Sacramento: History

Gold Rush Begins in Sacramento

The Sacramento area was originally inhabited by the Nisenan, a branch of the Maidu, who lived in the valley for 10,000 years before white settlers arrived. Spanish soldiers from Mission San Jose, under the command of Lieutenant Gabriel Morago, discovered the Sacramento and American rivers in 1808. The area was not settled until 1839. That year, with the permission of Mexico, Captain John Sutter, a Swiss immigrant who had fled his homeland to escape debtor's prison, built a settlement on 76 acres and called it New Helvetia, after his homeland. He built a fort called Sutter's Fort (which has been restored and can still be seen today). Sutter also constructed a landing on the Sacramento River that he called the Embarcadero and contacted a millwright, James Marshall, to help build the settlement. It was Marshall who in 1848 discovered a gold nugget, thus precipitating the great California Gold Rush of 1849. Sutter's Embarcadero became the gateway to the mines, but Sutter was financially ruined by the influx of newcomers from all over the world who trampled his settlement; even his employees left him to make their fortune.

Sacramento, Spanish for "Holy Sacrament," was originally the name of a nearby river that is now called the Feather River; in 1849 the name was taken for the town, which was incorporated in 1850. Sacramento was a rowdy place, full of successful miners who spent their money on gambling and dance halls. In its early days, the town encountered difficulties, with floods in 1849 and 1853 and a fire in 1852. But Sacramento survived to become the capital of California in 1854, paying the state $1 million for the honor.

Railroad Arrives; Agriculture Surpasses Gold Mining

In 1855 construction began on the Sacramento Valley Railroad, with the financial backing of shopkeepers known as the Big Four: Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker, and Leland Stanford (after whom Stanford University is named). In 1856 Sacramento became the terminus of California's first railroad. Then came the Pony Express and, in 1861, the transcontinental telegraph. The Central Pacific Railroad joined the east and west coasts in 1869, permitting Sacramento farmers to ship their produce to the east. The railroad also transformed what had been a six-month trip between the coasts to six days; in time it also superseded the river as a means of transportation. In another important change, agriculture eventually replaced the gold mines as the primary industry.

Mather Field was established to prepare planes to fly to Europe during World War I; McClellan Air Force Base was established in 1937 and was an important base of operations during World War II. These military installations drew a large influx of people into the area, many of whom stayed after World War II and spurred the development of the private sector. The first suburban shopping mall in the United States was established in North Sacramento in 1945. Like many cities in the United States, downtown Sacramento had fallen into decay by the 1950s, since most of the moneyed population had moved to the suburbs. The city eventually experienced a resurgence, marked by the redevelopment of the downtown area, with the city's historical sections being preserved and restored. Sutter's Embarcadero, for instance, now houses shops and restaurants. Sacramento's redevelopment has been acclaimed as one of the most successful in the United States. Today's Sacramento is experiencing further growth; population within the six-county Sacramento Region increased by 20 percent between 1990 and 2000. The city's economic growth, livability, and comparatively low cost of living has made it one of California's fastest-growing metropolitan areas.

Historical Information: Sacramento Room, Sacramento Public Library, 828 I Street, Sacramento, CA 95814-3576; telephone (916)264-2700