The Immigrant and the University: Peder Sather and Gold Rush California

The Immigrant and the University: Peder Sather and Gold Rush California

The Immigrant and the University: Peder Sather and Gold Rush California

The Immigrant and the University: Peder Sather and Gold Rush California


Peder Sather was a scribe before he emigrated from Norway to New York in 1832. There, he worked as a servant and a clerk at a lottery office before opening an exchange brokerage. During the gold rush, he moved to San Francisco to help establish the banking house of Drexel, Sather & Church on Montgomery Street. Sather was a founder and a liberal benefactor of the University of California at Berkeley where he is memorialized by the Sather Gate and Sather Tower (the Campanile), three endowed professorships, and more recently the Peder Sather Center for Advanced Study.

Karin Sveen, one of Norway's most accomplished writers, pieces together a story yet untold--a beautifully crafted biography based on her dedicated search for scraps of information. The result gives readers a look at the life of a successful entrepreneur and a leading California patron who engaged in public education on all levels; supported Abraham Lincoln; and worked to give emancipated slaves housing, schooling, and employment after the Civil War. His legacy and vivid persona and the frontier city of his time are brought to life with interesting anecdotes of many famous people-- General William T. Sherman, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, the Norwegian violinist Ole Bull, and above all, his close friend Anthony J. Drexel, legendary Philadelphia financier and one of the founders of Wall Street.


Writings by Norwegians and Norwegian-Americans frequently exhibit a minimalist style that ranges from reticent to enigmatic. This tendency can be noted without fear of cultural stereotyping, for it reflects something deep and abiding that goes back to the Norse sagas; hence, it constitutes a frequently noted characteristic of the Norwegian temperment.

In this biography, the noted Norwegian writer Karin Sveen employs a typically Norwegian restraint as she sifts through the meager documentation connected to her subject, banker Peder Sather (1810–86): trustee of the College of California, which was the forerunner of the University of California, whose widow donated to the university the well-known Sather Gate, the Sather Tower (or Campanile), as well as three professorships (two in history and one in classical literature) that keep Sather’s name alive. Indeed, Sveen herself enters the narrative, as she wrestles with the spare documentation and personal statements surviving Sather, one of the most important financial figures of mid-nineteenth century United States, based in San Francisco and the West Coast primarily but maintaining connections to Wall Street and the national banking establishment. How could such a wealthy and influential man, Karin Sveen asks, have remained such a private figure—indeed, remain in significant measure in the shadows—despite her years of scrupulous research, retrieving a record that only her extraordinary industry and devotion to her subject made possible for her to assemble?

Was it a crime or some lesser malfeasance? Balzac, after all, once noted that behind every great fortune lies a crime. No, there was no crime; but there had been a young Norwegian housemaid who had become pregnant by an equally young and obscure clerk just off the farm; and this clerk, not ready to marry the girl who bore his child and to face a bleak future with her, had fled . . .

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