The Land Below Sacramento

Sacramento’s notoriously flat terrain actually hides a complex landscape of high and dry land, interwoven with low and wet land. Although “City of the Plain” appears featureless at first glance, a volatile alluvial fan dominates Sacramento’s perch on the banks of its namesake river. A restless smaller branch, presently called the American, jumped its banks most winters and found entirely new channels during the greatest floods. Its meanderings built up layers of mud, gravel and hardpan from below the modern sea level.

My expertise is not where any particular species lived. I’m not sure exactly what sort of ecological niches existed in which spots, although I do know where a lot of vernal pools and salt flats, creeks and sloughs used to be. I can’t tell you how many sycamores or tule elk used to live here. I’m just here to tell you that a vast legion of creatures was lost in the process of building this city.

Whatever you believe about who or what created the world, the land on which we are walking is a desecrated work of art. Don’t get me wrong: The whole earth is holy, but the Sacramento landscape is really sublime.

The shifting rivers created a complex web of wet and dry land, where plants adjusted to varying annual moisture. A given spot might sit under water for weeks in one year, then experience only light rainfall the next. A few dozen feet away would be an entirely different situation. Everything depended on overflow – how often and how strongly the rivers jumped their banks.

The land under Sacramento was once home to hordes of wildlife that are difficult for us moderns to imagine. The closest thing is probably the morning departure at one of the valley’s wildlife refuges, when huge swarms of migrating birds take to the air. If you haven’t ever made the pilgrimage to glimpse these restored remnants of the primordial valley, please do.

Sacramento’s dynamic confluence provided an abundant and challenging place for humans to live, prompting creative approaches to raising the terrain – by the Nisenan people as well as the Settlers who displaced them. The Nisenan built earthworks to gain precious elevation. They lived in a string of villages, including Pujune, Sekumne, Yalesumne and Kadema. The Settlers carelessly traced streets across the wetlands, later forcing the physical raising of the city core. Even so, Sacramento City was an extraordinarily bad place for a settlement, and frequent floods made its survival an ongoing matter of debate. This city was built on a bad gamble and could not tolerate competition. And so even Settler communities were wiped off the map: Sutterville, Boston, Brighton, Norristown and Hoboken had to go, along with the Russian Embarcadero, Calle de los Americanos and the original confluence waterfront –now a strip of forlorn and forgotten ruins north of Old Sacramento.

Sacramento City itself was plagued by frequent severe flooding, title issues and unrest that peaked with the August 1850 Squatters Riot and continued for at least two decades. It was quickly clear that this was no place to put a city. Nevertheless, sunk costs demanded the continuation of this foolish enterprise, and forgetting that there were other ways to live here. Relics of these alternate arrangements hint at a more intelligent relationship with a dynamic landscape, and a more resilient future.

This interactive map peels away the last two centuries of change, and seeks to unveil this place called Sacramento – a complex interplay of land and water that has been largely obliterated. It is a work in progress, and attempts to represent imprecise things with crisp lines. Please take it with a grain of salt, but recognize that the features depicted are real. You can see the land below Sacramento, in person, in a variety of places – such as the river channel that is hidden in plain sight at 39th St. Light Rail Stop, 40th & H, or Folsom & 52nd. Future maps will explore the placement of early settlements – mostly forgotten – and hopefully help spur conversation about how Sacramento looks, and how it could exist in a more sensitive and resilient way.

“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.



The Lost City of Boston

One of Sacramento history’s best-hidden stories is the tale of our city’s missing sibling: During the Gold Rush, a site called Boston lay just north of the American River’s confluence with the Sacramento River – then located roughly at the new Railyards Boulevard. Boston appears to have been founded around the same time as Sacramento City, and at least two surviving maps show the two urban grids as being comparable in size and substance – and both much larger than anything else in the area.

However, while Sacramento City grew rapidly and matured into a major metropolis, Boston was soon abandoned. During the 1860s, its land was divided by the northward rerouting of the American River. Afterwards, Boston’s southern portion was gradually absorbed into what became Sacramento’s industrial zone, while its northern reaches remained largely undeveloped until much of it became parkland a century later.

Boston was apparently a “paper city” that existed primarily to fleece investors unfortunate enough to buy land amongst the shifting channels at the confluence of two major rivers. Its most visible footprint can be found on an 1850 navigational chart by Cadwalader Ringgold. It turns out that Ringgold was also Boston’s surveyor, so he had a conflict of interest in depicting the place as a competitor to Sacramento City. Ringgold went on to great success in Sacramento speculation, buying and selling large tracts of land. On the other hand, little or nothing seems to have been built along Boston’s streets.

Boston was perhaps a better site than the one that grew in the swamplands between Johann Sutter’s embarcadero and fort (despite his objections and his lack of legitimate title). Boston certainly could not have been any worse a site than Sacramento City, which sprawled across the wetlands south of the American River. Boston’s location actually provided a better connection between the navigable Sacramento River and overland routes from the East and to the mines.

But Boston was not just a better location in the abstract – a close inspection of modern property lines reveals that the lost history of Boston echoes to the present day. Its absence explains gaps in Sacramento’s eventual development, and is in turn explained by the false revisionist history that we accept as true.

The Missing City

The failure of Boston helps to explain the large urban wilderness that is now Discovery Park, located on high ground that once included the central Nisenan village of Pujune. We would expect this area to have developed in ways similar to what is found downtown or in West Sacramento.

