Click Here to Print This Story!   Click Here to get a PDF Copy of this Story!   

Sunday, May 09, 2004

Tide of history melded river, the gold rush.

Jerry Bowen

[email protected]

Waterway was transport lifeline

The Sacramento River, which defines the southeast boundary of Solano County, has had a long history.

If we go far enough back in time, there was no such thing as the Sacramento River or even a Bay Area as we know it today. Over eons involving many millions of years the river became a reality.

Before there was Solano County as such, there were the Indians. Along the Lower Sacramento River, the tule balsa boat was the principal vessel used by the different groups of Indians inhabiting the area. For simple river crossings, a bundle or group of bundles of tule reeds was adequate. But for any other kind of water travel, a vessel with raised sides and a point and elevated prow, propelled by a pole, was required.

According to Alfred L. Kroeber’s 1932 study, The Patwin and Their Neighbors, “Large boats for travel downstream might be 20 feet long and six or more in beam. Those for crossing the river were smaller. All were quickly made. There was no bladed paddle, but plain wooden poles were paddled with. In the tules, progress was by poling. It was impossible to travel upstream in these balsas.”

The balsa boat used by Miwok Indians was made of about 20 bundles of reeds. They were made more rigid by using willow poles for gunwales and external ribs made of willow rods. None of the boats were used for long distance travel; their main use was for fishing and hunting waterfowl. It is interesting to note that in many of the old studies, Native American traders used land routes and the Sacramento River played no major role in the process of trade and exchange.

The Sacramento River was not always known by that name. The river was first seen in 1772 when Father Juan Crespi and Don Pedro Fages stood on Mt. Diablo and saw the lower Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. The founding of the mission at San Francisco, four years later, was to give impetus to further exploration of the area. When explorers of San Francisco Bay saw the mouth of the Sacramento, they named it the San Roque.

In 1808, Lieutenant Gabriel Moraga, while seeking mission runaways, reached the lower Feather River in the vicinity of Nicholas and named it the Sacramento. On Oct. 10, 1808, he encountered the Sacramento River near Stony Creek and named it the Jesus Maria. Apparently he didn’t realize they were the same waterway.

European vessels first entered the Sacramento River on Oct. 23, 1811. An expedition headed by Fathers Abella and Fortini, and commanded by Jose Antonio Sanchez, entered “the northern river of San Francisco.” After a short voyage on the Sacramento, they turned into the San Joaquin before returning to the Presidio of San Francisco.

The first major exploration of the Sacramento River from its mouth northward began May 13, 1817, when Luis Arguello led 20 men, and Padres Duran and Abella in two launches into the river. After camping in the area of Montezuma Slough and Rio Vista, the expedition proceeded north until May 20, 1817. At that point they turned back after marking their furthest point by carving a cross into an oak tree. The most probable northernmost point reached by this expedition was near the junction of the Sacramento and the Feather River because they noted in their diary they could see what is known today as the Sutter Buttes. In 1821 Arguello led a second expedition into the Sacramento Valley following the Sacramento River north to the general area of Redding.

The Spanish monopoly on the exploration of the Sacramento River came to an end in 1824 when Capt. Otto von Kotzebue of the Imperial Russian Navy sailed upstream with two boats and 20 Aleut hunters from Fort Ross, possibly to the mouth of the river.

In 1837 Capt. Sir Edward Belcher was ordered to investigate and chart the Sacramento River on the “H.M.S. Sulphur” and produced the first chart of the lower part of the river.

Believing it was the legendary Buenaventura River that was thought to flow west from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific, Jedediah Smith was the first American to reach the Sacramento River. He explored the river to the vicinity of Red Bluff in April of 1828. The search for this legendary watercourse did not end until the John Fremont explorations finally laid the legend to rest.

By 1839, it could be said that major changes in the life and history of the Sacramento River would come about by the arrival of one individual, John Sutter. After a lengthy trip from Switzerland, Sutter arrived at San Francisco, then known as Yerba Buena. From there, he set sail on Aug. 1, 1839, with two schooners, the “Nicholas” and the “Isabella,” loaded with supplies for Sacramento Valley. By Aug. 15 he established New Helvetia that would later become known as Sacramento. Other settlements and ranches were to follow soon after. Regular traffic began traveling up and down the Sacramento River delivering people and supplies.

When Sutter purchased Fort Ross for $30,000 in 1841, a part of his purchase was a small sailing launch. He renamed it the “Sacramento” and it soon became the first vessel to make regular voyages between Sacramento and San Francisco. It took approximately two weeks to make the round-trip voyage to San Francisco.

In 1847, a steamboat described as “a wretched little thing” named the “Sitka” arrived at San Francisco on the bark “Naslednich” from Sitka, Alaska. It was 37 feet long, nine feet wide, little more than three feet deep with two small side paddle wheels and a very small steam engine, and it was in pieces. After being assembled, it was consigned to William Liedesdorff who tried it out on San Francisco Bay before running it up the Sacramento River to Sutter’s New Helvetia on Nov. 29, 1847.

The little craft has the honor of being the first steamboat to sail up the Sacramento River but deserved little else worth of note. The Daily Alta California newspaper reported later “On a downriver trip the ‘Sitka’ was beaten into Benicia by an ox team, to the tune of four days.”

The little steamboat’s engine was so feeble and noisy it could barely propel the craft, and if a man stood on her port guardrail he lifted her starboard paddle wheel out of the water. The almost useless craft sank during a storm in 1848. It was later raised and put back into service as a small factory on shore, and later ended her days as the schooner “Rainbow.” In spite of her less-than-worthiness, she did serve as a small niche in the history of the Sacramento River.

With the introduction of steamboats on the Sacramento River, connected with another history making event, the life of the Sacramento River was about to change significantly. On Jan. 24, 1848, John Marshall discovered the small flakes of gold in Sutter’s Mill at Coloma. As the word slowly got out, thousands of people would soon flock the “gold country.” The Sacramento River was about to become one of the major highways to the riches so many sought.

In my next column I’ll continue the story of the river so closely connected to our own Solano County history.