A Brief History of Plumas County

For histories of specific places within Plumas County, visit this page.

The Feather River originally was named “el Rio de las Plumas” in 1821 by Spanish explorer Luis Antonio Argüelo for the multitude of waterfowl seen upon its waters. In about 1850, the name was anglicized to “Feather River.”  It was only natural, when the county was formed from parts of Butte County in 1854, that it be named for the river that flows through it: Plumas County. Parts of Plumas County’s territory were given to Lassen County in 1864. The population of Plumas County, as of the year 2000, was 20,824. The county seat is Quincy. The only incorporated city in the county is Portola. In the entire county, there are just three stoplights – two at Quincy intersections and one at a Portola intersection.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Plumas County has a total area of 2,613 square miles. The population density is approximately 8 people for every square mile. The racial makeup of the county is approximately 92% white, 3% Native American, .6% African American, .5% Asian, .1% Pacific Islander, 4% other races or two or more races.

The following content is excerpted, with permission from the publisher, from Plumas County: History of the Feather River Region by Jim Young and published by Arcadia Publishing, 2003. For more information contact Arcadia at www.arcadiapublishing.com, or call 1-888-313-2665.

 

Maidu: Native People of Plumas County

The Mountain Maidu (usually pronounced my-doo) have lived in Plumas County for more than 1,000 years. The Maidu were not an aggressive, warring people. They were hunters, fishermen, and gatherers. The acquisition of food was their primary daily activity. The Maidu were not a single large tribe, but three smaller ones. The Maidu had no known tribal name by which they called themselves. In the Maidu language, Maidu basically means “man” or “people". The Maidu as a people lived in a 150-miles north-south zone from Chico to Sacramento, and east-west from the Sacramento River to the top of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.The three divisions had closely related dialects, yet with enough differences to hinder precise communication. But, the Maidu, like other tribes, were able to communicate with signs when they could not communicate with speech. Pre-gold rush data indicates that the three groups were dispersed as follows:

Mountain Maidu: 2,000 to 3,000 people located in Plumas County and the Susanville area.

Konkow Maidu: 3,000 to 4,000 people located in the Sacramento Valley from Chico to the Sutter Buttes north of Marysville and the adjoining Sierra Nevada foothills east to Bucks Lake in Plumas County.

Nisenan Maidu: 9,000 to 12,000 people located from Marysville to Sacramento and from the Sacramento River eastward to the top of the Sierra Nevada.

The Mountain Maidu had no single tribal chief. The headman was chosen by unanimous consent through the aid of a shaman, who conveyed the choices of the spirits to the people. Leaders were required to possess wisdom, maturity, wealth, generosity, leadership, and popularity. The tribe was made up of approximately 12 tribelets of 100 to 500 people, each having its own leader. The Maidu believe that the land, water, trees, and air are communal property. Occasionally, food acquisition raids or kidnapping of women occurred. Konkow Maidu from the Sacramento Valley sometimes would kidnap Mountain Maidu women of childbearing age and sometimes children also were captured for adoption. Other traditional enemies of the Maidu were the Yahi (a subgroup of the Yana), the Washoe in eastern California, and the Pit River (a subgroup of the Achamawi). The Maidu generally were on good terms with the Paiutes of Northern Nevada.

Throughout man’s history, people have been displaced for various reasons and by various means. Statistically speaking, the Mountain Maidu, particularly the tribeletes in Indian Valley, fared significantly better overall than other California Native Americans. But, during the first three to five decades of the white man’s arrival, the Mountain Maidu had lost half of their tribelet members, primarily to diseases brought by the white settlers. The Mountain Maidu in Plumas County continue to maintain their deep respect for Mother Earth, nature, conservation, and ecology. They are hospitable and gracious and enjoy their mountain way of life. There is a clear awakening of pride in the past and present. Cultural plurality is their present way of life. Cooperation with mainstream America is carried on by most, while at the same time, some seek to redefine and practice their old values and customs.

