The History of the North Fork of the American River

By 'history' I mean, recorded history; elsewhere I have offered some information about the geologic history, natural history, and pre-history, of the North Fork of the American River.

For an amusing account by Alonzo Delano of an 1853 trip upcountry with Captain Weimar of the Nisenan Maidu, read A Sojourn With Royalty.

To begin with, the Rio de los Americanos, or American River, was named the 'Wild River' by trapper-explored Jedediah Smith, when he and his companions were encamped on its South Fork in 1827.  Later, the fort of Johann Augustus Sutter arose near the confluence of the American with the Sacramento River. Sutter was a Swiss man who came to California in 1839, and received a land grant from the Mexican government of the province. It may have been Sutter himself who called the American River the 'Rio de los Americanos.' Sutter's fort became the terminus of the Donner Trail, which crossed the Sierra at Donner Pass and flirted in and around the basin of the North Fork American as it worked its way downcountry to Emigrant Gap, whence the trail descended to Bear Valley, and then climbed to the ridge dividing the Bear River from Steephollow, following this for miles. The trail continued southwest, paralleling the Bear until it finally crossed again, on the margins of the Great Central Valley at Johnson's Ranch. From there it broke more southerly to the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers at Sutter's Fort.

Sutter provided relief to many a party of suffering immigrants and explorers, including the party of John Charles Fremont and Kit Carson in 1844, and the Donner Party in 1846-7. He built a small empire using Indian labor, and while further expanding upon his ambitious schemes, hired one James Marshall to superintend construction of a sawmill on the South Fork of the American. It was there, in January of 1848, that Marshall picked up nuggets of gold from the tailrace. He brought them to Sutter, where the acid test was applied, and the gold was verified to be, indeed, the royal metal. Marshall's discovery sparked the Gold Rush. It took a while for word to penetrate back to the States, but by the beginning of 1849 it became increasingly clear the gold had been discovered in the newly-acquired Territory of California, and the fortunes had been made. The rush was on.

Many are the Gold Rush diaries which were published in the 19th century, most long out of print, and many are the diaries which never were published. They make excellent reading. The adventures, hardships and tragedies of the 49ers are scarcely comprehensible to those of us who have never known even hunger of a serious sort. Some diaries may be found on-line at the wonderful Library of Congress 'California As I Saw It' site. My own personal favorites are the diaries of Alonzo Delano (Across the Plains and Among the Diggings) and William Manly (Death Valley in '49). These have been re-published fairly recently.

An account of mining on the North Fork American in 1849 appeared in the Thompson & West 1881 History of Placer County, in the chapter entitled 'Reminiscences of Illinoistown,' apparently written by one William Fairchild. An excerpt follows:

The site of Illinoistown is a little valley which lies just below Colfax, on the southern side of the Central Pacific Railroad. People began to rendezvous there early in 1849, and as it was the uppermost point upon the dividing ridge between Bear River and the North Fork of the American that wagons reached, it became the distributing point for supplies for all the mining camps to the north, south, and east of it.

At that time--the early part of '49--the North Fork of the American was thronged with men from Kelley's Bar to the Giant's Gap, mainly from Oregon. They at first called the place [Illinoistown] Alder Grove.

The rush to the river had been too early--in April and May--at a time when the water was high, and therefore all the gold that could be got, came either from the higher bars or from pits, to work which required bailing of water. As a result most moved on to other diggings. August 1, 1849, there were not more than twenty men from Barnes' Bar to Green Valley working upon the North Fork, and six of these were former Hudson Bay Company employees, at work in the bed of the stream just above Giant's Gap. Some very fair stocks of goods had been put in store at Alder Grove about the time the exodus of the miners from the river began, and the traders were disappointed at the turn that affairs had taken. Sears & Miller, who had a large assortment of goods suited only for the Indian trade, immediately began to hire them to work, and from about July 1st to the middle of September employed an average of fifty Indians a day, whom they kept panning out on the river bars, and in this way accumulated a great deal of gold.

On the 28th of July, 1849, on the deck of the little schooner Sea Witch, in the harbor of San Francisco, with the other passengers were two more Oregonians, a Mr. McLeod (an old time Hudson Bay employee) and a Mr. Atwood, both of whom were 'old miners,' having worked on the Stanislaus in 1848, and having been back to Oregon, were just now on their return to remain during the season of '49. How natural was it for the young novice to listen to the tales of these 'old miners,' and become captivated to ingratiate himself into their esteem, to that extent that they would allow him to accompany them to the diggings, where, profiting by their large experience, fortune might be soon accumulated.

