Editor’s note: This is part two of a two-part series about the history of the American River in relation to the area of Sacramento today.
Many non-native people were attracted to the American River and its surrounding areas during the 19th century.
The dynamic fur-bearing and hide-producing animal population combined with the rich, fertile soil encouraged the earliest of these people to attempt to build permanent, non-Indian settlements along the banks of the American River.
The first person to accomplish this was the Swiss-German adventurer and entrepreneur Captain Johann Augustus Sutter, who became known to his Mexican hosts as Juan Sutter and who is known today as John Sutter.
Sutter had come to the banks of the American River through a circuitous route that included stops in New York City, Westport (now Kansas City, Mo.), Santa Fe, Mexico (present day New Mexico) and overland across the Rocky Mountains.
He then traveled by ship to the Sandwich Islands (today’s Hawaiian Islands), Fort Sitka in Russian Alaska, Yerba Buena (later renamed San Francisco), Monterey and finally up the American River to what became known as Sutter’s Landing at present day 28th and C streets.
Sutter, who arrived at this latter mentioned site in mid-August 1839, was able to acquire a nearly 50,000-acre land grant from the Mexican government.
The grant included the mouth of the American River and a large portion of the lower Sacramento Valley.
The Mexican government of California freely gave this land because of its belief that Sutter could not successfully subjugate and control the large native population.
Since Gabriel Moraga became the first non-Indian to visit the American River in 1806, many non-Indians attempted or dreamt of establishing a permanent presence in the Sacramento Valley.
In each case, the native population repelled the invaders and drove them back to the coast.
However, Sutter, with a landing force of two German sailors, 10 Hawaiians (two of whom were women), and possibly an English bulldog, was able to make peace with the local natives and build the American River’s first permanent settlement.
The settlement, which Sutter named Nueva Helvetia (New Switzerland and commonly known as New Helvetia), began as a small trading post that incorporated these local natives into the day-to-day business and agriculture of this settlement.
The trading post grew into a fort – which would become known as Sutter’s Fort – and an agricultural and manufacturing complex that attracted entrepreneurs, opportunists, a few miscreants and simple settlers from throughout the world.
The community burgeoned and with it grew the importance and value of the American River.
Sutter’s first non-Indian neighbor was Scotland native John Sinclair, the representative of Eliab Grimes, a businessman from the Sandwich Islands who received a land grant from Sutter across the American River from New Helvetia.
Sinclair was followed by William Leidesdorff, who acquired a land grant east of New Helvetia and south of the American River. This grant included the present day cities of Rancho Cordova and Folsom.
Leidesdorff was the son of a Dutch trader and a West Indian Creole and he was probably the first person of African descent to be a property owner in California.
Following these two men, many others rushed to Sutter’s settlement. Among these people was James Marshall, a carpenter from New Jersey.
Marshall contracted with Sutter to build a sawmill on the American River that would satisfy the lumber needs of the growing community.
The famous, yet infamous, conclusion of this sawmill was the discovery of gold on the south fork of the American in the native village of Colluma – present day Coloma.
At this point, as historian J. S. Holliday wrote, “The World Rushed In.”
The Gold Rush led to the founding of Sacramento City – the original name of Sacramento – and radical changes in the purpose and course of the American River.
This influx of humanity and the quest to leave no stone unturned in the search for gold altered the powerful mountain stream that meandered through the valley to its confluence with the Sacramento River.
Near this confluence, in an area that was once abundant with trees and shrubs, a commercial center rapidly grew.
However, when a city is built where two major rivers come together, flooding is inevitable.
The new metropolis, which would soon become the capital of the new state of California, flooded in each of its first few years of existence.
But the indomitable spirit of the citizens of the new city could not be broken. They constructed levees that they hoped would hold back the powerful waters of the river. But these rudimentary earthworks were no match for the force of the American.
The most significant flood in the history of the capital city came in the winter of 1861-62. At that time, the rains began to fall and they continued nearly unabated for more than a month.
Around 8 a.m. on Dec. 9, 1861, the river broke through the levee at Smith’s Gardens in the area of today’s River Park.
The water coursed down Burns Slough and inundated the eastern part of the city, all the way to the railroad levee in the south.
The flooding was so intense that merchants and residents from Front Street to 12th Street and from the American River to the R Street levee reacted by raising their buildings as much as 14 feet, or constructing an additional story to these structures.
These modifications are what created the famed underground of Sacramento. This flooding also led to outcries about the poor conditions of the levee system and the need to alter the course of the American River.
The immediate step was to force the river north, near Rabel’s Tannery at 28th Street, in order to direct the water away from the city.
The larger step was the engineering endeavor that would take the big bend out of the west end of the river, near its confluence with the Sacramento River. This project began in 1864 and was completed four years later.
As a result of this rechanneling, the American River met with the Sacramento River one mile further north than it did when Sutter established his settlement.
But even these dramatic engineering feats were not sufficient to guarantee the safe control of the river. The river continued to flood on a regular basis and heavy rains combined with spring snowmelt made localized inundations a regular occurrence.
The next major flood occurred in February 1878, when almost the entire city was once again covered with water. This event prompted citizens to call upon the government to create meaningful, regional flood control.
The first comprehensive flood control plan was introduced in 1880.
The plan, which was designed by California’s first state engineer William Hammond Hall (1846-1934), was an integrated course of action for the entire Sacramento Valley that included a system of levees, weirs and bypass channels in an attempt to protect existing population centers.
With at least some control over the river, its power could be managed for the good of the citizenry.
In 1895, Sacramento staged its elaborate Grand Electric Carnival in celebration of the new Folsom Powerhouse, which carried electricity 22 miles from Folsom to Sacramento.
At the time, this event was considered an amazing distance for the transmission of electricity.
Folsom was also the site of another major American River development.
In 1917, Congress had authorized the Sacramento Flood Control System, and in 1944, authorization was given by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to construct a dam on the lower American River to provide an excess of 500-year flood protection.
However, beginning in 1951, five major storms brought record floods before a dam could be constructed. Finally, in 1956, the Folsom Dam was completed.
It was estimated at that time that it would take a year to fill the reservoir behind the dam, but once again Mother Nature had other ideas.
A major storm rolled in and the reservoir was filled in one week.
Even though Sacramento exists because of the American River, the river continuously tried to destroy the city.
But each time, the citizens fought back, first with picks and shovels and finally with a concrete barrier.
Now, only nature knows what the future holds for the American River and its communities.