April 13, 2006
HEN THE CALIFORNIA STATE LEGISLATURE approved the incorpora-tion of Eureka in April 1856, the act merited no more than a brief paragraph in the Humboldt Times. This minimal coverage was only appropriate, for it was one of the few events in the city's six-year ascendancy that was both peaceable and legal, which therefore barely made it newsworthy.
An early saying on the North Coast claimed that "there was no law north of the Eel and no God north of the Klamath," and during the 1850s the newly arrived white citizenry spent much of their time confirming the truth of the first half of that statement. Starting almost at the moment they touched shore, these so-called "pioneers" began engaging in bribery, perjury, arson and even murder as they attempted to establish themselves and their various communities on the edge of Humboldt Bay.
But perhaps the Humboldt Times only spent a paragraph reporting the city's incorporation -- the Sesquicentennial of which will be marked on April 18 -- because it realized that the pivotal incident in the region's development had already occurred . The four-town fight for regional supremacy was effectively ended in September 1855 by the election to the state assembly of Eureka's first power broker, Casper S. Ricks.
In appearance, "Cass" Ricks (pictured above) amply fulfilled the image of a 19th century plutocrat. He stood like a statue, stolidly emanating strength. His upper lip and cheeks were shaved, but his chin was covered by a thick, spade-shaped beard. He had a prominent nose and heavy eyebrows. One engraving shows him with head tilted slightly back in an appraising attitude, but also poised with the power of a bull about to charge.
The image was apt. Amidst the milieu of the day, Ricks played the political game better than anyone. It took time, but he eventually bested his well-established and politically connected rivals, winning the most critical of the region's early contests, establishment of the seat of county government. Once Ricks won that point for his fledgling town, through a breathtaking series of broken promises, back-stabbings and double-crosses, the actual incorporation of the city could be classified as denoument. The incorporation date would give future generations an occasion to celebrate, but the jig was already up.
IT ALL BEGAN in the spring of 1850, when several shiploads of adventurers arrived from San Francisco. Their expectations were excited by word from a group of explorers just down from the Trinity River, the L. K. Wood party, that they had located a bay affording access to the inland gold mines just a few hundred miles to the north. Here was a place where anyone who preferred living off the miners to engaging in mining itself -- in other words, merchants, ranchers and packers -- could try their hand at getting rich quick. Since the Wood party had encountered only Indians in the area, it was implicitly understood that the land was there for the taking.
And take it they did, although not without certain difficulties.
The bay hadn't been entered by ship since Jonathan Winship, sailing for Russian fur traders, came in with the O'Cain in 1806. It was difficult to see the bay's entrance from off shore, since a large cliff (now called Spruce Point) stood directly to the east, and the ships arriving from San Francisco at first couldn't locate any opening in the coastline. In March, 1850 one vessel did find Trinidad Bay, which was harder to miss, and in early April two small boats made their way through the mouth of the Eel, were hauled by hand over Table Bluff, and then entered the bay by this indirect route. Only in mid-April did the Laura Virginia, piloted by second officer Hans Henry Buhne, finally become the first ship in 44 years to sail into the bay.
The vessel carried with it members of a hastily formed "land acquisition company" known as the Laura Virginia Association. Two other such groups, the Union Company and the Mendocino Exploring Company, would soon also arrive on the bay to vie for choice town sites. No one seemed to care that there was as yet no process in place for legally acquiring land--the associations would just follow the lead of the California miners and lay claim to whatever they wanted.
The Laura Virginians promptly selected a stretch of shoreline opposite the mouth of what they had just named Humboldt Bay (in honor of German scientist/explorer Alexander von Humboldt) and began to lay out Humboldt City. Their grandiose plan for the "city" stretched from today's King Salmon north and east across Elk River and bore almost no resemblance to reality. Just south of Spruce Point, where King Salmon is now situated, there was already a community -- the Wiyot village of Djorokegochkok (pronounced "Chaw-ro-ke-utch-kuk"), but that impediment to the association's plans was soon dealt with.
