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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 585

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For his first, and still most popular, novel, Blaise Cendrars reshaped the life of an actual historical personage, the ill-fated grandfather of his friend, the Swiss sculptor August Sutter. Following his solitary emigration to the Western Hemisphere, Johann Sutter (in the French text, Cendrars persists in giving the name its original spelling, Suter) had managed to become virtual emperor of California, until the discovery of gold on his property in the Sacramento Valley precipitated an uncontrollable rush of prospectors, who ruined him. Ironically, vast deposits of the precious metal reduced the wealthiest man in North America to destitution and madness.

Sutter’s Gold begins with the appearance of a lone stranger in a remote Swiss village. Johann Sutter has come to apply for a passport, but, when the authorities refuse to provide one to the unknown thirty-one-year-old, he crosses the French border anyway, leaving behind his wife and four children. The vagabond lives by his wits, not always by the law, and manages to book passage on a ship to New York. He vows to himself to conquer the New World.

Sutter spends two years in New York before moving on to St. Louis. He becomes haunted by alluring tales of the Western frontier and is determined, despite the many hazards, to travel to California. En route, the flip of a coin assures him that he will succeed. From Vancouver, he sails to Hawaii, and, after some time in the islands, he arranges passage with Russian sailors to Alaska. From Sitka, Sutter sails down the coast, to find himself at last alone on the deserted beach of San Francisco.

Excited by the luxuriant land he sees in the Sacramento Valley, Sutter proposes to build his New Helvetia there and is told by the Mexican governor to do as he pleases. Overcoming the natural and human dangers and the vagaries of politics, he succeeds in creating a magnificent empire. Yet, at the moment of his greatest triumph, as the forty-five-year-old Sutter prepares to send for his family in Europe, James W. Marshall, a carpenter in New Helvetia, accidentally digs into a lode of gold. By precipitating a frenetic rush onto the Sutter lands, the discovery of the valuable metal ends the sovereignty and the prosperity of the wealthiest man on the continent. Sutter loses control of his property to thousands of avaricious prospectors, and, when Anna Sutter and his four children finally arrive, they encounter a broken pauper. On seeing her husband, Anna collapses and dies.

Sutter sets to work again, and, for a time, his affairs once more flourish. He is honored as a hero by the mayor of San Francisco, and Judge Thompson rules that Sutter possesses full ownership of all the property in New Helvetia. The legal decision provokes a riot, a rampaging mob burns and ransacks the estate, and Sutter is again reduced to poverty, while his eldest son, Emile, is driven to suicide.

A shattered man, Sutter wanders about quoting the book of Revelation. He joins a religious sect in Pennsylvania and comes under the sway of its leader, Johannes Christitsch, who takes charge of his legal appeals. Sutter then becomes a familiar, pathetic figure in Washington, D.C., futilely petitioning Congress for the restoration of his property. Abandoned even by Christitsch, Sutter dies on the steps of the Capitol, at the age of seventy-three, unable to withstand the excitement caused by a cruel lie told to him by a seven-year-old child, that Congress has voted Sutter one hundred million dollars.