During the Gold Rush, the Sacramento area was the heart of a volatile economic and social system – and a relatively stable landing spot for one of the most dramatic movements of human beings in world history. We can understand that movement better if we look beyond the successful settlements and examine the schemes that didn’t quite make it.

Boston was – like Sacramento City and Washington (now West Sacramento) – one of a trio of settlements perched on the points where two key rivers came together. This urban triplet was the heart of California’s economy, a primary distribution center for goods flowing from San Francisco to a constantly shifting network of settlements formed in pursuit of the latest cry of “Gold!”

The confluence was home to one of very few persistent settlements of fortune-seekers. Here, one could get rich selling just about anything to those who chased after the latest strike, and who could build or abandon a town of thousands in days. Given the ongoing value of land around the confluence, it does not make sense that there would be no settlement north of the “American Fork” that flowed in from the Sierra Nevada.

At Boston, those arriving from the East or headed back to the northern mines would have avoided the final additional crossing of the American River, which faced those passing through Sacramento City. Later, the Boston site would have been a better terminus for the transcontinental railroad, and then for additional railways that reached the San Francisco Bay. Indeed some remnants of Boston connect to the railyards that were eventually built in the decades after the land scheme’s collapse.

And as land routes developed, crossings of the Sacramento River would have been easier upstream of the added flow from its volatile tributary. Boston was an obvious place for a city, and yet nothing seems to have developed there.

The Lost City’s Boundaries

Boston’s layout was described in Edward Gould Buffum’s Six Months in the Gold Mines (1850), which depicted it as a viable planned town,

with large public squares, and reservations for school-houses, churches, and public buildings. One of the peculiar advantages of Boston is that, being located on the northern bank of the American Fork, it is not necessary in proceeding to the gold mines to cross that river, which is exceedingly high and rapid at some seasons of the year…Lots are selling rapidly at from $200 to $1000 each and before many months, the city of Boston on the golden banks of the Rio Sacramento will rival its New England namesake in business and importance.

His prediction proved wildly optimistic – perhaps because the lots closest to the confluence were on low and flood-prone land.

However, Buffum offered a key clue that allows reconstruction of Boston’s footprint: He described its grid as being made up of blocks measuring 240 by 320 feet, which matches the rectangular pattern in Ringgold’s chart inset – of “the cities of Sacramento and Boston” – depicting a large city encompassing more than 100 city blocks stretching more than a mile up both rivers.

Boston Overview
This screenshot links to the Confluence interactive map, showing many of Boston’s old streets and how they fit into the modern world.

To illustrate Boston’s large expanse Confluence has produced an interactive map showing a grid of the planned streets of Boston superimposed on today’s city. Crucially, this old grid lines up with a small but significant number of modern features. This alignment suggests that the parcels originally created for Boston survived in some form, and that a portion of this paper city survived up to the present day:

  • A new roadway at the edge of the Railyards redevelopment seems to be an unintentional reconstruction of what was once Boston’s southernmost intersections.
  • The old PG&E power plant lies on a set of parcels that closely matches Boston’s grid, taking up most of two old city blocks.
  • The former Rusty Duck parking lot may have once been a waterfront street facing the long-lost curve in the American River.

None of this is conclusive evidence that Boston ever got beyond its initial land sales by Ringgold and his partners. I’ve so far found no evidence that Sacramento City’s lost sibling ever existed as a functional community. Yet there are hints that this was not merely the fault of Boston’s residents – perhaps Sacramento City’s promoters actively killed off this competing town, leaving only scattered legal traces.

The Road to Oblivion        

Although the Boston survey left numerous marks on the legal landscape north of the American River, this failed scheme strangely never seems to have been a topic of conversation among its southern neighbors; Boston was rarely – if ever – mentioned in Sacramento City newspapers of the early 1850s.

Whether Boston was merely a paper town that existed to cheat settlers and speculators, or whether it struggled for a while before collapsing, there seems to have been a general understanding that Boston was not part of Sacramento’s history.

There may yet be undiscovered references to Boston. Over the years, a huge number of real estate transactions, lawsuits and other exchanges have no doubt taken place on land that was once Boston; any one of these stories might have prompted someone to do a little historical research. Unfortunately, such references are so many needles in a haystack. “Boston” is a particularly challenging term for digital searches, as the vast majority of returns are in reference to the city in Massachusetts.

Perhaps Boston just wasn’t very interesting, but that seems unlikely. Its site appears in the 1854 map of Sacramento City as a rough area of waterways, trees and rocks. A similar depiction appeared in the 1873 Gray’s Atlas map. These maps both seem designed to convince people that there was no such town, which would have been unnecessary if there actually had been no such town.

Whatever the details of its demise, it is now clear that Boston was more than just marks on a map. Although much remains unclear, Boston now joins the gallery of gaps in Sacramento’s history. It is yet another missing link in the broken chain connecting us to our origins as a city of struggle between settlers and speculators.

Who Killed Boston?

There must have been people wanting to settle on the land occupied by Boston, but something prevented the founding of a sustainable community. The Boston land offering may have been a scam selling junk land, doomed to failure. But it is simply not plausible that nobody ever wanted to live on the northern bank of the lower American River.

It is certainly possible that Boston failed due to simple mismanagement. Perhaps its landowners were simply unable to come up with a coherent system of governance that was needed to address the urgent threat of flooding. Perhaps the infant town was simply wiped out by the flood of 1850, which also inundated even the highest parts of Sacramento City.

