Local History

THE GOLD RUSH ON THE UPPER TRINITY RIVER

Gold was first discovered in Trinity County by Major Pearson B. Reading in July of 1848, just a few months after John Marshall made his famous discovery at Sutter’s Mill. Reading’s discovery was on a gravel bar of the Trinity River at the mouth of the creek that now bears his name, a few hundred yards downstream from the present State Route 299 bridge at Douglas City. That gravel bar produced $80,000 in gold in six weeks, and made the Trinity River country one of the main destinations of the California Gold Rush. Later the Alta California, a San Francisco newspaper, reported “A party of young men have returned from . . . the region intersected by the coast range of mountains and reported having discovered gold on a river emptying into Trinidad Bay. . . . It is a region replete with interest and we trust shortly to learn still further of this discovery of gold on the Trinity River”.

Major Reading had first explored this area in1845 as a trapper, when he named the main stem the Trinity River in the mistaken belief that it led into Trinidad Bay on the Pacific, as depicted on old Spanish sailing charts. Three years later, when he heard of the discovery at Sutter’s mill, Major Reading outfitted a company comprised, in his words, of “three white men, seven Delewares, one Walla Walla, one Chinook, and sixty Sacramento Valley Indians”. Reading also took along an abundant supply of provisions and over 100 head of cattle from his ranch on Cottonwood Creek in what was to be Shasta County, over the mountain ridge to the west and then down to the Trinity River.

Despite his success in mining Reading’s Bar, Major Reading abandoned his digs on the Trinity to a group of belligerent Oregonians who protested his association with Indians. During the following summer of 1849 Reading found gold at Reading’s Springs (later named Shasta, now”Old Shasta”), which is reported to have had the third largest population among California’s town sites by the end of 1849.

News of the gold in the “Northern Mountains” spread quickly and in 1849 thousands of fortune seekers set out for the Trinity River. The mouth of the first tributary upstream from Reading’s discovery (now Weaver Creek) proved to be even richer than his original location. During the winter of 1949-50, seven miles upstream from that stream’s confluence with the Trinity, three prospectors named Weaver, Howe, and Bennett built a cabin where the Trinity County Court House now stands. A mining camp soon developed and the three prospectors decided that their settlement should have a name, but could not agree further on the subject. They eventually drew straws (actually pine needles) to decide the issue, and because John Weaver’s straw was the shortest the boomtown of “Weaverville” was christened.

In the Gold Rush days gold miners’ camps became settlements and settlements became towns very quickly. Soon after word of Major Reading’s discovery reached the outside world the river bars both upstream and downstream from Reading’s Bar original strike were occupied by miners, and many of the original names are still is use: Union Bar, Poker Bar, Texas Bar, Kanaka Bar, Poverty Bar, Steiner Flat, and Evans Bar. In 1850 David Casad, later the sheriff of Shasta County, started a settlement just downstream from the mouth of Weaver Creek by building a store and blacksmith shop. That settlement was known as Kanaka Bar, and became “Douglas City” in the late 1850’s when the first permanent buildings were built on the bench above the river—the site of the present Douglas City Store, post office and fire hall. Issac Cox, the first chronicler of Trinity County history, reported in his 1858 Annals of Trinity County that the resident miners on the bars and ranches stretching over the six miles from Readings Bar to Steiner Flat supported three trading posts, a butcher, two blacksmith shops, and a population of about 270 miners.

STEPHEN A. DOUGLAS

Douglas City was named after Stephen A. Douglas, a nationally famous politician and orator during the tumultous times that led up to the Civil War. Douglas, a Democrat, was a very popular U.S. Senator from Illinois, having been elected in 1850 at the age of 37 and re-elected in 1854. In 1856 he authored the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which gave the citizens of each territory the right to determine whether or not the territory would permit slavery. The Republicans of Illinois nominate a young congressman named Abraham Lincoln to run against Douglas, and that led to the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. In essence, Lincoln and the Republicans took the position that any territory that was admitted to the Union as a state would have to be a Free State, although they did not contend that the U.S. Consititution forbid slavery in the states of the Old South. In the meantime the advocates of slavery in the Old South were pushing for a federal slave code that would clearly allow slave owners to enter and settle in the western territories legally. Douglas and the Democratic Party were in the middle, supporting the “Squatter Sovereignty” of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

Douglas won his senate campaign against Lincoln in 1858. Two years later the Democratic Party had splintered and four candidates stood for President of the United States in the 1860 election: Douglas for the Democratic Party, John Breckinridge for the Southern Democrats, John Bell for the Constitutional Union Party, and Abraham Lincoln was nominated by the Republicans. On reflection, the citizens of the country were engaged in the political issues of the day to a remarkable degree, especially when one considers the fact that news from the eastern states was still dependent on the Pony Express to reach California.

TRINITY COUNTY’S EARLY IMPORTANCE AND SELECTION OF THE COUNTY SEAT

In 1850 California was divided into 26 counties, with Trinity County extending from its present eastern border with Shasta County to the Pacific Ocean on the west and the Oregon border on the north, encompassing its namesake port Trinidad, Uniontown (now Arcata), Eureka and Crescent City. After California was admitted to the Union in 1851 an election was held to determine the county seat and Weaverville wrested the honor from the coastal towns due in large part to a group of miners from Big Flat who carried out a plan of voting early and often—at Big Flat, then North Fork (now Helena), and then Junction City. A group of irate citizens of Uniontown investigated the fraud with the intent of taking the matter to the courts, but discovered to their chagrin that voters downstream of Burnt Ranch had used a similar tactic to stuff the ballot boxes in favor of Uniontown. And so, the honors as to fraud being roughly even, the election stood. Two years later the coastal settlements finally rid themselves of their unwanted ties to Weaverville when they persuaded the legislature to create their own county, Humboldt County.

A good measure of the importance of an area in those days was the presence of U.S. Post Offices, and by 1853 Trinity County boasted five Post Offices. Five other gold rush counties (El Dorado, Calaveras, Tuolumne, Nevada, Butte and Mariposa) had more, while some of the undeveloped backwater (and perhaps illiterate) counties such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Sacramento, Santa Clara, and Santa Barbara had no more than two Post Offices each. Speaking of literacy, the Trinity Journal began publishing in 1856 and is the oldest continuously published newspaper in California.