Humboldt County Historical Society

A Briefest of Histories

Humboldt County


by Pamela Service, Assistant Archivist


In 1850, settlers and gold seekers found what they were seeking in what was to become Humboldt County, California.  They named their first settlement and future county seat Eureka classical Greek for "I found it."

However, for many centuries before, the area had been the ideal home for others.  The boundaries of future Humboldt County contained the home territory of several tribes, most prominently the Wiyot, Yurok, Hupa, Karuk and Tolowa.  Though speaking languages from three different language families, these groups shared similar beliefs, social structures and material culture.

All were predominantly hunter-gathers, but the area's mild climate and abundant resources allowed the people to live in permanent villages and to nurture wild plants.  Subsisting on acorns, game, coastal shellfish, and the rivers' abundant salmon and trout, they developed elaborate ceremonials and the art of fine basket making.  They experienced little warfare because disputes within and between groups were generally settled by paying compensation.  The people lived in close harmony with their environment and each other.

That harmony was shattered in 1848 when Shasta County rancher Pierson Reading discovered gold in the Trinity Mountains. Although Spanish explorers and Russian fur hunters had earlier touched Humboldt's coastline, it took a month-long westward expedition led by Josiah Gregg to establish a route between the Trinity gold fields and the coast.  In April 1850, the Laura Virginia became the first American ship to enter the bay, the adventurers on board naming it Humboldt after the famous German scientist and explorer, Alexander von Humboldt.

Soon fortune seekers flocked to the area by ship and over the mountains.  Humboldt County did not prove a major source of gold although to the east Willow Creek and Orleans developed mining-based economies, and beach sand under Gold Bluffs was worked with limited success.  However, the coastal towns of Eureka, Arcata (originally called Union) and Trinidad grew into prosperous and notoriously rowdy ports and supply centers for the mines.  Pack trains moved gold seekers and supplies into the mountains, and one of California's first railroads was built in Arcata to transport goods from the wharfs to the town plaza.

The miners and early settlers, however, usurped or destroyed the resources on which the native populations depended.  Conflict led to massacres, the establishment of government forts and forced resettlement.  These practices, as well as introduction of diseases, destroyed some tribes entirely.  Others, however, have retained their identity and many aspects of their culture.

Timber, Humboldt's "red gold", was soon found to be a resource as valuable as minerals.  Massive redwood trees, some over 2000 years old and as tall as 300 feet, thrived in the narrow fog belt along California's northwest coast.  Felling and milling activities began almost immediately as lumbermen, used to smaller eastern trees, developed new techniques and tools to deal with the huge redwoods.  Timber companies multiplied, expanding operations inland, building rail links and scattering the area with small lumber-based towns and temporary camps.

The need to ship out timber plus the ready availability of wood stimulated a local ship building industry. Fishing for crab, oysters, ocean fish and even whales grew into major industries.  Humboldt, Shelter Cove and Trinidad soon supported active fishing fleets.  The rugged coastline sprouted lighthouses in an attempt to protect shipping, but the area remained the site of numerous spectacular wrecks.

The land itself and the area's moderate climate proved to be other valuable resources.  Farmers from many parts of the world were drawn to the rich soils around Humboldt Bay and several river bottoms, while the hills provided good grazing.  Sheep raised here produced exceptional fleece, and the dairy industry prospered.  Fruit growing was also successful with the area becoming particularly known for apples.

Humboldt  towns grew, and the more prosperous citizens built elegant homes using local wood.  The difficulties of road travel over the mountains, and the dangers and discomfort of sea travel, kept the area fairly isolated.  Residents developed an attitude of rugged independence.  The "redwood curtain" began to part, however, in the early 20th century with the completion of rail connections, building the Redwood Highway and the rise of automobile use.  Tourism quickly joined timber and fishing as a major industry.  Movements to preserve the redwoods led to creation of local, state and national parks.  Though this cut into timber profits, it bolstered tourism and preserved endangered species.  The natural and architectural beauty of the area, plus relative accessibility to Hollywood, made Humboldt County the setting for many films from the silent era to the present.

Today, despite over a century and a half of change, Humboldt County remains true to its roots.  It is an area where people and their natural environment are strongly interdependent.  It is a place where many longing for an ideal home can still cry "Eureka!"