They thought the American River was just a lovely stream of fresh water flowing through the valley from somewhere high in the unexplored Sierra Nevada—until its secret treasure was discovered in 1848. Suddenly everyone around the globe was vividly aware of its existence, as if the river itself were a dazzling new geographic feature, recently formed for the prosperity of mankind.
But the river was very old, and had been known by other names not too long before the thrilling gold discovery. It began life some ten million years ago when the Sierra Nevada thrust skyward in a massive tectonic uplift, cutting ancient channels through rock even before the receding glaciers of the Great Ice Age carved out new chasms and tempered its course. Over the eons three forks evolved—North, Middle and South—each originating in the Sierra’s high peaks; the North and Middle Forks west of Lake Tahoe, and the South Fork rising south of the lake near Echo Summit. Each branch wound alone for miles and miles through conifer forests, spectacular canyons, and stark granite outcrops; through occasional meadows and grasslands, until they merged in the oak-covered foothills, flowing downward as a single stream to empty into the larger Sacramento River in the lowlands.
For thousands of years—until the gold discovery on the South Fork—the river’s upper regions were known only to the native Nisenan peoples, who established settlements as high as the 3,000 foot level of the Sierra, seasonally hunting and fishing in the higher elevations. In the early nineteenth century Spanish explorers and American fur trappers entered the Sacramento Valley, never venturing higher than the foothills; but they named the river they saw. Spaniard Gabriel Moraga, believed to have reached the Lower American River circa 1808, named it “Rio de las Llagas” (river of sorrows) in honor of Christ’s suffering on the Cross. In April 1827, American fur trader and explorer Jedediah Strong Smith named it “Wild River,” in commemoration of an unfortunate incident with Indians. Ten years later, in 1837, Mexican governor Juan Alvarado gave the river its permanent name, calling it the “Rio de los Americanos,” because by then American fur trappers were frequenting the area. As late as 1841, the United States Wilkes Expedition members, with a sandbar blocking their ship and no time to hike farther inland, dismissed it as a “small, serpentine stream with a course of but a few miles.”
Early settlers soon realized that the Lower American River was a force to be reckoned with. In years of heavy rain, the river would overflow its banks, flooding the region for miles around, damaging crops and drowning livestock. The worst flood year in historic times occurred in the winter of 1861-62, when the city of Sacramento was completely inundated as levees and bridges collapsed. In August 1862, work commenced to straighten a troublesome river bend and deepen a slough on the city’s northeast side, a project completed in December 1868.
The American River is not navigable, except for a few miles upstream from its mouth at the Sacramento, and then only in shallow-draft boats. Each of its forks has a different temperament. The North Fork’s wild whitewater rapids are for experts only, while the Middle Fork’s canyons provide challenging terrain for hiking and horseback riding. The “more tranquil” South Fork offers multi-use recreational areas. All contain vistas of surpassing beauty.
In bygone days, the river’s waters were used to drive grist mills and irrigate small farming operations. Today, the American River is extensively dammed and diverted for flood control, domestic water supply, and the production of hydroelectricity.
Photo of the American River at Auburn Canyon by Andrew Crusoe