Monday, February 24, 2020


Finally, after several years the North Yuba Trail, which was badly damaged by blowdown and landslides, is open again.  This 7 ½-mile trail through dense stands of conifers, alternating with barren and rocky slopes, parallels the North Yuba on its south side connecting the historical mining communities of Indian Valley and Goodyears Bar.  Elevations range from 2,300’ to 3,000’.  There are no spur trails or access roads along its entire length.  Nor are there any managed campgrounds until you reach Indian Valley at its western terminus.

Recently the Forest Service and the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship built another 6-mile trail eastward from Goodyears Bar to Downieville.  I have yet to walk this one because it’s a fairly new and popular with mountain bikers. I’m partial to historic trails, roads and ditches.

The historic and humble town of Goodyears Bar is 40 miles northeast of Nevada City, California and 4 miles west of Downieville on State Highway 49.  The trailhead is on the south side of the river on Mountain House Road and is clearly marked.  In Indian Valley the other trailhead is 31 miles from Nevada City near the Rocky Rest campground and is also clearly marked.

GOODYEARS BAR – Late in the summer of 1849 Andrew and Miles Goodyear found gold and convinced fifteen of the local Nisenan to help them mine it.  It’s a unique setting because Goodyears Creek, coming from the North, and Woodruff Creek coming from the south, both enter the North Yuba at Goodyears Bar.  All three of these streams were, and are, contributing placer gold from ancient rivers and quartz veins.  The big difference from today is that in 1849 there was an accumulation of streamside gold that had accumulated for millions of years.

By 1852, Goodyears Bar Township had 600 voters, a Post-Office and a school with 13 students. Ten years later there were 52 students.  In this era Goodyears Bar had an express office, saloons, stores, hotels, bakeries, restaurants, churches and many cabins.  There were also a few Chinese owned businesses that served the needs of Chinese miners.  In 1864 the town almost burned to the ground and was never rebuilt entirely.

After the gold rush there were mostly overseas Chinese mining in the vicinity.  The 1860 census shows 394 Chinese, 90 in 1870 and 92 in 1880. Most of them were miners but there were also a few merchants and gardeners and there was a Joss House on adjacent Texas Bar.  Between 1867 and 1878 the Sierra County Tax Assessors records show that there were predominantly Chinese miners working on the river between Indian Valley and Goodyears Bar during this period.  In 1890 census takers noted that “there were about a hundred Chinese miners employed in river mining, scattered in about a dozen companies, ten miles each way from town (Downieville).”  The aggregate product from their efforts was between $35,000 and $45,000 annually.  There were small Chinese communities in the North Yuba settlements of Downieville, Goodyears Bar, Texas Bar and Indian Valley.

Near Texas Bar

THE TRAIL:  The trailhead in Goodyears Bar begins on Mountain House Road on the way out of town.  Once you start hiking, you’ll soon come to the North Yuba which turns west while flowing downstream.  From this point you can look north up Goodyears Creek and see Saddleback and Fir Cap, both landforms that are clearly described by their names.  They are snow covered in most winters and in early spring.  Dominating the foreground is Grizzly Peak, 4,638’ high, abruptly rising 1,900’ from the North Yuba.  Douglas fir and canyon live oak are by far the dominant trees and there are long stretches where the trail is shady.  One delightful aspect of this trail is that you will be within earshot of the river for its entire length.

You’ll soon be walking above a terraced point that was once known as Hoodoo Bar.  As miners passed by mining claims along the trail, they typically greeted each other with “Howdy-Do”, a practice adopted by the local Nisenan who pronounced it “Hoodoo” – hence the name.  James Hutchings, in his 1855 diary, records it as “Hudu.”  Rantedottler Bar was the next adjacent mining area downstream – the origin of its name is unknown and at least seven different spellings from various historical sources.  In 1851 Major Downie and many others mined there.  In a letter to the Mountain Echo in April of 1853 the writer remarks, “I consider Rantedottler without an equal.”  Rantedottler Bar was thoroughly mined by Euro-American and Chinese miners.  By 1880 the Ah Cow company had amassed 1,500’ of claims along the river along with two ditches and improvements such as flumes, derricks, wheels, tools, a shop and a cabin.

As the North Yuba Trail continues downstream it eventually drops below a mined bank and into an excavation.  At the lowest part of the trail, where a sluice runs to the river, there are some large flat rocks; one of them has six bedrock mortar cupules alerting us to the presence of earlier inhabitants for whom this was a productive site as well.  Somewhere in this vicinity was a place known as Cutthroat, or Woodville, Bar where a sick miner cut his own throat.

About two miles downstream from Goodyears Bar and across the river from Saint Joe Bar was Sand Flat.  Ah Ling maintained a commercial garden here in 1866.  In 1877 Ah Ling’s neighbors were Paul and Gertrude Bachels, their 12 children and two cows, who within three years, bought out the Chinese farmer.  All but three of the Bachels’ children walked this trail to school.  In 1899 the Bachels’ bought the former Jacob Fluke Hotel and moved to Goodyears Bar where the building is still used as a residence.  As you contour around a flat that may have been a corral, you’ll see a huge display of periwinkle, an ornamental plant that was very popular in 19th century domestic settings.  There is also an obvious spur trail that leads to the rock-lined cellar of a former structure.

