One of the best ways to really learn about a city is to read about its history. I picked up a handful of books about Sacramento, one of which was “Sacramento Chronicles: A Golden Past” by Cheryll Anne Stapp. Stapp is a Sacramento native who is heavily involved in the local writing scene. She has written several books about California history and has a delightful blog that explores the rich history of this state.
Northern California belonged to the Spanish via conquest of Mexico for hundreds of years. In 1838, Johann Sutter settled in Sacramento. One interesting thing to note was that around the same time Russia had a settlement in California whose main purpose was to provide sustenance to various properties in Alasksa. I was not aware that the Russian Empire ever had a presence in America outside of Alaska so this was very interesting to learn. Sutter built a fort and then the mill where James Marshall discovered gold in 1848 that started the era known as the Gold Rush.
The Gold Rush, which boomed in 1849, was the largest peace time migration in human history. Over 90,000 fortune seekers from all over the world found their way to California. At the time there was no manufacturing or agricultural base in California so everything had to be imported. This could sometimes take months and caused a high rate of inflation.
Most folks that made their way to find fortune during the Gold Rush rarely became wealthy, but the sheer influx of people on this area caused cities to grow and supportive services like restaurants, hotels, and general stores to boom.
I always wondered why there was a stage coach on the Wells Fargo logo. On the east coast it is rare to see this old logo, but here on the west it can still be found on many branches. It turns out that before Wells Fargo was a bank, it was a stage company. They did plenty of business in Sacramento and the surrounding area during the Gold Rush.
Throughout its history, Sacramento has suffered from nearly every imaginable disaster including floods, fires, and cholera. The resilience of the early pioneers is nothing short of remarkable. In the late 19th Century after a string of floods the entire downtown area was raised up. You can still get tours of the old underground city at the Sacramento history museum.
It was fascinating to read about law and order in the old west. Most notably for me was the fact that criminals were often hanged for armed robbery within days of committing their crime. Regardless of your views on capital punishment it is difficult to even imagine this sort of legal system compared to our lengthy trial and appeal process that is common for modern death row inmates.
Besides the Gold Rush, Sacramento’s other claim to fame was the fact that it was the terminus for the Transcontinental railroad. Leland Stanford (who the famous California University is named after) played a tremendous role in the financing, construction, and planning of this massive project. It is important to understand the tremendous impact that the completion of the railroad had on the growth and development of the west. As I mentioned earlier, everything had to be imported and this could sometimes takes months.
Once the railroad was completed, it became possible to ship goods and people across the entire country in only 7 days. This is arguably the direct reason for the growth and success of the West during the early 20th Century. After reading about this, and exploring the history of the railroad at the California Railroad Museum, in terms of impact I would compare the development of the railroad to be equivalent to the development of computers and the Internet a century later.
Some other common themes that are present in modern society are controversy regarding immigrant labor and fear of developing technologies. Sacramento had a substantial hop farming industry. Despite the protests of white folks who were angry that immigrants were taking all of their jobs, by and large the farm owners did not like to hire native white Americans due to their poor work ethic. In addition, there were protests and fears around the mechanization of farm labor. You can see similar trends today when it comes to robots replacing humans in manufacturing and warehousing. This isn’t necessarily unique to California but simply a gentle reminder that history always repeats itself.
Overall, I enjoyed reading this book. My only critique is that it tended to primarily focus on the 19th century and skipped over huge swaths of history. In addition, it was written in a topical style rather than the traditional chronological style of most history books. If you are interested in the history of railroads, the west, or California, I would recommend reading this book.
Images used in this text
Cover Photo, Gold Diggers, By Kellogg & Comstock, New York and Hartford [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Image of Johann Sutter, See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Wells Fargo Center Sign, Courtesy of MoneyBlogNewz [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr