Certainly, few cities can claim themselves as a river city and for Sacramento, its claim as a river city is at an extremely notable level, considering that the capital city is actually home to two intersecting rivers, the Sacramento and American rivers.
These rivers, which join together near Discovery Park, have played significant roles in the city’s history from providing advantages in transportation and commerce to presenting natural beauty and entertainment opportunities.
And the river most directly associated with East Sacramento is the American River.
What the river offers
The American runs from the Sierra Nevada to El Dorado County through Folsom, Fair Oaks and Carmichael and alongside Sacramento State University before making its way to the Sacramento River, which flows to San Francisco Bay.
Presently the river is known as a convenient, nearby sanctuary away from everyday life within built out communities.
This river, which is the most important tributary feeding the Sacramento River, is often celebrated for its scenic parkway, with a long bicycle trail and pedestrian bridges.
It also serves as a corridor for wildlife, includes dams and provides an essential water supply for this continuously growing metropolis.
Those viewing the river in much earlier times saw miles of cascading cataracts on the middle and north forks of the river.
And when the snow melted at higher elevations in the spring, the American would become a coarse rush of water and sediment that would increase its acceleration while making its way toward today’s Sacramento.
The determination of the river’s progress was such that it would crack boulders and create new islands and sandbars.
Respecting the power of the river
During the time when indigenous Indians lived in large numbers along this river, they carried with them an understanding of the river and its natural benefits and dangers.
With their understanding and respect of the physical power of the river and its propensity for flooding during the springtime, these indigenous people would settle on mounds and other places beyond the reaches of the flood plain.
These natives partook in the many benefits of the river from its salmon to the blackberries and grapes, which grew near its banks.
Many oak trees in the area provided an additional food source through their acorns.
Also important to the natives were willows, vines and bamboo-like grasses that were used as materials for housing and baskets.
Some of the first visitors
Historical records suggest that Spanish explorer Gabriel Moraga was the first European to reach the American River
Moraga visited the Sacramento Valley during the years of 1806 to 1808 in search of Indians who had escaped from California missions and to punish the Indians who had helped Indians escape from those missions.
Since the Valley Indian population was so dense and the Indians were knowledgeable of their surroundings, Moraga was generally not very successful in these efforts.
Naming the river
As he did with many other places he encountered during his journeys, Moraga named the river, which would eventually be known as the American River. Moraga is credited for giving the river its first non-Indian name. But what exactly that name was has often been disputed.
In his diary, Moraga refers to having named the river, “Rio de las Llagas,” which in English means “River of Sorrows.”
An interpretation of this name could be that Moraga gave the river this name because of his own sorrows due to his lack of success with the Indians who were hostile toward him while defending their homes.
The confusion with the name “Rio de las Llagas” exists due to the fact that a man who accompanied Moraga as part of the expedition recorded the name, “Rio de los Lagos,” which translated to English means “River of the Lakes.”
One should also consider this latter Spanish name as possibly being the actual name that Moraga gave the river, since he was in the region in August and this waterway would have then had the appearance of a series of lakes joined by the main current.
Despite its many changes, the river still has various islands and sandbars with a series of pools.
Many people who use the present, paved, multi-use trail along the river are familiar with the name Jedediah Smith due to the trail’s official name, the Jedediah Smith Memorial Trail. This popular trail extends 32 miles from the city of Folsom to Old Sacramento.
By whatever name Moraga called the river, that name was relatively short lived, since Smith led a company of fur trappers into the area in the 1820s and as a result of this visit, the river received a new name.
Smith and the other Americans, who traveled with him in the area from 1826 to 1827, probably camped for an extended period of time near the present day community development, Campus Commons, which is located east of the Guy A. West Memorial Bridge.
These men camped on the riverbanks to rest and gather supplies before becoming the first non-Indian people to cross the Sierra.
River of the Americans
The natural crossing of the river at that time was near the site of today’s H Street Bridge and a natural levee was located at the approximate site of Fair Oaks Boulevard.
After Smith and the other men departed from the area, the local natives, who by then spoke Spanish as a unifying language due to their connection with the mission Indians, began referring to the waterway as “Rio de los Americanos.”
This name, which is literally translated as “River of the Americans,” eventually became known as the “American River.”
This name likely remained in use because it was also the name used to identify the river by the Hudson’s Bay Company trappers who came to the area from Oregon during the 1830s. These trappers frequently visited the region during that time to exploit the river’s rich beaver and otter population.
The continuously increasing number of Hudson’s Bay Company trappers in the area brought diseases for which the natives had no natural defense. It has been estimated by some historians that diseases brought to the area during a large trapping expedition in 1833 and 1834 resulted in an epidemic that killed 70 percent of the area’s Indian population.
Not surprisingly, the negative circumstances resulting from the trappers’ presence on their land caused the Indians to have a rush of emotions, including fear, anger and anxiety. These emotions caused the Indians to harbor resentments against the trappers and have a greater hostility toward Western civilization.
Despite the devastating decrease in the native population, the remaining locals continued to deny the Hudson’s Bay Company from establishing a permanent outpost in the lower Sacramento Valley.