Between Devil’s Canyon and Saint Catherine’s Creek the trail is situated upslope and well above the floodplain.  Maybe it’s because I attended Catholic School for eight years, but I find it fascinating that within a five-mile stretch of this trail are several places named after religious figures.  There’s Saint Joe’s Bar, Saint Peter’s Bar, Saint Catherine’s Creek and Devil’s Canyon.  In the early days of placer mining there were Catholics from Mexico, Chile, Ireland and Italy on the North Yuba.  I’m familiar with most of these saints but I had to look up Saint Catherine.  Apparently, she was once a beautiful Egyptian queen who wouldn’t marry the Roman Emperor Maxentius.  She was fascinated with the new religion called Christianity and couldn’t marry a pagan.  He sent fifty philosophers to convince her that she was deluded but Catherine converted them to Christianity instead.  Maxentius then executed the philosophers and attempted to torture her into submission by stretching her body over a spiked wheel.  Miraculously,  angels destroyed the wheel with lightning.  Frustrated, Maxentius beheaded Catherine when milk, rather than blood, flowed from her neck.  The angels then flew her body to Mount Sinai.

That’s quite a story and I don’t know what it has to do with gold mining except that most claims on the North Yuba in the late 19th century used waterwheels routinely for a number of tasks.  Fast-forward to 1982 when choreographer Twyla Tharpe created a dance production based on this story and called it The Catherine Wheel with music and words supplied by David Byrne.

Below Saint Catherine Creek, which is at the trail’s mid-point, there is a small streamside hydraulic mine with remnants of a ditch above the trail.  Around the next point and across the North Yuba is evidence of a mining claim known as Pierces Flat.  From 1918 to 1920 inmates from Folsom Prison camped here as they worked on the highway and it’s been called Convict Flat ever since.

Humbug Creek

Soon the trail switchbacks downslope to a small bridge over Humbug Creek where I once met the greenest rattlesnake I’ve ever seen.  There’s a small waterfall in the creek below the bridge and you’ll soon come to a larger waterfall in the river.  From here the trail enters upper Indian Valley where the canyon gets wider while the river slows down due to its gentle grade.  When the river slows down the gold, because of its great weight, drops to the stream bed and lodges behind obstructions.  With this information Indian Valley was intensely mined and now piles of tailings consisting of heaped, rounded rocks are the dominant landscape feature.  The typical vegetation here is well-spaced ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, canyon live oak, aspen and willow.

 Indian Valley

Living and working amidst the tailings was a logistical problem for the miners so they stacked rocks to create platforms for machinery and structures and walls for sluices.  Don’t assume that the Chinese built all the stacked rock features that are so common in the Yuba region because rock was an abundant resource with many uses, and all miners, trail and road builders, dam and ditch builders, terrace builders, etc., had some familiarity with dry wall rock stacking.

Indian Valley was an ideal place for salmon spawning, it was full of oak trees and was at a perfect location for foraging forays – it must have been a highly desirable place for the indigenous people.  Mining and lumbering followed by campground and road construction have massively changed the ecology of what must have been a valuable natural resource and a gorgeous landscape.

During the Depression of the 1930s there were hundreds of people camped in Indian Valley while placer mining using many of the same techniques that the miners used in the 1850s.  According to the State Division of Mines (1946), “In 1935-37, hand-placering paid an average of $6 per week, with about a third of the miners averaging $3.50 per week.”  Most of this is Tahoe National Forest land and they were generally sympathetic to the situation, turning a blind eye to poaching, fishing and some environmental degradation.  The largest settlement of Depression-era miners in Indian Valley was known as “Tar-Paper Shack Flat.”  Today it’s a very popular recreation area in the summer and for this reason I recommend hiking the North Yuba Trail in the “off-season.”

Indian Valley upstream from Rocky Rest

• • •

Wednesday, January 15, 2020


Unfortunately, what little is known about the indigenous populations of the Yuba-Bear River watersheds prior to the Gold Rush is limited to what can be learned from the analysis of stone tools – that’s not nearly enough to reflect the complexity and vitality of the people who were here first.  Landscapes and resource patches managed by the Nisenan and Washoe were generally large enough to permit native populations to gather and harvest resources as a group.  Usually such bulk harvesting required people to travel from their major villages to specific clusters of resources to collect large quantities of nuts, seeds, fruits, bulbs, roots, leaves, or stalks for basketry.  This was not drudgery because it also offered opportunities for trade and social contact with neighboring groups.  There is also the epicurian pleasure of camping near a meadow where favorite foods like yampa, wild plums or blackberries were abundant.  Some foods, like acorns and sugar pine nuts, were transported back to winter villages where they could be stored.

Before the demographic wave of the gold rush, aboriginal trade and travel was possible because of what the late anthropologist Warren d’Azevedo called “corridors of tolerated access.”  The corridor concept makes an important distinction between travel and trespass (d’Azevedo worked with the Washoe for over fifty years and founded the Anthropology Department at the University of Nevada, Reno).  The Washoe were located at a nexus of trade routes.  Among their trade routes: they traded eastward with the Paiute of the Great Basin, northerly with the people of the Columbia Plateau, westerly with the Nisenan of the Sierra Nevada foothills and Sacramento Valley and to the south and southeast with the Miwok, Mono Lake Paiute and Shoshone.

Spanish Explorers

Explorers flatter themselves by positing that they are on the frontier and on unknown lands, but in reality, they are often in the homelands of people who have lived in a particular place for centuries, or thousands of years.  The indigenous people lived in the center of their world and didn’t see themselves at the edge of someone else’s.

Between 1769 and 1823, twenty-one missions were built by the Spanish.  You might assume that the indigenous people of the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys and the people in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada wouldn’t have been affected by the missions, but this was not the case.  Even though Spaniards seldom explored the interior their animals, plants and microbes escaped and spread inland.  That didn’t go unnoticed by the native peoples who were very aware of the biosphere.  Central Valley people were eating horses, cattle and new and unusual plants before they ever saw a white man.