In any case, we might expect the success or failure of a neighboring town to be of interest to early Sacramentans, who faced similar challenges. At the very least, there should have been warnings to avoid buying land in Boston, and reports of its hapless victims’ suffering. Yet the (surviving copies of) newspapers were apparently silent on the fate of Sacramento City’s northern twin.

The absence of any early settlement at Boston’s excellent location suggests that development was impeded by something. The relative absence of stories about Boston’s failure suggests that development was impeded by someone.

Who would do such a thing? And why?

Things are not as they seem in the River City, and Boston is only one of several lost communities. Nowadays, the Sacramento area’s original Indigenous and European settlement sites – including a pair of modest street systems at key crossings of the American River – are largely abandoned wastelands. Meanwhile, Sutter’s preferred urban site downstream of Sacramento City is today an indistinct expanse of suburban development, with only faint traces of that failed city’s old grid.

The quiet burial of Boston seems to be part of a larger project of historical suppression, which was concocted over decades to enrich and then redeem the crooked speculators who built the city across the American River. This same project has provided Sacramento with a scrambled narrative full of deeply flawed maps, villains made into heroes and heroes made into fools.

Setting the record straight is a key part of the mission of Confluence Tours, and the recovery of Boston’s history will be an ongoing part of the effort.

The Missing Index

The Trump presidency has seen a growing wave of anti-immigrant sentiment – and occasional violence – coupled with escalating attacks on the press. These alarming trends have drawn comparisons to Nazi Germany, but we might look closer to home for another precedent: Sacramento in 1851 saw an orchestrated outbreak of violence by lynch mobs numbering in the thousands. Worse, the true story connecting early Sacramento’s most dramatic episodes has been forgotten. This disconnection is apparently due (at least partly) to attacks on journalism that included at least one brutal assault and the removal of hundreds of newspapers – editions at least three publications – from the historic record.

Gold Rush California was a tumultuous place, and it is sometimes mis-remembered as totally lawless. Such a state of affairs is often viewed as the natural result of a scrum of rugged individualists each competing for his (or rarely her) fortune. However, two well-known instances of organized violence stand out. Both involve clashes between two organized political forces – described by Mark Eifler as Settlers and Speculators. When viewed in the context of the region’s escalating economic and political conflict in 1850-51, we can see darker – and more currently relevant – forces at play.

A growing body of long-hidden evidence reveals the true nature of Sacramento’s early land struggles as the rise and suppression of a revolutionary movement. Uncomfortable connections are emerging between the August 1850 “Squatters’ Riot” – which resulted in eight deaths after a gunbattle broke out at 4th & J Streets – and the hanging of Frederick Roe – which took place a few blocks away, six months later.

The latter outbreak of violence set the precedent for a series of lynchings in Sacramento and San Francisco, which now seem at least partly intended to suppress dissent and distract from the elite’s ongoing real estate shenanigans. The Settlers were ascendant in the state’s new legislature, and the Speculators responded with unconventional tactics – including attacks on immigrants and the free press.

Silencing the Media

The most recent and clear evidence of an historic cover-up comes from my retrieval this year of the Daily Index. This newspaper was edited by Joseph Winans and H.B. Livingston during the critical winter of 1851. Wright’s 1880 History of Sacramento County described it as “a paper of rare literary ability, of vigor of expression, and of great originality,” but also noted that “taking a position against the act of a vigilance committee in hanging a gambler, it lost ground, and died decently March 17, 1851, having lived three months.” (p. 193)

The Index was not only run out of business for taking an unpopular view; it was run out of history. This brave publication does not appear in the primary modern research collections beyond isolated single specimens held by the Bancroft Library, State Library and Center for Sacramento History. And these specimens are from dates prior to the events that led to the paper’s principled stand and demise.

Oddly enough, most surviving specimens of the Index are held by the New York Historical Society. I have yet to find a citation of the Index in any history of Sacramento, which suggests that the paper went missing shortly after the events it chronicled. They apparently sat undisturbed – with one interruption in the 1920s – in a collection of papers from California.

But now, a portion of this collection has been retrieved. The six full and partial issues now returned to Sacramento provide ample evidence that this publication stood up in a threatening environment, and laid the blame for lynch law on Samuel Brannan (who is blandly remembered as California’s first millionaire). The Index reveals his culpability in the creation of Committees of Vigilance, which lynched immigrants and unleashed a reign of terror in 1851 and again in 1856.

It could be that the Index was wrong about Brannan. Perhaps it was removed from history due to its libelous claims. But even if that were so, it would still be remarkable and highly unusual for this paper alone to be censored in such a way. Journalistic standards of the day were somewhat more relaxed than those of our own era, and newspapers were filled with all sorts of allegations; it seems unlikely that the Index was alone in its degree of libel to be struck from the record.

Further doubt is cast on this explanation by the sudden disappearance of two of Sacramento’s other earliest newspapers, each of which feature complete collections for their first years, and then abruptly cease during particularly controversial episodes of the city’s youth. As will be shown below, the apparently intentional removal of the Placer Times and later the Sacramento Transcript – the community’s first and second newspapers – suggests some sort of broader effort to eliminate part of the journalistic record during a period of extraordinary controversy and political impact.

