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Related Museum Links “Ranch and Mission Days in Alta California,” by Guadalupe Vallejo

Ulysses S. Grant at Ft. Vancouver - 1852

“Life in California Before the Gold Discovery,” by John Bidwell

William T. Sherman and Early Calif. History

Biography of William T. Sherman

William T. Sherman and the Gold Rush

Discovery of Gold in California, by Gen. John Sutter

California Gold Rush Chronology 1846 - 1849

California Gold Rush Chronology 1850 - 1851

California Gold Rush Chronology 1852 - 1854

California Gold Rush Chronology 1855 - 1856

California Gold Rush Chronology 1857 - 1861

California Gold Rush Chronology 1862 - 1865

An Eyewitness to the Gold Discovery

Military Governor Mason’s Report on the Discovery of Gold

A Rush to the Gold Washings – from the California Star

The Discovery – as Viewed in New York and London

Steamer Day in the 1850s

Sam Brannan Opens New Bank - 1857


by Walter Van Dyke

Walter Van Dyke was an attorney from Ohio who came to California in the first wave of “49ers.” He first settled in San Francisco, then went north, to the Klamath River area, where he mined gold immediately along the ocean in an area known as Gold Bluff.

Van Dyke, describes the large forests of Northern California, and tells of the founding of the Trinity and Klamath counties.

He writes of the 1851 Thompkin’s Ferry Indian massacre, and the subsequent destruction of Indian rancherias and villages by enraged miners.

Finally, he describes the dissolution of Klamath County, California, and the formation of Humboldt, Siskiyou and Del Norte counties in Northern California.

The fall of 1850 found me in San Francisco, returned from the mines on the American River. That season some friends in the city, with others, had started a town at the mouth of the Klamath River. There were several towns founded that summer on the northwest coast of the State; on Humboldt Bay alone were four. A little farther north on the coast, Robert A. Parker and others of San Francisco laid out the town of Trinidad on the roadstead of that name, as a rival of all the others. Parker, generally called Bob Parker, owned the old Parker House, on Kearny Street, opposite the old Plaza, or Portsmouth Square, and at one time could command as much money as any man in the State; but, of course, we had no rich men in those days.

Some of those connected with the town on the Klamath had come down to the city to take back supplies for the new colony. An old vessel, the bark Tarquin, was bought or chartered for the purpose. I concluded to join the party going up, and on the 15th of November we sailed for the mouth of the Klamath.

A few of those on board were bound for Trinidad, at which place it was designed to touch; but off Cape Mendocino a southeasterly storm struck us, and we were driven by. For days the vessel was laid to, and when the storm abated we were off Point St. George, near the Oregon line. A breeze sprang up from the northwest, before we headed for the Klamath. This wind also beat down the heavy seas caused by the storm, so that when we arrived off the mouth of the river it was comparatively smooth.

The captain headed for the entrance, according to the chart prepared from soundings during the summer. Unfortunately, however, the recent heavy storm had caused the channel to change, and we struck a stand spit on the north side, which extended nearly across the summer channel. After a few heavy thumps the old vessel became imbedded in the sand nearly broadside on. By the aid of friendly Indians, who swarmed the beach, a line, attached to a hawser, was got on shore, and under the direction of the whites who had come down from the town, the hawser was made fast to a point of rocks near by, and with the capstan on board, was soon hauled taut.

Many of us were soon on this rope, hand-over-hand, and dangling over the seething waters, making for the shore. Others preferred to take their chances on the vessel. Luckily the tide was ebb, and in a few hours the spit was uncovered nearly to the ship’s side. With the assistance of the Indians, who were naked and not afraid of a little surf, the others were then brought ashore; also the cargo and the effects of passengers and crew. Under the point of rocks near by, a blazing fire was made of the driftwood, and we were made comfortable for the night. This was November 25, ten days after starting.

The heavy surf at floodtide during the night broke the old hulk into fragments, and the wreckage was strewn along the beach. The next day all of us, and the cargo and effects saved from the old wreck, were transferred to the town, about four miles up the river, called Klamath City. Thus I was introduced to the Klamath country.

Besides the town mentioned, another was surveyed and laid out on the opposite, or southern bank of the river, and nearly its mouth. Up the river about forty miles, at the foot of rapids, still another town was located, at what was considered the head of navigation. But between this point and the mouth, there were several bad rapids in the river, which would have obstructed navigation at low staged of the water. All transportation on the river was then carried on by the Indians with their canoes.