While they generally stayed close to the coast, Spanish explorers ventured inland in the early 19th century.  Gabriel Moraga traveled overland to the Sacramento Valley in 1806 and again in 1808.  He was followed by the expeditions of Luis Arguello who, in 1817 and again in 1821, sailed far enough up the Feather River to see “Los Picachos” or “Tres Picos”, later named the Sutter Buttes.  During their adventures they inadvertently introduced new plants, animals and diseases into the ecosystem.  The indigenous people of the valley and foothills had a strong dependence on grass seeds and surely noticed the rapidly changing grasslands.

A mission was more than a church; it was also an agricultural pueblo with hundreds, or even thousands, of Indians lured there with presents and kept there by soldiers.  At first, the Indians were fascinated by the new and unusual trade goods and attentive to the new stories the Padres told, but they soon found themselves captives who were forced to abandon their traditional lifeways.  Missions were seen as a way to pacify and convert the Indians and to include them, at the lowest level, into the encomienda system.  The encomienda was simply a variation of the European feudal-manorial system.  Once ensnared in this humiliating system they also experienced harsh treatment prompting many to attempt escape.  Those who successfully made it to the San Joaquin Valley and Sierra Nevada foothills taught the Yokuts and Miwok to ride horses.

Even in the 18th century outlying “heathens” were running off livestock and reminding the mission inhabitants that they were vulnerable.  In time inland Indians realized that, with proper techniques, horse and cattle raiding was fairly easy and it thoroughly irritated the white men.  The continual acquisition of horses made them more mobile and efficient as trade opportunities continually increased until 1835, when stock raiding was widespread.  Within two generations the Yokuts and Miwok showed that they could adapt from a semi-sedentary plant-based people to nomadic, meat-eating cavalrymen.  Had it not been for the aggressive Indian-hating Americans arriving in the 1840s and provoking a war with Mexico they may have been able to drive out the invaders from the coast.

Indian Horseman in the Northern San Joaquin Valley
Charles Koppel 1854

As early as 1800 the Snake, Cayuse, Walla-Walla and others from the Columbian Plateau were trading in California for horses, Mexican blankets, vermillion and manufactured goods.  When Yellow Bird from the Columbia River area led a trading expedition of 40 Nez Perce, Cayuse, and Walla Walla to Sutter’s Fort in California's Sacramento Valley in 1844 to trade for livestock he remembered that he was there on horse raids with his family about 1800.  Among the major meeting places for trading were Yainax in southern Oregon, the Columbia River Plateau and the Humboldt Sink.  By 1820, Surprise Valley, in northeastern California, had become a well-traveled section of a major north-south highway passing along the east face of the Cascade and Sierra Nevada Ranges. This highway was heavily traversed by emergent predatory bands of horsemen. 

Yellow Serpent

On the west side of the Sierra Nevada punitive raids by the colonial authorities became more common and pushed the horse-raiding California Indians into the foothills.  The establishment of the horse-nomad pattern in east central California and western Nevada was a major and significant re-adaptive shift.  Horse raiding flourished between 1833 and 1846.

What were mounted Indians from California and Idaho doing at the Humboldt Sink, Paiute territory, in 1829?  It was its location as a central place on a river highway linking California with the Rockies and it was the only place with enough water and grass to support large numbers of horses.  The Humboldt Sink was a site that could support the emerging predatory bands of the western Great Basin, with California and Idaho horsemen.  Major commodities at the Humboldt rendezvous were probably horses and manufactured goods from California.  On a least one occasion the California Indians brought salmon.

Rather than a frozen ethnographic present, the pattern that emerges is one of vitality and change during the protohistoric period characterized by relocations and adaptations of people on the northern and eastern peripheries of California.  Encounters with these groups, were fortuitously recorded in the journals of Peter Ogden and Jedediah Smith.  A peak seems to have been reached in 1846, when the Americans were struggling for power in California; after that there was a decline.

The Nisenan, too, may have become engaged in the horse and livestock trafficking were it not for the devastating epidemics of the 1830s followed by Sutter’s heavy-handed intimidation of the Nisenan.

In 1821 Mexico gained its Independence but Alta California was considered a remote and undesirable outpost to most ambitious Mexicans.  Most of today’s depictions of the rancho period are somewhat over-glamourized but there’s no denying they were excellent vaqueros.  Both men and women of this era were proficient equestrians and gracious hosts who held splendid social gatherings with feasting, dancing, singing and displays of horsemanship and other skills associated with ranching.

When Hawaiian King Kamehameha I was gifted some cattle by English navigator George Vancouver in 1792 he protected them until they wreaked havoc on gardens and could not be restrained.  The king sent a special envoy to Alta California to hire vaqueros to manage the cattle and to teach his own men about ranching and the specific skills needed.  The ensuing generations of Hawaiian cowboys, still working, are called Paniolos.  Among the original vaqueros were Joaquin Armas, Miguel Castro, and Frederico Ramon Baesa whose legacy endures with Paniolos inheriting a taste for braided lariats, adorned saddles, bright ponchos, long spurs, bandanas, and floppy wide-brimmed hats.  The flair and fashion of Californio clothing and gear is an audacious blend of Spanish and Indian design where form and function merge beautifully.  In my research I often come across comments from Americans of that era who criticize the expressiveness of Californio culture – do I detect a hint of envy?


Foreign trade was allowed when Mexico gained independence but hides and tallow were the only exports – for a good depiction of that era I recommend reading Richard Henry Dana’s, “Two Years Before the Mast.” In north central California Europeans wanted large tracts of land that could be turned to agriculture and ranching using local Indians as a workforce.  Among those who obtained Mexican Land Grants in the lower regions of the Feather, Bear and Yuba Rivers were William Johnson, John Rose, Theodor Cordua, Theodore Sicard, Claude Chana and John Sutter who received Mexican citizenship, a grant of 11,000 square leagues (49,000 acres) and a position as regional official.  The lingua franca in Alta California at the time was Spanish and most Indians, who were typically multilingual, spoke at least enough to conduct trade.

