1850 Was A Huge Turning Point In Arcata History

Friday, June 14, 2013

This is the second of a series on the history of Arcata, excerpted from a 137-page report prepared by Guerra & McBane, LLC, for the City of Arcata, Department of Planning and Community Development.  The title of the report is City of Arcata, Historic Context Statement dated March 2012. Those individuals and organizations that assisted in the preparation of this report include: Suzanne Guerra, Susie Van Kirk, Joan Berman and Edie Butler of the HSU Library Humboldt Room, Kathleen Stanton, Leslie Heald, Matina Kilkenny, Fran Beatty, Susan Doniger, Alex Stillman, Kevin Hoover, Historical Sites Society of Arcata,  Humboldt County Historical Society,  Humboldt County Library, Bancroft Library and Environmental Design Library and Archives of UC Berkeley,  and staff of the City of Arcata Department of Planning and Community Development.  Other  volunteers included Samantha Wise, Brandy Hurfado, Les Cook, Jack Surmani, Margo McBane, and Karen Clementi.

These articles will provide a foundation upon which residents can understand and appreciate the historical development of our city.  This article describes the coming of Euro-Americans in April 1850 following the discovery of gold on the Trinity River and the tremendous impact on the Wiyot Indians.

Gold Rush to Settlement (1850–1885)

The year 1850 was a politically transformative point in California history. After the 1848 American War with Mexico, the California Territory petitioned to become a state within the U.S. In 1850, statehood was granted, with the provision that it remained a free state. Above the Mexican outpost of Sonoma, little effort had been made to bring the region under Mexican control, unlike Southern California which had been first colonized beginning in 1769. With Americanization of the entire territory of California in 1850, European Americans began to establish their political influence in the Humboldt Bay region.

Resource extraction industries have played a major role in shaping the region since the arrival of the first traders, seeking a shorter route to the Northern Mines. Mining shaped the earliest American settlements of Arcata and Humboldt County, as it did much of Northern California. Although the North Coast of California had been explored by Europeans for several centuries, it was not until the American Gold Rush that extensive efforts were made to establish dependable routes to the interior along with permanent settlements. When gold was found on the Trinity River, in early 1849, miners flooded the region. The Trinity and Klamath Rivers became the center of gold rush activity in Northern California and by 1850 the Northern Mines were the second most productive gold fields in California.

The Gregg Expedition differed from most companies of California Gold Rush miners who only planned to remain long enough to make a strike. In April 1850, members of the Gregg Expedition planned to settle permanently on Humboldt Bay and establish a supply center for the miners. They formed the Union Company and claimed all the land from the northern head of Humboldt Bay south along its eastern shore. They established two towns: Bucksport was opposite the mouth of Humboldt Bay and Union on the North Bay. The Union Company subdivided the Union (Arcata) townsite at the foot of Fickle Hill into blocks and lots.

The Gold Rush proved devastating to the indigenous populations, and from 1850 to 1865 the territory of the Wiyot had the largest concentration of Euro-Americans in California north of San Francisco. Those who did not die from introduced diseases were displaced and restricted access to traditional hunting, gathering and food sources through enclosure of tribal lands as private property. Many of these Euro Americans had come from regions where Indians were feared and hated and others were interested only in securing their own claims.

Despite efforts for a peaceful resolution to the conflicts, agitation by some settlers led to violence and a series of massacres of the indigenous populations around Humboldt Bay in 1860. The U.S. Cavalry, based at Fort Humboldt in Bucksport with a company at Camp Curtis, on Janes Farm in Arcata, was called in to protect both settlers and Indians. Survivors of the massacre were driven out to distant reservations or marginal lands around the Bay.