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Sacramento: Gold Rush Boom Town

Sacramento began as a small colony of Swiss settlers and American pioneers. Then someone struck gold!

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Sacramento is the capital city of California, but it wasn’t the first. There were several other capitals before the “River City” became the chosen one. Before the Europeans started to explore the area, it was inhabited by the Maidu people, who took advantage of the two rivers and the comfortable climate.

In the 1770s, Spanish explorer Pedro Fages visited the valley, but it wasn’t until the 1800s that exploration and colonization began in earnest.  John Augusta Sutter was born in Germany but raised in Switzerland. The governor of Alta California, Juan Bautista Alvarado, granted permission for Sutter to settle in what is now known as Sacramento as long as he became a citizen of Mexico, which he did. From 1840 to 1841, he built Sutter’s Fort, which is still standing today and was the beginning of Sacramento.

In 1839, he called the colony he had built Nueva Helvetia, which meant New Switzerland. At first, the area was populated by fellow Swiss immigrants and served as a refuge for American pioneers until the Gold Rush filled the area with people hoping to strike it rich. It wasn’t easy trying to make the area an agricultural success. In 1843, heavy rains ruined the crops at Sutter’s Fort, and the next year a severe drought was the cause for loss. In 1845, the crops failed again, this time due to neglect while Sutter was fighting in one of Alta California’s civil wars.

Sutter was a soldier and also a businessman. At one point, he owned more than 48,827 acres in the area. He also built a mill in Coloma, where gold was first discovered by his chief carpenter, James W. Marshall, on January 24, 1848.

Sam Brannan, a local merchant, decided to take advantage of the hordes of gold seekers and opened a store near the Sacramento River. The waterfront property proved prosperous as the Gold Rush brought business to the area. People traded for mining tools and other goods they needed.

Commercial success continued until disaster struck when the townspeople realized the area was prone to severe flooding. In 1850, the first recorded flood devastated the city and again in 1852 high waters wiped out the new area. Not ready to give up on such a prime location, they began a huge project in 1853. The idea was to raise the entire city above the flood level. Obviously, the idea was met with much criticism, and it took another terrible flood in 1862 before the decision to take on the project was finally approved.

The result is a historical underground city that can still be seen today in Old Town Sacramento.

Interesting Facts

  • The only city in the world with more trees than Sacramento is Paris, France.
  • Sacramento was home to the original Pony Express; the mail delivery system that used a buggy and horses to transport mail all the way to Missouri.
  • Blue Diamond is located here, and it is the largest almond processing plant in the world, processing as many as 12 million pounds a day during the harvest season.
Kelli Ballard

National Correspondent at and Kelli Ballard is an author, editor, and publisher. Her writing interests span many genres including a former crime/government reporter, fiction novelist, and playwright. Originally a Central California girl, Kelli now resides in the Seattle area.

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