Map of Mexican Land Grants

Meanwhile the Russians, British and Bostonians were voraciously trapping sea otter, and to a lesser degree northern fur seal, off the California coast until they were seriously depleted.  Bostonians were trading with China, where a sea otter pelt, typically measuring 5 feet by 2 feet, was worth $300.  The Russians, in addition to furs, also gathered and traded geese and duck down.


Beaver trapping opened the interior of California.  American Jedidiah Strong Smith and Michael Framboise of the Hudson’s Bay Company were trapping fur-bearing mammals in the Sacramento Valley as early as 1826.  Smith and his trappers represented the United States’ fur interests giving Alta California even more of an international presence.  He also introduced American fur and horse traders from the southwest, mostly independent mountain men and Indians collectively known as chaquanosos (adventurers of all nations) who came from as far away as New Mexico and Colorado.

John Work, in 1833, led the Southern Trapping Party of the Hudson’s Bay Company that included 63 people and 400 horses.  They camped in what is now known as the Sutter Buttes just north of today’s Yuba City.  His diary entry of February 22 is witness to their wanton killing of wildlife: “There is excellent feeding for the horses, and abundance of animals for the people to subsist on. 395 elk, 148 deer, 17 bears, and 8 antelopes have been killed in a month, which is certainly a great many more than was required.”  Most of the Indian employees of the company were fugitives from the missions, while other Indian people came from the Columbia Plateau, and the San Joaquin Valley of Alta California, Aleuts came from the far north and Kanakas came from Hawaii and New Zealand.  Trapping caused a rapid reduction in fur-bearing mammals while the Anglo trappers themselves introduced disease for which the indigenous people had no immunity.

One more thing, engagement in the trapping economy also made the Indians dependent on it.  While trapping they neglected traditional practices like burning and various horticultural practices that were sustainable.  Also, when the beaver were depleted the white trappers simply moved on leaving the natives with diminished resources.

Trappers from the Columbian Plateau inadvertently brought malaria, followed by measles to the Sacramento Valley in 1833, with smallpox arriving in 1837.  In less than a decade these diseases wiped out an estimated 75% of the valley Nisenan.  Disease extended from the upper Sacramento Valley, south to the King’s River and east to the bordering foothills.  Sexually transmitted diseases, introduced by the Spanish, were also commonplace with syphilis affecting 20% of the native population.

Derby's 1849 Map of the Sacramento Valley

Here is an eye-witness account of the epidemic by J.J. Warner, “From the head of the Sacramento to the great bend and slough of the San Joaquin we did not see more than six or eight live Indians; while large numbers of their skulls and dead bodies were seen under almost every shade tree near the water, where the uninhabited and deserted villages had been converted into graveyards.”  Many of the surviving Indians fled to the foothills where refugees presented new circumstances for their hosts such as an increased demand on resources, new ideas and charismatic leaders who emerged in the midst of ongoing crises.

Biologist and ethno-historian, Sherburne Cook, demonstrated that disease and hostility were the major causes of aboriginal population decline, closely followed by malnourishment and starvation.  Former native habitat was fenced, with springs and meadows now off-limits. Streams were full of siltation and riparian habitat was destroyed.  To eat well and enjoy the essential rhythm of Nisenan lifeways it takes seasonal access to hunt and gather in three ecosystems.  Instead, the Nisenan found themselves competing with introduced livestock for food and fenced out of areas with springs and meadows.  Naturally a starving person, family or band of people will steal a cow, pig or chicken, but when caught they were severely punished.  When “chastising” the Indians it was a common practice to destroy stored foods and the implements used to produce food.

In northern California Sutter’s name is all over the place: there is Sutter’s Fort, Sutter Creek, Sutter County, the Sutter National Wildlife Refuge, Sutter Health, Sutterville Elementary School and Sutter Middle School, to name but a few.  There is also a small but spectacular island of mountains, north of today’s Yuba City, called Sutter Buttes.  Shelly Covert, spokesperson for the Nisenan Nevada City Rancheria, remembers her grandfather telling her it is impolite to refer to these mountains, known as Histum Yani to the Nisenan, by using Sutter’s name.

Mission fugitives were moving upstream on the Sacramento river about the time that Sutter arrived.  Sutter, his eight Kanaka laborers, and a handful of white settlers reached the juncture of the American and Sacramento Rivers in August of 1839.  At first, he told the Miwok, Nisenan and other Indians that he came in peace and he offered them employment.  Later, he showed the Indians the three cannons he had, thus warning the Indians that he would not hesitate to use force if necessary.

Sutter's Fort
Gleason' Drawing Room Companion

It was in Sutter’s best interests to stop livestock raiding.  To protect New Helvetia he put together a force of 150 Indian infantrymen and 50 cavalrymen supervised by a few whites.  They wore blue and green uniforms with red trim bought from the Russians at Fort Ross in 1841.  This must have been an intimidating (or bewildering) sight.

Sutter was all about business.  He hoped to profit from every settler who ventured into the region, and he did all he could to welcome newcomers.  It’s not far-fetched to compare Sutter’s fort with Ellis Island – he even issued passports to newcomers much to the chagrin of Governor Alvarado.  Sutter played a pivotal role in opening California for American settlement.  Sutter's story combines myth with reality and reminds us that settlement in California was often based on corruption, lies and luck.

