“Canopies of oaks and cottonwoods, many festooned with grapevines, overhung both sides of the blue current. Birds chattered in the trees and big fish darted through the pellucid depths. The air was like champagne, and they drank deep of it, drank in the beauty around them. This is like the Holy Sacrament,” said a writer with the Spanish explorer Gabriel Moraga a half century before the discovery of gold. And so Moraga called the great valley and its river Sacramento after the Catholic sacrament of Eucharist.
However the Spanish and later the Mexicans both ignored the tremendous potential of the fertile land. But when John Sutter sailed up the river he knew at once that this was the ideal place for the agricultural empire he planned. Sutter received a huge land grant and built a fort where the two largest rivers meet.
Then came the Bear Flag Revolt and the Mexican War followed almost immediately by the finding of gold just up the American River from Sutter’s Fort. Men flooded in and Sutter’s empire began to crumble. His son, John Jr. arrived from Switzerland in 1848 and took over from his father. He had a city plan laid out by William H. Warner and William Tecumseh Sherman beside a wharf on the Sacramento River called the embarcadero. The town grew quickly as a supply port and gateway to the gold on the American River. The first church, the Placer Times newspaper and the Eagle Theater all opened in 1849. A synagogue came in 1852. Soon Sacramento City, as they called it then, had a population of 10,000.
But in 1850 both rivers rose rapidly and swept through the town, first in January and again in March. In October the riverboat New World brought news of California’s entry into the union as a state but it also brought cholera. A 1000 people died within weeks. Thousands more fled. Still the city lived on. There were conflicts and riots with the squatters who wanted Sutter’s land. A vigilance committee was formed, one man was lynched, but by 1852 Sutter’s empire had collapsed, the era of a gold rush boom town had passed and Sacramento was now a viable economic center. Then, in November, fire destroyed almost the entire town. Sacramento rebuilt with brick and in 1854 this tough, resilient Northern California hub of commerce was named the capital of the entire state.