John Sutter: A Life on the North American Frontier
Hurtado, a historian at the University of Okla., captures the rise and fall of an important and colorful immigrant to 19th-century California. Swiss expat John Sutter (1803-1880) arrived there in 1839 and founded a settlement called New Helvetia on the Sacramento River. But his thriving agricultural and commercial endeavors were crippled by the Gold Rush, as many of his laborers quit and headed to the mines. The strength of this study is Hurtado's willingness to portray Sutter's faults: his reliance on cheap, even enslaved, Indian labor; his efforts, when California entered the Union, to prohibit Indian suffrage. And Hurtado captures Sutter's excesses: he was a lousy businessman who loved to spend rather than accumulate money, and he lived lavishly, purchasing ""splendid clothes,"" portraits of himself, and other trappings of wealth and success. Yet Hurtado often misses opportunities to bring Sutter's story to life. The author's treatment of the destruction by arson of Hurtado's home, Hock Farm, in 1865 would have been vivid in the hands of a more artful writer, but Hurtado passes over the incident with a single paragraph. While this is likely to be the definitive scholarly biography of Sutter, it's too plodding to appeal to a broad audience. 21 b&w illus., 3 maps.