Before the Fall: Stories of Conflict and Discovery in Northern California History

Like stepping off a bar stool after swilling shots of whiskey, nudging my canoe into Fall River catches me off-guard. It’s a quick dizziness, similar to launching into thin air and expecting to fall, but not. Trout further the illusion by scattering below me like flocks of startled birds. I wonder if this is how it feels to fly.

I hardly notice when tules hugging the bank begin to crackle and part, assuming the motion is an awkward sandhill crane or some silly ducks so common in this swamp. It is neither. At once my torso explodes in moulton agony as a shafted obsidian arrowhead plunges deeply into my chest. I slump forward, the canoe twirling with the current, my life drifting away…

Although purely fictional, this allegory captures the essence of actual experiences along the Fall River and upper Pit River during the mid-nineteenth century. It was a turbulent time, with two cultures colliding against one another over territory, water and dominance.

Defending their ancestral lands were the indigenous Achumawi people described by the Shasta Courier in 1853 as “the most warlike Indians in California,” notorious for their bravery and their arrows seasoned with rattlesnake venom. On the other side was Lieutenant George Crook, praised by Ulysses S. Grant as “the Army’s most skillful Indian fighter,” said to surpass the great Kit Carson in his type of warfare. The stage was set for violent confrontation.

 First Blood

The winter of 1856-57 with one of the snowiest on record, and the first snowshoed wayfarer in the new year discovered a ghastly sight at the small settlement of Lockhart’s Ferry (which would later become Fall River Mills). Buildings had been torched, provisions plundered and white settlers slaughtered, obviously by Indians.

Upon news of the attack, a group of vigilantes descended on the Fall River Valley seeking vengeance, but found only scattering of orphaned children. It was decided the Indian “depredation” could not go unanswered.

In May of 1857, US Army Company D, under the command of Lieutenant George Crook, marched from Fort Jones into the Fall River Valley with orders to subdue the hostile Natives. It took only four bloody months for the soldiers to accomplish their mission, making way for the host of changes that were to follow. The Achumawi fought bravely with primitive weapons, but were no match for the superior firepower of the United States Army.

 Upper Fall River

If we could travel back in time to 1857, what kind of Fall River would we see? The upper river was far deeper and narrower than it is today, heavily timbered about its confluence with Spring Creek and frequently steeped in shadow. From Spring Creek downstream the timber diminished, giving way to ribbons of river bleeding into endless stands of tules and miles of primordial swamp. The Achumawi took advantage of their surroundings by fashioning canoes out of tight bundles of tules giving them access to the entire river corridor.

Fall River was the main transportation artery for the Natives supporting numerous permanent and seasonal encampments, as well as burial and religious sites. The river brought food in the form of trout, pikeminnows, suckers and, during especially wet years, salmon and steelhead from the ocean. Hunters pursued deer, elk and antelope, as well as black and grizzly bears. Crayfish, freshwater mussels, not to mention grasshoppers and salmonflies were also relished as food sources by the Natives.

The Achumawi homeland was endowed with many natural wonders. Crook was especially impressed by the giant springs in the upper river that are Fall River’s primary source. “The water was so clear in these springs,” he wrote, “that it was difficult to tell where the atmosphere left off and the water commenced. There was notably one spring that was 45-feet deep and so clear that the smallest trout could be seen at its bottom with ease. This water was ice cold and full of magnificent trout.”

Today, these same springs bubble out of the earth on Thousand Springs Ranch, lands closely held in private ownership for generations and available for viewing only from the air. Once the Indians were routed, the burgeoning population of settlers removed much of the timber and, around the turn of the century, build lava rock levies to transform the enormous swamp into ranchland. Despite these changes, the Fall River Valley has somehow retained a certain special magic that hints at the way things used to be.

Lower Falls

Although not so obvious today, the town of Fall River Mills was built on the fertile delta formed by the junction of Fall River and the Pit River. As with many river towns in the west, the site grew up around a ferry across the river operated by the Lockhart family. After Crook successfully completed his campaign against the Achumawi, the fertile areaattracted additional businesses in settlers.

