During my parents’ last visit, I wanted to show them a part of Sacramento they hadn’t seen before, so we picked Sutter’s Fort, a site in the heart of Sacramento that is of major historical importance not just to the region but to the history of the American migration to the West. It is popular site for families and school field trips because it provides great hands on experiences to help investigate our state’s history. It is so convenient that it’s easy to make into one stop in a larger tour of the area, but there is so much to explore at Sutter’s Fort that we ended up spending the better part of a morning there.
Sutter’s Fort: Sacramento History for Families
History of Sutter’s Fort
If you travel in Northern California, you are bound to come across the name “Sutter.” There are the Sutter Buttes (named “Spirit Mountain” by the Maidu Indians) and Sutter County, and of course Sutter’s Mill, made famous by the discovery of gold there in 1848. All of these were named after John Sutter, a Swiss immigrant who received a land grant from the Mexican government in 1839. The settlement he established (named New Helvetia, or New Switzerland) was the first in Sacramento and the first non-native settlement in California’s Central Valley.
Soon after gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in 1848, Sutter sold his fort and left, and it was later overrun by gold seekers. In 1871, a movement began to restore the site. and the reconstructed fort was opened to the public in 1905.
We were most interested in the connection between Sutter’s Fort and the Donner Party, which my son is fascinated by. In 1846 the Donner Party set out for California, but because of a late start and a tragic miscalculation in taking an untested shortcut, they arrived at the Sierra Nevada mountains too late in the season and were trapped in a blizzard. They were forced to make camp for the winter, and many soon began to die of starvation. It was five months before all were rescued, and many resorted to cannibalism. Only 45 of the original 81 members of the Donner Party survived.
When the plight of the Donner Party first became known, John Sutter sent help, and the survivors were eventually brought to Sutter’s Fort to recuperate. Among the artifacts on display at Sutter’s Fort today are items from the Donner Party, including the doll of young Patty Reed.
Many other artifacts from early California history are also on display, some of which can be seen in this online exhibit. They showcase the Gold Rush era, early California statehood, and the Civil War.
Planning Your Visit
Sutter’s Fort is located in midtown Sacramento at 2701 L Street. Parking is available on the streets surrounding the fort, so be sure to bring quarters for the meters. There is a grassy field surrounding the fort if your little ones need to burn off a little energy afterwards.
Be aware that the site consists of a number of buildings surrounding a large open courtyard, so while most of the exhibits are inside, you will spend a lot of time walking outdoors, so you need to plan accordingly in inclement weather.
As you enter the complex, you’ll be able to visit displays in the various buildings around the fort, such as the general store or the smithy. We had a great time talking to the blacksmith, and my son even got to go in and give him a hand!
Kids really get a sense of what life was like in those days – from doing laundry and baking bread to what it would have been like to travel cross country with your family in a wagon! My kids really loved climbing up in the tower to see the cannons, which were hung from the ceiling in such a way that they could swing around to point in various directions to protect the fort from attackers.
Keep in mind that Sutter’s Fort does host demonstration days and fairs periodically, so check the calendar before you come. You can even come to the “Haunted Fort” just before Halloween! We got lucky and happened to be there on a day with a large school group, so there were even more interactive exhibits than usual.
Also, they work closely with school groups and scout troops, so be sure to contact them if you’d like to plan a visit with a group of students. One program even lets the kids stay overnight!
Many thanks to my parents, who kindly allowed me to use their photographs above.
For more Sacramento fun for families, be sure to visit my Pinterest board:
Today we are joining with other California bloggers to share favorite family destinations in the Golden State! Find great resources in this list, plus link up your own below!
All Done Monkey: Sutter’s Fort – Sacramento History for Families
Family Review Guide: Ultimate Family Vacation Guide to Marriot Desert Springs Villas
The Funny Mom Blog: Tips for Picking the Perfect Airbnb in Big Bear Lake for Your Family
Mama Smiles: Jelly Belly Factory Tour & More California Fun for Kids
The Stay-at-Home-Mom Survival Guide: Free or Cheap Activities for Kids in the Hi-Desert of California
Little Hiccups: Kid-Friendly Fun in the Bay Area