In May, the schooner Eclipse ran aground north of the village. Whites looted the vessel of most of its valuables, but some of the local Indians took a few sails and ropes that remained. A party of whites, guided by Wiyots from another village, then attacked and burned Djorokegochkok, claiming they had found articles from the Eclipse there. In the course of the action, one of the raiders, William H. Sansbury, shot and killed two of the Wiyot guides, saying, "I guess those fellows know too much about this, we may as well leave them right here." Sansbury was a member of the Union Company, which included four men who'd recently been charged with murdering Indians in Sonoma and Napa counties and at least two others, including Sansbury's son-in-law, Benjamin Kelsey, who'd been implicated in the rampage. According to witness Harry D. LaMotte, Sansbury's victims were "the first Indians shot on Humboldt Bay." On the ashes of the nearby Wiyot village of Djorokegochkok the Laura Virginia Association soon began to build Humboldt City.
Less than three miles to the northeast, near the mouth of Elk River, another bayside settlement was established on land first claimed by David Buck, who had passed through the area with L. K. Wood, Josiah Gregg, and others the previous winter. When Buck returned in the summer of 1850, however, members of the Union Company protested his presence and threatened him. Perhaps Buck didn't know of the company's reputation or perhaps he simply didn't scare easily, but he refused to leave. The company finally left him alone and the place then took his name, becoming known as Bucksport. Soon a town site, smaller than vast Humboldt City but still comprising 80 blocks, had been mapped off. It included another Wiyot village, Kutserwalik, although for the time being this Indian community was allowed to remain. (Its period of protection lasted less than a decade, however. In February 1860, the Northern Independent reported that on the same night as the Indian Island massacre, Kutserwalik was burned and "all were killed that were there.")
Eureka, the next town northward on the bay, was founded in May 1850 by members of the Mendocino Exploring Company, who were led by James Talbot Ryan. The ever-avaricious Union Company also wanted part of the action, and they reached an agreement with the Mendocino group to divide the town. By summertime, however, most of the claimants had lost interest in Eureka and much of the property was acquired by the newly formed general merchandise firm of Crozier and Ricks.
The fourth and last town lay at the head of the bay. Founded by the ubiquitous Union Company, it was not unexpectedly called Union Town, or for short, Union. Although it lacked a deep-water anchorage, Union was still able to receive supplies, which were apparently (records are scanty) brought up an inlet called Embarcadero Slough by small boats. The town's location gave it better access to the inland mines than the other three bayside communities, and with this advantage, Union forged ahead of its rivals.
AT THE TIME OF THEIR FOUNDING , all four towns lay within Trinity County, which then covered the entire northwest corner of the state. The following year an election was held to determine the county seat. The contest was vigorous, for the victorious community would reap the promise of progress and prosperity: county offices would be established and staffed; lawyers would set out their shingles; and a stream of citizens would come to transact county related business, stay overnight, have a few meals and perhaps make some purchases at local stores. The Humboldt Bay area contained a majority of the county's voters, and a consolidated effort would have resulted in the lucrative seat being located on the coast. But the bayside towns selfishly split their vote: Union polled 364, Eureka 195, and Humboldt City 4 -- thereby allowing inland Weaverville, which counted 441 votes, to gain the honor.
By then it took an effort for Humboldt City to scrape together even its four votes. The town, which stretched for four miles on paper, had managed to erect only a dozen buildings (although one was a four-story hotel). Hampered by poor access to the mines, Humboldt City quickly began to decline and by the fall of 1851 was reported to be "nearly deserted."
That left Humboldt Bay with three viable communities. Bucksport, which had failed to garner a single vote in the county seat election, received a boost in early 1853 when Fort Humboldt was established on the bluff just east of town. Now the community could compete with Union and Eureka, and it had a chance to do so later that year when Humboldt County was created from part of Trinity County, which meant another election for a county seat. Bucksport, as the southernmost of the three contenders, received support from settlers in the Eel River valley, but it was not enough to overcome Union, which won, according to an early county history, amidst "charges of fraud and dishonest voting."
Eureka and Bucksport did not passively accept the result. The following year, a petition signed by over a third of Humboldt voters prompted County Judge J. E. Wyman to call for a new election, which was held that fall. To help Bucksport's cause, William Roberts offered to sell any non-local voter a 50-by-100-foot lot for $1 if he cast his vote for Bucksport. His offer was endorsed by such local luminaries as Rev. Aristides J. Huestis and Dr. Jonathan Clark. It was an outright attempt at bribery, but done so openhandedly that we can only admire its audacity today.
