The history of Humboldt County is a rich tale with a varied heritage.
From Native Americans to immigrants, from Spaniards to settlers, the County’s early foundations remain evident in its architecture, people and mix of cultural offerings. Humboldt County’s first residents hailed from the Yurok, Karuk, Wiyot, Chilula, Whilkut and Hupa Indian tribes, among others. They settled on the Pacific coast and along the banks of the Trinity and Klamath Rivers, and were the first to discover the area’s now renowned salmon and trout fishing, and rich farmlands. However, this hidden idyll soon was discovered by others eager to share in its bounty.
As early as the 15th century, explorers such as Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo and Sir Francis Drake began to sail along the County’s coastline, observing landmarks and harbors and searching for a mythical cross-continental passage. It wasn’t until 1775 that a Spanish vessel, captained by Juan Francisco de Bodega, would brave the unpredictable winds and rocky shoreline to land at Patrick’s Point in Trinidad. Bodega and his men left a crude cross on Trinidad Head to signify their claiming of the country for the King of Spain. Today a memorial cross stands in its place.
In the late 1700s, Trinidad bay served as a port for fur trading and Chinese trade expeditions. Among the ships that anchored there was the first American ship to land on the Humboldt coast, the Leila Byrd. All the while, captains and their crews seeking greater access to land trade routes searched in vain for other sheltered ports.
Humboldt Bay was finally “discovered” in 1806 by an exploration party from the O’Cain, a vessel jointly commissioned by the Winship brothers from Boston and the Russian-American Fur Company. However, when the O’Cain’s mission to hunt sea otters ended, the ship sailed out of Humboldt Bay, with no one on board documenting the bay’s location on a map. The location of the bay’s entrance hidden among rocky cliffs and sand dunes, once again became a mystery!
The search for Humboldt Bay was renewed during the early years of the California Gold Rush. The discovery of gold in the Trinity region of Northern California in 1848 caused a population explosion in Humboldt County. The explorers, traders and trappers, who came seeking adventure and wealth, now gave way to miners seeking gold and settlers anxious to claim the rich farmlands. Companies that supplied interior mining settlements began looking for coastal supply ports as alternatives to the slow and expensive overland Sacramento Valley route then in use.
Dr. Josiah Gregg, a supply company merchant, and his party traveled west on foot from the Trinity mines and found the bay on December 20, 1849. The next year, a dozen expeditions were mounted from San Francisco to search for the port. On April 9, 1850, the Laura Virginia, captained by Douglas Ottinger, found the entrance to the bay. A small boat was launched and sailed into the harbor by First Mate H.H. Buhne. These founders christened the Bay “Humboldt” after the popular naturalist and author Baron Alexander von Humboldt. Four days later, Warnersville, the County’s first town, was established on Trinidad Bay. The founding of Humboldt City, and the towns of Union (now Arcata) and Eureka soon followed.
The establishment of these settlements gave rise to hostile relations between the settlers and Native Americans. Small-scale skirmishes gave way to larger engagements, ultimately leading to the building and equipping of Fort Humboldt in 1853. Several famous generals of the Civil War, including Ulysses S. Grant, served at the Fort.
Not everyone in Humboldt County was a miner or a soldier; other commercial trades were developed during this period including farming, shipping, shipbuilding, fishing and the brewing of steam beer. Logging and the lumber trade soon dominated the area because of the plentiful supply of timber and the great demand for lumber in San Francisco. When Eureka’s charter was granted in 1856, the city boasted seven sawmills that produced two million board feet of lumber every month.
Redwood Coast Timeline
1700 - Late 1700s. Trinidad Bay serves as a port for fur trading and Chinese trade expeditions.
1775 - A Spanish vessel captained by Juan Francisco de Bodega lands at Patrick's Point in Trinidad.
1806 - O'Cain enters Humboldt Bay. The description and map of the Bay are now on file in Leningrad. The bay receives the name, "Bay of Indians."
1848 - The discovery of gold in the Trinity region causes a population explosion in Humboldt County.
1849 - Dr. Josiah Gregg leaves Rich Bar to go west to find Humboldt Bay. December 20: Humboldt Bay rediscovered.
1850 - A dozen expeditions start from San Francisco to search for the port at Humboldt Bay. April 9: the Laura Virginia, captained by Douglas Ottinger, finds the entrance to the Bay.
1853 - Fort Humboldt is established.
1853 - State legislature approves an act to divide Trinity County into two parts. West portion, Humboldt; east portion, Trinity.
1854 - E. D. Coleman establishes The Humboldt Times. Allen & Co. builds first steamer, on Humboldt Bay. Eureka & Union Transportation Company founded. Steamer Glide serves Eureka and Arcata commerce.
1855- Discovery of a new trail to the gold fields in Denny via China Flat (Willow Creek) saves three days travel.
1856 - Eureka's charter granted. The city boasts nine sawmills that produce two million feet of lumber every month. December 20.- Humboldt Light on North Spit of Humboldt Bay, is lit. First on north coast.
1858 - Bret Harte goes to work for Editor Stephen G. Whipple of the Northern Californian, the second newspaper on Humboldt Bay.
1860 - Indian Island (Gunther) massacre occurs at same time Indians are slain at South Spit and in Eel River Valley. Gold Bluffs mining excitement creates a new "rush."
1861 - Indian war enters fierce new peak which lasts until late 1864.
1871 - Mt. St. Joseph College established near Rohnerville, overlooking Alton and Eel River Valley.
1884 - William Carson begins building his mansion.
1906 - April. Earthquake rocks and damages Eureka and Humboldt County.
1911 - Fernbridge construction at Ferndale is completed. Considered at the time to be the world's largest all-concrete span.
1914 - Northwestern Pacific Railroad completed from Eureka to San Rafael.
1918 - Dayton Murray pilots first airplane flight from San Francisco to Eureka.
1941 - Tanker Emidio sunk by Japanese submarine off Cape Mendocino. First enemy action near U.S. mainland by Japanese.
1955 - Earthquake and Floods hit the North Coast.
1964 - The Great Eel River Valley Flood isolates many communities.
1970 - Name of Gunther Island changed back to Indian Island by order of Eureka City Council.
2004 - City of Eureka cedes large portion of Indian Island back to Wiyot people.