Nisenan (Southern Maidu) and Plains Miwok Native Americans had lived in the area for perhaps thousands of years. Unlike the settlers who would eventually make Sacramento their home, these Native Americans left little evidence of their existence. Traditionally, their diet was dominated by acorns taken from the plentiful oak trees in the region, and by fruits, bulbs, seeds, and roots gathered throughout the year.
In 1808, the Spanish explorer Gabriel Moraga discovered and named the Sacramento Valley and the Sacramento River. A Spanish writer with the Moraga expedition wrote: "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 (the Spaniards) drank deep of it, drank in the beauty around them. "¡Es como el sagrado sacramento! (It's like the Blessed Sacrament.)" The valley and the river were then christened after the "Most Holy Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ", referring to the Catholic sacrament of the Eucharist.
Mexican Period: Sutter's Fort and New Helvetia
Inside the historical Sutter's Fort. Main building housing John Sutter's offices. (2009)
John Sutter Sr. first arrived in the area on August 13, 1839, at the divergence of the American and Sacramento Rivers with a Mexican land grant of 50,000 acres. The next year, he and his party established Sutter's Fort, a massive adobe structure with walls eighteen feet high and three feet thick.
Representing Mexico, Sutter Sr. called his colony New Helvetia, a Swiss inspired name, and was the political authority and dispenser of justice in the new settlement. Soon, the colony began to grow as more and more pioneers headed west. Within just a few short years, Sutter Sr. had become a grand success, owning a ten-acre orchard and a herd of thirteen thousand cattle. Fort Sutter became a regular stop for the increasing number of immigrants coming through the valley. In 1847 Sutter Sr. received 2,000 fruit trees, which started the agriculture industry in the Sacramento Valley. Later that same year, Sutter Sr. hired James Marshall to build a sawmill so that he could continue to expand his empire, however, unbeknownst to many, Sutter Sr.'s "empire" had been built on some very thin margins of credit.
From New Helvetia to "Sacramento City"
In 1848, when gold was discovered by James W. Marshall at Sutter's Mill in Coloma (located some 50 miles (80.5 km) northeast of the fort), a large number of gold-seekers came to the area, increasing the population. In August 1848 Sutter Sr.'s son, John Sutter Jr. arrived in the area to assist his father in relieving his indebtedness. Now compounding the problem of his father's indebtedness, was the additional strain placed on the Sutters by the ongoing arrival of thousands of new gold miners and prospectors in the area, many quite content to squat on unwatched portions of the vast Sutter lands, or to abscond with various unattended Sutter properties or belongings if they could. In Sutter's case, rather than being a 'boon' for Sutter, his employee's discovery of gold in the area turned out to be more of a personal 'bane' for him.
By December 1848, John Sutter Jr., in association with Sam Brannan, began laying out the City of Sacramento, 2 miles south of his father's settlement of New Helvetia. This venture was undertaken against the wishes of Sutter Sr., however the father, being deeply in debt, was in no position to stop the venture. For commercial reasons the new city was named "Sacramento City," after the Sacramento River. Sutter Jr. and Brannon hired topographical engineer William H. Warner to draft the official layout of the city, which included 26 lettered and 31 numbered streets (today's grid from C St. to Broadway and from Front St. to Alhambra Blvd.). Unfortunately, a certain bitterness grew between the elder Sutter and his son as Sacramento became an overnight commercial success (Sutter's Fort, Mill and the town of Sutterville, all founded by John Sutter, Sr., would eventually fail).
The citizens of Sacramento adopted a city charter in 1849, which was recognized by the state legislature in 1850. Sacramento is the oldest incorporated city in California, incorporated on February 27, 1850. During the early 1850s, the Sacramento valley was devastated by floods, fires and cholera epidemics. Despite this, because of its position just downstream from the Mother Lode in the Sierra Nevada, the new city grew, quickly reaching a population of 10,000.
Remnants of downtown Sacramento's Chinatown
at Sacramento's Chinatown Mall
Throughout the early 1840s and 1850s, China was at war with Great Britain and France in the First and Second Opium Wars. The wars, along with endemic poverty in China, helped drive many Chinese immigrants to America. Many first came to San Francisco, which was then the largest city in California, and known as "Dai Fow" (The Big City), and some came eventually to Sacramento (then the second-largest city in California), also known as "Yee Fow" (Second City). Many of these immigrants came in hope of a better life as well as the possibility of finding gold in the foothills east of Sacramento.