Sutter treated “his Indians” as slaves and managed them with favors and punishment, including whippings and murder.  He used bells to teach punctuality and introduce new work rhythms and tried to teach the Indians the value of monogamy and the tenants of patriarchy.  Sutter routinely engaged in human trafficking, he kept a harem of Indian girls and even gave Indian girls to his white trading partners.  Sutter saw himself as king and did as he liked.  In his Reminisciences (1876), he reaffirms this by proclaiming, “I, Sutter, am the law!”  Furthermore, “The Indians I did not marry or bury I was everything [to]: patriarch, priest, father and judge.”  This is not hyperbole – it’s all in the historical record.

Sketch of a Nisenan Settlement near Yuba City (Sutter's Hock Farm)
The drying cotton shirts cost the Indian workers two-weeks labor per shirt.

When gold was discovered at a sawmill on Sutter’s land grant, most of his workers deserted and the Americans he so admired swarmed his land with total disregard for Sutter’s kingdom.

In 1840 there were approximately 400, mostly American, emigrants in California.  The overland Bidwell-Bartleson Party arrived in 1841 and in 1844 the Stephens-Townsend-Murphy Party were the first wagons to cross the summit at what would later be named Donner Pass.  The ill-fated Donner Party attempted a crossing of the summit in 1846.

For the most part they came as families.  They were American citizens who aimed to stay that way, as proud Protestants they weren’t about to convert to Catholicism.  Americans were less pastoral than Californios and were more interested in retail sales.  To top it all off they disliked Californios and found miscegenation repugnant.  President Polk, in 1844, proclaimed that the move westward was America’s manifest destiny, that is to say, that their takeover was ordained by (their) god.  Frustrated by Californio corruption and innately impatient they declared the California Republic in Monterrey in 1846.  In the same year war was declared on Mexico.

In 1848, only nine days after gold was discovered on the American River the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed and Mexico surrendered Alta California to the Americans.  Jonas Spect, led by an Indian guide, discovered gold on the Yuba River at Rose Bar on June 2, 1848.  Within a year traditional Nisenan territory was overrun by rude strangers.

The Spaniards and Mexicans had a place for the indigenous people in their economic and social order, but the Americans did not.  The American solution to the “Indian problem” was to establish a permanent farming population.  After the gold rush was over the labor market was flooded with whites leaving only domestic work and subsistence labor available to the Indians.

Before the gold rush, the foothill Nisenan were absorbing refugees from the missions – terrified and shocked people fleeing malaria, measles, cholera, kidnapping and violence.  This disarray resulted in readjustments of territories, alliances, constituencies, political structures and traditional practices.  A few leaders appeared but futile attempts at resistance showed them that they were hopelessly outnumbered.

In 1848 the local Indians were willing to help the people obsessed with gold in exchange for exotic trade goods like beads, cloth, tools, sugar and alcohol.  In 1848 and early 1849 they were laborers on mining claims where they constituted half of the gold miners in California.  But in 1849 they mined for themselves while some whites set up trading posts for their trade.  Among them were Bovyer’s, Empire Ranch, Jones Bar, White Oak Springs, Storms Ranch and Findley’s.  In 1850 California became a state and the Indians were no longer allowed to mine, but they continued to supplement their subsistence by sniping for gold.

This brief synopsis of a dynamic half century is barely adequate but hopefully introduces some people to a seldom addressed era before the gold rush.  History is complex and there are always versions of what happened.  But history is no one version.  As the late Ursula LeGuin put it, “… stories co-exist as facets of an agreed upon truth, a composite of points of view.”

• • •

Sunday, December 29, 2019


Looking Downstream to Mineral Bar

My intent with this blog is to write about the Yuba and Bear Rivers in the Sierra Nevada in California, but there are other beautiful, interesting and exhilarating rivers nearby.  The North Fork of the American is a designated Wild and Scenic River and the Stevens Trail is on the National Register of Historic Places.  The trail is in a steep and rugged canyon located only a few miles south of the Bear River and I visit it often because it’s in the neighborhood.

Be forewarned that the Stevens Trail has become extremely popular and can be very busy in good weather.  Part of its popularity is because the trailhead is on a major highway and therefore easy to get to, also in the spring the hillsides are ablaze with colorful wildflowers.  The trail is a 3.7 mile descent of 1,200’ from the trailhead to its terminus at Secret Canyon followed by a return walk back upslope to the trailhead making it a 7.4-mile hike.  It’s a well-designed 19th century pack trail that’s doable by a wide spectrum of hikers, even those who seldom hike.

I generally avoid crowds, so I seldom use this trail in pleasant weather unless I leave early in the morning or hike in the winter when it’s just as gorgeous.  Because of the heavy use it’s important that you leave no trace and pack out trash left.  This trail is a gift and deserves respect.

How to get there:
Colfax, California is on Interstate Highway 80 between Auburn and Emigrant Gap.  Take the Colfax Exit and get on North Canyon Way on the east side of the highway.  Drive north for less than a mile, past the cemetery, to the clearly marked trailhead.  Some people have homes adjacent to the trailhead so don’t block driveways or trespass – be neighborly.

The Stevens Trail

The Stevens Trail connected the supply and transportation hub of Illinoistown with the hydraulic mining town of Iowa Hill and other mines on various tributaries.  In between these two settlements is the North Fork of the American River located at the bottom of a steep canyon.  The ridge dividing the Bear River and the North Fork of the American climbs northeasterly from Auburn to Illinoistown.  Illinoistown was located about a mile south of present-day Colfax and was also known as Upper Corral and Alder Grove.  The Placer Herald of September 18, 1852 said that it was named Illinoistown in October of 1849 when the miners had a grand dinner in this “town of four houses”, and since most of them were Illinoisans, “… they by acclimation and a bottle of whiskey, named the place Illinoistown.”  The same article describes two productive steam operated sawmills and a fruit orchard – by 1853 they also had a Post Office.