The Sea Witch made her landing under a big sycamore tree in front of the future city of Sacramento, having made a remarkably quick passage, and preparations were immediately made for transportation to the mines. Soon the party arrived at Alder Grove.

Atwood and McLeod, with their protege, prospected every bar on the North Fork, from Barnes' to the forks of the river above Green Valley. The two first-named, during the previous summer, had luckily been possessed of big diggings, from which, inexperienced as they were they had realized $20,000 to $25,000 each. Consequently their ideas were quite exalted, and no common diggings would suit them.

The river banks were almost untouched and were rich everywhere, but with the heavy, deep pans supplied by the Hudson Bay Company, these men would pan out in the presence of their companion, and obtaining no more than twenty-five cents to one dollar and a half per pan, would invariably say 'wake kloshe, kultus,' hit the bottom of the vessel a kick with their toe and consign the gold again to the stream. They didn't want the fine dust; they were seeking chunks which were doubtless higher up in the mountains. In this manner was that rich stream condemned by these two 'old miners' clear up to the forks, near which point the six old mountaineers were at work, and who told the little party it would be unsafe to go farther, for they believed from what they had seen that there were fully a thousand Indians scattered upon the streams but a short distance above, and as quite a party of them had been met at Cold Springs in coming up, who were impudent and saucy, McLeod and Atwood concluded they would go over to Feather River, which they did.

The novice who had thus far followed the fortunes of the two 'old miners,' concluded that he had learned all they had to impart; he was footsore and fagged out by much travel, after having been long penned up on shipboard, and bethought him of a shady spot away down in the gorge by the water, where, in a shallow hole the gravel yielded what they called a dollar and a half per pan. He would not go to Feather; nor did he. On the contrary he would revisit his ideal spot to mine, and there attempt his virgin effort at digging for gold.

The place was on the North Fork of the American, nearly opposite Cold (now Mountain) Springs, upon the southern side of the river. There he picked up a rocker dug out of a log, with no apron, and with a riddle made of rawhide, and some other rude tools that had been left by the earlier Oregon men, and with these wrought until the rain of the 9th of October of that year admonished him of the liability of being cut off from the lower world, and a repetition of the storm a few days later determined him in hurrying his departure to some point further down the stream. The last work done at this place with the old dugout rocker yielded a little over three ounces in three hours. He turned his footsteps from the place forever, and climbed the hill with no little load of blankets and gold-dust.

That the author names 'Mountain Springs' shows that this account was written between 1854 and 1863 (when the name of the place was changed again, to Gold Run).

The first years of the Gold Rush were exemplified by mining the placer deposits along the major rivers and their tributaries. In places, the rivers were incredibly rich, as on the North Fork American in Green Valley, or on the Bear below what would be known as Dutch Flat. In both of these places, the presence of Tertiary river channels perched high on the divides nearby was probably the principal factor in so unduly enriching the sediments of the Bear and North Fork. In Green Valley, remarkable deposits of Quaternary, Ice Age gravels also contributed quntities of 'extra' gold to the North Fork. A huge mining camp arose here, with 2000 inhabitants in the years 1851 and 1852. The camp was supplied by mule trains from Illinoistown, which, as Fairchild's recollections reveal, was the uppermost point on the divide between the North Fork and the Bear to which loaded freight wagons could advance, in the early years. There were many mining camps in both Placer and Nevada counties which were supplied by mule trains from Illinoistown.

Other notable camps on the upper North Fork included Mineral Bar, Fords Bar, Euchre Bar, Humbug Bar. Lesser settlements existed even farther up the canyon, as at Italian Bar and Mumford Bar. Green Valley, though, seems to have been the largest, and though I have tried and tried, I have yet to uncover any contemporary records of Green Valley during its peak years. In 1853, Chinese mining a river claim took out $100,000 of gold (about 462 pounds) in one summer. Not long afterwards, the white miners of Green Valley passed a resolution which excluded Chinese from holding claims. Like similar resolutions elsewhere, it was illegal and not enforced. From the Placer Herald I have this:

January 21, 1854

Miners' Meeting

Green Valley, Placer Co., Jan. 1st, '54.