Despite Roberts's efforts to rig the election, Bucksport finished last, garnering 288 votes. With Union polling 310 and Eureka 469 votes, respectively, no town had a majority. This meant a runoff between the two highest vote-getters, Union and Eureka. What had been mere electioneering melodrama was about to ascend to the heights of farce.
On Nov. 20, 1854, the citizens of Humboldt County again voted for the location of the county seat. They voted not just again but again and yet again, and when their votes were finally tallied, the results far exceeded anyone's expectations. Union was found to have more than doubled its total from the previous election, which should have assured it the victory -- were it not for Eureka, which better than quadrupled its vote. Yet even this remarkable multiplying of voters was not enough, for it was the remote (and sparsely populated) Angel's Ranch precinct, high in the hills east of Blue Lake, that provided the margin of victory: 2,136 votes -- all for Union. The contest had turned on the question of which town could best estimate the amount of fraud necessary to gain the election, and in this, Union -- ably assisted by its ally, Angel's Ranch -- was the clear winner.
The County Clerk and the County Judge, adopting the spirit of the occasion, duly certified the results. Residents of Union now clamored for a courthouse, but the county supervisors, perhaps mindful of the flimsy framework supporting the town's claim as the seat of government, did not act on the request.
So it was that nearly five years after its founding, Union still stood preeminent on the bay; it held the county offices, continued to dominate the packing trade, and was poised to significantly improve its port facilities, as a wharf that jutted 11,000 feet into the bay neared completion. Bucksport meanwhile had settled into a supporting role as the handmaiden to Fort Humboldt. In February its sole mill, the bankrupt Modena, was sold at auction and then dismantled. Bucksport could claim a wharf, however, and a landing for a ferry that crossed to what is now Fairhaven. Eureka, still smarting from its failure to commit enough election fraud, tried to balance its delicate economy with the production from its bayside mills, but output was down due to a prolonged slump in the demand for lumber, and so the town stagnated. It appeared that the courses of the three communities were fixed for the foreseeable future.
But then came the election of 1855.
IN THE MID 1850s both national and state politics were in chaos. The escalating slavery issue played havoc at the federal level, and one of the era's two main political parties, the Whigs, began disintegrating under the strain. Some Whigs joined the fledgling American (or Know-Nothing) Party, which favored the "patriotic cause of [the] Union" but was also anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant. The Republican Party had begun organizing to replace the Whigs but didn't coalesce nationally until 1856. The other major party, the Democrats, was also suffering internal division in deciding how to deal with the growing demand to end slavery.
At the state level, the conflict was, if anything, worse. The Democrats controlled the legislature, but they had locked themselves into what became a frustrating two-year battle to fill a vacancy in one of the state's U. S. Senate seats (in those days United States senators were still chosen by state legislatures). Massive corruption in the San Francisco municipal government, which precipitated a bank failure, added to voter dissatisfaction, with the result that many Democrats embraced the rapidly rising Know-Nothings as the September 1855 elections approached.
Locally, the turmoil trickled down to affect, most dramatically, the race for the state assembly. Humboldt County at the time had an assembly district all to itself, and the office was then filled by Albert Hamilton Murdock, a resident of Union, who had run as a Whig the previous year. Now, though, as candidates took to the hustings in the summer of 1855, there were three aspirants to the Assembly, and the race quickly became complicated.
Murdock was running for reelection, but his party, the Whigs, had folded beneath him. The following year, according to his son, he "was one of four Republicans in the county, and by no means popular," but in 1855 he couldn't claim even that dubious political connection and so apparently ran as an Independent. Murdock was a "wide-awake Yankee" from Massachusetts, who had the distinction of opening "the first mercantile house" in Union in May 1850. (It was actually not a house but a tent, located on the northeast corner of the Plaza.) Four years later he'd left for Sacramento and the assembly.
Opposing him was a Eureka candidate, none other than Casper S. Ricks, late of Crozier and Ricks, who had by then bought out his partner and was now the sole owner of much of Eureka. In 1854, Ricks became "the first lobbyist to represent Eureka in the state legislature," according to a retrospective account. He successfully promoted a bill that allowed towns to confiscate land owned by persons no longer residing in the county. The legislation would benefit Eureka and other communities where many of the original land claimants had left for other parts.
