[Guest Post] Public History Brings the Archives at Sutter’s Fort to Life

Amanda Berkson-Brand is finishing up her classwork at California State University, Sacramento and is looking forward to spending the summer completing her thesis, a collection of oral histories regarding the founding of the California State Railroad Museum. You can follow the CSUS SAA on Twitter.

Located in the heart of California, students in the Public History program at California State University, Sacramento are lucky in lots of ways — we are surrounded by great food, great craft beer, quick access to the mountains and the ocean, and that’s not even to mention our almost oppressively cheery weather. But more importantly, students in the Capitol Campus Public History Program have access to great archives and historic sites. Libraries, museums, government offices, seats of power high and low… we have it all. The SAA CSUS student chapter simply seeks to make the most of our lucky situation and seek out archival and historic resources wherever we can.


This led us to our Spring Semester field trip to Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park in the heart of Midtown, Sacramento. Our treasurer, Jared Jones (pictured in his historic garb and faux-beaver top hat) works at the Fort providing interpretive programs, research support and an encyclopedic knowledge of anything John Sutter. For those not inundated with Sutter-mania like we Sacramentans are, John Sutter founded Sutter’s Fort in the area that would become Sacramento in 1839. Sutter’s Fort is significant for its connection with overland migration of the 1840s, the Bear Flag Revolt, the Donner Party, and the California Gold Rush. His son, John Sutter Jr., mapped what would become the tidy grid of Sacramento proper. While the Fort was an important site for travelers and locals alike for decades, it fell into disrepair and ruin and was rebuilt by an organization called the Native Sons of the Golden West in the late nineteenth century 1890s. The Fort is now a State Historic Park, and serves people seeking to learn about California history.

Old Archives

Jones gave the CSUS attendees of his weekday tour the inside scoop on the interpretation and history of the Fort, with particular focus on this summer’s repainting project. His insider knowledge of what is authentic to the historic fort, such as the hand-carved beams in the main building, made the multi-layer history of the site vivid. For the archival aspect, Jones noted that the archives of the Fort were originally housed in the main building, a structure that has been standing for more than 150 years. Sacramento sits on a flood plane, so all members breathed a sigh of relief to know the records are now on higher, safer ground at the California State Parks state-of-the-art Museums and Archive complex.


Finally, we made our way up to the top of the main building, where records and interpretive materials have been stored or currently are currently housed. Around a box of “cannonballs” (simply styrofoam balls used as a substitute) members discussed the Fort’s interesting, real life scenario for the keeping of records. In addition to the records from the original Fort, those pertaining to the Native Sons of the Golden West, the California State Parks period, and various museum ephemera have to be considered. Talk about series!

When the group parted at noon, Jones went to fire the (empty) cannon for his weekly demonstration. The best part of being a member of the SAA CSUS Student Chapter is variety; our members not only work in places like the California State Archives, California State Parks and the California State Parks Photographic Archive, they have diverse interests and experiences that we as an organization count on to attract new members and create memorable outings. In the two years, members have participated in a tour of the Wells Fargo Corporate Archives, helped found, populate and maintain the Archival Research in Sacramento (ARIS) project and organized Alumni mixers.

Next up for SAA CSUS? An all-California Archival Conference, with the UCLA and California State University, San Jose SAA chapters in June. Members are looking forward to a day of learning and networking. Mostly though? We are all hoping Jones wears his top hat!


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