At a general meeting of the miners, called pursuant to public notice, and holden at Messrs. Wattles & Granger's store, Morris King was chosen chairman and John K. Cate appointed secretary. Upon the organization of the meeting, Robert Smith arose and stated the object of the meeting.

Mr. Smith offered the following resolution:--

Resolved, That no Chinaman shall be allowed, from this date, to hold any mining claim, or to work upon any claim in the district of Green Valley.

An amendment was offered thereto by Mr. Louis Baugher, that in case of the expulsion of the Chinamen from this district, that any claim holden by them should revert to the miners at large. The amendment was lost.

Upon the original question being put, it was unanimously decided in the affirmative.

On a motion being made by Mr. John Harden, that R.D. Granger be appointed Recorder of Green Valley, and being duly seconded, the same was carried unanimously.

The meeting was then adjourned until the 1st Sunday in March.

Morris King, Chm'n.
John K. Cate, Sec'y.

The Chinese miners were burdened with a special tax, known as the Foreign Miners License Tax, which however was only levied upon the Chinese. It amounted to around $4 per month, and since so very many Chinese were mining on Sierran rivers, as well as to the north on the Klamath and Trinity rivers, this Foreign Miners Tax poured considerable revenues into the treasury of the state.

The era of placer mining began to diminish around 1852. Increasingly, river claims were either worked by Chinese, or consolidated into larger groups of claims and worked by compnaies, or both. The strategy increasingly became to divert a river into a flume, so that the gravels could be worked down to bedrock. To what extent this occurred in Green Valley or elsewhere on the upper North Fork is not well known. On the Middle Fork American, these kinds of fluming operations continued on a grand scale through the 1850s.

As the placer deposits on the major rivers were increasigly abandoned, attention was turned to the high old Tertiary gravels, mostly Eocene in age, upon the ridges dividing the major canyons. These gravels were the only rationale for existence of many mining camps, such as Dutch Flat, Gold Run (Cold Springs, Mountain Springs), Iowa Hill, Lost Camp, and so on. At first, these high gravels were attacked by drift mining and ground sluicing, but as their richness and extent became more fully known, work began on the long mining ditches which would bring sufficient water for hydraulic mining. So far as the North Fork American is concerned, these camps were of importance mainly in that the tailings from the hydraulic mines were discharged into the great canyon, principally from the mines at Iowa Hill and Gold Run.

Mining continued in Green Valley and elsewhere along the river for many years. A network of trails, many of which date back at least to the Gold Rush, give access to the river in many places. For more information about these historic trails, go to the North Fork Trails page.

In a few places, notably, Green Valley, the Quaternary gravels, glacial outwash deposits perched as much as 500 feet above the river, occurred in sufficient volumes to justify hydraulic mining. As always, this required construction of mining ditches, to bring water in quantity to the mines. The Green Valley Blue Gravel Mining Company, and the Hayden Hill Mine, were two of the hydraulic claims in Green Valley. There were also many drift claims working the Quaternary gravels.

Here is a letter which appeared in the Dutch Flat Forum in 1876, describing one of the hydraulic claims in Green Valley:

The G. V. B. G. M. Co.

Editor of the Forum:  The subject of which the above caption is an abbreviation, appeared in the Forum Feb. 3d, together with a promise to give additional particulars at some future time.  An invitation by the Supt. (S.V. Souder) to visit the mine has been accepted, and thanks are due him for kind treatment and interesting items. The very accommodating and ingenious philosopher of the Alta dispensary, who emulates the far famed Dr. Franklin in bottling up lightning fluid, (now known as 'crooked') volunteered to furnish a quantity, warranted to facilitate locomotion.  Having accepted a couple of 'spurs' before starting, the motive power proved complete to a point on the C.P.R.R. where it was decided to descend to Green Valley.  Here passage was taken on the lumber-slide, and by a vigorous application of the brakes, made a successful descent.  'Innumerable myriads of robins' were not observed, being too busily intent on finding the end of the trail.  On arrival at the camp an excellent dinner was prepared by Mrs. Phetteplace who reigns Queen of the culinary department and who is highly esteemed as an accomplished lady, and a good cook.