Through the turn of the century, the physical character of the town’s setting was much different from what we see today. On Fall River above the town site stood a formation of lava boulders known as Manning’s Falls. Water plunged over the falls into a series of shallow riffles and runs that extended through the settlement. This section of Fall River once boasted a springtime salmonfly hatch of some renown. (“Salmonfly” is the non-scientific name given to several large species of stonefly that hatched in the river in the springtime, highly anticipated by ravenous trout and enthusiastic anglers alike.)

In April 1888 edition of the Shasta Courier describes the phenomenon in the antiquated prose of the era:

“Salmonflies are now ripe and are to be had for the picking. Consequently the small boy is in his glory and may be seen in pairs and gangs hieing their way to Manning’s Falls to cast their line with a certainty at each cast of drawing forth the speckled trout that anxiously awaits their coming. Not only the small boy but the small girl, the man, the woman, the Indian and the Chinaman are all infatuated with the delightful sport and all return well satisfied with their success.”

The river provided more than fish. It also provided at least one fancy home. An impressive wood-framed house was built on an island in Fall River just above its confluence with Pit River. This 1887 description from the Shasta Courier romanticizes the local landmark”

“On this green spot surrounded by the raging waters, I. H. Winter has erected his residence and can probably claim that nowhere else its equal exists. Owing to the fact that Fall River is fed by springs, its waters are warm in winter in cold in summer, and the temperature of the island is the same. In the spring when the trout bite, the family can stand at the kitchen door, and with rod and flies in a few minutes land a sufficient number of the finny tribe for a meal.”

“Tis a home suited to a poet’s fancy,” added a Republican Free Press article, “or a retreat charming enough to please the eye of a painter.”

Island House and Manning’s Falls are now long gone, literally drowned by hydropower projects that have turned the stretch of river into the frog water you see when you pass through town. Also gone is Fall River Falls, where Fall River cascaded at least 30-feet into the Pit. It dried up when lower Fall River was diverted into a 2-mile tunnel through Saddle Mountain, water that now feeds the Pit 1 Powerhouse (next to Clearwater Lodge on the Pit River).

The Other Pit Canyon

Fly-fishers tend to think of the Pit Canyon as the 20-plus miles of Special Regulations fishing water below Lake Britton. But between Fall River Mills and the Pit 1 Powerhouse there is another Pit Canyon few anglers have heard about.

Not far below its original confluence with Fall River, the Pit River tumbles through a rugged six-mile canyon directly below Hwy. 299. In the 19th century, the Winter Brothers (builders of Island House) also owned a bridge just below Pit River Falls in the canyon, along with a toll road that connected the growing town with Hat Creek at the old Carbon Bridge site.

Pit River Falls. Flickr/Beej Jorgensen

While pioneers were drawn to the canyon as a route to the Sacramento Valley, the Natives were attracted by the salmon congregating below the falls. Pit River Falls, a dramatic natural cascade about two and a half miles below the present Fall River Mills, presented a barrier to migrating salmon and was a critical spearing site for the Achumawi during the salmon spawning season.

In some wet years the Pit River was swollen with sufficient water to allow salmon passage over all three waterfalls (Pit River Falls, Fall River Falls and Manning’s Falls). Records indicate salmon and steelhead sometimes made it into Deer Creek, a tributary to upper Fall River, for spawning. Settlers launched great schemes the dynamite Pit River Falls thereby allowing salmon regular passage up the Pit River into Fall River. This account from an 1881 Shasta Courier describes  one such attempt:

“E.E. Van Sickel and the Kenyon brothers have commenced work on the Pit River Falls. For the purpose of lowering these falls there has been an appropriation of $2,300. The object is to allow the salmon to pass up the river. The scenery about the falls is grand. Towering rocks lift their heads above the thread-like river. Hardy pines and other evergreens are growing along the canyon while the river winds its course narrow and rapid to its ocean home. There is in this canyon food for much reflection.”

The blasting had little, if any, effect.