The treacherousness of the entrance to the river, owing to the shifting channel at its mouth, however, finally forced conviction on the most sanguine that the Klamath River was not a practicable line of communication with the mines of the interior.

Along the coast towards Trinidad, below the Klamath, is the remarkable bluff known as “Gold Bluff.” It begins about ten miles south of the mouth of the Klamath, runs southerly along the beach about six miles, presenting a face to the shore line almost perpendicular, in some places quite so, and rise from a hundred feet to five hundred, or thereabouts, in height. It is composed of sand, without a rock or large stone in it, yet so compact as to preserve an upright position for several hundred feet, as already stated.

In passing up and down the trail between Trinidad and the mouth of the Klamath, the attention of parties had been attracted to the peculiar black sand, sprinkled with fine gold, frequently exposed along the foot of this bluff. The slackening of the face of the bluff by the weather, and the jarring caused by the tremendous force of the surf at high tides, would at times bring down large masses of it. By the action of the surf this would be tumbled over and dashed up against the bluff, and the receding water and undertow would carry off the coarser and lighter material down the sloping beach toward the sea, while the heavier black sand and gold would settle down towards the hard pan at the foot of the bluff, – the panning process of the pioneer placer miner on a grand scale.

In January, 1851, a number of us at the Klamath formed an association, for the purpose of working this black sand. We took possession of the upper gulch, or first break in the bluff going south, and nearly three miles from the northerly end. Here we made our camp, constructed long buildings for house, forge, and shop; also shed for animals. Our company claimed the bluff above our camp. A small number of persons in San Francisco and two or three at Trinidad joined us.

Supplies and material were shipped to us on one of the old steamers running to Trinidad, which, taking advantage of a smooth sea, anchored off the bluff, as near shore as safety would permit, and landed the same night at the mouth of our gulch. A line was sent ashore, and by means of this the things were hauled ashore through the surf, the lumber in raft, with such things as the water would not injure lashed thereto, and other goods in water- tight casks.

The gold being so fine and the black sand so heavy, they could not be separated by the ordinary placer mining process. We therefore tried quicksilver, placed in the riffles and pockets, made in long flues or sluices. By running the golden sand through the sluices, with a stream of water sufficient to move it along, the quicksilver would pick up pretty much all the gold before it would reach the lower end, and the process proved a success.

When the tide ran out men were sent along the beach with pack mules (a canvas sack being suspended on each side of the pack saddle for the sand,) to gather up and bring to camp whatever black sand remained in sight. A heavy surf and extreme high tide would frequently carry out black sand and all, at the foot of the bluff, clean to the hard pan.

Others located in the gulches to the south, operated along the bluff below our claim. In the meantime great excitement was created in San Francisco in regard to the reported fabulous riches of Gold Bluff. Some of this black sand, sparkling with fine gold, was show around, and at a meeting of the excited gold-seekers it was stated that here was a bluff of some six miles, with a beach of sand in front many rods wide and several feet deep, and they were allowed to infer that the sand exhibited was a fair sample of the enormous quantity forming a beach of the dimensions given.

The “Gold Mountain” and “Gold Lake” frauds were quite innocent jokes compared with the Gold Bluff swindle. Old hulks of steamers and sailors almost without number were at once advertised for Gold Bluff. Some hundreds were being landed at Trinidad. The vanguard rushed off pell-mell up the coast, packing their blankets and traps, eager to be first on the beach where the golden sands were “lying around loose” in uncounted millions.

Most of them did not stop over night if they arrived in time to start back. The true situation could be taken in a glance. Of the later arrivals very few went to the bluff at all. Most of the victims returned to San Francisco. Many, however, went to the bar or placer mines on the Klamath, between the junction of the Trinity and the mouth of the Salmon River, and on the latter stream, which were just beginning to attract attention.

Our company continued to do fairly well at the bluff, but with prudent management the net results were only moderate. Along in the spring I disposed of my interest to Colonel A.J. Butler, (brother of the noted Ben,) who then lived at Trinidad.

I located at Trinidad in April, 1851, after disposing of my interest in the Gold Bluff Company, and there began practicing laws, to which profession I had been admitted in Ohio just before joining the grand army of Argonauts.

During the spring and summer of 1851 Trinidad was a prosperous and lively little town. The Gold Bluff craze gave it a start, and developments later of the gold mines on the Klamath and its tributary, the Salmon River, contributed to keep up its trade and business. At first most of the supplies for these mines passed through Trinidad. Subsequently Union Town, on Humboldt Bay, divided the trade with Trinidad.