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Mining: Riches in Gold and Copper

The discovery of gold at Sutter’s Fort in 1848 began the largest human migration in United States history. Locals became gold miners and, within a year, the first ‘49ers from the east coast arrived by boats in San Francisco. What was to become Plumas County was an unknown, unexplored country. No one knew anything about the area, but Peter Lassen (a transplanted Dane) had pioneered the Lassen Trail across northern Plumas in 1847.

During the fall of 1849, gold rush immigrant Thomas Stoddard arrived at a mining camp on the Yuba River with his pockets full of gold. He was injured, exhausted, and weak from lack of food. He and his party had used the Lassen Trail, an excessively long detour, beginning in west-central Nevada and ranging northwest toward Good Lake, Oregon until reaching the Pit River. They followed the Pit River’s southwestern course toward Mt. Lassen and the Feather River region to Lassen’s Rancho near present-day Red Bluff. While in Big Meadows (Chester/Lake Almanor area), Stoddard and a partner left their party to hunt for deer. While they were hunting, their party moved on and Stoddard and his partner were unable to locate it. For several days, Stoddard and his companion wandered lost somewhere between Sierra Valley and Downieville. At some point, the pair stumbled upon a lake with large gold nuggets gleaming in the moss at the water’s edge. After gathering as much gold as their pockets could hold, the two exhausted men fell asleep. The next morning, Native Americans attacked the two men. Stoddard was injured, and his companion was never heard from again. Stoddard worked his way through the mountains until he at last reached the North Fork of theYuba River and the gold camps in the Downieville-Nevada City region. Stoddard told his tale to the miners and the search was on for Gold Lake. A multitude of anxious miners swarmed into the mountains seeking Gold Lake, in what would become Plumas and Sierra Counties.

The Plumas County gold rush of 1850 was a direct result of Tom Stoddard’s Gold Lake story. However, Stoddard would never again locate the lake and neither would the thousands of other hopeful prospectors that went in search of it. For the majority of miners who searched for Gold Lake, disappointment dominated. For others, their perseverance paid off with discoveries at Nelson Creek, Poorman’s Creek, Hopkins Creek, Onion Valley, Rich Bar, and Butte Bar. All provided rich diggings. Equally rewarding was a series of five mining bars on the East Branch of the North Fork of the Feather River: Rich Bar, Indian Bar, Smith Bar, French Bar, and Junction Bar. A group known as the Wisconsin Company was among those seeking paydirt on Nelson Creek. Calling their site Meeker Flat after one of their members, they took out 93-pounds of precious metal in one period of three weeks. Discoveries of rich gold deposits continued in Plumas County through at least 1852. Gold mining now is carried on as a recreational pursuit, but gold was the original Plumas County cornerstone. Most geologists concur that there is twice as much gold still remaining in the Plumas County area than was ever taken out of it.

During the 1920’s and 1930’s, Plumas County was Number One in state copper production. Engle Mine on Lights Creek in northern Indian Valley produced $25 million over its lifetime. Walker Mine, 15-miles south, produced $23 million. Jack and James Ford discovered copper outcroppings above the North Arm of Indian Valley during the Civil War, while others found similar deposits along Genesee Valley’s Ward Creek. The Chapman brothers, at their primitive smelter in Genesee Valley, further processed the rich, naturally concentrated metal. During more than 15 years of operation, Engle Mine yielded 117 million pounds of copper, along with substantial amounts in gold and silver.

In Plumas County during the 1900’s, gold was the lure for miners and copper was the bread and butter of the mineral industry. Now, little is left to be seen of these massive efforts. Secluded rock piles and overgrown hillside scars are pretty much all that remains.

