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Del Norte: The county that almost wasn't

If not for a decision made long ago, that would have been a Trinity County Sheriff's car you passed this morning on the way to work or school.

Or you might have picked up pens and printer paper today at the Klamath Office Supply in downtown Crescent City.

But thanks to a fateful decision made

years ago, we live in Del Norte (the "e" is silent, thank you) County rather than Trinity or Klamath.

While the area has been settled for millennia, this year marks Del Norte County's sesquicentennial, or 150th anniversary.

And this is the story of how Del Norte almost never came to be.

Ignored by Europeans

What is now the northwestern corner of California seemed like an unlikely place for Europeans and Americans to settle during the 1840s.

For centuries, the coastal Redwood region remained remote, first at the farthest flung end of the Spanish Empire in the 1500s through the 1700s, then in the 1800s more than 2,100 miles from Mexico's capital.

While Russia held interests in Alaska, its ventures down to the coast barely reached this far south. And the British claim to the Pacific Northwest ended at the current Oregon-California border, making us the hinterland of that vast empire's hinterland.

But in 1848, that began to change. With the discovery of gold in the Trinity Mountains, East Coast Americans and Europeans moved to California looking for riches. One of the early spots they found gold was the Klamath River.

Those miners found access to the river difficult, however, and the Pacific Ocean the only way to get in and out. So while Klamath City, located near the Klamath River's mouth, became the first American town in what is now Del Norte County, the search was on for a suitable harbor.

American explorers found it in what is now the Crescent City Harbor. Following the advice of trappers, Army Maj. J.F. Wendell in February 1853 surveyed the land beyond the bay, forming what is today known as Crescent City.

By June 1854, the city boasted a population of nearly 1,000.

Through this time, the region politically shifted between two counties. California became a state in 1850, and the sparsely populated region that currently includes Humboldt, Del Norte, Trinity and the western half of Siskiyou counties was known as Trinity County.

When Klamath City was settled, Trinity County was split with the northern half becoming Klamath County. Trinidad served as the county seat.

Crescent City's rapid growth required the seat of government to shift in the same direction, however. In 1854, eastern county mining interests succeeded in moving Klamath County's capital to Crescent City. Three years later, the California Legislature split Klamath County in two, creating "Del Norte County," so named because of its northern location, with Crescent City as the county seat.

Settlement

Klamath and Del Norte counties' earliest years are marked by a number of industries moving in to support the gold mining.

In 1853, Nicholas McNamara opened Crescent City's first hotel – The American Hotel – at what is now Front and J streets. Until that time, those arriving in the area simply camped out in tents near the harbor and what is now downtown.

The following year, the Saville Saloon, with a dance hall and theater above, and a Wells Fargo Express office next door opened. Known as the Darby Building, it was located at what is now Front and F streets.

Because the Crescent City Harbor was so rocky, Congress allocated $15,000 for a lighthouse. Construction of the Battery Point Lighthouse began in 1856 with the the first light ignited on Dec. 10, 1856.

Inland, mining helped propel the creation of Gasquet. After arriving in Crescent City in 1853, French immigrant Horace Gasquet opened a business that carried goods and supplies by pack train from Crescent City to the interior mines. The same year that Del Norte became a county, he purchased Mace's Ferry and Station, located on the Smith River's North Fork, land north of the Middle Fork and the flats on the river's south side. The area became the village of Gasquet.

Some issues, it seems, never change: Among the main concerns of Crescent City residents in the 1850s was the lack of a connection to the interior Illinois Valley. So city merchants formed the Crescent City and Yreka Plank Road and Turnpike Company in 1854. The road, some of which has since become the current U.S. Hwy. 199, was completed in 1858.

Of course, what was then Trinity, Klamath and Del Norte counties hardly was unsettled land. Though sparsely populated by East Coast and Western European standards, American Indians had lived along the coast and in the mountainous interior for at least 3,000 years.

But encounters with white settlers resulted in disease and war. During the early 1850s, those twin scourges decimated the Yurok, killed three in four tribal members. In 1855, the Army forcibly removed the surviving Yurok to a reservation on the Klamath River.

Likewise, the smaller Tolowa tribe lost many members to disease and war and were limited to a rancheria on the Smith River.

– Triplicate staff

ABOUT THIS SERIES

Del Norte County turns 150 this year. To celebrate our county's storied history, The Daily Triplicate will carry an article, about the past 150 years, in each edition for the rest of the year. The series began Saturday with the Northcoast Life cover story about how Del Norte became a county. We continue today with a look at the Native Americans that inhabited the region when the first East Coast and European settlers came.

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