NorCal: 1850–1960

How the Forests Changed

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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 a prayer of thanks which essentially said, “You’ve spent your whole life growing into a perfect tree. You are so straight, so perfect that now you will become a canoe!” (20)

White society arrived in waves. Its avant garde was its knives, which many Indians could appreciate the value of, and the bees, which Indians began to cultivate quickly after their arrival (often before they met a white person).
White society saw Northern California as an empty frontier and expected Indians to stay out of their way. This worked sometimes, but when the whites needed someone to blame, it was the Indians. When they entered into contracts with Indians and came to a misunderstanding, white society agreed that Indians would be judged on the terms of the whites. When white folks needed clothes or grains, they imported them rather than learn how local Indians had been doing it on the same land. When Russian fur traders hired Kodiak Indians from the North to come down and hunt the sea otters in California, they showed little respect for existing Indians who were trying to hunt the same prey. The Russian effort nearly eliminated all sea otters from 1809–1833. In 1833 they closed up shop and left. (This pattern of boom and bust is common in this history!) When whites wanted Indian land, they got someone they claimed represented many Indians to sign a treaty (the signatory often did not understand the treaty or the idea of a treaty); when whites found the treaty inconvenient they broke it.

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These Kodiak hunters in their baidarka kayaks were quite good at killing sea life! Normally they wouldn’t head so far South and kill so many otters, but the Russians knew it would make a lot of money and got it to happen.

Early whites came mostly as explorers and soldiers. The explorers were ill-prepared for their work and tended to starve. The soldiers were immensely bored. Ulysses S. Grant was stationed in California during this time and was depressed and drunk enough to have been found fallen off his mule drunk a few times.

The Gold Rush of 1849

Miners arriving in California changed the state forever. In March of 1848 the non-native population of California was just 800. By the end of 1849 it was estimated at 100,000. These miners hoped to put in a year of hard work and permanently escape their dim prospects as manual laborers in other parts of the world. Instead, most of them lived poorly and made very little money. One common food for miners was flour cooked on a stick in the fire. This would probably be worse eating than hard tack.

Mining camps made their own laws and had only three available means of punishment: flogging, exile, and hanging. However, the boomtowns supporting the miners (such as San Francisco) developed rapidly and made strong connections to existing global trade networks.

What’s Next?

As the excitement of the gold rush died down (less than a decade after it started!), those new to California wondered what was next. Raphael is not clear about this, but it seems many miners and their familie stuck around and became homesteaders. Anyway, someone became homesteaders who would eventually make their money off the forests, rather than the gold.
The cow population of California boomed from under 2,000 in 1854 to more than 19,000 in 1860. (My estimate is that 2,000 cows cannot reproduce to more than 8,000 cows in 6 years, so most of the cows must have been imported.) Raphael tells the fascinating story of the work and leisure experienced by cows, emphasizing that they have been domesticated for so long it is hard to judge whether these conditions are “good” or “bad.”

  • If a cow will be used for beef, it will be neutered, fed luxuriously, left alone, then eventually killed.
  • If a cow will be used for milk, it will be fed luxuriously, kept in a small pen, and allowed to live a long time.
  • If a cow will be used for procreation, it will be allowed to follow its sexual instincts, but only at certain times with certain partners.

Raphael also notes that cows were domesticated and brought to the New World as beasts of burden! However, in California they were “selected by man as the beasts best able to convert the land into food” (65), which is quite different from how the Indians had provided for themselves in the same place.
White settlers, including homesteaders, saw their farming as an economic venture and generally tried to make money with which to shop to procure things like meat.

Oil and resource extraction began to build up in California, though their richness was commonly overestimated out of lingering Gold Rush enthusiasm. These extraction enterprises are responsible for the early roads and rail development (including the importation of Chinese laborers to do much of the building). These trade linkages reduce friction for exports and tend to make imported goods more easily available.

Basically, there wasn’t money for many people in the first boom (gold) nor in the next booms.


I find the homesteaders very charming because they did so much of the work needed to support themselves at home with just a few friends and family members. Still, almost all went to town (possibly a several day trek) twice a year to buy flour, sugar, coffee, salt, pepper, and tobacco. I don’t understand why they bought tobacco; the Indians had been growing it and smoking it for centuries here. The mentality was certainly “ignore the Indians, buy things at the store,” but the way most people lived was “make it yourself or go without.” Maybe it was very cheap at the store, subsidized by slave labor producing it at scale in the South.

A homesteader was a jack of all trades. Most had their own blacksmith shop at the house. They built their own homes and were scrappy as hell. They used the Sears catalog as toilet paper. They caught wild hogs and put them in the pen with their own pigs, sewing their eyes shut to keep them from escaping. These people also worked ridiculously hard and tended to stay on their property making things. Many kept cows, but slaughtering them yielded more meat than they could put to use, so they made jerky. Often, when they killed pigs they’d take the lard and bacon to town and sell that.

I was also surprised to learn about their drinking and party life. First, many of these hardworking lifeways involved very little drinking or sleeping. Many of the old timers interviewed describe getting to bed at 10 or 11 only to rise again before dawn. As for parties, one common practice was to have a sleep over house party for everyone nearby a couple of times a month!