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Chinese: Perseverance Exemplified

The Chinese made up a significant segment of Plumas County’s population from the early 1850’s to 1900, particularly during the 1880’s. The majority mined for gold, were laborers, or worked as domestic help. A small number of Chinese were in Taylorsville in 1852, digging a water ditch for Job Taylor to power his sawmill. At the same time, others were scattered all about the county, digging in streambeds or laboring on ditch construction. Plumas County was the scene of extensive mining activity in the 1850’s, but equal opportunity did not apply to the Chinese. The Chinese generally waited for the white miners to abandon their locations so that they could move in. Patiently, they re-worked the same auriferous soil and tailings for overlooked flakes.

The Chinese, whether they paid taxes or not, were ostracized by white people in Plumas County. They were forced to confine their gold mining activities to non-competitive locations or to re-work abandoned diggings. If these areas proved to be rich, the Chinese were driven out by white miners. In Plumas County, the Foreign Miner’s Tax of 1850 was seldom enforced on any foreigner except the Chinese; thus it was the Chinese tax money that contributed greatly to the county’s coffers from 1854 until 1870, when the tax was repealed.

Both companionship and a safe home were important to the disliked Chinese miners. During the mid-1850’s, Chinese prospectors near Spanish Ranch found satisfactory returns in the diggings abandoned by the whites and founded the small settlement of Silver Creek. White and Mexican miners had already worked the creek and had moved on. The Chinese miners patiently re-worked the abandoned diggings for $2 or less a day. These meager returns ensured the Chinese a peaceful place to exist. They were satisfied with the quantity of gold and grateful that the white miners and other residents approved of their location. Other Chinese miners soon learned of their countrymen’s relative good fortune and came to investigate. By the end of the 1850’s, Silver Creek had a population of approximately 200 – the largest all-Chinese community in Plumas County. Dredging operations in the 1930’s, followed by tractors and logging, leveled the town and erased almost all evidence of Silver Creek’s once-thriving Chinese community. Weeds and pine needles covered the more than 26 depressions in the Chinese cemetery there and the town of Silver Creek became a distant memory. There are just a handful of American-born Chinese in Plumas County today.

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Agriculture: Settling the Fertile Valleys

Some of the first ranching in Plumas County is attributed to several Mexicans who came to Meadow Valley in 1850 and claimed the eastern part of the valley. The location where they rented grasslands to miners for their mules became known as Spanish Ranch. George Wangelin is the first rancher to have driven his cattle successfully from the Chico area to Plumas County – 57 crooked miles to Bucks Ranch, an elevation of 5,100 feet. Wagelin and five cowboys made the drive repeatedly in six to eight days, allowing for several stops a day to graze. The drives continued for 70 years, until Bucks Ranch became Bucks Lake in 1928.

Job Taylor’s gristmill, built in 1856, provided grain mill service for Indian Valley farmers. Taylor charged 45¢ per bushel for grinding grain and could grind 100 bushels from sunrise to sunset. By 1880, about 20 farmers owned a collective total of 4,500 acres of ranch land in American Valley (Quincy), nearly 70 percent of its 6,720 acres. Beef and dairy cattle, hay, wheat, oats, barley, potatoes, vegetables, and fruit orchards contributed to the ranching way of life. Twenty miles to the north, Indian Valley’s most prolific products were hay and oats, with 8,000 tons of hay being cut in 1876. Some 500 milk cows enjoyed the native grasses and thousands of acres of clover, as well as the annually planted redtop and timothy. Dairy ranchers found a ready market for their butter and Indian Valley earned a reputation for its quality of horses. In 1852 and 1853, ranchers introduced the first cattle to Sierra Valley. Their cattle and ranching efforts developed into the second most productive economic activity in the county. Basque sheepherders and their flocks were a routine, seasonal presence, particularly in eastern Plumas County. The Basque in Plumas County also were known for the delicious breads and unique tree carvings. In northern Plumas County, Jonathan Martin was the first rancher. He arrived in Big Meadows (Chester/Lake Almanor area) in 1873, homesteaded 160 acres, and began raising beef cattle and dairy cows and making butter. Although the Plumas County dairies and agricultural farms are gone now, cattle ranching is still a way of life in Plumas County’s valleys.

