For thousands of years the Nisenan Maidu Indians lived a peaceful hunting and gathering existence along the Yuba, Consumnes, Mokelumne, Sacramento and Natomon (American) Rivers. The Nisenan were a southern linguistic group of the Maidu tribe. The word "Nisenan" (meaning from among us, on our side) was used as a self-designation by the Maidu who lived near the Yuba and the American Rivers. The largest group of Maidu lived along the north side of the American River. Their temporary summer homes were small conical shaped shelters made from thick rectangular slabs of tree bark. The shelters provided protection against the long and hot valley summers.
Volimhu, a permanent village, was located about a mile downstream, on the south side of the American River, where modern Natoma is located. In a permanent village, a meetinghouse or "Kum" (coom) was usually the center of community life. The "Kum" was where ceremonies were held and visiting guests were housed. It was conical and approximately fifty feet across, four feet deep, with a framework of poles, crossbeams and layers of bark, sticks, twigs and dirt placed over the framework. The thickness of the walls made it comfortable all year around.
Food was plentiful for the Nisenan Maidu people. They ate both large and small game, roots, berries, seeds, salmon and acorns. The women harvested fresh acorns using long sticks to knock them out of the oak trees, gathering them in large burden baskets and storing them in granaries until the acorns were needed for food. To prepare the acorns, the women split the shell off the acorn with an elongated, cylindrical rock pestle, using the same tool to grind the acorn kernels into flour. This grinding was done using one of the many holes that had been worked into a massive slab of bedrock next to the river. You can still see evidence of their labor in the grinding rocks located below the Folsom Power House.
Clothing was minimal for the Maidu in the moderate climate of the Sacramento Valley. In the summer the adults wore shredded grass or tule skirts. During the winter, they added blankets or capes made of woven rabbit fur for warmth.
Known as excellent basket weavers, the Maidu women gathered tule, milkweed, sedge grass and wild grape vines to create their baskets. The baskets were used to gather food, catch fish, cook acorn mush, and carry their babies, and store tools and supplies.
Maidu communities began disappearing very early in the Gold Rush Era when many miners arrived and began extensive mining operations along the river bars and surrounding hills. Peaceful hunting and gathering cultures were almost immediately overwhelmed as traditional forage areas and ancient milling sites became the scene of mining and commercial activities.
Folsom prior to the Gold Rush
In 1827, Jedediah Smith led a group of trappers through the area. His search for a pass over the Sierra Nevada's opened up the land to trappers and traders drawing the attention of John Sutter and William A. Leidesdorff. In 1842, the latter was granted 35,000 acres along the American River called "The Rancho Rio de los Americanos."
Jedediah Strong Smith (1798-1831)
In the fall of 1826, Jedediah Smith and his men arrived at Mission San Gabriel in Southern California via the Mojave Desert. They were the first group of American trappers to reach California overland. They were well treated by the mission padres, but the Mexican governor in San Diego had instructed them to leave at once by the route they had entered. (They were illegal immigrants!) Smith was determined to continue his trapping and explorations. He quietly led his men into the San Joaquin Valley and headed north trapping and taking furs as they went. His plan was to scout the new territory and then return home via a mountain route.
April 30, 1827 his small band of men traveled east across the Sacramento Valley toward the Sierra foothills looking for a place to cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains. They carried with them skins of beaver and river otter. Along the banks of the river they saw many Maidu Indian villages.
This marks the beginning of the history of Folsom. He and his men were the first recorded white people to come here. The spot Smith had chosen for a campsite was later to become part of the City of Folsom. After their stopover here, his group journeyed north and east where they joined a traders and trappers rendezvous in Utah.
Smith, was one of the most exciting and picturesque "mountain men" of the old west. He was known for his endurance, integrity, and leadership. Smith was tall, thin man in buckskin, whose brown hair hung long and straight about his ears to hide scars caused by an encounter with a bear. On one of his earlier expeditions, a bear attacked his group; Smith was almost scalped tearing one ear severely. He calmly directed one of his companions to sew up his wounds and stitch the ear back in place. Despite his thin physique, he was exceptionally strong. He never wore a beard and was known for his habit of carrying a well-used Bible with him at all times.
Smith was not all seriousness and often displayed a sense of humor and an ever-present desire to try new and adventuresome things. When he and his men were making their way back down the American River from the rendezvous in Utah, he apparently decided to mark the occasion with special daring. They made a small craft and rode the last two miles down the river. Spring floods filled the river to its fullest, and Smith and his men had a wild ride. They passed and Indian lodge along the way, and they watch as the terror-stricken natives fled in panic.
Even though he left California soon after this wild ride, Smith had led the way. Word spread of the excellent fur trapping along California's inland rivers, and American trappers started appearing in increasing numbers. Smith's explorations of the far west lasted only nine years, but in that time he covered between 8,000 and 9,000 miles. Indians near Santa Fe killed him in 1831. Some writers claim he traveled farther than any other mountain men.
The Sacramento County Historical Society marked Smith's role in the history of Folsom on April 30, 1960. A bronze marker was dedicated on that day in his honor at Folsom City Park.