Green Valley is a little world by itself, the area approximately 2/3 of a mile wide by one mile in length. Being far below the surrounding lofty summits, the rays of the sun are concentrated to a degree which makes it almost perpetual summer.  Here energetic and persevering miners have succeeded each other in faithful search and toil year after year to possess themselves of that precious metal which nature has long since buried there.  The Co. now under consideration commenced hydraulicing the first of June 1875 with a four inch giant at the lower end of their claim.  After cutting through the rim-rock and extending their flume up the river 240 ft., it was found that a ten foot dump had not the capacity to accommodate the tailings and wash to as low a grade as desired.  The bank being about seventy feet high and the lower half mostly sand, it was decided to wash off the heavy rock and gravel through another cut higher up the river.  Cut number two they commenced, leaving twenty feet for dump, and blasted through 130 feet of bed-rock over twelve feet deep, and after extending their flume 324 ft. on a seven inch grade at right angles with the river, they had about 35 feet of bank.  From this point they worked down and parallel with the river to connect with cut number one, the distance being about 300 feet.  A flume 39 inches wide is now in 84 feet of the distance, and when the connection is made will leave a bank of about 40 ft.  It is the intention to wash 200 ft. wide, with a branch flume, and then return to the place of beginning and wash to as low a grade as possible.  When this is accomplished, hoisting works will be erected and a shaft put down to bed-rock, which is presumed will be about 30 ft.  The channel will then be thoroughly prospected by running tunnels, which will decide the fortunes of those who have invested in this great mining enterprise.  The Supt. is confident that he will be ready to commence the shaft by the end of next June, which will be 4x8 ft. with two compartments, one for hoisting gravel and the other to run a 10 inch Cornish pump which will be done with an undershot water wheel 16 ft. in diameter, having an estimated 30 horse power.  T.A. Wilson is now foreman for the Co., and the work under his direction is progressing rapidly.  He has just completed laying down a string of new 15 inch pipe, and placed a No. 2 giant in position which, in addition to the first, and using about 1400 inches of water, forces the gravel to take a rapid forward march to the sea.  Ten men are employed who work the claim night and day, and, having a strata of gravel which prospects well, it is thought that it will pay expenses this run.  The disbursements of this Co. since active measures were taken to construct a canal, up to the present time, has been between $60,000 and $70,000, while the receipts have been but $1800.  The experience of merchants and laborers who have had business with this Co. is of such a nature as to command their respect for fair dealing, good wages and prompt payments.  A narrative of the Co.'s proceedings have been given in detail, owing to the obscure location of the claim, and a disposition on the part of a few persons to misrepresent things, and also to satisfy a natural desire of the mining community to become acquainted with the progress made in a great enterprise.

Another important and interesting item which has not been mentioned, is the trestle-work erected on the bridge to convey the water to a corresponding height on the opposite side of the river.  The height of the bridge as before mentioned is 62 ft. from the bed of the river, and the trestle-work is 73 ft. up to the bed of the flume, making in all 139 ft. to the top of the flume.  The American River at this point on its bed is about 40 ft. wide, and when its rushing waters are at their height and come plunging through this narrow gorge, it forms a scene, when viewed from a central position over the river, which would well repay those who admire the grandeur of nature together with the remarkable achievements of science and art.


Later in 1876, the following notice of the Green Valley mines appeared in the pages of the Forum:

Green Valley Mining Items

We learn by parties from Green Valley that the G.V.B.G.M. Co. is making rapid progress in removing the gravel to the lowest grade, and will be ready to sink their shaft in about three weeks.  Astonishing results are expected when this mine is developed and the prospects, labor, and expense, all go to justify the conclusion.

The Hayden Hill Claim is owned by Geo. Opel, Jas. Ross and the heirs of John Hall.  Geo. Opel is the Superintendent.  This claim is situated on the south bank of the North Fork of the American River, and is 500 feet above the present channel, and directly opposite the Green Valley Mining Company's claim.  This Company  owns 60 acres of ground with an average depth of gravel of over 100 feet.  They employ seven men and use 500 inches of water, from two canyons a distance of 11/2 miles from their claim.  They hydraulic throughout the entire winter and cleanup in the summer, which keeps them at work the whole year.  The claim pays well.

The claim of Harper, Howthorpe & Co. is situated 11/2 miles below the above named claim, on the South bank of the same stream.  This company spent a great deal of time and money during the past season, in running through the rimrock to fit up for hydraulicing the present season.  They have their own ditch which is capable of carrying 500 inches of water.  An average of four men are employed, and when once under headway good clean ups are expected, because the prospects justify this belief.