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Transportation: Through Mountains and Canyons

Throughout the 1850’s, legions of miners; expressmen; and pack trains wore Native American footpaths into single-land roadways through Plumas County’s forests. As early as October 1850, feasible roads were opened from Marysville to as high as the North Fork of the Feather River. Mule train operator Edward McIlhaney was among the many thousands who used the Marysville-LaPorte-Onion Valley route, where foot traffic was so busy it was only a matter of time before the path became a road. The first wheeled passenger vehicle service in the county, owned by Edward McIlhaney and partner Charles Thomas, was run from Marysville to Onion Valley. Another route into Plumas County was by way of the 5,212-foot Beckwourth Pass, the lowest mountain pass over the Sierra Nevada. This immigrant route was developed in 1851, a year after its discovery by African-American mountain man James P. Beckwourth. Between 1851 and 1854, 1,200 emigrants used the Beckwourth Trail, leading 12,000 head of cattle; 700 sheep; and 500 horses.

Early mail service in Plumas County was slow and irregular. Winter snows on the high elevation ridge routes meant no travel outside the county, thus no mail for three to five months. In 1858, Fenton “Buck” Whiting saw the need for regular mail service and began use of a dog-pulled sleigh when the Oroville-Quincy stage had to stop for the winter. By 1865, Whiting had replaced his dogs with horses clad in snowshoes. Spanish Ranch blacksmith Henry Kellogg modeled iron snowshoes with rubber bottoms for the horses. The horse-drawn mail wagon made regular deliveries from LaPorte to Nelson Point to Quincy, as well as other points in the county. They continued doing so in Plumas County for 45 years, until mail delivery was assumed by the Western Pacific Railroad in 1910.

Roads in the Plumas County region constructed between 1859 and 1875 included Sierra Valley to Virginia City, Nevada (1859); China Grade on the American Valley to Indian Valley Road (1860); Red Bluff via Big Meadows to Susanville (1860’s); Humboldt Road from Chico via Big Meadows to Susanville (1860’s); LaPorte to Quincy (1867); Johnsville to Gibsonville (1860’s); Mohawk to Johnsville (1872); Quincy to Greenville, up the eastern side of Indian Creek to Indian Falls, Crescent Mills, and Greenville (1872); and Clover Valley Road from Beckwourth to Genesee Valley (1873). Beckwourth became the commercial freight center of Plumas County in 1895, when the Sierra Valley Railroad arrived. Upon completion of the rail line to Clairville in 1896 and Clio in 1903, roads to Mohawk and on to Quincy became the scenes of increased traffic.

Augustus Bidwell, Clark Lee, and Dr. Fred Davis, financially capable, progressive Plumas County citizens, decided to participate in the nation’s automobile ownership craze. Bidwell had a family car at Prattville by about 1906, Lee had a White Steamer in Quincy by 1909, and Davis owned a Maxwell at Canyon Dam in 1910. When Dr. Davis and his wife decided to drive from Canyon Dam to Reno, Nevada in 1912, they were able to make it in one day (despite 19 flat tires along the way). By 1919, Plumas County automobile ownership was nearing 100 vehicles. Clamor for paved highways was being echoed across the nation. On August 14, 1937, the Feather River Highway was dedicated officially at Grizzly Dome (the halfway point between Oroville and Quincy).

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Timber: The Bite of the Lumberman’s Axe

J. B. Batchelder erected the first sawmill in Plumas County at Rich Bar on the Middle Fork of the Feather River. His specialty was lumber for the flumes and wing dams that the miners were building in the river, but he also cut lumber for frame homes and businesses. His sawmill operated until the brisk placer mining along the Middle Fork slowed down. D. L. Pent erected a sawmill at Nelson Point in 1851. Several other sawmills were built in 1852. Miners, townspeople, and farmers all required lumber products.