You can view Pit River Falls, the bridge below and the remains of the old Winters Road from the Hwy. 299 vista point at the top of the grade just west of Fall River Mills.

A Heroines Story

Lieutenant George Crook

During the tragic hostilities of  the late 1850s, the Pit Canyon below Fall River Mills became an Indian stronghold greatly feared by non-Native travelers. Crook even took an arrowhead in his leg during a skirmish there that he carried for the rest of his life.

One of Crook’s scouting missions placed him and his men down where the Pit Canyon opens up (roughly where the Pit 1 Powerhouse is today). The following account, paraphrased from Crook’s autobiography, is a poignant reminder of how bravery and sacrifice is sometimes able to rise above prejudices against race or gender:

While on a routine scout along the Pit, Crook and two of his soldiers discovered an Achumawi encampment of about 100 men, plus women and children. (The derogatory descriptive words are Crook’s, not Active NorCal’s.)  “The squaws commenced gathering grass seed,” recounted Crook, “while the bucks stood sentinel.” Nearby Crook found a discarded wash boiler and some photographs, evidently plunder from Lockhart’s Ferry Massacre. This was provocative evidence against the Natives.

On the path back to their horses after discovering the enemy encampment, the excited soldiers came face-to-face with an Native woman carrying a basket of grass seed and, on her back, a baby. “She was very much frightened,” wrote Crook, “but not confused. She seemed to realize the situation.” The soldiers brought her back to their position above the ferry and conspired to attack that night under cover of darkness.

“The night came on very dark,” Crook continued. “A severe thunderstorm overtook us on the mountain. The clouds were inky black, and the darkness was so intense that we could not see our hands before us except when the flashes of lightning lit up the country.”

Well armed and on horseback, the soldiers forced a woman to walk in front of them along the trail. “Her child would cry occasionally,” he noted, “when she would stop, nurse and sing to it.”

When they arrived at the spot where the Indian encampment had been, the soldiers were surprised to discover the Indian fires were now burning on the other side of the Pit River. “The river here was nearly 100-yards wide,” wrote Crook, “and we could tell nothing about its depth.”

They found a single, damaged canoe on the bank, and a debate ensued over how it might be employed in their attack. “The squaw (Crook’s words) laid down her papoose,” Crook recounted, “and, taking up her basket hat, commenced bailing out the canoe, gradually working her way toward the end farthest from the shore. All of a sudden she drove under the water and disappeared.”

“It did not seem a minute before all the fires were put out in their camp on the other side,” observed crook. The soldiers were able to cross the river at first light, and of course the Indians had long-since fled. “We returned to the opposite bank where the papoose was, which by this time was squalling at the top of its lungs.”

In an attempt to lure at least some of the Natives into an ambush, the baby was hung up on a tree limb and allowed to cry. The soldiers hid nearby in hopes of luring the Indians back, but they never came. Crook’s autobiography doesn’t mention what ever happened to the baby or, for that matter, the Native woman who made the only sacrifice greater than her own life.

But maybe Crook wasn’t entirely without a conscience, and the incident with the Indian woman along the Pit River might have had something to do with it. A West Pointer who eventually achieved the rank of Major-General, he was criticized later in his career for a growing leniency toward Indians. “She certainly deserved a crown from her people,” he later wrote, “for the sacrifice she made for them.”

Hundreds of Achumawi were killed during Crook’s brief, bloody campaign, and afterwards surviving Natives either fled or were directed to reservations A few learned “white man’s ways” and were allowed to remain. Ultimately the Achumawi were virtually exterminated.

Some time after Lieutenant Crook moved on to his next assignment (he went on to vanquish Geronimo and the Apaches) a rumor surfaced as to what really caused the Natives to attack the Lockhart’s Ferry settlement. The polite language of the day called it retribution for “depredations” by white men against Achumawi women.

Chip O'Brien

Chip O'Brien is a regular contributor to California Fly Fisher and Northwest Fly Fishing magazines, and author of River Journal, Sacramento River and California's Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra. He lived in Redding, California, for eighteen years, where he was a guide, teacher, and regional manager for CalTrout.

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