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Vaught's book describes hard history of early Putah Creek landowners

April 9, 2007
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@dcn.davis.ca.us

In his book, “After the Gold Rush: Tarnished Dreams in the Sacramento Valley,” historian David Vaught inspires us to look at familiar scenes with new appreciation that comes from knowing an area’s history.

Vaught follows gold miners-turned-farmers who came to the Sacramento Valley and settled along Putah Creek in what would become Yolo County, focusing on George Pierce, Champion Hutchinson, Jerome C. Davis, William Montgomery and Ransom Carey.

He documents the refusal of these early settlers to give up. Wheat became a second source of wealth – but that crop could not be relied upon for quick and easy riches any more than gold.

“Admitting failure a second time would simply not be an option, even with the ravages of flood and drought, monumental disputes over Mexican land titles, mass confusion over federal and state land policies and the vagaries of local, national and world markets that made farming in the Sacramento Valley in the latter half of the 19th century an immense challenge,” he writes.

It’s important to note that Vaught, who earned his doctorate at UC Davis, conducted much of his local research at the Yolo County Archives in Woodland and thanks Howard Moore, Mel Russell, Virginia Isaacs and Shipley Walters for their help.

Volunteer Moore was the first to show Vaught “Deed Book L” that contained detailed hand-drawn maps of Jerome Davis’ Big Ranch on Putah Creek. Vaught credits Yolo County Archives for making his book a reality.

Vaught told me later that Davis’ original ranch house and buildings were located roughly in the UC Davis parking lot on First Street caddy-corner to Voorhies Hall. You can tell by following what’s left of Putah Creek from about Mrak Hall heading east.

“At the parking lot, the creek, which has been on a northward course, peaks and heads more southward,” he said “That's right where the main house was.”

The 6-foot-6 Vaught, who is now an associate professor at Texas A&M, came to Davis in March to give a talk at the Davis Public Library and visit the Hattie Weber Museum.

His book was published Johns Hopkins University Press this year. Vaught is from Northern California -- he grew up in El Cerrito, receiving his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from San Francisco State and his doctorate from Davis in 1997. He was hired by Texas A&M that same year and has been there ever since.

I think it might have been interesting to focus on Jerome Davis, the city’s founder, but in his March talk Vaught focused on swampland reclamation in the Putah Sinks, 4,000 acres centered in what is now El Macero.

“In the decade after the Gold Rush few areas seemed less hospital to settlement,” he said. Indeed, a federal surveyor in 1862 deemed the land unfit for cultivation, which didn’t stop a small land run by “swamp-landers” who were utterly unaware of the battle with nature that they would have to face.

At first, it looked like the farmers had struck it rich – it looked like wheat would make their fortunes. Then came a flood of almost Biblical proportions creating a lake 12 miles wide, 10 feet deep. Then came a drought so severe that most of the cattle died on the range.

Ransom Carey and other land speculators began furious efforts to build levees and dig ditches and canals, but time and again these puny efforts proved fruitless in face of flooding and a waste of time during the droughts.

“It was way too big a task, not remotely possible at the time, to tame the Sacramento Rive and its tributaries,” Vaught said.

Still, swamp-landers lined up outside the Yolo County Courthouse in 1866 to buy still more land, with Carey at the head of the line.

Carey knew that if he could harvest wheat, which was exported to Great Britain, he’d be a wealthy man. Instead, he was an unlucky man. If he planted wheat, floods would ruin the crop. If he tried to raise cattle, a drought would take place.

The biggest taxpayer in Yolo County was doomed to failure. In June of 1895, while sitting in his favorite chair on his back porch overlooking his swamp-land ranch, Carey drew a pistol from his pocket and shot himself under his right ear.

Flooding continued to be commonplace until the Monticello Dam was built in the mid-1950s.

But Vaught wonders if modern land speculators have really learned anything.

“It will only take a break or two in the levees on the American River flood plain to have the next flood of the century,” he said.

-- Reach Elisabeth Sherwin at gizmo@dcn.org and watch for more local writers to be featured biweekly at this web site.

For More Information, Visit These Links:
Yolo County History at Wikipedia
History of the California Gold Rush at Widipedia

To inquire about ordering any of the above mentioned books from an independent bookstore,
Bogey's Books at discounted prices [ Click Here ]

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