Most of the earliest Plumas County sawmills were built on land that was next to a creek or river. The water from the flowing streams provided power for the saws to cut the logs into lumber. Logging at first consisted of very small local industries. The wood mostly was worked by hand, with four to eight oxen, mules, or horses pulling logs cut from nearby timber stands into the mills. During the 1870s, Plumas County’s population increased by 28 percent (from 4,489 to 6,180). Hydraulic mining was instrumental in creating the increase in people and in the subsequent increase in the number of homes and stores built in Quincy, LaPorte, and the North Fork-Caribou regions. Quartz mining yields resulted in a similar need for lumber at the Plumas Eureka Mine and in the Greenville area. To the east, a steady growth in the number of Sierra Valley cattle ranchers and farmers created a demand for more lumber for homes, barns, and fences. Local mills were able to respond adequately to local needs. However, the demands of the fast-growing towns of Sacramento and Marysville for lumber from the Sierra were never-ending. The western areas of Plumas County were the first to answer the calls for lumber products by outside markets. Beginning as early as 1856, above Bidwell’s Bar, timber was cut and floated at high water all of the way to Sacramento.

The Reno Mill and Lumber Company began acquiring significant amounts of Plumas County timberland during the last half of the 1880s, concurrent with construction of the Sierra Valley & Mohawk Railroad (SV&MRR). By 1889, Reno Mill and Lumber owned 7,000 acres of Plumas County timberland and had a bandsaw mill at Beckwourth that was cutting 60,000 board feet per day. To bring the logs from the stump to the three-story bandsaw mill that was located 3 miles west of Beckwourth along the SV&MRR line, the logs were pulled along a skid trail to the head of a 2.5-mile wooden chute by a ten-horse team. The logs then were rolled into the chute, dogged together end to end, and then pulled by ten more horses along a parallel tow path, similar to canal barge tow paths. At the end of the chute, yet another ten-horse team hauled the logs over a skid road to the mill.

The Plumas County timber industry was given a major boost when the Western Pacific Railroad was finished in 1909. With the arrival of the Western Pacific, Plumas County timber replaced gold as the county’s principal industry. Nine or ten standard and narrow-gauge railroad lines worked their ways from the sawmills into the forest. Another great boost for the timber industry was the steam donkey engine, which was invented in 1881 but did not appear in Plumas County until nearly 30 years later. Of equal value to the industry were the Spanish Peak tramway and Plumas County’s first dry kiln, introduced by F. S. Murphy at Quincy in 1922. Logging trucks, Caterpillar tractors, and chain saws came next.

The lumber business has been Plumas County’s leading industry since it replaced gold at the beginning of the twentieth century. But now, due to national forest policy changes, environmental pressure, and a shifting economy, only two companies operate sawmills in Plumas County: Sierra Pacific Industries in Quincy and Collins Pine in Chester. Other reasons for mill closures include automation. Plumas County’s timberlands show the marks of over a half-century of unregulated logging followed by another three-quarters of a century of increased intensely regulated logging. Timber production is at an all-time low. However, it is a renewable natural resource and does provide jobs for local residents to this day.

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The above content is excerpted, with permission from the publisher, from Plumas County: History of the Feather River Region by Jim Young and published by Arcadia Publishing, 2003. For more information contact Arcadia at www.arcadiapublishing.com, or call 1-888-313-2665.

Permission granted May 26, 2004 by:

PJ Norlander
Director of Marketing
Arcadia Publishing
420 Wando Park Blvd., Mt. Pleasant, SC 29464
phone: 843-853-2070 x160
fax: 843-853-0044
mobile: 843-276-7975
www.arcadiapublishing.com

 

Want to learn more about Plumas County history? Contact the Plumas County Museum  or Arcadia Publishing in order to purchase a copy of the wonderful book, Plumas County: History of the Feather River Region, part of the Making of America Series, by Jim Young.

 

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