Although numerous books and papers have addressed the San Francisco Committees of Vigilance of 1851 and 1856, histories generally overlook or minimize the Sacramento lynchings of 1851. One of the very few surviving exceptions is a 1978 “Golden Notes” pamphlet published by the Sacramento County Historical Society. Sacramento Vigilantes August 1851 focuses on our city’s second major lynch mob incident, which included the hanging of three men including one given a stay of execution by the state’s governor (whose effigy was hanged and burned that same day). Roe’s hanging is mentioned only briefly.

When the Sacramento lynchings have been mentioned, authors have usually failed to note connections to the tremendous land conflicts that were then roiling California. Nancy Taniguchi’s excellent new book, Dirty Deeds, clearly draws this connection for 1856 San Francisco, but the earlier events in Sacramento are once again largely omitted

A partial exception can be found in the research of Mark Eifler, whose 2002 book Gold Rush Capitalists features a chapter on Roe’s death. Eifler seems to acknowledge something is missing, through his comparison of Sacramento’s two most dramatic violent outbreaks: He notes that the Transcript’s reporting was “nearly the only evidence” of the day, and seems to imply that this struck him as odd:

“Though Sacramento residents wrote of the Squatters’ Riot in letters, journals, pamphlets and memoirs,” he wrote, “they remained silent on their thoughts or feelings about the death of Frederick Roe.”

But Sacramentans were not simply silent. They were silenced.

The Return of the Index

The Index escaped an apparent wave of censorship through the acts of a San Francisco postmaster named Jacob Bailey Moore, whose son was serving as the acting librarian for the New York Historical Society. In all, 21 issues made their way to NYHS.

And there they sat, for more than 165 years. They were untouched for nearly half of this long time. According to the NYHS quarterly journal (July 1931, p. 43) the Moore papers “remained in their wrappers for seventy-five years.”

So California’s history was apparently written and then revised without the benefit of a dissenting view on the origins of California mob rule, which evolved into the 1856 overthrow of San Francisco’s government, and collapse of state and federal control in that city. An 1875 history published by the Union contains further references to disappeared papers, at least two of which were edited by James McClatchy. I’ll address these later disappearances in future writing, as every act of research seems to unravel some new thread of an increasingly shocking story.

The known history of Sacramento’s first mass lynching was based primarily on the perspective of the Transcript, which announced the hanging of Roe with a screaming headline of “LYNCH LAW AT LAST!!” This wording reveals that this tragedy was anticipated in some form.

What’s more, the paper’s editorial comments approved of the killing:

Our laws, our courts, our prisons, our legal forms are created by the people to restrain an ordinary condition of crime in a community. But there can be no doubt that there are times, especially in new countries, when crime becomes excessive and overtops the power of courts and legal forms. Then the question rises should not the administration of justice return to the people that they may lop off the excessive state of crime until it becomes commensurate with the power of the regularly constituted tribunals – until legal forms, &c., will be effective again.

This commentary was followed by a highly detailed but rather uncritical description of the day’s events. And then, as noted by Eifler, there was little further discussion of the matter.

Perhaps the Transcript reflected the dominant opinion in the community. A crowd of thousands was reportedly involved. However, many or most witnesses could have been simply gawkers or horrified bystanders. Attendance should not be considered endorsement, and we now know that at least one of Sacramento City’s newspapers came out strongly against the event.

Breaking the Silence

The Index’s editorial comments, so long obscured, included the following condemnation, in which I highlight two important comments:

Without the form, without the color of law; upon the statements, (not the testimony,) of witnesses, examined in the heat of excitement and not under oath, with a coolness and premeditation that excludes the plea of action while the blood was hot, yet with a recklessness that that forbids the conclusion of a reflecting judgment; has a human being been hurled into eternity by the act of his fellow man. Doubtless this awful tragedy will put, at least a temporary stop to the assassinations and assaults, with mortal purpose, with have of late been rife among us. But will it not produce other consequences more disastrous still!…

The right of to-day will be the wrong of to-morrow. What evil influences may grow from this disastrous precedent. Already have men ventured to declare that law is non-existent, and that the people are to govern themselves hereafter, by the dictation of the mass, while others have not scrupled to threaten the denouncers of yesterday’s proceedings, with a like visitation of the vengeance of the public will. We calmly ask which is the more alarming, the evil which this execution sought to cure, or that which it threatens to create? The fury of the mob, goaded to excesses by the fanatical appeals and the consciousness of power, is always more dangerous than an inefficient administration of the laws of force. (2/26/1851)

First, this violence was “premeditated.” Unlike the stereotypical Wild West lynching – erupting out of organic rage at some particularly outrageous offense – this event occurred “at last” (as the Transcript’s headline put it), following some form of agitation. Indeed, the Index column began, “The long agony is over.”

So whose premeditation was behind this long agony? As I’ve reported, the timing of the mobs in 1851 shows signs coordination between Sacramento and San Francisco. In the days before Roe’s hanging, San Francisco was beset by huge crowds, which unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow due process for two Australians accused of robbery and assault.

Other reports from San Francisco listed a variety of speakers attempting to influence these mobs in various directions. However, the Index took pains to single out one speaker. The edition that was on the streets February 25, the day of Roe’s lynching, included the following report of “great excitement at San Francisco.”

A handbill was circulated throughout the city on Saturday afternoon, calling on the citizens to resort to Lynch Law…and accordingly an immense concourse assembled on the Plaza, where they were addressed by S. BRANNON, Esq., who urged upon the people to take the law into their own hands. (2/25/1851)

The Index thus pointed a finger squarely, IN ALL CAPS (but strangely misspelled), at the man whose ruthless greed had already caused Sacramento so much suffering through his creation and manipulation of a puppet government, which had protected his corrupt land scheme – now known as the Grid – and evicted numerous legitimate settlers on the basis of the fraudulent Sutter land claim. Brannan had already set in motion the land struggles that had sparked the Sacramento uprising in 1850. Now he had conjured up the specter of mob violence, which would haunt California’s largest cities for years to come.