Ricks' party affiliation was clouded. He was later described as an "ardent" Democrat, but being such in 1855 was not the way to win an election. The local Democratic party was in disarray, with "the Chairman of the County Committee and most of the old line democrats having gone over to the Know-Nothings," in the words of the Humboldt Times. At one point that year Ricks was labeled a Know-Nothing by the paper, and he was listed as such on the election returns, but subsequently the Times issued a correction, claiming that Ricks "did not run as a party candidate, although formerly an American [Know-Nothing]." Regardless of his stated affiliation, Ricks probably courted, and received, most of the Know-Nothing vote as the party swept the statewide elections.
The third hat in the ring belonged to none other than the editor of the Times, E. D. Coleman. He had published an editorial supporting slavery that April and would probably have run as a pro-slavery Democrat had the fumbling party managed to endorse candidates for the election. Although his control of the county's only paper offered him the bully pulpit during the campaign, Coleman was either too principled or too inept to take advantage of the opportunity, for his statements about the contest were infrequent and nearly always obtuse. Coleman, it should be noted, was a resident of Union, which meant that in the three-way race Union would field two candidates and Eureka one.
In the end it was probably this fact of political geography, rather than any appeal of political philosophy, that determined the election. When all the results were in, Ricks had polled a strong plurality of 173 votes, nearly equaling the combined total of Coleman (97) and Murdock (82). Eureka went decisively for its home-town hero, Ricks, while Union neatly split most of its vote between its two resident candidates. Bucksport favored Murdock, but that was hardly consequential, since the now-declining community could only muster a total of 34 votes. Lastly, the three southernmost voting districts chose Ricks over the other two candidates by more than a three-to-one ratio. Perhaps no one thought much about that particular result immediately after the election, but the vote from the lower end of the county proved to be portentous.
Coleman, one of the losers, complained immediately about the conduct of the election, charging that Know-Nothing election officials had prevented naturalized citizens and certain merchants from voting, while allowing votes from other persons "who have not resided in this county for some months." He would soon learn that he had considerably more to complain about.
Meanwhile, however, Coleman was conciliatory towards Ricks, indicating that "though opposed to Mr. Ricks politically, he being a Freesoiler (an anti-slavery group) and a Know Nothing, we cannot withhold expression of the people in his favor, as a man of talent and integrity." Coleman continued his post-election panegyric at some length and then concluded by enumerating some of Ricks' wide-ranging campaign pledges, which included: "reducing the salaries of our county officials, ... to reduce the price of state printing, ... [and] to punish the crimes of fornication and adultery." Coleman omitted perhaps the most important Ricks pledge, but he would have reason to refer to it later.
THREE MONTHS AFTER THE ELECTION , a petition from southern Humboldt voters asked, in part, that the legislature move the county seat to Eureka. Their claim had a certain practical merit, since no one could argue that Union was anything but remote and inaccessible. Humboldt County's northern boundary at the time ran on a line with what is now School Road in McKinleyville. To the north was roadless and underfunded Klamath County, which had been carved from Trinity County in 1851. It became the first and only California county ever to be dissolved when an agreement was reached in 1876 to divide its land (and debts) between Humboldt and Siskiyou counties. In 1856, however, with Klamath County still in existence, Union found itself situated only a few miles south of the boundary. This meant that the vast majority of Humboldt County citizens lived closer to Eureka than to Union.
In addition, it was extremely difficult for this vast majority to approach Union from the south. There was as yet no road around the east side of Humboldt Bay, which left travelers with two unattractive options: either go by boat up the bay from Eureka to Arcata, which sometimes involved debarking in the mud flats, or take the ferry from Bucksport to the Samoa Peninsula, then travel along the beach to the mouth of Mad River, then go up the south side of Mad River, and finally approach Arcata from the north. The petition from southern Humboldt showed that the contest between Union and Eureka had become more than a mere rivalry between two competing communities; it now involved the residents of the entire county, who had come to realize that they all had an interest in the location of the county seat.