There were few wagon roads through the region, and none through the redwoods, and the transportation was entirely with pack animals. The dense forest of giant redwood was a great obstruction for communication between the towns on the coast and the mines, and was then viewed as an evil, rather than as a benefit to the country. The greatest width through this belt of forest is about due east of Trinidad, so the trail from that place followed the open country along the coast up north some fifteen miles, perhaps, and then turned easterly to and through the redwoods to the open country known as the “Bald Hills.” The redwoods are about ten miles through on the line of this trail, and about half way through Redwood Creek is crossed. This is a considerable stream, and on the flat or bottom, near where the trail crosses, are found some of the largest trees in the whole redwood belt. The “Bald Hills” are the ridges, or watersheds, between rivers flowing into the ocean from the Klamath on the north to the Eel River on the south, and extend from the eastern line of the redwood high up towards the main Coast Range. They are bald only in the sense of being destitute of forest; but at the springs and along the small streams putting into the rivers on either side are small trees and shrubs. These hills in season are covered with luxuriant natural grasses, and were a favorite resort for deer and elk; afterwards they furnished a range for the packer to recruit his animals. In clear weather, from these hills one can see over the dark line of redwoods to the ocean, and in foggy weather can look down on a billowy sea of vapor. It is altogether a picturesque portion of the country.

The first stopping place east of the redwoods was Elk Camp, a notable point on the Trinidad trail. The course of the Klamath River towards the ocean, for seventy or eighty miles above the mouth of the Trinity, is southwesterly, and in some places nearly south. At the junction of the Trinity it makes an abrupt bend, and its general course thence is northwesterly. In place of the old trail by way of the mouth of the Trinity, a new one was opened quite early in the season. It left the old trail near Elk Camp and turned down to the river, across which a good ferry was placed by a Captain Thompkins, and hence called Thompkins’s Ferry. Thence the new trail ran northeasterly, and struck across the big bend of the Klamath, intersecting the old trail up towards Orleans Bar, the common point where the river was crossed again in going to the mines on the Salmon and its branches.

Up to June, 1851, the whole region of the country between the northern line of Mendocino County and Oregon–fortieth to forty-second degrees north latitude–was unorganized. At the session of 1851 the Legislature divided this section by a line from the mouth of Mad River, on the coast, and “running thence due east to the summit of the Coast Range.” The southerly part was designated in the Act as Trinity County, and the northerly, Klamath. The summit of the Coast Range was taken to be the ridge or crest dividing the waters of the Sacramento from the streams running westerly into the ocean. This formed the eastern boundary of the two counties, and as the dividing line was about on the forty- first degree north latitude, the counties were nearly equal in size.

Another Act, passed May 28, 1851, provided for the election of county officers and selection of county seat, in these counties, to be held on the second Monday (being the 9th) of June following. It also appointed commissioners in each county, to designate precincts and officers of election, and to receive the returns and declare the result.

By the time this Act, or knowledge of its passage, reached us at Trinidad, there was no time to order printed tickets from San Francisco, and no such thing as a newspaper or printing press was any nearer to us at that day. Tickets had therefore to be written, but no ballot reform laws were then in force here. Registration of votes was not required, nor any particular form or kind of ballot prescribed; nor did it make any difference what kind of box was used, nor in what manner the ballots should be deposited therein. An empty cigar- box would answer for a ballot urn; and when the elector could elbow his way up, he could deposit any kind of ballot, either open or folded, therein.

Notwithstanding this free-and-easy way of voting, there was very little fraud committed in the country districts. The people would not submit to be cheated or robbed, and not infrequently made laws unto themselves to punish the one who should attempt it.

Candidates were soon off to the mines canvassing for votes. Two or more were up for every office except that of District Attorney. Politics did not enter into the contest – whether one were a Democrat or a Whig made no difference.

The election resulted as follows:
County Judge, Robert E. Woods.
District Attorney, Walter Van Dyke.
Sheriff, W. Clements.
County Clerk, J.J. Arrington.
County Treasurer, Robert A. Parker.
Assessor, A.S. Meyers.
Surveyor, Charles D. Moore.
Coroner, E.H. Clements.

Woods, the County Judge, was as innocent of any knowledge of the law as some of the judge chosen by the Farmers’ Alliance in Kansas, at the election in that State last fall; but he soon resigned and left the county, and a lawyer was appointed to fill the vacancy.

