The first settlements in Placer County were made at an early period of the golden era, and many places became famous for the rich gold deposits discovered in their vicinity. In the summer of 1848, the principal tributaries of the American River were explored by a company of Oregonians, and rich prospects obtained upon almost every bar, as far up the Middle and North Forks as they proceeded. At this time the bars were generally explored as high up the Middle Fork as Rector’s Bar, which, proving as rich as any diggings the explorers expected to find, and it being difficult to travel further up the river with horses, they ceased traveling, and worked the mines until the winter season sat in, or their provisions gave out, when they returned to the settlements in the valley, or to their homes in Oregon.
Early in 1849, the system of washing the auriferous dirt with the common rocker was introduced upon the Middle Fork of the American River, and was regarded as a great improvement in gold mining. During this year, miners flocked to the bars upon the rivers in large numbers; from the “Old Dry Diggings” (Placerville), “Sutter’s Mill” (Coloma), the settlements in the valleys, and elsewhere; where so ever the news of the rich discoveries had reached, contributed laborers for the gold fields, and during the summer, settlements were formed in many parts of Placer County, including Auburn and Ophir, in the foot hills; Rector’s Bar, Stony Bar, Oregon Bar, and Poverty Bar, on the Middle Fork; and Barnes’ Bar, on the North Fork of the American. The population upon the rivers was quite sparse, and depredations were frequently committed by the untamed savages upon the stock and camps of the whites.
During the winter of 1849-‘5C, the population of the now rich and populous townships 5 and 6, consisted of Dr. Todd and three or four companions, at “Todd’s Ranch;” Yankee Jim and his companions, six in number, at Yankee Jim’s Dry Diggings, near where Forest Hill is situated ; six young men, one of whom was named Lewis, near the head of Mad Canon ; two men at Bird’s store ; and about thirty persons at Stony and Rector’s Bars. The whole white population in the two townships mentioned, amounted to not more than fifty persons.
The hardships endured by the few individuals who remained upon the river at Stony and Rector’s Bars during the memorable winter of 1849-’50, can never be half told. , The writer of this sketch, being one of the unfortunate individuals whose reduced fortunes forced him to remain upon the river, at Stony Bar, in order that he might eke out a scanty subsistence by working in the banks and on the high bars, when a temporary cessations of the falling rain and snow permitted him to venture forth from the canvas tent which served him and his companions as a winter dwelling, cannot, at this day, after a lapse of more than ten years, repress a shudder, when revolving in his mind the many incidents attending his residence during that winter, upon the Middle Fork.
The rains, which had set in towards the last of December, continued to fall almost constantly until the second week in February, covering the mountains on either side of the stream to the depth of four feet with snow; blocking up the trails, and so completely destroying every trace of them, that none, except in the last extremity, could be prevailed upon to venture to break a trail to Georgetown or Coloma, the nearest points at which supplies could be obtained. To add to the hardships of the little settlement of pioneer river miners, they not only had not comfortable houses in which to live, but ere the winter was half gone, their supplies of flour, pork, coffee, sugar, salt, beans, etc., were totally exhausted, and they were reduced to the necessity of living upon fresh venison, without salt or bread. But starvation was not the foe most to be dreaded by the unprotected settlement. The temporary shanties, or huts of the men were scattered along the river for a distance of two miles; in each of which lived from two to five persons. No guard was kept at night, and in case of an attack by the Indians; the men, scattered and poorly armed, as they were, could have offered but a feeble resistance. The heavy snows, higher up in the mountains, had forced a band of Indians to venture down the canons to the vicinity of the camp of the whites, in search of horses, mules, cattle, or any thing else which could serve as food for their starving squaws and children. They were discovered by the whites, and a meeting was called of all white men known to be upon the river, in reach, for the purpose of ascertaining the number and condition of the guns, and the amount of ammunition in the hands of the miners. The number of guns on hand amounted to one to every three men, and among the whole number there were not more than three pounds of powder. An organization was immediately effected, and men were started out with directions to proceed down the Middle Fork of the American River, until they had reached a point where supplies could be purchased, and to procure all the arms and ammunition they could obtain, and bring into the camp. The relief party, after scrambling over the rocks for two days, reached the Big Bar, in El Dorado county, where they purchased some powder, lead, caps, salt, and tea, and one rifle gun, and returned to their companions.
With these additions to the stock of arms and ammunition on hand, after making a show of strength by sending small parties out in search of the Indians, one of which came up with a party of the red skins, and attacked and killed some of their number, the whites felt quite secure from an attack, and remained quiet the balance of the winter.