Sacramento's Chinatown was located on "I" Street from Second to Sixth Streets. At the time, this area of "I" Street was considered a health hazard because - lying within a levee zone - it was lower than other parts of the city, which were situated on higher land. Throughout Sacramento's Chinatown history, there were fires, acts of discrimination, and prejudicial legislation such as the Chinese Exclusion Act that was not repealed until 1943. The mysterious fires were thought to be set off by those who did not take a liking to the Chinese working class. Ordinances on what was viable building material were set into place to try to get the Chinese to move out. Newspapers such as The Sacramento Union wrote stories at the time that portrayed the Chinese in an unfavorable light to inspire ethnic discrimination and drive the Chinese away. As the years passed, a railroad was created over parts of the Chinatown, and further politics and laws would make it even harder for Chinese workers to sustain a living in Sacramento. While the east side of the country fought for higher wages and fewer working hours, many cities in the western United States wanted the Chinese out because of the belief that they were stealing jobs from the white working class.
The Chinese remained resilient despite these efforts. They built their buildings out of bricks just as the building guidelines were established. They helped build part of the railroads that span the city as well as made a great contribution to the transcontinental railroad that spans the United States. They also helped build the levees within Sacramento and its surrounding cities. As a result, the Chinese are a well-recognized part of Sacramento's history and heritage.
While most of Sacramento's Chinatown has now been razed, a small Chinatown mall remains as well as a museum dedicated to the history of Sacramento's Chinatown and the contributions Chinese Americans have made to the city. Amtrak sits along what was part of Sacramento's Chinatown "I" Street.
California's State Capitol Building
The California State Legislature, with the support of Governor John Bigler, moved to Sacramento in 1854. The capital of California under Spanish (and, subsequently, Mexican) rule had been Monterey, where in 1849 the first Constitutional Convention and state elections were held. The convention decided that San Jose would be the new state's capital. After 1850, when California's statehood was ratified, the legislature met in San Jose until 1851, Vallejo in 1852, and Benicia in 1853, before moving to Sacramento. In the 1879 Constitutional Convention, Sacramento was named to be the permanent state capital.
Begun in 1860 to be reminiscent of the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C., the Classical Revival style California State Capitol was completed in 1874. In 1861, the legislative session was moved to the Merchants Exchange Building in San Francisco for one session because of massive flooding in Sacramento. The legislative chambers were first occupied in 1869 while construction continued. From 1862 to 1868, part of the Leland Stanford Mansion was used for the governor's offices during Stanford's tenure as the Governor; and the legislature met in the Sacramento County Courthouse.
Garden at Sacramento, California State Capitol photo taken July 3, 2002
With its new status and strategic location, Sacramento quickly prospered and became the western end of the Pony Express. Later it became a terminus of the First Transcontinental Railroad, which began construction in Sacramento in 1863 and was financed by "The Big Four"—Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker, Collis P. Huntington, and Leland Stanford.
In 1850 and again in 1861, Sacramento citizens were faced with a completely flooded town. After the devastating 1850 flood, Sacramento experienced a cholera epidemic and a flu epidemic, which crippled the town for several years. In 1861, Governor Leland Stanford, who was inaugurated in early January 1861, had to attend his inauguration in a rowboat, which was not too far from his house in town on N street. The flood waters were so bad, the legend says, that when he returned to his house, he had to enter into it through the second floor window. From 1862 until the mid-1870s Sacramento raised the level of its downtown by building reinforced brick walls on its downtown streets, and filling the resulting street walls with dirt. Thus the previous first floors of buildings became the basements, with open space between the street and the building, previously the sidewalk, now at the basement level. Most property owners used screw jacks to raise their buildings to the new grade. The sidewalks were covered, initially by wooden sidewalks, then brick barrel vaults, and eventually replaced by concrete sidewalks. Over the years, many of these underground spaces have been filled or destroyed by subsequent development. However, it is still possible to view portions of the "Sacramento Underground".
The same rivers that earlier brought death and destruction began to provide increasing levels of transportation and commerce. Both the American and especially Sacramento rivers would be key elements in the economic success of the city. In fact, Sacramento effectively controlled commerce on these rivers, and public works projects were funded though taxes levied on goods unloaded from boats and loaded onto rail cars in the historic Sacramento Rail Yards. Now both rivers are used extensively for recreation. The American River is a 5-mph (8-km/h) waterway for all power boats (including jet-ski and similar craft) (Source Sacramento County Parks & Recreation) and has become an international attraction for rafters and kayaking.
The Sacramento River sees many boaters, who can make day trips to nearby sloughs or continue along the Delta to the Bay Area and San Francisco. The Delta King, a paddlewheel steamboat which for eighteen months lay on the bottom of the San Francisco Bay, was refurbished and now boasts a hotel, a restaurant, and two different theaters for nightlife along the Old Sacramento riverfront.
The modern era
The city's current charter was adopted by voters in 1920. As a charter city, Sacramento is exempt from many laws and regulations passed by the state legislature. The city has expanded continuously over the years. The 1964 merger of the City of North Sacramento with Sacramento substantially increased its population, and large annexations of the Natomas area eventually led to significant population growth throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.
