“Almost Like a Fiction”

Evidence has emerged that Sacramento City’s lost twin, Boston, was more than a paper town! Thanks to the sharp eye of librarian James Scott, we know that an 1880s newspaper article revealed apparent eyewitness accounts of significant development north of the American River during the Gold Rush. This appears to confirm elements of a Confluence report published in June, most notably that the site of Boston was an important crossroads if not a suitable townsite.

“Almost Like a Fiction”

On June 18, 1886 the Sacramento Record-Union published a story called “The City of Boston: A Pioneer Rival to Sacramento.” Most of the column was dedicated to reprinting Edward Gould Buffum’s 1850 description.

I previously considered Buffum’s account too far-fetched to be more than exaggeration – perhaps made by someone with some sort of financial stake in a potentially lucrative real estate scheme.

However, this new discovery appends a shocking conclusion to Buffum’s account:

The above reads almost like a fiction to many, but its truthfulness is vouched for by pioneers, who remember the long rows of white tents in the “Western Hub” in 1849-50. The site is now owned by Cox & Clark; is uninhabitable for several months in the year; is what is commonly called the overflow; is where two young men were drowned while out boating some months ago. What has become of the twelve-foot banks, above high water, the magnificent groves, the fertile lands free from overflow? Go ask the hydraulic miner.

This is not conclusive, of course. An unnamed journalist speaking to unnamed “pioneers” leaves much room for exaggeration or falsehood regarding the “long rows of white tents.” Keep in mind that this writing comes from an era of great historic creativity, in which an alcoholic Swiss immigrant named Johann Augustus was transformed into the dashing “Captain John” Sutter, and Sacramento’s Settlers’ uprising was scrambled into a mere riot launched by confused rogues.

A single report that old-timers recall Boston’s existence is not by itself proof of Boston’s existence. Nonetheless, another breadcrumb has appeared in the dust.

Finding a New Center

Now, let’s consider the moniker “Western Hub.” Calling this location a “hub” casts the entire Sacramento area into a new perspective: That is, this peninsula at the confluence was of central importance.

For more detail on the geographic reasons why Boston made more sense as a point of arrival to the goldfields, please refer to the previous report. In brief, the western side of the Sacramento River (now Yolo County) was attractive high ground, but was surrounded by nothing but tules – it led nowhere. The south bank of the American Fork was an embarcadero for Sutter’s Fort, deeply entangled with his numerous land claim issues – useful but complicated. And the actual grid of Sacramento City, at least initially, was a sort of a swampy suburb in which hapless newcomers found themselves bogged down in an escalating conflict around Sutter’s false title.

If “Western Hub” was indeed a common term for the lost city, it was Boston that seems to have been at the crossroads long claimed by Sacramento.

In any case, it seems that Boston’s once-contested land had by 1886 settled into a role as a private route connecting the vast rangelands of the Cox & Clark company, which stretched many miles north on the 1885 county map. The lower portion of the Boston site was under different ownership at this time, but it seems that whatever turmoil rocked Boston in the early days had subsided as Sacramento City consolidated its hold on the confluence. Little remains today, except for an assortment of property lines that follow Boston’s old grid.

How Long Did Boston Last?

As for the Union-Record’s closing comment on hydraulic mining, it may not be fair to blame that industry – even though it did tremendous and well-documented damage to communities with flood-prone sites like Boston’s, by filling river channels with debris washed down from the mines that washed away mountainsides. Even if we accept that a substantial settlement existed during the Gold Rush, there is still little to indicate that it lasted for long enough for hydraulic mining to worsen its lot.

The only known contemporaneous account of Boston was a report of flooding in April of 1851, which apparently was a non-event in usually flood-prone Sacramento City. The Daily Union reported that, “The only building in the city of Boston was several inches deep in water, and if the rise becomes much greater, and if the house were built with bricks and mortar instead of stakes and canvas, it would certainly be washed away.”

If accurate, this brief apparently indicates that “the city of Boston” was no longer a going concern; its site was apparently at an even lower location than its surviving rival, and therefore Boston faced a greater flood threat. Yet this brief mention is written in a way that suggests reference to someplace familiar to readers. At one point, presumably, that lone building had company. And even after the flood of 1850, someone was still holding on in Boston.

The nature of the last building in Boston is somewhat confusing here: The writer seems to have indicated stakes and canvas, but it makes little sense to claim that the house would already have washed away if it were made of bricks and mortar. Obviously, the opposite is true, as a tent would fail before a more permanent structure. It also seems likely that someone who built a brick and mortar structure would have sufficient sunk costs to hold out after the tent-dwelling townsfolk had departed for higher ground. This apparent error all suggests at least one permanent structure was built in Sacramento’s pioneer rival.

This still begs the question of why the Sacramento City newspapers were silent on the struggling neighbors, until what seems to be Boston’s last gasp.

The trail to Boston remains maddeningly faint, but now we have two data points indicating that it was a significant settlement in 1849-50, and that someone called it home until at least the following spring. And even more striking, it seems that decades later people still remembered the place. Considering the extent to which early Sacramento history has been doctored to support the narrative of the early land speculators, the disappearance of Boston must be taken seriously as another case of revision that obscures the truth of Sacramento’s origins.

 

 

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