Toward the last of February, ’50, the weather turning warm and the news of rich discoveries having been made the fall previous, between the head waters of the Middle and North Forks of the American, having been spread among the miners of Hangtown (Placerville), Weavertown, Coloma, Georgetown, Kelsy’s, and other thickly settled places in El Dorado, a general stampede took place, and the men came in hundreds, making Bird’s store (Bird’s Valley) their place of rendezvous, until the number of men gathered at that point amounted to two or three thousand: Here they were compelled to remain until the snow settled sufficiently for them to penetrate the mountains and canons higher up on the slope of the Sierras. Early in the spring good prospects were obtained in El Dorado Canon, and companies were soon engaged in mining in the bed and banks of the creek from its junction with the North Fork to its head.
During the spring of 1850 the whole country on the western slope of the mountains was explored by prospecting parties; some even crossing over the Sierras to Carson Valley. It was during this spring that the famous “Gold Lake stampede” took place, and thousands of men left good diggings, where they were quite certain of making an ounce of gold for each day’s work, to join in the general stampede to the wonderful lake. Although these prospecting expeditions proved disastrous to nearly every individual engaged in them, yet the developments made caused the immediate and permanent settlement of the upper region of Placer County, where $o many hundreds of rich tunnel claims are yielding their thousands of ounces of gold daily in the way of remuneration to the miners for the years of labor they have applied in penetrating through the. bed rock – deep into the bowels of the mountains.
From the spring of 1850 may we date the beginning of permanent improvements and permanent settlements in Placer, for from that time men commenced to have settled habitations, and some even then commenced prepartition for building permanent homes for themselves and families. During the summer and fall of that year the county became blessed with the presence of a number of families, some of whom came to the country overland from the States; others from the old States and foreign countries; and others, again, from El Dorado and other counties where they had become too thickly settled to thrive well, or at least where there were not as good inducements offered for permanent settlements as this county afforded. Each year since that period has marked a perceptible change, not only in the increase of the permanent population, but also in the manners and morals of the people, and of the agricultural, mineral and other products. The taxable property has also increased in a regular ratio, until there are few counties that can boast of surpassing it, either in the amount of property assessed for taxes, grain, hay, cattle, horses, etc., raised, or excel it in the number of ounces of gold dust shipped from its mines.
Like all other localities in the State, it has not been exempt from losses by fire and flood, those great scourges of California, which have done more to retard the development of the vast resources of the State than all other causes combined. On June 4th, 1855, Auburn, the county seat, was almost totally destroyed by fire, the loss of property amounting, in the aggregate, to several hundred thousand dollars. In October 1859, another fire broke out in the place, destroying all the buildings in the upper part of town, and entailing a loss upon its citizens of about $200,000. Yankee Jim’s, Michigan Bluff, Todd’s Valley and Iowa Hill have each suffered a like scourge, Yankee Jim’s being destroyed in June, 1852; Iowa Hill on the 2d of February, 1357: Michigan Bluff in the summer of 1857; and Todd’s Valley in the summer of 1859. The property destroyed by fires alone at the times mentioned amounted to more than $2,000,000.
The census returns of 1852 show the whole amount of money then in-vested in mining enterprises of every kind, including ditches for conveying water from the rivers, canons, etc., to the flats, gulches, etc., to amount, in the aggregate, to $1,427,567, divided as follows $858,037, classed as “Temporary Investments,” which was in flumes, dams, canals, etc., on the rivers; $13,530 invested in quartz mines, and $556,000 in water ditches, classed as “Permanent Investments. It will be seen that these estimates of amount of capital invested in ditches and other classes of mining property were based upon calculations of absolute cost of enterprises then completed and in course of construction. At the present time there is no data from which the amount of money invested in all the various branches of industry can be ascertained, hence we make no attempt at an estimate, except upon a single class of mining investments, which, it will be seen, exceeds the aggregate investments in, every species of property in the county reported in the census return of 1852. By a pretty close canvass of the region of the county in which the tunnel mines are located, we find the number of feet of tunnel run to amount to 186,990 feet, which cost $2,716,200. This vast expenditure of tunnel mining is in a section of the country composed of townships five, six, seven and eight, and perhaps does not embrace more than one-fourth of the whole amount of money invested in other classes of mining enterprises and improvements subject to taxation.
The increase of population, as shown by the census returns of 1852, and those of 1860, is less than three thousand. The number of votes cast in the county at the Presidential election in 1852 was 5,144, and the number cast at the Presidential election in 1860, was 5,837, showing an increase of votes in eight years of only 693.
The political history of Placer County, if given in detail, could not fail of being interesting; but the limited space allowed for this sketch will not admit of our entering into minor particulars, hence we must be content with giving such facts as are deemed of most importance and necessary to show the political complexion of the public men of the past times, and the circumstances, as near as they can be ascertained, under which they were elected to the various offices which they filled.
The vote of the people since the organization of the county to the present time shows the sympathy of the majority to have been uniformly with the Democracy, excepting only the year 1854, when, there being a division in the Democratic party, the Whigs succeeded in electing their entire legislative and county ticket.