The friendly Indians on the coast and Lower Klamath had often warned the whites against the Indians on the Klamath, up towards the junction of the Trinity, and those on the latter stream were represented as “bad Indians.” Not much attention was paid to those warnings, however, they being looked upon as a sort of ruse, to ingratiate the Indians with the newcomers at the expense of their enemies,–a device not limited to savages by any means. For this reason the whites had been less cautious than prudence would dictate under the circumstances.

In the summer of 1851,– I am unable to give the exact time, as I preserved no data of the event,– the little town of Trinidad was startled by a report that all the whites at Thompkins’s Ferry had been murdered by Indians. The Ferry at that time was run by a Mr. Blackburn. He was a married man, and had his wife with him, a rare thing at that time and place. Californians at that period, it is hardly necessary to mention, were mostly young men and unmarried, and the few married men didn’t have their wives with them in the mines or on the mountain trails; they were mostly in the Eastern States.

There were a half dozen men or so besides Blackburn connected with the little camp at the Ferry. The buildings were mere posts, with canvas sides and top, except that Blackburn had erected a small house of logs and shakes, a little off from the others, for himself and his wife. The camp was located on a little plateau on the southerly side of the river.

Late in the day preceding the massacre quite a large party from the mines, going to Trinidad, were ferried across the river. Instead of stopping over night there they pushed on for Elk Camp. On the way up, after dark, they men an elderly man on foot,– who, it was afterwards learned, was the father of Blackburn, of the Ferry. The people at Elk Camp tried to dissuade him from leaving so late, but he was anxious to see his son that night.

His paternal desire was never gratified. The hostiles in the plot had no doubt watched every movement. They had seen the last party pass the Ferry without stopping, thereby leaving only the few men who were connected with that post. This was their opportunity, and they only had to wait for the hour of night, when their intended victims should be sound asleep. In the meantime they had intercepted and murdered the elder Blackburn on the trail not far from the Ferry.

As the white men retired to their bunks or beds in the canvas houses or tents they occupied, every movement could be seen by the outlying savages, and each one’s position located. The Indians at that time used no firearms, but in addition to their bows and arrows had long, ugly knives, and some few had already obtained hatchets. The evidences of their bloody work showed that they had cut through the canvas of the inmates while asleep, or before sufficiently awaked to defend themselves.

Some noise, however, happened to awake Blackburn, and he looked out just as the Indians, who seemed to him to cover the whole plateau, were turning towards his little cabin. As if by inspiration he took in the situation at a glance. Seizing a gun, of which he had several on hand ready to use, he fired at those in advance. They fell back a little, but more soon appeared, and they met a like reception. By this time Blackburn’s wife was at his side loading the guns as he fired. The Indians, failing on this line, stole around and approved from other points. Small openings, in the cabin, however, allowed the inmates to discover their movements, and the blazing rifles would salute them from whatever direction they came.

Towards daylight the Indians disappeared, going up the river. In the morning, seeing the coast clear, Blackburn ventured down to the river bank, found a canoe, and with his wife, escaped down the river, and subsequently reached Trinidad in safety. It was learned afterwards that he had killed a number of the hostiles, including some of their leaders, and many more were wounded.

It was towards noon before anyone reached the Ferry, when a party from the mines arrived on the opposite bank of the river. Seeing no movement to bring the boat over for them, and receiving no answer to their calls, some of the party hunted up an old canoe and crossed over for the boat. The horrible sight presented at the little camp explained the situation of affairs. From the fact that Blackburn and his wife were missing, it was supposed they, too, had been murdered in trying to escape, and at first it was so reported. All the other whites there at the time, however, fell victims to this first Indian outbreak in that section. For the reasons already stated, I cannot give the exact number killed.

Swift retribution followed upon this unprovoked massacre. From Humboldt Bay, Trinidad, and the mines men gathered. Most of them were schooled in frontier life, and all well armed. Not many days elapsed, therefore, before the rancherias, or Indian villages, from Thompkins’s Ferry to the mouth of the Trinity, were pretty much all wiped out, and many Indians belonging to them killed.

This sudden blow checked any further hostile demonstration on the part of the river Indians; but it was not safe to travel alone over the region between the coast and the mines, as straggling Indians were liable to be encountered, who would not hesitate to kill for plunder.

