History of an Angry River

From the 1.2.13 issue


By Benjamin Fordham

Special To The Press


On a rainy day in December 1849, while preparing for a river crossing, Josiah Gregg’s crew decided they’d had enough. They were tired of waiting for him to take yet another scientific measurement on a trip that had seen them face starvation and bear attacks. They were leaving, with or without him, and he was forced to scoop up his instruments and wade out to the canoe.

He was mad. So mad that when they got to the other side of the river, he unleashed a tirade that included specific, detailed, and well thought-out personal attacks against the other members of his party.

They made a gesture to throw Gregg into the rain-swollen river, he apologized, and before they continued on they jokingly dubbed it the ‘mad river,’ in honor of his temper-tantrum. That, I kid you not, is how the Mad River got its name.

The eight-man travel party included David Buck (namesake of the former town of Bucksport), a member of the Van Duzen family, and a young LK Wood, who years later wrote a detailed account of their trek. The group had set out from Rich’s Bar on November 5th, against the advice of local Native Americans. For a month they traveled over steep, snow-covered mountains and through dense redwood forests, before finally reaching the Pacific near the Little River. Gregg’s goal of establishing a local sea-port large enough to service the lucrative timber and gold-mining sectors was realized soon after.

According to the US Forest Service, the first human influence on the Mad River watershed was between 5-10,000 years ago. Native tribes in the area prior to European settlement consisted of the Wiyot, the Whilkut, the Nongatl, and the Lassik. They were hunter-gatherers who took full advantage of the area’s rich resources. The Forest Service states that, “the population density within the North Coast Ranges during the ethnographic period equaled, or in some cases surpassed, the population density of agricultural societies in other parts of aboriginal North America.”

By the early 1800’s the bay had been discovered by ship, and by the 1850’s the Gold Rush had begun in earnest. By 1851 the settlements of Union Town (present-day Arcata), Eureka, and Trinidad had been established to service the needs of the prospectors. Lumber companies soon set about the process of logging the massive old-growth forests that blanketed the area.

In 1854 the Humboldt Bay and Mad River Canal Company built a canal connecting the river and the bay for the purpose of floating logs from upstream to mills on the bay. That same year the Union Warf and Plank Walk Company constructed a large raised railway that extended into the bay, allowing Union Town access to its deeper waters.

As is the history with the rest of the continent, the local tribes faced extermination and the loss of their culture at the hands of European settlers.

According to a 2010 report by Stillwater Sciences, “the US Army attempted to rid Humboldt County of its native populations through the mid-1800’s, and the Mad River became a staging ground for this effort.”

By the 1870’s the advent of the steam engine brought another influx of settlers. The railroad allowed for bigger and bigger logs to be harvested and processed. Local European residents were also well aware of the impact the unregulated development was having on the watershed. By 1910 fishing on the Mad River had been restricted to sport fishermen.

Another important feature of Union Town was the founding of a teacher’s college. In 1913 the Humboldt County Normal School was formally designated by then-Governor Hiram Johnson. The University has been central in shaping the local population and economy ever since. They have also played a major role in conservation efforts.

In many ways the history of the Mad River is the history of Humboldt County. It has seen sdome of its native populations eradicated and replaced with European ones. It has seen, in the wake of development, degradation to its natural systems. It has also seen efforts to lessen and repair that damage, although it has often proved difficult to reconcile progress and conservation.

Tired and hungry, the Gregg expedition abandoned their plans to settle the area and set out for greener pastures in San Francisco. Josiah Gregg never made it. Weak from the trip and again close to starvation, he fell off his horse and sustained mortal injuries. It was an end to a remarkable life that saw him become a successful lawyer and doctor before traveling the frontier and documenting his scientific discoveries. He is, in many ways, an example of the American tradition of success through stubbornness beyond logic and reason. He was 46 years old.



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6 responses to “History of an Angry River

  1. Thank you for an interesting article, however some of your statements may not have been fully researched, e.g. the U.S. Army did not attempt to rid Humboldt County of its Indian population. In fact, they were roundly disliked by white settlers for “failing” to exterminate the local native populations. “Major Raines, commanding at Fort Humboldt, had a
    natural sympathy for the Indians, which was aug-
    mented tenfold by his jealousy of the Volunteers. In-
    stead of exercising martial law, he was in favor of trying
    in the courts all Indians suspected of murdering white
    men, whether the murders were committed by one or
    one hundred — a system that could not be other than
    a failure when applied to a savage race who knew
    nothing of law and would not have respected it if
    they had. There was only one effective method of
    suppressing Indian hostilities, and that was by punish-
    ing the hostiles in campaigns of armed forces. That
    the Volunteers accomplished. That Major Raines
    refused to do. His heart was too tender, his senti-
    ments too soft, his sympathies too profound, for
    any but the loftiest motives of philanthropy to find
    expression in his military orders. His officers in the
    field were tied hand and foot by the severity of his
    orders. No Indian could be killed unless he was de-
    tected in the act of killing a white man, and it was a
    crime for a soldier to shoot at an Indian who was driv-
    ing away cattle from the ranges of the settlers. Fort
    Humboldt was converted into a kind of hospital for
    sick Indians and refuge for well ones. Major Raines
    was unpopular with all classes of citizens, and his un-
    popularity was greatly increased by his persistent re-
    fusal to gather the Indians of the bay together and
    send them to a Government Reservation.” page 319-320
    Bledsoe, (Anthony Jennings), Indian wars of the Northwest. A California sketch (1885), San Francisco, Bacon & Co., http://archive.org/details/indianwarsofnort01bled

  2. NK

    The US government did little if anything to stop the genocide of local tribes.. between the years of 1856-1866, there were no less than 22 military commanders at Fort Humboldt. Major Rains was only in command from 1856-1860.

    “No Indian could be killed unless he was detected in the act of killing a white man,” nice words; wasn’t enforced. A “hospital for sick Indians and refuge for well ones,” not good enough. If the Indians were protected by the military in the first place, they wouldn’t have been sick or needed a refuge.

    What was left of the local Indian children after the massacures were sent away from their parents down to Riverside in southern California and other places so an entire generation was removed from knowing their own culture. I suggest anyone interested in what actually happened and continues to happen here (as many of the treaties remain broken) read Genocide in Northwestern California by Jack Norton.

  3. Are you still taking comments? Jack Durham, your man David Buck is mentioned in a letter owned by Wells Fargo. It’s J. C. Martin January 1853 to Thomas Ewart Bell, a double first cousin of mine (a few times removed). He has a lot to say to them about the possibility of a canal.

  4. Let me add something. Is there any reason why Union (the town of Union) in 1853 would have been known as a place where men might steal your wives and daughters? That’s in the Martin letter. Maybe a joke? The town of Union is not listed in Humboldt County ghost towns, but I found it in the 1860 Federal Census, so it’s real.

  5. Real, as you know. I thought Jack Dunham wrote the article but it was Benjamin Fordham? You might want to know about the Martin letter of 1853 because of his comments on the rich gentleman who wants to build the canal.

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