A dangerous new element thus entered the already volatile conflict over land, and the Index was not afraid to point a finger.

This brings us to the second observation: Even on the first day of Sacramento’s mob rule, opponents were threatened with “the vengeance of the public will.” That is, dissent could result in death. Nevertheless, the Index went on record.

It is still difficult to say what happened after February 26. Unfortunately most post-lynching copies of the Index are still missing. But the few that have returned to light reveal at least one further case in which the paper condemned rising vigilantism. Within two weeks came the following report of two accused horse thieves executed along the nearby Cosumnes River:

The tragical scenes through which we have just passed have been re-enacted a few miles to the east of us, and the lives of two more human beings have been suddenly taken in order to avenge the wrongs committed upon their fellowman…They were arrested at 10 o’clock on the charge of stealing; they were punished by death at 12 o’clock for the crime of stealing. They were convicted on little evidence, and were hung for a crime which is not considered a capital one, by any statutory provision.

The first scene in this exciting chapter was enacted at the Bay, but fortunately no lives were sacrificed; the excitement extending to this city, one was immolated upon the altar in order to appease the public fury, and now we have two more, condemned to a punishment the greatest which man can inflict, for a less offence and upon less testimony than the last. Where will this deplorable state of things end! – Who in community can be safe if to gratify personal malice a man should see fit to arouse public indignation against his enemy for any imaginary wrong he may have received. We have good laws, let us not disregard them and trample them under our feet, lest scenes more awful than those we have lately been obliged to chronicle, shall again set these laws at defiance. (3/10/1851, emphasis in original)

This lynching, however rash, does appear to have been more of a stereotypical instance of frontier “justice.” So it may be unfair to lay this new tragedy at Brannan’s feet. However, my point here is not that the Index was always fair or correct. Rather, it was an important dissenting voice whose suppression has impoverished our understanding of events that are central to the formation of California’s social order, and which unfortunately have much to teach us in our modern era of immigrant scapegoats, attacks on the press, and deteriorating government legitimacy.

Other Voices

A week after the hanging of those unnamed horse thieves, the Index was gone. Its last issue was apparently March 17, 1851.

With this rebel paper out of the way, the rule of “Judge Lynch” continued, spreading throughout the spring and summer. However, that paper was not the only media outlet in need of control by Sacramento’s Vigilantes. The Daily Union was launched in the weeks after Roe’s lynching, and seems to have been kept to heel.

However, there are signs that Sacramento’s more established papers may have eventually turned against mob rule, which could explain the following conspicuous interruptions of their archives:

The Placer Times – Sacramento City’s first newspaper – began publishing on April 28, 1849, with a promise: “Having espoused the interests of the mining community, (we) will be ever found ready to cherish and defend them.” The California Digital Newspaper Collection (as well as the State Library) hold nearly complete collections of this paper – at least until its abrupt disappearance after June 7, 1850. Incidentally, this date was during the escalation toward the August 14-15 “Squatters’ Riot,” when the interests of the mining community led to revolt against Brannan’s merchant establishment, whose interests were based in a practice called “mining the miners.”

After the Times’ June disappearance, the paper of record became the Sacramento Transcript, which had launched April 1, 1850. Judging from frequent disparaging mentions of the Times in the Transcript (which continue after the Times’ disappearance from the archives), the two publications were fierce rivals.

Although accessible issues of the Transcript shows little sign of doubt in the wisdom of lynch law, something may have shifted in June, immediately before the establishment of the formal Committee of Vigilance in Brannan’s San Francisco warehouse. The last available Transcript issue was printed a few days before a message printed in San Francisco’s Daily Alta California called for a “war of extermination” against Australians, the immigrants who would bear the brunt of lynch law in that city.

There is other evidence of something amiss in Sacramento journalism. By June 28, the Alta reported the discovery of a Sacramento Committee of Vigilance with 213 members, described as similar to its better-known older sibling. The report concluded with an odd statement: “The Sacramento papers contain very little news.”

It is unclear whether the Alta’s comment expressed complaint or satisfaction, but that publication may have played some role in the disappearance of the Times and Transcript. According to Marianne Leach’s Newspaper Holdings of the California State Library (p. 300) the merged Times and Transcript was moved to San Francisco in June of 1852. It was then absorbed by the Alta in December of 1855, just before San Francisco’s second (and worse) wave of vigilante rule.

The Alta would serve as a cheerleader for the 1856 Vigilantes. And having absorbed the former Sacramento papers, it presumably would have been in control of the primary archive of those tributary publications. This centralization of missing publications adds to the circumstantial evidence of an assault on the press and its records, but how can we know whether threats or attacks took place at the time?

It turns out that at least one journalist was physically attacked.

Other Media Suppression

As noted above, the Index was reporting threats on the first day of this frightening new era of lynch law: “Already have men ventured to declare that law is non-existent, and that the people are to govern themselves hereafter, by the dictation of the mass, while others have not scrupled to threaten the denouncers of yesterday’s proceedings, with a like visitation of the vengeance of the public will.” (2/26/1851)

And these were apparently not idle threats. On April 15, J.E. Lawrence, a Times editor, was severely beaten as he was passing a bar called the Branch, which had apparently been the nexus for previous violence. His assailant was not identified beyond his favored drinking establishment, which seems to have had a curious ability to stay out of the news despite being the source of at least some lawless behavior.