People’d start comin’ in ‘bout four o’clock in the afternoon. Well, the first ones that got here put their horses in the barn, and then as the others come they’d tie ’em up to a fence or a post and start feeding ’em. Everybody’d bring some stuff, cake or what have you, and they’d eat. When the kids wanted to go to bed, they’d just lay them across the bed like cord wood. Then the next morning, some of ’em would have hot cakes, some of ’em would have hot biscuits, a big pot of gravy, fried potatoes, and you always had your venison steaks — you generally always knew you’d have a house party and you’d go out and kill a deer. Then, after breakfast, everybody’d go over there. But now, Christ, you go to a house and: ‘What the hell is he after? He must be lookin’ for a free meal or something’.’ (100)

Timber, Bark, and Forests

Raphael provides a clear account of the typical life of several major types of trees in the area. His perspective is that these trees evolved a long time before humans (and before California) and are great at building up ecosystems for themselves over a few hundred years. Redwoods live a long time and when they die, new ones grow from the stump and use the same old root system! In this way, a redwood can be thousands of years old. Also, at maturity, they have no branches within 50 feet of the ground and their bark is fire resistant, so they can survive forest fires. The other trees are a bit more maneuverable, but the redwoods dominate in the long run and hold onto their niche admirably. (Their genus is 220 million years old.)

Humans chopping down trees has been normal in Northern California for a long time. The most common cuts were posts and stakes, cut by hand. These were often cut rather thin — imagine cutting a 4 foot section of a tree into 25 3/16" posts. These folks got lots of practice!

Logging existed in various forms from the 1850s onward, but the boom hit in the 1930s when demand increased and internal combustion engines could clear roads, drag logs, and get loggers in and out of remote areas.

Before that, logging was done mostly near the water, roads, and rail. To haul out new logs, the operation would have to build “skid roads.” These are just a bunch of logs next to each other that you can get boys to swab with oil, then drag fresh logs along more easily. When conditions were poor for work, such as winter, the operation would close up shop and many workers would go live by the skid roads until they could get back to work. (There’s the etymology of “skid row!”) Back in these days, logging was a way to make some money in a few months, then return home with money for the shop.

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Nice skid road. Now, you had to stand still for a little while in those days to take a picture, and it’s likely that these laborers were being photographed by their employer as part of their work. So it’s hard to glean much from their pose or expression.

The early boom in lumber wasn’t actually about wood. It was about tan oak bark. This bark was a valuable export for its tannic acid content, used to tan hides in leather production. From 1900–1920 almost all tan oak in the area was cut down, stripped of its bark, and left to rot in the woods. Labor camps often employed one couple to feed the workers who lived comfortably. Often the workers were there only few a few months, to make some cash and return home. Significantly, this was a back-hills boom, because most of the tan oak was growing in the large inland forests and because the bark was relatively easy to recover from remote areas.

The real timber boom happened in the 1930s across the region. Fossil fuel powered massive logging operations that devastated Northern California’s forests, destroying almost all of the original growth. I spent the summer of 2019 living on an old lumber camp that ran during the 30s and 40s, providing most of the income for the residents of the nearby town (which boomed during this period). That property included a reservoir to power the mill, a landing strip for the capitalists to visit, and used to house hundreds of workers who produced huge amounts of lumber.

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Note their pride.

Other Businesses

Raphael is almost writing an economic history of the area, except that his focus is on the conditions of the working class. Sheep have often been used to convert the land into food in this region, but their milk is easily tainted by plants they eat (moreso than cows), and the price of wool collapsed during the depression. It seems many homesteaders have a few sheep, but it’s rarely much of an industry. Agriculture gets very little attention in this book, but perhaps the land is not competitive with American’s bread basket south in California’s Central Valley. During the prohibition, bootlegging was also available work, but ultimately risky because hijackers would kill bootleggers for their cargo.

Women’s work seems to get little attention in this book, but Raphael makes deliberate attempts to explore it and ends up with little more than first hand accounts of housework. Women, it seemed, mostly began doing housework at hone home, then continued onto another and another with perhaps some years spent in a camp or factory cookhouse, hotel, or saloon. The basic work of cooking, cleaning, listening to people talk, fixing things, making clothes, and caring for the young has little to distinguish it in this somewhere versus others.

What’s Next?

Raphael’s history ends looking forward to tourism and he’s written a separate account of marijuana farming in the same area. His own thesis about the area is that humans have ruined the forests, ruined the Indians, killed off the otters and most of the salmon, but made space for deer, mice, rats, and less impressive plantlife to flourish. However, he’s such a groovy guy that he forgives the settlers because they were just doing their own thing just like the salmon and vultures.

I note that Northern California has had several booms, that most of them promised more than they delivered, and that all of them left the land worse off and its former laborers disappointed (as employment fell off and wages stagnated).

Homesteading has become nearly impossible due to increased taxes, decreased wages, increased regulation of agriculture, and increased expected standard of living. It’s a small point, but Raphael notes that dogs have become a problem in the country up North because they tend to kill livestock and are rarely used to herd or defend them.

The existing “contemporary” homesteaders Raphel did interview (in the early 70s) were supplementing their existence with welfare or passive rental incomes. So the world he describes almost only ever existed between 1850 and 1950.

Before 1850, it was the Indians. After 1950, it was a lot of ghost towns and some enduring timber production. Of course, this has made space for vineyards and weed grows and tourism, but these are all fairly small operations by comparison.

If we were to focus, though, on the basic facts of how people live in Northern California now versus then, things have changed and will continue to. The old jobs have run out and the environment may never support another boom of extractive capitalism. But many people are still there, doubtful that they could ever leave, and taking the opportunities they can find to get by.


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