, the over-reliance on this one interpretive tool ended up limiting the historical time periods, facts, and perspectives that visitors could learn about. As a result, the Park needs a new interpretation plan that provides the freedom of a wider range of interpretive methods, themes, and time periods in order to accurately convey the full range of complex histories that run through this site.

Like a number of historic sites in California, Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park has nominally shared the complex, and often disturbing 19th century history of California, with its often-deadly consequences for California Native Americans. The failure to fully incorporate that history in the park’s interpretation programs has led to an unbalanced perspective about John Sutter and his legacy, along with that of other settlers. The near exclusion of California Native Americans’ lived experiences in this story also has led to a failure to acknowledge how this historic site represents a painful reminder of that history to their descendants. It is critical that interpretation at the Park attempt to accurately reflect the historical impact and significance of events that occurred there. We must answer the questions “Why preserve this place?” and “What can it teach us?” in order for the Park to remain relevant.

The main goal of the proposed Interpretation Master Plan is to help California State Parks to convey an inclusive, complex, and accurate exploration of the history of Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park. It aims to create a visitor experience that is analytical, reflective, and inclusive of California’s diverse and complex history. In this way, the plan proposes turning Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park into a “laboratory of learning.”

The proposed Interpretation Master Plan envisions a general shift in the focus and tone of the visitor experience of Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park. Compared to before, park visitors will experience: an elevated awareness of the experiences of California’s indigenous people; a deeper examination of the role of Sutter’s Fort as a catalyst for colonization; discussions of the tools used to study history; expanded time periods that the Park interprets beyond a narrow focus on the mid-1840s; and interpretive tools aimed at creating more equitable visitor engagement.

Beginning in the winter of 2020/2021, California State Parks suspended the use of certain interpretive tools at Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park. These included the wearing of historic costuming (also known as “period attire”), the dramatic portrayal of historic individuals or groups of people, the lighting of black powder (such as in canons or muskets), and the use of the 1990s-era audio tour program.

The proposed Interpretation Master Plan does not propose any changes to the historic resources at Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park. Those include resources from both the historic period of the Fort’s operation, as well as from its earliest years as a museum. The proposed Plan would, though, allow for changes to the Park’s interpretive fabric. That could include, but is not limited to: signage, recreated room furnishings, displays, landscaping, audio visual aids, the designated use of specific rooms and spaces, the flow of foot traffic through the Park, objects used for hands-on demonstrations and activities, and lighting.

These proposed changes to the interpretation of Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park come as part of a larger effort within California State Parks, called the “Reexamining Our Past Initiative.” Among its goals, this 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’s park and infrastructure 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.

No, and that’s a good thing! All museums change their interpretation over time; that’s part of what it takes to stay current and offer the best visitor experience possible. The main historic resources at Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park—most visibly the buildings—will still be here, and visitors will still be learning about what happened here in the 1840s. That learning, though, will have a much broader scope, will be brought up to date with the most current historical scholarship, and will be aimed at as many different types of visitors as possible.

The proposed Interpretation Master Plan calls for the use of as broad a set of interpretive tools as is needed to convey an inclusive, complex, and accurate history of Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park. There is nothing in the proposed Plan that would prevent the use of hands-on demonstrations and activities. The Plan does call for a greater focus on discussion, listening, and reflection. Hands-on demonstrations could be structured around these values.

Living history is an interpretive tool that, under the right conditions, can be an effective way to help the public learn about the past. Previous interpretation plans for Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park were almost exclusively focused on this one interpretive tool. Like any interpretive tool, it communicated some things better than others. Over the years, the over-reliance on this one interpretive tool limited the Park’s ability to fully communicate the complex, and at times dark or uncomfortable, histories of this place. In particular, the over-reliance on living history techniques tended to limit the public’s ability to understand the critical role of Native Americans in the operation of Sutter’s Fort as well as the often devastating consequences of colonialism brought by John Sutter and other settlers who came through the Fort. For now, State Parks has suspended the use of living history interpretation, including the wearing of historic costuming (also known as “period attire”) and the dramatic portrayal of historic individuals or groups of people. While the proposed Interpretation Master Plan does not explicitly ban living history in the Park, it does call for a much more varied and nuanced set of interpretive tools than have been used in the past. If living history tools prevent the public from gaining a full and accurate view of the history of the Park, then they would be inconsistent with the proposed Plan.

Absolutely! Over the years, Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park has offered many educational opportunities for school groups and families. The proposed Interpretation Master Plan envisions the development of inclusive, complex, and accurate interpretive programs that can be appropriately adapted to a wide range of student grade levels. Whereas previous interpretation focused largely on elementary school students, the proposed Plan calls for the Park’s programs to be inclusive of primary, secondary, and college level students.

Under the proposed Interpretation Master Plan, Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park will continue to be a place for meaningful educational experiences. The Plan details the ways that the interpretive programs and material at the Park will meet a broad scope of California educational standards across multiple grade levels and subject areas. The themes discussed at the Park will change from what was offered before and there will be a greater focus on facilitated discussions. As envisioned in the Plan, the Park will present a more comprehensive picture of the effects of colonization with a much more attentive view to the experiences of California Native people. The Park will also support greater historical literacy, teaching students about the process by which history is recorded, researched, and understood. While the experience of teachers and students will be different than before, the interpretation envisioned in the Plan, including field trips, will continue to directly support and compliment classroom-based learning.

No. Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park will continue to present the history of John Sutter’s role in the colonization of the Sacramento Valley. The proposed Interpretation Master Plan envisions a Park where the story of John Sutter, Sutter’s Fort, and the many changes that this place catalyzed, are not told solely from the perspective of Sutter and other colonists. It similarly envisions a Park that presents an inclusive, complex, and accurate history of the colonization of California. That means removing stigmas around discussing the most difficult truths of that history, including racism, slavery, genocide, greed, and abuses of power. In short, the proposed Plan does not seek to remove Sutter from the history of California, but to support the Park in presenting as full and accurate a picture of that history as possible.

Revision is the foundation of sound historical inquiry. All academic disciplines are built on the never-ending quest for fuller understanding, and more often than not that requires the revision of our previous interpretation of the facts at hand. Just as a new scientific discovery can shed better light on some long-observed natural phenomenon, our understanding of history can change as we learn new details, sources, and narratives. This happens even though the events of the past remain the same. To ensure we can achieve an accurate understanding of history, we must also accept that the pursuit of finding historical truth remains, and always will remain, ongoing. Indeed, this is one of interpretive themes that the proposed Interpretation Master Plan calls on Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park to better educate the public about. Finally, although the historical interpretation that this Plan proposes may be new to this Park, it is grounded in over 30 years of current scholarship in the history of California and the American West.