Sacramento County (along with a portion of adjacent Placer County) is served by a customer-owned electric utility, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD). Sacramento voters approved the creation of SMUD in 1923. In April 1946, after 12 years of litigation, a judge ordered Pacific Gas & Electric to transfer title of Sacramento's electric distribution system to SMUD. Today SMUD is the sixth-largest public electric utility in the U.S., and is a leader for innovative programs and services, including the development of clean fuel resources, such as solar power. The year following the creation of SMUD, 1924, brought several events in Sacramento: Standard Oil executive Verne McGeorge established McGeorge School of Law, American department store Weinstock & Lubin opened a new store at 12th and K street, the US$2 million Senator Hotel was open, Sacramento's drinking water became filtered and treated drinking water, and Sacramento boxer Georgie Lee fought Francisco Guilledo, a Filipino professional boxer known as Pancho Villa, at L Street Auditorium on March 21.
Barracks set up for families of Japanese ancestry at the Sacramento Assembly Center.
Early in World War II, the Sacramento Assembly Center (also known as the Walerga Assembly Center) was established to house Japanese Americans forcibly "evacuated" from the West Coast under Executive Order 9066. The camp was one of fifteen temporary detention facilities where over 110,000 Japanese Americans, two-thirds of them U.S. citizens, were held while construction on the more permanent War Relocation Authority camps was completed. The assembly center was built on the site of a former migrant labor camp, and inmates began arriving from Sacramento and San Joaquin Counties on May 6, 1942. It closed after only 52 days, on June 26, and the population of 4,739 was transferred to the Tule Lake concentration camp. The site was then turned over to the Army Signal Corps and dedicated as Camp Kohler. After the war and the end of the incarceration program, returning Japanese Americans were often unable to find housing and so 234 families temporarily lived at the former assembly center. Camp Kohler was destroyed by a fire in December 1947, and the assembly center site is now part of the Foothill Farms-North Highlands subdivision.
The Sacramento-Yolo Port District was created in 1947, and ground was broken on the Port of Sacramento in 1949. On June 29, 1963, with 5,000 spectators waiting to welcome her, the Motor Vessel Taipei Victory arrived. The port was open for business. The Nationalist Chinese flagship, freshly painted for the historic event, was loaded with 5,000 tons of bagged rice for Mitsui Trading Co. bound for Okinawa and 1,000 tons of logs for Japan. She was the first ocean-going vessel in Sacramento since the steamship Harpoon in 1934. The Port of Sacramento has been plagued with operating losses in recent years and faces bankruptcy. This severe loss in business is due to the heavy competition from the Port of Stockton, which has a larger facility and a deeper channel. As of 2006, the city of West Sacramento took responsibility for the Port of Sacramento. During the Vietnam War era, the Port of Sacramento was the major terminus in the supply route for all military parts, hardware and other cargo going to Southeast Asia.
West America Bank Building
In 1967, Ronald Reagan became the last Governor of California to live permanently in the city. A new executive mansion, constructed by private funds in a Sacramento suburb for Reagan, remained vacant for nearly forty years and was recently sold by the state.
The 1980s and 1990s saw the closure of several local military bases: McClellan Air Force Base, Mather Air Force Base, and Sacramento Army Depot. In 1980, there was another flood. The flood's damage affected the "boat section" of Interstate 5. The culmination of a series of storms as well as a faulty valve are believed to have caused this damage.
In the early 1990s, Mayor Joe Serna attempted to lure the Los Angeles Raiders football team to Sacramento, selling $50 million in bonds as earnest money. When the deal fell through, the bond proceeds were used to construct several large projects, including expanding the Sacramento Convention Center Complex and refurbishing of the Memorial Auditorium. Serna renamed a city park for migrant worker rights activist Cesar Chavez. Through his effort, Sacramento became the first major city in the country to have a paid municipal holiday honoring Chavez.
In spite of military base closures and the decline of agricultural food processing, Sacramento has continued to experience population growth in recent years. Primary sources of population growth are an influx of residents from the nearby San Francisco Bay Area, as well as immigration from Asia and Latin America. From 1990 to 2000, the city's population grew by 14.7%. The United States Census Bureau estimates that from 2000 to 2007, the county's population increased by nearly 164,000 residents.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s (decade), Mayor Heather Fargo made several abortive attempts to provide taxpayer financing of a new sports arena for the Maloof brothers, owners of the Sacramento Kings NBA Basketball franchise. In November 2006, Sacramento voters soundly defeated a proposed sales tax hike to finance the plan. The defeat was due in part to competing plans for the new arena and its location. After acquiring the majority stake in the Sacramento Kings, the team’s new owner, Vivek Ranadivé with the help of the city, agreed to build a new Arena in the downtown area. With a final estimated cost of $558.2 million, Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center opened on September 30, 2016.
Despite a devolution of state bureaucracy, the state government remains by far Sacramento's largest employer. The City of Sacramento expends considerable effort to keep state agencies from moving outside the city limits. In addition, many federal agencies have offices in Sacramento. (The California Supreme Court normally sits in nearby San Francisco.)