Traveling the Delta rivers did, of course, have their dangers. Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), writing for the San Francisco Call, covered a “terrible calamity” off Rio Vista when the boilers of the Washoe exploded killing ninety or more. He found, however, a hero in Captain Kidd…
Bret Harte captured the transition from native and Spanish California to rancheros and the rush for gold in a short story set on Monte Diablo (2). He describes an encounter between a Spanish Jesuit and the Devil in which the Devil announces the end of a California dominated by Catholicism and feudal agriculture. The new California, he reveals, will be dominated by “a strange and motley crew” distinguished by “the blue eyes and flaxen hair of the Saxon race” and who announce themselves with “harsh gutturals and singular sibilation.” In the vision the Devil congers for the priest, “They came pushing, bustling, panting, and swaggering. And as they passed, the good Father noticed that giant trees were prostrated as with the breath of a tornado and the bowels of the earth were torn and rent as with a convulsion.”
While Harte is explicitly referencing miners who traveled the San Joaquin and the Sacramento rivers to the gold fields, his remarks could also apply to the earlier generation of rancheros who obtained land grants from the Mexican government to establish grand estates or successful cities. Dr. John Marsh writing to Lewis Cass in 1835 (3) explained that immigrants coming west were “well aware of the vast superiority of California, both in soil and climate and I may add facility of access.” Even before the discovery of gold, the natural endowment of the Delta and its access by sea made the region ideal for agricultural exports; “The whole of it is remarkably adapted to the culture of the vine… Olives, figs and almonds grow well. Apples, pears, and peaches are abundant…It is the finest country for wheat I have ever seen…The raising of cattle is the principal pursuit of the inhabitants and the most profitable.” John Sutter made the same assessment and purchased 500 head of cattle as his first investment in 1839; he purchased an additional 1000 head in the fall of 1840 and began to sow wheat (4). His ‘fort” was soon a promising agricultural plantation served by native labor.
John Marsh and John Sutter were visionaries regarding the profitability of Delta agriculture. John Stevenson and Charles Weber dreamed of founding cities which would become rich as agricultural entrepots. Stevenson had come west as commander of the New York Volunteers to participate in the Mexican American war. He became enamored of the potential for a trading city at the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers near where Pittsburg was later founded. He purchased the Los Medanos land grant and worked to found “New York of the Pacific.” However, the venture did not prosper and Stevenson sold out (6). As Bayard Taylor wrote following his travels to California at the beginning of the gold rush, “We came off New York of the Pacific…after leaving San Francisco…There never will be a large town there for the simple reason that there is no possible cause why there should be one. Stockton and Sacramento supply the mines: San Francisco takes the commerce; Benicia the agricultural produce, with a fair share of the inland trade and this Gotham of the West, I fear must continue to belie its title.” (7)
Stockton, on the other hand, was a successful venture. It began as an agricultural “development” with Charles Weber offering lots and at times seeds, horses, and equipment to those who would settle. While he first named the city Tuleburg because of its natural surroundings, he changed the name to honor Commodore Robert Stockton who had promised help in confirming Weber’s title to the land and in supplying a schooner to connect Stockton to San Francisco. Stockton did not keep his promises, but the city prospered as a natural connector between Sacramento, San Francisco and San Jose. It was clear to all that behind the success was Charles Weber; as one resident commented; “We looked upon Weber as the town proprietor.” (9)
Weber was quick to capitalize on the discovery of gold. He formed the first mining company in California and began to work what came to be called the Southern Mines. The promise of these mines soon attracted more miners. Weber then dissolved his own mining company, investing his profits in Stockton and in assuring that the miners were outfitted and cared for. In contrast to his comments on “New York of the Pacific”, Taylor wrote that he found Stockton, “more bustling and prosperous than ever…. Stockton will evidently continue to grow and with a sure and gradual growth.” (10)
Anchoring the growth of Stockton and Sacramento was the transportation system the Delta provided. The needs of the miners and the agricultural markets required a regular and secure network of ships. Auspiciously, steam boats with their low draft and lack of dependence on wind power were readily available to respond to this challenge.