The earliest references to Illinoistown describe it as lying within a small valley which, of course, was valuable to the indigenous Nisenan people as well.  This valley, and others like it were within forests of Sugar Pine, Douglas Fir, Incense Cedar, Yellow Pine and Black Oak providing a mosaic of diverse ecosystems and environmental nooks that were essential ingredients for the Nisenan version of the good life.

The industrious inhabitants of Illinoistown immediately went to work dropping trees, digging holes for gold, creating big corrals and allowing livestock and horses in streams and meadows and other native ecosystems.  Despite this rude behavior the Nisenan people were never consulted.  The interlopers never asked for permission, never offered a trade, never even had a meeting to disclose their intent.  They simply ignored the indigenous people.  When the Nisenan responded by nicking cattle and horses the whites retaliated with extreme measures, eventually burning the native's winter stores in several locations and forming a militia called the California Blades, who burned entire indigenous settlements and posted Indian scalps along the trail between Auburn and Illinoistown.  This particular episode of barbaric behavior is well documented in the historic record.

Secret Canyon and the North Fork of the American

The ridge itself is still a major route from the Sacramento Valley and Auburn to Donner Summit and the east side of the Sierra Nevada.  There was trade and communication between the west-side Nisenan and the east-side Washoe for centuries and there is archaeological evidence of trade and occupation for thousands of years by the unnamed people who preceded them.  In the historic era, Illinoistown was the eastern terminus of navigation for wagon traffic, a place where goods and people were transferred to pack animals who descended into the canyons to supply miners on the Bear River and the North Fork of the American and its tributaries. The trail between Illinoistown and Iowa Hill was built in anticipation of the transcontinental railroad (Central Pacific Railroad) which was completed in 1869.

John Rutherford allegedly began work on the trail in 1867 and immediately took on a partner named Truman Stevens who, by 1870, was the sole owner of the trail.  Prior to the railroad there were already rudimentary trails into the canyons used by both the indigenous people and gold miners, but the Stevens Trail was an investment.  In 1866 a Post Office was opened in Colfax, while the one in Illinoistown was closed.

Iowa Hill is 9 air-miles southeast of Colfax on a ridge between the North Fork of the American and Indian Creek at an elevation of 2,860’.  Gold was discovered near Iowa Hill in 1848 but the area was propelled into prominence by the discovery of deep gravels in 1854.  These tertiary gravels were mined by hydraulicking and later by drift mining.  In its heyday there were 15 stores and 18 hotels with a population of approximately 1,000.  By 1880 the Iowa Hill mining district had produced $20 million in gold but was considered “worked out.”

Slaughter Ravine

As you begin your descent from the trailhead there is mostly Canyon Live Oak above and below the trail.  In the wet months the tread can get a bit soggy.  Where the trail crosses Slaughter Ravine there are wildflowers in the spring and summer along with introduced plants like Tree of Heaven, Periwinkle and fruit trees.  Before long you’ll find yourself on a dirt road that was created in 1978 and remains the only disturbance to an otherwise pristine trail.  Easy to find signs will direct you back to the trail.

At Robbers Ravine the trail splits into an upper trail and lower trail.  The upper trail is the more scenic of the two, but it can be difficult to navigate in the wet season.  From the upper trail is a good view of Cape Horn where Chinese laborers, while secured by ropes, picked and blasted a ledge for the Central Pacific Railroad tracks.  Cape Horn is a steep bluff with a 75° slope, 1,400’ above the North Fork of the American River.  There is a popular story about Chinese workers in baskets hanging over a cliff to do this work, but this can’t be substantiated by research and this geologic feature is not really a cliff, but a dome with a dramatic slope.  Baskets would shred if they were lowered and raised along this rocky slide.  Author Maxine Hong Kingston tells a story about a man, who supposedly worked on this project, describing the lowering of baskets to get Chinese workers in position to set dynamite.  I doubt its accuracy as history simply because there are no records. Also, reminiscences, in their continuous retelling, change and tend to amplify the “good parts.”  Maxine Hong Kingston is a contemporary artist informed by tradition, who freely admits that some of her work is outside of the sphere of academia and wouldn’t necessarily stand up to Western critical analysis but this does not diminish her art in any way.  There is an interesting discussion of this topic on the Central Pacific Railroad site (

Facing Cape Horn From Robbers Ravine

After the two trails merge, you’ll come to a place where the trail becomes a rock ledge with a mining excavation adjacent to the trail.  Don’t bother exploring, it wouldn’t be an abandoned mine if it were productive.  Continue walking out to a point with a great view of the North Fork of the American downstream where you can see the bridge at Mineral Bar.  In 1851 a ferry crossed the river here on the wagon road between Illinoistown and Iowa Hill.  Charles Rice built the Mineral Bar and Iowa City Turnpike Road in 1854 and worked as the superintendent and toll collector for the next 30 years.  Tolls across the 110’ bridge ranged from 25 cents for a pedestrian to $6.50 for six yoke of oxen and a wagon.  It was a 10-mile trip that took four hours.  Placer County purchased the road in 1906 and today Mineral Bar is a Bureau of Land Management managed recreation area.

From this expansive vista the Stevens Trail descends to the east, with curvy river views and some steep drops downslope.  On September 4, 1884 the Placer Argus published an article titled “Fatal Fall” in which they report the arrival of a riderless horse in Iowa Hill prompting the formation of a search party.  “Honorable J. H. Neff found a hat known to belong to E. Webster on the Stevens Trail about a mile from the river on the Colfax side.  Mr. Webster was about 60 years old and a native of Maine.  His body was found well below the trail.  It is supposed that his hat fell off, and he dismounted and stumbled over the bank, a distance of over 200 feet.”  In November of 1890 the same newspaper reported the shooting of a 7’ long, 125-pound mountain lion on the Stevens Trail.  The message is the usual one for outdoor activities, enjoy yourself but remain alert, for things can change in an instant.

