The Gold Rush Eased Into The Settlement Era

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Union had become an important shipping point supplying local redwood for the Northern Mines and for the new settlements in San Francisco Bay and in the Sacramento Valley. This was the era of Tidewater Lumbering, when logs were floated downriver and into the Bay due to the limited road system. The Mad River canal was constructed in 1854 to connect the river and Bay via Mad River Slough. Homesteaders soon arrived and settled into farms and ranches in the Eel River and Arcata bottoms.

By 1860, Humboldt ranked second in California counties for the production of lumber and counted four sawmills in operation. Settlements were small and even James T. Ryan and James Duff, considered leading citizens and founders of Eureka, had lived aboard their ship for several years. At the time of the 1860 census, what we now understand as Humboldt County was part of a much larger area that included the Northern Mining Districts and was called Trinity County.

During this first decade, many people still lived in temporary situations, sharing room and board in exchange for labor or with extended family. Another typical arrangement, typical of all ethnic groups, was the bachelor household with several single men of related occupations. Due to the shortage of carpenters and builders, many of whom had headed to the mining districts, even in the major settlements of Arcata, Eureka and Bucksport it was not uncommon to find people living in tents.

The Trinity-Klamath strike, much like the gold strike along the 100 mile mother lode of the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, attracted a diverse group of non-Indian people. From 1848 to 1852, California’s non-Indian population grew from 20,000 to 200,000 people. Gold Rush miners travelled from all over the world to reach California and one quarter of California’s Gold Rush miners were foreign born, coming from China, Chile, Europe and Mexico. Whether American or foreign most of the miners were young males, under thirty years old.

A high proportion of the immigrants to Humboldt County during this period came from New England and the Canadian Maritime provinces, especially New Brunswick. Britain had established a colony there in the later 18th century, which included a number of Loyalist families from New England, in a similar landscape of forests, sloughs and waterways. The result had been the development of a logging industry along with a major shipbuilding center where immigrants like John Vance, William Carson and Hans Bendixsen could establish the industries and economy of their homeland in a new region.

The establishment of Fort Humboldt in 1853 brought a new mixture of immigrants to the area, primarily from Germany and Ireland, some of whom would settle locally after their period of service. A number of the officers had served in the Indian wars, and some were from southern states. By the end of this era, the new mix of immigrants included the Scandinavian countries, as well as Australia, China and India.

While a number had come in search of gold, many soon pursued the same occupations they had left behind, in fishing and farming, and some were followed by family members or neighbors from their old villages. Like many others to follow, the first wave of immigrants from the Azores worked first as laborers. Skilled trades such as carpenters, wheelwrights, and blacksmiths were essential though many had chosen to work in the gold fields first. The most accessible farmlands had been claimed by the first wave of immigrants so they often rented or managed dairies for other landowners.

At the time of the first local census, in 1850, a number of men had noted their primary occupation as “Capitalist” indicating that they were primarily interested in investment and business opportunities. By 1860, the most typical occupational category noted in the Census was Agriculture, followed by Maritime and then Resource Industries-such as logger, packer or miner. Land laws such as the Homestead Act of 1862 promoted the “yeoman farmer” as the American ideal and agriculture as the highest and best use of land.

The Homestead Act provided settlers with 160 acres of public land in exchange for a small filing fee and the obligation to complete five years of continuous residence before receiving ownership of the land. After six months of residency, homesteaders also had the option of purchasing the land from the government for $1.25 per acre. Prior to this time, claims had been filed under the Preemption Act of 1841 which was established to grant rights of first purchase to individuals who were already living on federal lands, commonly referred to as “squatters.” Purchasers were obligated to work continuously to improve the land for five years or the government could step in and confiscate the claim if it remained idle for six months.

Although few professionals were among the first group of settlers, even they would perform multiple roles in the new community. In 1860, Arcata boasted one doctor, who was pressed into service occasionally as a Company Surgeon at Fort Humboldt or Camp Curtis, while surgeons at the Fort reported visiting patients in Arcata and outlying areas. The presence of the Fort, a regional provisioning depot, was an economic boon to local merchants and tradesmen in these small communities who soon gained new clients for lumber, agricultural products and construction projects.

This is the third 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 continues to describe 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.