William Swain captures in his diary the favor of travel down the Sacramento in the fall of 1850. “The levee is a tangled mass of Mexicans, Chinese, Chileans, and Kanakas; also, horses, mules, asses, oxen, drays, and lumber; flower potatoes, molasses, brandy, pickles, oysters, yams, cabbages, books, furniture, and almost everything that one can think of…” He continues, “The number of people returning to the States is somewhat astonishing. The steamers go crowded each day with living freight…” Once on the river, the trip is scenic, “The boat steamed rapidly down the river with Mount Diablo far before us…The Sierra Nevada are faintly seen in the eastern sky, but between the Sacramento River and the mountains a great plain stretches out in a sweep which to the north and south runs unbroken to the horizon.” (12)
Traveling the Delta rivers did, of course, have their dangers. Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), writing for the San Francisco Call, covered a “terrible calamity” off Rio Vista when the boilers of the Washoe exploded killing ninety or more. He found, however, a hero in Captain Kidd, “That his impulses are kind and generous all will acknowledge who remember that he kept his boat running night and day, in time of the flood, and brought to this city (San Francisco) hundreds of sufferers by that misfortune, without one cent of charge for passage, beds or food.” (13)
While the rivers served both those getting agriculture to market and others seeking the fields of gold, most of the towns along their banks other than Stockton and Sacramento were glorified wharfs and warehouses. George Derby, writing under John Phoenix, mocks the primitive state of Benicia in 1850 “…day at last broke over Benicia. Magnificent place! I gazed upon it from the attic window of the ‘Solano Hotel’ with feelings too deep for utterance. The sun was rising in its majesty gilding the red wood shingles of the US Storehouses in the distance; seven deserted hulks were riding majestically at anchor in the bay; clothes-lines with their burdens were flapping in the morning breeze; a man with a wheelbarrow was coming down the street. Everything, in short, spoke of the life, activity, business, and bustle of a great city.” (14) Other locations intimated cities waiting to be born. Montezuma Hills, for example, had but one adobe house, but its builder, Lansford Hastings, wrote an emigrant’s guide to stimulate settlement in California and was in negotiations with the Mormon community in Salt Lake about the founding of a community on the Sacramento river. It never happened. (15)
In sum, for those engaged in early agricultural ventures grounded by Mexican land grants or the rush for gold, the Delta was conceived as a highway with rest stops, linking San Francisco, Stockton, and Sacramento. Only with the shift away from mining and the growing dominance and diversity of agriculture in the latter part of the nineteenth century do other towns develop a unique character and attract permanent populations. New technologies as well as new immigrants thereafter create a new sense of place for the region.
Please see Robert Benedetti’s previous Soundings article, The Native American and Spanish Views
1. Painting in the Benicia Capitol State Museum, photograph by Skip Moore, flickr.com
2. Bret Harte, The Legend of Monte del Diablo, https://loa-shared.s3.amazonaws.com/static/pdf/Harte_Monte_Diablo.pdf
3. Dr. John Marsh, “Description of California in 1835 (Letter to Lewis Cass)” in illustrations of Contra Costa California with Historical Sketches (Oakland: Smith and Elliott, 1879). p5 ff.
4. The Diary of John A. Sutter, http://www.sfmuseum.org/hist2/sutdiary2.html
5. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:John_Marsh_House_(Byron, CA).jpg
6. Marti Aiello, Pittsburg (San Francisco: Arcadia, 2004) pp. 11-14.
7. Bayard Taylor, Eldorado: Adventures in the Path of Empire (Heyday: Berkeley, 2000) p 174.
9. James Shebl, Weber! The American Adventure of Captain Charles M. Weber, (Lodi: San Joaquin Historical Society), pp 63-79.
10. Taylor, op. cit. pp. 80-81.
12. J.S. Holliday, The World Rushed In: The California Gold Rush Experience (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981). pp. 405-408.
13. Edgar Branch, editor. Clemens of the Call: Mark Twain in San Francisco (Berkeley: UC Press, 1969). P.121.
14. John Phoenix (George Derby), Phoenixiana: Sketches and Burlesques (New York: D. Appleton, 1856). “Squibob in Benicia, 1850” pp. 78-84.
15: Philip Pezzaglia, True Tales of the Sacramento Delta (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2015); pp. 11-17.
16. Benicia Historical Museum: https://benicia.pastperfectonline.com/photo/98F69D47-5DA9-4229-982B-318381205808
Dr. Benedetti is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, University of the Pacific and a Research Associate at the Center for California Studies, Sacramento State University. He co-directed an exploration of Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta history and culture for the Delta Protection commission in 2014-15.