When the legislature subsequently met for its 1856 session, "one of the first acts of the new representative [Casper S. Ricks]," according to historian Owen C. Coy, "was to present the petition and to introduce a bill transferring the county seat to Eureka." The legislation was pushed forward by the forceful former lobbyist, was soon approved, and became law. Coleman, still licking his wounds from the election, found that he had been wounded yet again: "It puzzles the brains of some of our people," he wrote, "to know how our Representative can, after the pledges he made before the election, move in the [county seat] matter -- he having pledged himself not to agitate the question." Given the pro-Ricks election results from south county, it appears that residents from that area had heard no such pledge from Ricks, and one wonders if they in fact had heard him pledging exactly the opposite.
In any case, the milk had been spilt, and neither the crying of Coleman or any other Unionite would now do any good. In short succession, four events occurred that signaled Eureka's ascendancy over Union. First, on April 18, the act incorporating the town of Eureka was approved. Then, on May Day, County Clerk L. K. Wood (whose explorations had earlier helped set off the stampede to Humboldt Bay) removed the county records from Union and carried them to Eureka, the latter, according to the Humboldt Times, "being the County Seat of Humboldt county from and after that day." In an article that appeared just below this announcement came news that the town had lost more than the county seat -- it had also, after a run of only a few weeks, ceased to be a city. The California Supreme Court had ruled that Union's incorporation, which had been approved by the town's voters but apparently not -- like Eureka's -- endorsed by the legislature, was invalid. Thus, in but two paragraphs of the Times, Union tumbled to the status of merely being another of the county's several unincorporated towns. Finally, in June, a municipal election determined the first "Trustees" of the city of Eureka. They were A. S. Rollins, J. M. Eddy, George Graham, James T. Ryan ... and Casper S. Ricks. When the Trustees met later that month they elected as their first president (was there any doubt?) Casper S. Ricks.
So it was that within a year, Cass Ricks, Eureka's biggest landowner, had seen himself elected to both the state assembly and to the presidency of the Eureka Board of Trustees, meanwhile finding time to generate the legislation that elevated his home community to the status of county seat. It had been a heady time indeed for the 34-year-old Ricks, whose star, not coincidentally, continued to rise with that of Eureka's. In November, he sought reelection to the Assembly -- as an Independent (his ardency for the Democratic Party still subdued). His opponent, who did run as a Democrat, was fellow Eureka Trustee James T. Ryan. Ricks won decisively, 256 to 176, even outpolling Ryan (by one vote) in Union, despite the damage Ricks had done to that town with his bill to relocate the county seat.
Eureka had shown its rising political power by fielding both of the assembly candidates and was by then also exhibiting its economic strength. According to the Times (the defeated, disgruntled Coleman had recently left as editor), Eureka was "the greatest lumber manufacturing town on the Pacific." The market had at last rebounded, and the community had seven steam sawmills in operation, along with a flour mill and "hotels, saloons, retail stores, &c." Union was still the prime supplier to the mines, and had numerous businesses, but in the years that followed the packing trade was disrupted by Indian-white conflicts and then mining diminished. Eureka, with more mills and the county offices, had more to sustain it. By 1880, Eureka had 2,639 residents and Union (which by then had become Arcata) had only 702. Any competition for primacy had long since been decided in favor of Eureka.
AND WHAT OF THE MAN who did more than anyone else to bring that primacy about? We can find accounts of his further exploits in at least four county and regional histories, which featured, for a fee, laudatory biographies of "outstanding" citizens. From these we learn that Casper Stinemets Ricks went on to become Humboldt County's District Attorney, develop the Ricks Water Works, build and stock the Palace Stables, and remain (no surprise here) "the largest owner of improved real estate in the city." One biography's summation actually approached the edges of candor, stating that "Mr. Ricks, however, never shelters himself behind a pretense to unselfishness in his aims for personal success. For this he strives within the limits of legitimate business methods, and as a useful and active citizen, has practically shown that those methods cannot well be independent of the public welfare." Years later, when the covers of these books were crumbling to dust, the Arcata Union provided what has, at least until now, been the last word on Ricks. The paper's centennial edition of 1986 showed that 130 years had not dimmed the Union's memory of what Ricks had done to Union, for, in reference to the transfer of the county seat, the paper claimed: "But no one reckoned with Casper S. Ricks of Eureka, an influential man of somewhat questionable character...."
And, looking back on the Humboldt Bay area of the 1850s, with its forced displacement of the Wiyot Indians, its multiple fraudulent elections, and its self-serving strivings for individual and community success, we need only add a single sentence to the Union's summation:
"Casper Ricks was a man of the times."
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