And as noted earlier, issues of the Times dated later than June of 1850 are missing. So we don’t know what Lawrence actually wrote. It must have been juicy, though. The Transcript reported that Lawrence was threatened with death if he did not leave town the next day. Although it attributed this violence to the very thugs who necessitated lynch law, the call for justice was vague. In any case, there was no lynching of the perpetrators.

Nor was there any further attention to the case in accessible newspapers, despite the Transcript’s call for support of the press in the matter. Instead, there is a strange sign that whatever was happening at the Branch was unspeakable: The next week, the Branch was back in the news, but for a relatively minor offense.

Campbell & Harringon, late proprietors of the “Branch”, were brought before Judge Bullock yesterday, on a charge of selling liquors on Saturday night without a license. It was proven by a witness introduced by the defendants, that they had, previous to the selling of the liquor on Saturday, sold out all interest in the Branch. The witness further testified that he was the purchaser, thereby unwittingly criminating himself and rendering himself the subject of prosecution. (Union 4/22/1851)

This is obvious nonsense, starting with the namelessness of the “witness,” who was most likely under duress. But this brief seems to be the lone reference to an establishment that had been the site of the brutal beating and threatened murder of a journalist, just days earlier. An administrative hearing was held indicating that responsibility for the Branch had passed to some anonymous person. This seems to be the end of the story, as far as the historic record is concerned. The journalists of Sacramento apparently lost interest in an establishment involved with brutalizing and threatening the murder of one of their own, whose newspapers from that time are now missing.

This is, to say the least, highly suspicious.

(8/12 UPDATE: I have discovered additional coverage of the attack on Lawrence – as well as information about the Branch’s proprietors – and will be providing a new report soon.)

Following a Cold Trail

So what the hell was going on in Sacramento during the first half of 1851? The Alta’s cryptic comment of June 28, that “the Sacramento Papers contain very little news,” is increasingly ominous.

At this point there is little to do beyond poring over the last few weeks of available Transcript issues for references that escaped the CDNC’s word search capabilities. The Daily Union may also have some light to shed, although that paper seems to have shown little interest in probing the power behind “Judge Lynch.”

But all is not lost. There may also be further clues tucked away in a collection of Times or Transcript issues that I have not yet discovered.

Other clues are most likely found in other issues of the Index still held by the New York Historical Society (along with other missing papers). I am currently exploring how else we might retrieve the content of this essential dissenting voice, and would be grateful for help in the following two forms:

First, I would like to know if there is anyone available in New York to visit the NYHS library and pore over (and possibly photograph) the other surviving issues of the Index. The Library of Congress in Washington D.C. also holds two issues following the lynching, which may have additional information.

Second, if anyone is aware of a collection of old newspapers that might have been left out of the CDNC and State Library Collections, we may find other surviving accounts that were at some point removed from the most accessible collections.

The revelation of the Index and its apparent suppression raise numerous serious questions about the history of Sacramento, as commonly understood. It is unclear who made this assault on the free press starting in 1851, but we must find out.

It is rather difficult to quickly undo the damage done to our historic record, or to identify the exact perpetrators of that damage. However, it should be obvious by now that some sort of intentional cover-up was conducted, resulting in the removal of key elements from Sacramento’s history.

Today’s growing wave of threats – and attacks – on immigrants and religious minorities, as well as the press and political opponents, demands that we find the truth of what happened in Sacramento. If we fail to understand our own history, we are at greater risk of repeating it.

Broadway: Above and Below Ground

This interactive map shows tour stops and additional context for a tour presented by Confluence’s Andrew McLeod and Sacramento County Historical Society board member Eric Bradner, February 19 and May 6, 2017. The tour and map explore the original southern boundary of Sacramento City.

For interactive version, click here

This seam between real estate schemes envisioned city lots to the north and farm parcels to the south. But while the Grid became a familiar term for our city’s heart, the “Ten Acre Tracts” have faded into obscurity. This low swampland faded into a neglected industrial zone between the river and cemetery, home to residents of the Alder Grove public housing project but increasingly empty in recent decades.

Now, the area is seeing some of the same dynamics of gentrification found elsewhere, most notably the recent demolition of the old Setzer lumber complex and the rise of the Mill housing development. But, like most attempts to redevelop our city, it has moved in fits and starts, yielding an area that is still a work in progress.

Confluence Map Gallery

On December 11, 2016, I presented Confluence: A Natural History of Sacramento as part of the Sacramento Public Library’s series 95H20. That presentation shared glimpses of many maps to explore why our city sits in a flood basin instead of on the relatively high banks of the American River. Although these riverbanks were the best place to settle, they are now mainly recreational assets and underdeveloped industrial wasteland (with patchy residential redevelopment).

Some of the maps used in this presentation are held by the California State Library and the Center for Sacramento History; members of the public are welcome to view them on site but Confluence does not have permission to reproduce them.

Fortunately, many maps from the presentation are available online in some fashion, and to provide you with an easy way to view some key depictions of early Sacramento, I’ve assembled an annotated gallery through hyperlinks. Many of these images are extremely high-resolution and will allow you to view even the smallest features and labels. I’ve gained some important insight from these images, and trust that others will notice many new details that I missed. Please comment below if you catch anything particularly interesting.

