A Short History of the Delta (Part II)

European Exploration

Hernando Cortez with his Indian allies seized Mexico in 1519, and in 1521 two of his soldiers deserted and headed north to Alta California possibly because of rumors of great wealth to be found there.  Legend has it that these two were the first Europeans to visit the Great Valley and to view the Sacramento River.  In April of 1879 two miners cutting down an old oak near the Middle Fork of the Feather River found an old manuscript buried inside the tree.  Ten years later in 1889 the miners showed it to a Spanish speaker and the manuscript was translated as the story of the two.  It was shipped to the Naval Museum in Madrid but apparently lost and as of yet has not resurfaced.

A Portuguese, Joao Rodriquez Cabrilho is probably the first European to venture up the California coast and in 1542 discovered San Diego Bay and sailed as far North as Monterey Bay before turning back and dying in an accident at San Miguel Island early in 1543.  The Spanish possibly still smarting that Columbus was Italian corrupted his name to Juan Cabrillo.

Francis Drake was possibly the first European to enter San Francisco Bay and anchored near what is now San Quentin prison in 1579.  (This is in dispute and some say he actually anchored in Drake’s Bay or Bodega Bay or even farther North).  In the 1930’s a brass plaque was discovered near San Quentin purportedly left there by Drake, in the 1990’s it was exposed as a fake.  The description later narratives left of the Indian culture Drake and his crew spent five weeks with is convincingly Coastal Maidu.  The Coastal Maidu inhabited the area from Duncan’s Point on the North Coast to the Northern side of the Golden Gate and included Bodega Bay, Drake’s Bay, and the North Bay area of Sausalito, San Rafael, Petaluma, and Cotati.

In 1705 Father Eusebio Kino, who is credited with exploring 50,000 square miles of Northern Mexico, Arizona and New Mexico produced a map that shows that California is part of North America, not a giant island as it had been previously thought of. In 1769 Jose de Ortega, a scout with the Portola expedition, discovers the entrance to San Francisco bay.  In the spring of 1772 Spanish adventurers Pedro Fages and Father Juan Crespi climbed to the summit of 3,850-foot Mt. Diablo.  What they saw to the East was what appeared to be a huge Inland Sea.  The area was inundated with spring run off and there not being any man made levees most of the land was under water.  They later traveled to the area near the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers near where Antioch is located today.  They reported back that the area “had little promise for settlement” even though they found the area populated with Indians.  In 1776 A group of nearly 200 settlers, traveling overland from Mexico led by Governor Luis Anza, arrived to establish a permanent colony on San Francisco Bay named Yerba Buena (Good Herb).  In 1808 Gabriel Moraga explored the Great Valley from the Calaveras River to the Feather River.  Moraga named the Sacramento River for the Holy Sacrament.  He reported he could find no site in the valley suitable for a mission.  The Spaniards apparently went no further North than the Sutter Buttes.  During wet winters the valley from the Sutter Buttes to Tulare Lake in what is now Southern San Joaquin County became one large marsh.

Mexico declared independence from Spain on September 16, 1810, and after a bitter war it was achieved in 1821.  Prior to this Spain only granted land to the missions.  The Mexicans were much more liberal and made many grants to individual settlers.

The Russian Navy sent an expedition to California in 1823 under the command of a German, Otto Von Kotzebue aboard the frigate Predpriatie.  It is possible they explored the Sacramento as far up as Freeport and possibly the confluence of the American River by small boat. Von Kotzebue described the Sacramento as: “a broad, beautiful stream, sometimes winding between high steep banks, sometimes gliding through smiling meadows where great herds of deer were grazing.”  He was impressed by the “superfluity of game of all kinds, fish, birds and quadrupeds”. 

The soil was very fertile with huge groves of trees and vast populations of deer, bear, beaver, elk, birds, and other wildlife. John Muir commented in the 1870’s that the forests along the river “were like a tropical jungle”.  Remnants of this beauty can still be seen on Georgiana Slough, the meadows, and in a few other areas. Captain Taber reported in 1848: “The sloughs of the main stream were alive with wild ducks and the wooded banks of the river, as well as the tules, were winter home for large bands of deer and elk.  Grizzly bears were often seen foraging for acorns in the oak groves near the river.”

As late as the 1840’s there were reports of the rivers appearing to boil because of the large number of fish swimming in them. The striped bass, a prized game fish on the East Coast was introduced to the Delta in 1879.  This further enhanced the fishing experience in the Delta already flush with other species of fish.

In the early 1800’s 30,000 or so Native Americans lived in the Delta area and in the early 1820’s trappers, mountain men, and adventurers crossed the Sierras to explore the Sacramento and San Joaquin Valleys.  Legendary mountain man Jedediah Smith visited the area in 1827.  He is believed to have camped near the campus of what is now California State University at Sacramento.  Smith is credited with bringing back some of the first reports of gold in California.  In the spring of 1831 while leading a party on the Santa Fe Trail, he was killed by Comanche warriors.

French Canadian fur trappers employed by the Hudson Bay Company under the command of Michel La Framboise held an annual rendezvous south of where Stockton is now located from about 1834 to 1843. The area was called Los Campos de Los Francais which was later Americanized to French Camp.

An American, John Cooper applied for a Mexican land grant in 1833 and was awarded land along the American River further East from what later was awarded to John Sutter.  Cooper did not settle the land however and it reverted back to the Mexican government. 

In 1837 the American sailing vessel Alert ventured up the Sacramento at least as far as what now is the city of Sacramento.  The same year British captain Edward Belcher ventured 100 miles up the Sacramento on an expedition. 

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Copyright 2012 California Delta Events / Bill Wells


About Bill Wells - A retired yacht broker, Bill is currently the Executive Director of the California Delta Chambers & Visitor's Bureau. He is an active member of the Northern California Fleet of the Classic Yacht Association. In their spare time he and his beloved wife Sue cruise their 1937 Stephens cruiser Ranger to boating events throughout the Delta. Bill is active in matters helping to preserve and protect the California Delta. He chronicles his adventures in the monthly Delta Rat Scrapbook column for Bay & Delta Yachtsman magazine.

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