William Alexander Leidesdorff (1810-1848)
IN 1841, the schooner Julie Ann sailed into the San Francisco harbor and dropped anchor by the village of Yerba Buena. The owner of the Julie Ann was William Alexander Leidesdorff, who would become one of California's leading citizens and the owner of the land on which Folsom is now located.
A year earlier he had been a successful trader in New Orleans. Leidesdorff owned 12 ships and a prosperous business. He was engaged to be married and was head over heels in love with his fiancée. Then, without warning, he was refused admission to her home and the engagement ring was returned. Her parents informed him that she was no longer interested in seeing him. Though there is no proof, it seems that her proud Creole family had learned his West Indian mother had Negro and Carib blood in her veins thus making him unacceptable as a son-in-law.
Heartbroken, Leidesdorff sold all his property and ships, and left New Orleans forever. He sailed the Pacific, trading and moving on, until he arrived in Yerba Buena. He traded with both the Mexicans and the Russians. By 1844, trade in wheat, tallow and hides earned him enough money to purchase a lot at Clay and Kearny Streets. He also had a warehouse built at California and Leidesdorff Streets.
He became a naturalized Mexican citizen and received a land grant of eight Spanish leagues, or more than 35,000 acres. The grant, called the Rancho Rio de los Americanos, began at about the point where Bradshaw Road connects with the river. A sign was posted there, one side faced west and was lettered Sutter while the east facing side said Leidesdorff. The grant extended upriver to where Folsom Prison is today. Two years later Leidesdorff had an adobe home built at the western end of his property, but he never lived there.
Meanwhile, Leidesdorff's career in San Francisco was spectacular. He became the contract agent to furnish supplies to the Russians and collect Sutter's debt. He built the City Hotel, the finest in San Francisco. He was a treasurer of San Francisco. He served on its first City Council and the first school Board. He was a close friend of Commodore Robert Stockton and was appointed Vice Consul by Thomas Larkin.
He brought the first steamboat to San Francisco Bay, the double side-wheeler SITKK. In 1847, the year after he had the adobe built, he took the SITKK to Sacramento. Little is recorded about the trip except that he raced an ox cart on the downstream trip to Benicia and lost.
The plans he had for the Rancho de los Americanos will never be known. On May 18, 1848, as the first reports of rich gold strikes on the banks of the American River came filtering into San Francisco, William Alexander Leidesdorff died of pneumonia or typhus (two different accounts list different causes of death).
The Gold Rush (1848-1850)
When gold was discovered in 1848, mining camps sprang up along the rivers. Folsom might have faded away with the other camps had it not been for two pivotal events in 1856. First, was the completion of Joseph Folsom's dream of a "Granite City", surveyed and laid out by Theodore Judah. Lots were sold and the town was renamed in honor of Joseph Folsom, who sadly passed away a year earlier.
Joseph Libby Folsom (1817-1855)
Joseph Libby Folsom was born in New Hampshire in 1817 and he was an 1840 graduate of West Point. Captain Folsom, U.S. Army quartermaster department, arrived in California in 1847 with the Stevenson Regiment. After the Mexican War, he remained in San Francisco. By 1848, Folsom was collector of the Port. The following year he became interested in capitalizing on the future potential of California. He purchased several lots in San Francisco and became interested in the estate of William A. Leidesdorff.
In June of 1849, Folsom left San Francisco for the Danish West Indies to locate Leidesdorff's heirs. There he found Anna Maria Spark, who had never married Leidesdorff's father, but had been granted an act legitimizing her children. Folsom contracted with her to purchase title to Leidesdorff's San Francisco holdings and Rancho Rio de los Americanos for $75,000 dollars to be paid in three installments. Anna Spark, knowing nothing of land values in California, was only too happy to accept Folsom's offer.
When Folsom returned to San Francisco, he found land values to be skyrocketing, and his newly purchased title to the Leidesdorff estate already in question. The government was claiming right to the property purchased by Folsom. The claim was brought because under old Mexican law foreigners could not inherit property. The dispute was brought to the courts, where legal entanglements over the conflicts of Mexican, American and Danish laws kept it for over ten years.
Meanwhile, as the value of his holdings increased, Folsom was faced with the near-impossible battle to finance his legal defense to their title. He was forced to borrow repeatedly, sometimes paying interest as high as 3% per month for short-term notes. His troubles were further complicated by Anna Spark's refusal to accept the second installment payment on her son's estate.
By 1855, Folsom's health as well as his cash had begun to give out. He hired Theodore Judah to survey and lay out a town site near the mining camp of Negro Bar to be called Granite City. There had been talk since 1852 of a railroad, the first in the West, to be built from Sacramento at least as far as Negro Bar. In February 1855, Folsom accepted the post of president of the fledgling railroad.
Joseph Libby Folsom died at the age of 38 on July 19, 1855, of renal failure or pneumonia at Mission San Jose. (Different sources give different causes of his death). Like Leidesdorff, he died too soon to see the development of Rancho Rio de Los Americans, part of which was to become the town of Folsom. Only three weeks after Folsom's death, the first rail was laid on the new Sacramento Valley Railroad; and the first train completed the trip to Folsom in February 1856. In the same month, town lots in Granite City, which was renamed Folsom in his honor, were placed on the auction block, with most of the 2,048 lots sold the first day.