The Big Picture

These maps show the larger context of the Sacramento area, illustrating that we live in a strange land where the rivers flow higher than the surrounding earth!

The 1849 Riley survey map is one of the earliest overviews of the region, and provides a sense of the wetlands of Sacramento. It shows a bit of the area’s early transportation network, including primitive versions of the routes now served by US-50 and CA-99. Note the absence of anything resembling I-5 or I-80, except for the “Benecia Road impassible during rainy season” (which is supplemented by a much longer “Road round the Tule”).

This topographic map by Jesus Alvarez indicates two areas where riverbanks are the high ground. The Sacramento River near Colusa is the meandering light green (higher) wedge just south of the Sutter Buttes, with darker green (lower) flood basins on both sides. The American River’s raised banks are faintly visible just east of the letter “V” in “valley.” The same flood basins and elevated river channels are also visible on this 1887 map of topography and irrigation, which was not included in the presentation but provides a fascinating high-resolution overview of the valley’s topography and late-19th century agriculture.

The Vioget map of Nueva Helvetia illustrates how land along the rivers was all that was seen as worthy of claiming or mapping. Everything else was just “tule” – thickets of aquatic rushes. There are many versions of this intensely political map of Johann Augustus Sutter’s claim, including one posted at the Sacramento History Museum. Some of these versions include the false lines of latitude that incorrectly indicate that Sutter’s grant extended to the Sacramento area, which eventually made it into the 1864 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that finally validated Sutter’s claim (sort of).

The California State Library has a collection of versions of the Vioget depiction and related maps. This collection also includes the 1859 Doherty swampland survey of Sacramento, which was featured in the presentation but is apparently not available online.

Uncovering the Confluence

I have developed an interactive map of “Older Sac”, which perched on bluffs along the former course of the American River, with two pre-grid settlements overlaid on what is presently found there.

My presentation repeatedly deployed images generated from a GIS (geographic information system) depicting a “bare earth LIDAR” survey – an airborne laser calibrated to strip away surface structures and detect the elevation of the underlying soil. This data is not presently viewable in an interactive form, but hopefully that will change soon, as I believe this data can provide profound insights when various historic maps are overlaid.

Meanwhile, here are two images from the GIS, including an overlay of the original Sacramento City plan, which is thus revealed as a scheme to sell swampland to unsuspecting immigrants.

This LIDAR image shows artificial forms including the dump and levees as well as the elevated streets of downtown. It also shows the prehistoric channel of the American River, and more recent sloughs, winding through what is now East Sac.
The original city plan is overlaid on the LIDAR image, illustrating how most of the Grid was lower elevation (green) while the now-neglected American River banks are somewhat higher (yellow). Note differences between the channels of the Gold Rush and modern American River courses.

The original 1850 city plan overlaid above is strangely difficult to find online, although this website does provide a low-res version.

The 1854 city map, which shows both Older Sac and the old confluence, does not seem to be available online. However, it appears in a recent video featuring the Center for Sacramento History’s Marcia Eymann. I have some differences of interpretation with Eymann, including her description of the whole area as “marshy swampland” – in fact the Sacramento City grid was in the swamp, while the railroad’s development isolated and eventually destroyed the old settlement site on the elevated confluence riverbanks. Even so, the video has some great photographs and is worth watching.

A map of Sacramento’s underlying geology, including the ancient East Sac river course, can be found in the Cultural Resources chapter of this Railyards Project environmental impact report (following p. 4.4-7) This section of the report provides some useful context but seems to underestimate the archaeological potential of the former settlement site where the American River once joined the Sacramento.

The George H. Baker birdseye of 1857 Sacramento shows China Slough along I Street, as well as the southern wetlands that were eventually converted into neighborhoods. R Street was the city’s real southern boundary at this point, and the most prominent landmarks visible beyond the tracks of the original railroad are sloughs including what eventually became the pond in Southside Park.

The Augustus Koch birdseye depicts Sacramento in 1870, with the Railyards depicted just north (left) of China Slough. While most other land north of the B St. tracks and levee is shown as empty (which I do not believe was accurate), a small residential area is clearly visible in the lower left corner of the image.

A map titled “Rutte, Muldrow and Smith” by G.H. Goddard (1857) shows some of the sloughs that drained through northern East Sacramento and the McKinley Park pond. It features “Muldrow’s Gardens” which now comprises the former city landfill and the new McKinley Village development.

Lost Sister Cities

Many sought to cash in on the Gold Rush by “mining the miners” through the creation of “paper towns” in which land was surveyed and sold despite being unsuitable for habitation. The grid of Sacramento City was not the only large-scale attempt to commodify marginal land, but it was the only one to survive east of the Sacramento River.

Sutterville was a rival town favored by Sacramento’s supposed founder, but eventually crushed by maneuverings of Sam Brannan and others, who manipulated Sutter’s son Augustus into the land scheme that we now know as “the Grid.” These speculators ran roughshod over the elder Sutter’s desire to keep some space between a booming city and his faltering agricultural empire. (Read more about the troubled legacy of the Sutters’ disastrous real estate efforts, briefly, here.)

The original Sutterville plan called for a city that was at one point envisioned as nearly 2/3 the size of Sacramento City; surviving maps are unfortunately unavailable online. The original 1847 plan is even harder to find, as I have not yet located a copy anywhere in Sacramento. Ironically, the best depiction of the area’s first attempt at city building appears the official 1911 map of the county, which depicted the old Sutterville grid as it disappeared beneath early development of what we now know as Land Park (see below for more on this map).

