NorCal: 1850–1960

How the Forests Changed

Chuk Moran
12 min readOct 3, 2019


The meeting of East and West on the newly competed railroad in 1869 marked the incorporation of California into national networks of trade. It also meant that Californians were no longer just an isolated colonizer society imposing a foreign world on the forests. Now they could imagine that California was just another part of one American society.

Ray Raphael’s An Everyday History of Somewhere is a 1974 book of everyday history, taking the reader for a hike around the last couple hundred years of Northern California. The book is quite pleasant to poke around in and rewards the assiduous reader with a few very insightful theses on California history. The style could be compared to Cinéma vérité or a fly-on-the-wall documentary telling about actualities, rather than causes and forces. “Each of us,” Raphael suggests, “is another small chapter in the everyday history of the world.” Although this is the history of Northern California, it is really just the history of some one place among all others. As it happens, I am interested in this particular region and curious how it got to be the way it is now.

Raphael covers a few major movements of local history, largely explaining who did what kinds of things and how those worked out for them.

Competition with Native Americans

Raphael explains the longstanding economy and social life of Indians in Northern California. The men mostly hunted or did the work of preparing to hunt: sharpening arrowheads, taming arrowwood bushes to grow strong shafts, smoking tobacco in the lodge. Women made a huge variety of baskets and collected things in them. Children learned adult crafts as children now might “play house” or “play doctor.” These people were not really tribal; they called themselves “the people” in their own language, lived on the nicer land to live on, and usually had about 25 people in each encampment/town/thing.

They had a number of understood social contracts that worked quite well for them. They farmed only the forests, and respected each other’s operations. They agreed that any death incurred a debt that must be paid, one way or another. They agreed that if someone goes out to help someone else on promise of payment and dies en route, the family is entitled to payment. They made little claims of property over the land. They respected what they killed, partly due to their animist spiritual beliefs, but also because they had been killing the same things for a long time and knew how to use every part.

If a redwood tree was to be cut down to make a canoe, this was no casual matter. The cutting was preceded by…