Hikers on the Stevens Trail

There are long shade-free areas as you descend to Secret Canyon so wear a hat, use sunscreen and bring enough water.  It can get hot here in mid-summer.  When you get close to the river at Secret Canyon, there is a rocky ledge below the trail with a few bedrock mortars and some rusted wire rope.  This was the location of a wire rope suspension bridge across the river that was used extensively from 1871 to 1895; in 1914 it collapsed and was never rebuilt.  Andrew Hallidie, renowned for his invention of the San Francisco cable cars, made the first wire rope produced in the West for the Bay State Mine on the Middle Fork of the American River in 1856.  In the following year Hallide established a plant to produce wire rope in San Francisco’s North Beach.  By 1869 A.S. Hallidie & Company had built a 320’ bridge across Deer Creek in Nevada City and a 225’ bridge across the Bear River, among others.  Years ago I walked the trail from Iowa Hill to this place and it was dense with vegetation and less scenic than the north side but I can’t vouch for its condition now.

Wire Rope from the Suspension Bridge that Crossed the River (1870-1914)

In addition to the bedrock mortars found at the bridge site here there are many more on the river’s edge just above the stream in Secret Canyon.  In the early 1980s we counted over 50 bedrock mortars at this location.  In the intervening 40 years many of the mortars have filled with sand and gravel due to the accumulation of silt and the periodic placer mining that takes place here.  This is such a beautiful spot.  Imagine the Nisenan gathered here where the river is shallow and there is a gravely bottom, perfect for salmon spawning.  The men may have been fishing here, while the women were possibly drying salmon and pounding fish bones into a powder suitable for soup stock, while caring for the children swimming nearby.  I don't think I'm reaching to say that they enjoyed and appreciated this place and I can easily imagine them singing, swapping stories and sharing jokes as they worked.  This is obviously a seasonal campsite and I wonder what trail they used to get here.

Bedrock Mortars Alongside the North Fork of the American

When you get out of the canyon you may be hungry and ready for some regional hippie-mex food available at Homie Joe’s Tacos on North Canyon Road a stone’s throw from the Colfax Cemetery, near Highway 80’s Exit 135.  There are some trade offs, but there is a unique and savory menu, plenty to eat, and great ambiance.  I appreciated being addressed as “Brother-Man” and I intend to return.

Hank Meals will be hiking the Stevens Trail on January 12, 2020, For more information contact

• • •

Sunday, December 1, 2019


Bedrock mortars at Cut Eye Fosters Bar

[It just dawned on me that I talked about this trail in an earlier post (Indian Valley/September 2018) but, just like I’ve walked this trail many times, what harm is there in writing about it more than once?  Compare the two posts for different renditions].

How to get there:  From Nevada City, California travel north for 30 miles on State Highway 49 to the bridge over the North Yuba River and make an immediate left to the trailhead parking area.  On the way there you will cross the South Yuba and the Middle Yuba Rivers.

The Canyon Creek Trail is a pleasant all-seasons trail that parallels the North Yuba River on a sidehill trail through a lush forest at about 2,300 feet in elevation.  Along the way there are many places to find solitude and/or splendid swimming holes.  The walk to Shenanigan Flat is a bit over a mile, it’s about 2 miles to Cherokee Creek and about 3 ½ miles to Canyon Creek.  The trail begins on a gated road just after crossing the Highway 49 bridge over the North Yuba River.  In the late 1960s this dirt road transported campers to Shenanigan Flat where the Forest Service maintained a campground, but has since closed it.  The road itself was created in the 1860s, probably just after the big flood in the winter of 1862 when all of the bridges on the Yuba River were swept away.

As you hike take notice of the rock retaining walls on the downslope side of the road.  Of course, the real attention getter is the North Yuba – it’s beauty, speed and, in the wetter months, it’s sound.  This whole stretch of the river, from Indian Valley down to the mouth of Canyon Creek is inaccessible by vehicle and idyllic to visit for a swim, an ousel’s song or for pure wanderment.  There are few trails to the river from the main trail but much of it is approachable.  I urge you to respect this, and all rivers, you’re just visiting.

  Near Shenanigan Flat

The river makes a noticeable turn to the northwest at a place called Shenanigan Flat, a wonderful name whose origins are lost to the void of history.  I did find a few basalt flakes left behind by a stone age tool maker but the earliest historical presence I could find was a record of the mining claim of Michael Cortes & Company in 1874.  It’s a relatively flat bench sitting above the river, opposite Indian Creek, and must have made a sweet summer camp site for centuries before gold miners arrived.  There is an active, but low-key, mining claim nearby and there are the remains of concrete fire pits left from its days as a campground.

I have a friend who lived for a summer at the Shenanigan Flat campground in the late 1960s.  He was there with his family trying “to get back to the land.”  In hippie dialect that meant they had “dropped out” and were poor, but proud of it.  Their neighbors in the campground were a family who were trying to make some money by small-scale gold mining – they didn’t dress, act or talk like hippies.  Both families were polite to each other but not real friendly.  Their kids sometimes played together, but it was casual. 

The other neighbor worth noting was a large rattlesnake “seen around camp fairly often.”  My friend and his family were “OK with the snake” because it hadn’t displayed any territoriality.  In fact, they were almost in a state of grace because they lived near danger by being alert and harmonious with nature.  In other words, no one had been threatened or bitten.  Everyone was aware that the snake was there because it was acknowledged in manly conversations consisting of short sentences and grunts.