Unlike out-of-the-way Sutterville, a paper town called Boston was close to Sacramento City, and managed to squeeze onto several maps. One such map, reportedly from 1848, is still something of a mystery. I’ve been provided with an image that is also included as one of three fragments at this website. If anyone knows the original source, please let me know.

In any case, the navigational chart showing the route to “Sacramento and Boston” clearly depicts another city between downtown and the Garden Highway. This chart was that day’s equivalent of the Rand McNally road atlas (or perhaps Google Maps), and it turns out that its creator, Cadwalader Ringgold was also the surveyor of the Boston scheme, which he presented as an equal to Sacramento City. This document is an important case study of the conflict of interest that appears in many early maps of Sacramento, which often served to promote or undermine the various conflicting land claims.

The 1873 Gray’s Atlas map shows a number of old American River watercourses, including the old channel and confluence. It depicts the Boston site as ponds, channels and brush, as though to emphasize that this place is uninhabited and uninhabitable (in contrast to the blank areas that surround the rest of the city. Similar treatment is given to the Boston site in the 1854 map referenced above.

However, this official 1911 map of the county shows a large parcel just north of the Old Channel on the east bank of the Sacramento, marked “A.M. Mull,” which may have been a remnant of Boston – it is perhaps equivalent to 12 of that town’s blocks, which were described in Edward Gould Buffum’s Six Months in the Gold Mines (1850). This fascinating map also depicts the old layout of Sutterville, as well as the site of Calle de los Americanos on the American River near 16th St., despite those both apparently being superseded by later development. The confluence settlement that I call “Older Sac” is conspicuously and strangely blank, despite that area surviving to at least 1895, when a remnant appears on the Sanborn maps (available here to Sacramento Library patrons).

I have begun to reconstruct the old Boston city grid, using clues from Buffum and elsewhere, and I’ve discovered that there are numerous remnants of the city depicted in Ringggold’s chart, ranging from an intersection at the edge of the Railyards project to the path of the bike trail between Discovery Park and a large gravel quarry.

Continuing Discovery

This list is based on a relatively cursory series of search engine inputs, and I assume (and hope) that I’ve missed something. If you are aware of any other maps that I’ve missed, online or otherwise, please send an email to tours (at) sactoconfluence (dot) com. I’ll especially welcome corrections regarding availability of maps that I used in the presentation but was unable to find. Thank you!

I hope this collection provides a good complement to the library talk. Although incomplete, the maps that are available online provide an easy way to look more deeply at what flashed by during that whirlwind tour of the Confluence. Enjoy!



A Natural (and Unnatural) History

This is a summary of the ground I’ll be covering at an upcoming talk for the Sacramento Public Library. It’ll be held at the Ella K. McClatchy branch, 2112 22nd St. at 1pm on Sunday Dec. 11.

Sacramento grew out of a natural basin, into which annual rains flowed to form an inland sea. The native Ninesan people once lived on the dry patches formed by the rivers’ banks, reaping the spectacular bounty of the wetlands while moving out of the way when waters rose. It is an odd place for a city, and would seem like the worst place to build under normal circumstances. However, Sacramento’s development was anything but normal, driven by extraordinary speculation and intense land struggles that sometimes turned violent.

Sacramento is not flat. Our “City of the Plains” lacks dramatic hills or river valleys, but it is far from featureless. Seasonal floods once cast great importance on small differences in elevation built over eons by Sacramento’s shifting waters, which sometimes flow higher than the city streets, and other times pulse with the faraway ocean’s tides. Situated within a maze of historic and prehistoric river channels, Sacramento lies at – or perhaps we should say “in” – the confluence of two major rivers.

Bare earth LIDAR image of the Sacramento area, showing the flood basin and ancient channel of the American River, which winds through East Sac and Oak Park. Levees, landfills, elevated freeways and the raised downtown are also visible.

The story of this city and these rivers illustrate the tension between California’s Gold Rush origins and the struggle to build a large permanent settlement on land that was naturally submerged swamplands for part of every year. The development decisions of the 19th Century continue to reverberate in a community that has stayed (mostly) dry only through the desperate raising of downtown, as well as construction of massive levees and dams.

The speculative grid of “Sacramento City” eclipsed earlier settlements, and created a highly ironic development pattern: A city that was created on bottomlands to provide access to the American River’s gold has now almost entirely turned its back on that waterfront, reducing downtown’s northern portion to an industrial backwater and literally burying our earliest historic sites: The riverbank where Johann Augustus Sutter first came ashore now sits dozens of feet under a former city landfill, more than a quarter of a mile from the closest water. And the original settlement at the rivers’ confluence lies under the Railyards, with potentially sensitive archaeological sites in the path of redevelopment.

It may be too late to reconnect the River City to the unruly American River. Its natural banks are higher than the surrounding lands, and prone to dramatic overflow – and worse, generations of misuse have left the former riversides isolated and badly damaged. However, we can still learn from the shortsighted decisions, driven by the quest for individual profit, which locked our community into an unhealthy relationship with the waters that gave it birth. Sacramento’s long-neglected first waterfront provides a challenging long-term development challenge, in which we might strike out in a new direction over the coming generations, gaining a second chance of eventually creating a waterfront based on the community’s needs instead of speculative profit.

An interactive map of the American River waterfront, past and present, is available here.