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Sacramento, Stories Untold – The Wild and Wonderful Early History of Old Sacramento

The land we call Sacramento was once a lush forest environment inhabited by native American’s. It has changed and morphed throughout the years to become the vibrant, living city it is today. The stories of its changes and progression since the beginning of history are complex and detailed at times and beautifully entertaining at others. Sacramento has a reputation within the states as a city of new beginnings with an open and accepting atmosphere. Not many people are aware of the fascinating facts that brought us here.

For thousands of years, Native Americans were the Sacramento area’s only human residents. Nisenan and other Maidu tribes dominated the area now known as Sacramento. They lived as families in small huts made of willow tree saplings. The Nisenan tribes were also called Southern Maidu. The Maidu, which means ‘man’, tribe was a name given to a mass group of triblets or small bands of Native Americans. 

The Maidu Indians did not own land per se. A family or individual could build a hut and hunt anywhere in the area he is from. Sometimes, families of privilege could claim ownership to a certain fishing hole or an area fenced off to run deer through. They used a variety of factors to determine where they built their villages. It was imperative to set up near a water source like a stream or river. Permanent residences were usually set up on the ridges between parallel streams. They used crests, knolls and terraces in the topography to aid them. Other factors were a clearing and southwestern exposure.

This early Native American tribe survived by hunting, trapping and fishing but also by trading with neighboring tribes. The Maidu traded frequently with the Wintun. Their form of money were beads. They counted the beads in groups of 10 and handled them on strings. Bows and arrows, wild tobacco, deer skin and meats, pine nuts, salmon and jewelry were traded for and with the bead monies. 
In 1808, Lieutenant Gabriel Moraga and soldiers from the Spanish Mission San Jose became the first Europeans to set foot in Sacramento. He came to the San Francisco area in 1775 with his family as a colony of settlers of Spain. Gabriel became a solider and his father a commander. Lieutenant Gabriel Moraga led the Spanish expeditions into Sacramento from 1806 through 1808. He named the places he saw as he went and many of the names are the same today such as the Sacramento River. 

Otto von Kotzebue, a Baltic German navigator in Russian service, was the next major military official to stumble upon Sacramento. He led an expedition that sent him sailing up the Sacramento River all the way to Freeport. He gathered samples of plants and previously unknown ethnological information and returned home when several illnesses ran through the crew. 

By 1827, Sacramento was well travelled by settlers of a few European nations. Jedediah Strong Smith and many other fur trappers and traders began to wander the area frequently. Jedediah Strong Smith was born in New York City in 1799. He joined a fur trading company in 1822 and led several expeditions across the land. He and his party were the first white Americans to cross the Mojave Desert into California. Fur traders and fur trading companies followed behind him in droves. 

An epidemic of small pox occurred in the Native American tribes in 1833, killing more than 20,000 Native Americans by fever and illness. Those who survived were so small in number they could bear no resistance to the expansion into the area. 

The wild cattle that are seen in the Sacramento Valley are due largely to Ewing Smith, who in 1837 drove 600 head of cattle through Sacramento to Oregon. It was the first time livestock of this type had been introduced to the area. Some escaped the drive and started the existence of wild cattle in the area. 

Changes in the area really began to ramp up when John Sutter arrived in 1839. John Augustus Sutter was born in Germany but raised in Switzerland by his Swiss father where he later joined the military. He was a horrible money manager and after racking up debt that would have landed him in jail, he skipped the trial and began a trek to try his luck in America leaving his wife and five children behind. He arrived in New York City in 1834. He travelled extensively throughout the territories, hobnobbing with government officials and dignitaries and eventually pulling ashore in San Francisco, then known as Yerba Buena. He wanted to settle in Sacramento but it was a territory of Mexico so he had to ask permission from the governor. He was granted land ownership but first had to live in the area for a year and become a citizen of Mexico.  He finally received title to his 48.8 acres of land in June of 1841. Once he built Sutter’s Fort it seems his success went to his head a bit. He first threatened to raise the French Flag over it and place it and the town he’d named New Helvetia under French protection. It wasn’t long before California was occupied by the American government in the Mexican American War. Sutter initially balked but when the possibility of an independent California was ruled out but quickly acquiesced when John Freemont and United States troops seized his fort for a brief time. 

Once Sutter built his fort more and more settlers began to fill the area. Much of it was left bereft after small pox and other illnesses brought by Europeans began to quickly kill the Native Americans. Stores and mercantiles sprang up along the Sacramento River. The first owned by Samuel Brannan. 

In 1847, just when Sutter was at the height of his life, something occurred that took him to even greater heights. He already had the fort and a 10-acre orchard as well as more than 13 thousand cattle when he hired James Marshall to build a sawmill. During the construction of the sawmill Marshall struck gold. 

After the gold rush began the area started to grow exponentially and has hardly given a backward glance. The city developed into an important cultural icon as well as an innovative business hub. Don’t count her out just yet, however. This historical city may just have a few more tricks up her sleeve.