In time the mining family had gotten used to their natural neighbors and invited then to dinner around the campfire.  This blatant hospitality couldn’t be ignored, and the hippie family was determined to be a good neighbor, even if they were served Spam and canned string beans.  Instead, it was a big surprise when their host started frying a rattlesnake, while offering that it was “the big one.”  When faced with a spiritual conundrum it’s best to accept the hospitality, which the hippie family did.  I’m sure this qualifies as a shenanigan.

As the trail proceeds downstream to the northwest it assumes the width of the earlier wagon road that still extends to Cherokee Creek where there was once a toll bridge across the North Yuba.  The two historical maps that show the bridge location differ – the topography suggests that the bridge was on the east (upstream) side of Cherokee Creek.  On the opposite ridgetop, a few miles north of Camptonville, was a place called Depot Hill which was the highest and easternmost extent of freight wagon navigation in 1850.  Here wagons were downloaded to pack animals for the steep descent to Cherokee Creek and Cut Eye Fosters Bar on the North Yuba where there was another pack trail coming upstream from Fosters Bar (no relation to Cut Eye), which is now under water behind New Bullards Bar Dam.  At this point you’re probably annoyed that I’m not using possessive apostrophes when describing historic mining locations.  That’s because it’s a local convention not to – they were never used on maps, in contemporary newspaper accounts, mining journals or even Post Offices – I’m only perpetuating a local custom.

Near Cut Eye Fosters Bar

While mining at Cut Eye Fosters Bar in the summer of 1849 Philo Haven was approached by an Indian named Lo who offered to trade gold nuggets for some exotic miner’s cuisine.  Farris and Smith’s, 1882 History of Sierra County described the occasion this way: “Mr Haven began frying pancakes. The company began having visions of a famine. Even the great American pie-eater would have hung his head in shame had he beheld the delicate mouthfuls and the quantity of food devoured on this occasion. But even an Indian’s capacity was limited, and the feast was finally finished, greatly to the relief of the gold hunters.”  The next day they headed upstream to a place that would eventually become Downieville only to find that Hedgepath & Company had staked out claims already but there was plenty of good mining ground left.  

Cut Eye Fosters Bar was the most upstream place to obtain provisions on the North Yuba in 1850.  Newton Miller and company used a wing-dam to mine here from January 1851 to July 1852 and called it “a lively place.”  Cut-Eye Foster was described as a professional horse thief who employed Indians and kept a corral of pack animals.  California historian, T. H. Hittell remarked, that Foster had no problems with the local Indians because he had no prejudice against them.  “Judging by his own experience, he did not think there was any danger to be anticipated as long as they were not molested.”  William Downie had dealings with Cut Eye Foster and said he was philanthropic, but dishonest, “… prices were absolutely ruinous to his customers. He charged three dollars per pound for potatoes and butter, two dollars for flour, and so on in proportion, making everybody recognize that, if life was worth living, we certainly had to pay dearly to sustain it.”

The North Yuba Canyon from the Brandy City Trail

Cherokee Creek is a beautiful stream with plenty of riparian vegetation.  It has been heavily mined because it erodes the auriferous gravel deposits near Brandy City, a formerly productive hydraulic mining community.  Cherokee is the most popular Indian name for mining properties in California even though their homelands are in southern Appalachia.  In 1829 placer gold was discovered in their territory, from which they were eventually moved, but not before learning something about gold mining.  They were savvy miners when they arrived and I’m sure they took advantage of their knowledge.

You may or may not spot the trail to Brandy City that takes off from the Canyon Creek Trail below Cherokee Creek because it’s no longer maintained and there was ferocious logging on the upper reaches of this trail in the 1960s.  There’s not much to see there anymore because all the buildings are gone, although there is a small cemetery.  At one time this was an important hydraulic mining center with a sizable French population.  The Sierra Democrat of July 3, 1858 reported on a “Grand Ball at Brandy City – formerly Strychnine City – on the evening of the 27th given by the Canyon Creek Ditch Company, and others, and you can bet it was a fine affair.  Seven of the ladies were taken to the Ball in a Concord A No 1 four horse coach. The balances were carried on horse and mule flesh and danced all night to broad daylight.

Brandy City, 1900

Cross the foot bridge across Cherokee Creek and continue downstream to the south, then westerly, through a healthy forest of Douglas fir, yellow pine, incense cedar, black oak, live oak and broad-leaf maple.  This part of the trail is narrow and undulating like the original pack trail.

It was on this part of the trail on a narrow ridge toward the river where, in the late 1960s, you could see a tipi incongruously perched in a dense forest of oaks and conifers.  According to local rumors there was an attractive young woman who lived alone in that tipi.  Mister P., who worked for the Forest Service, heard the rumor and decided that he should investigate.  He told me that he found the tipi alright and as he walked toward it a nude woman stepped out to greet him.  Now Mister P. was a first-generation Italian American and a practicing Catholic who became quite agitated even as he was telling me the story.  He stood up and muttered “Mama Mia, Jesu Santo", and crossed himself several times before, red in the face, he made the universally understood “big boobs” gesture.  Actually, you had to have been there to fully appreciate his kinetic approach to storytelling.  Mister P. never told me what he and the woman talked about, but he was obviously concerned because he went to fetch the Ranger.  When they returned the Ranger verified Mister P.’s description of the situation and they apparently had a long conversation about safety.  It’s reassuring to know how responsive Forest Service management can be when the situation warrants it.

After crossing the small stream in Brummel Ravine, the trail descends to a dramatic confluence where Canyon Creek enters the North Yuba at Kelly Bar.  There’s a great swimming hole and campsite here.

Canyon Creek entering the North Yuba at Kelly Bar

• • •