In response to the representations and petitions by the people of Klamath and Western Trinity, boarding on Humboldt Bay, in regard to Indian troubles, Colonel Redick McKee, United States Indian agent, came up to investigate matters.

Early in October, 1851, he held a conference at Durkee’s Ferry, Klamath River, at the junction of the Trinity, with representatives of Indians on these rivers as far as they could be reached. In his notice to the public, dated “Durkee’s Ferry, Klamath River, October 8, 1851,” he states that “A treaty of peace” had been concluded by him on behalf of the United States with certain tribes, giving their names. He says: “These tribes promise to live hereafter in peace among themselves and with all the whites, and to exert their influence with the Redwood and Bald Hills Indians, and others not represented at the Council, to induce them to do so likewise. Although I believe the Indians are well satisfied, and will act in good faith, yet as the Bald Hills and Redwood Indians were not represented at the Council or parties to the treaty, it may not be safe for persons to travel through their country alone or unarmed for some time yet.”

The Indians he speaks of as unrepresented, infesting the country between the coast and Klamath and Trinity rivers, were mostly roaming Diggers, not living in large tribes or villages, and no treaty or understanding could be had with them, any more than with the wild animals. Besides, the Indians of the river tribes, when disposed to plunder, could take to the Bald Hills, away from their villages, and their depredations be thus charged to the Indians in that region. The result was that whites were murdered and their property stolen or destroyed after the treaty about the same as before, notwithstanding that the large river tribes remained apparently friendly.

Early in 1853, General Hitchcock, in command on the Coast, sent up three companies of troops under Colonel Buchanan, one of the companies being in command of Capt. U.S. Grant. The people up there expected these troops would be stationed near the junction of the Trinity with the Klamath, so as to be in the heart of the Indian country. But the officer in charge, who had been given the discretion in the matter, preferred a pleasant site on Humboldt Bay to the mountain region for his headquarters, and founded Fort Humboldt. Being one of the committee sent down by the people up there, and whose application the troops were sent up, I was very much disappointed in the outcome.

In the summer of 1852 the miners pushed on up the Klamath a long distance above the mouth of the Salmon, and by fall a large number had gathered on a plateau at the mouth of a stream putting down from the northwest, which they named “Happy Camp.” They worked on this stream, and over the divide on streams flowing northwesterly into Rogue River.

The mines on these latter were quite rich, and attracted a rush of miners. They were near to, and in some of them over, the Oregon line, and the distance to them from Trinidad or Humboldt Bay was so great that it became necessary, if possible, to find a nearer base of supplies. The roadstead and anchorage southeasterly of Point St. George was hit upon, and in the spring of 1853 a town was laid out there called Crescent City, from the crescent shape of the beach. A road was opened to the interior, and the place at once became the base of supplies for the new mining country mention; in fact, during the summer of 1853 it enjoyed what might be called a boom, and outstripped Trinidad altogether.

The people up there were not slow in demanding that the county seat should be where the most business was, and in the fall of 1853 the County Judge and other officials of Klamath County moved the records from Trinidad to Crescent City. At the meeting of the Legislature the following January, an Act was passed, making Crescent City the county seat of Klamath County, and ratifying the action of its officers in moving the same from Trinidad.

In the meantime, Humboldt County, formed from the western portion of Trinity, was organized in June, 1853, and the writer removed from Trinidad to Union Town, the county seat of the new county. The name of Union Town was later changed to Arcata.

The Legislature in February, 1856, passed an Act making Orleans Bar the county seat of Klamath, the voters of that county, at the preceding September election, having declared in favor of that place by a large majority. But the people at and about Crescent City could not transact business at Orleans Bar with any great convenience than those at the latter place and that part of the country could at Crescent City, – the mountains dividing them were as hard to cross one was as the other,– so in 1857 the Legislature created Del Norte County from the northern portion of Klamath, with Crescent City as the county seat of the new county.

Finally Klamath County, thus divided, having declined in population and resources, and the coast portion being separated from the mining portion by a wide stretch of unoccupied or sparsely settled country, the Legislature in 1874 passed an Act to annex the territory of Klamath to the counties of Siskiyou and Humboldt, and thereupon the eastern or mining part became attached to Siskiyou County, and the western, from the mouth of the Salmon to the coast, became incorporated with Humboldt; and thus one of the old counties of the State became disincorporated, and ceased to exist as a political subdivision.

IN: The Overland Monthly
Vol. XVII, No. 104 Second Series
August 1891

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