The Norvey claim is situated on the North Bank of the river and is a large mining territory, more perhaps than the present company will be able to get away with.  They use 300 inches of water which is taken from two gulches nearby, one of which is owned by Geo. Opel, and the other by the company.  Good results are expected.

The Beardslay Claim is run as a hydraulic claim in the winter, and as a drift claim in the summer.  The claim embraces a large bar in the river.  Four men are employed, taking out big pay.

There are several other claims in this locality, of which we shall take occasion to speak at a future time.

The Hayden Hill claim has become attached with a persistent rumor, the truth of which I have never been able to verify. It is said that at some time in the late 19th century, Chinese miners working this claim were buried, along with the their sluice box, by a big slide. Neither the deceased miners nor the sluice box were ever recovered. I suspect this is pure falsehood.

Another Green Valley rumor which is amazingly widespread, concerns a supposed pyramid. Aliens from outer space, it seems, had taught humans to build pyramids. The two oldest human structures in California are pyramids, one in the Owens Valley, one in Green Valley. I met adherents of this fabulous concept decades ago, and they pointed out a certain knoll of serpentine in the west end of Green Valley, a little north of the river. That the spot is beautiful, that is has a lovely view of Lovers Leap and Giant Gap, that the light of the setting sun when near the winter soldtice, just kisses this bedrock knoll, I cannot deny. That it is any kind of pyramid I do deny. Nevertheless, I call it The Pyramid. There is magic and mystery in Green Valley, just not the sort these flying-saucer mystics want to find there.

It seems that the source of this Green Valley Pyramid rumor was one Dr. Wallace Halsey, who formed a sect called the Christian Brotherhood, in the 1950s. Adding results, it would seem that Jesus himself zoomed around in flying saucers (occasionally visiting Green Valley). Halsey's description of the Green Valley Pyramid would place it on the south side of the river at the Hayden Hill mine, where another lovely knoll perches above the general level of Green Valley. In fact, Halsey mentioned the buried Chinese miners.

Chinese mining continued in Green Valley down to at least 1896, as is evidenced by this letter published in the Colfax Sentinel:

Chinese Arrested in Green Valley

Dutch Flat, April 13, 1896

Editor of the Sentinel: The public interest in the recent arrest of Chinamen in this section for hydraulic mining contrary to law is noteworthy.  It is said to be the first instance when malefactors of this sort have been taken 'red-handed.'  Now, I hardly think the Chinamen are entitled to much sympathy.  They ought not to be permitted to prosecute an unlawful act when other people are prohibited.  But, the circumstances ought to be considered.  I know something of this particular piece of mining ground.  I worked on it in the 1850's.  I sold it to Chinamen 21 years ago, and I am informed it has been worked continuously by them ever since.  I examined it again about ten days before the owners were arrested.  It is obvious to me and to anyone acquainted with mining that the quantity of earth washed away in all that time is not as much as would be moved by a single monitor in the Dutch Flat, You Bet, or Nevada City districts in a single week.

The bench is a mass of rocks from top to bottom.  It is forty or fifty feet high.  It is conveniently situated for work at a little distance above the river so that the great mass of rocks issuing from the flumes is deposited before it reaches the water; and even if they were dropped in the middle of the river the current is insufficient to move them away.  The sand and gravel is so insignificant that they did not use to be and are not now sufficient even so much as to discolor the river for a half mile.  The water used in these mines comes from springs and small ravines on the mountain side.  It is saved in reservoirs and at best is barely sufficient for a head of about 200 inches of water for an hour and a half twice a day.  How can 500 inches of water pass through a 3-inch nozzle with a fall of no more than 60 or 70 feet?

There are many gravel claims working in this county by the ground-sluicing process, keeping strictly within the law as regards place of deposit, percentage of sediment in the water, and all other details, each one of which discharges into streams so much more earth than the one in question that the latter is not to be thought about for a moment.  And, indeed, it does not appear that the mining in itself can do any harm or is objectionable, but only the manner of it.  That formidable 3-inch nozzle is liable to 'overwhelm' somebody.  I scarcely need refer to the alleged effort of the Valley spies some weeks ago to blackmail these Chinamen and their inability or unwillingness to pay $200 to secure immunity.  This has no bearing upon the argument.

N.B. Wiley

Some fairly ambitious mining projected were undertaken in Green Valley in the 1920s and 1930s.

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