GeneaBlogie Grand Genealogy Journey – Day 1: Sacramento

Downtown Sacramento near the river

Sacramento has often been overlooked by visitors to Northern California; the same visitors are frequently mesmerized by the city some 90 miles away called San Francisco. Dissing Sacramento used to be a favorite pastime of the cognoscenti.   “It’s too hot!”  “It’s too dry!”  “It’s too flat!”  “It’s got no culture!” Even the California Supreme Court refuses to have its main office in Sacramento, which is after all, the capital of California.  The Court long ago chose San Francisco as its seat.

In fact, there would be little of anything that one likes about San Francisco had it not been for Sacramento.

On the site of present -day Sacramento, a settlement called Sutter’s Fort was founded in 1840 by Johann Augustus Sutter,  a former Swiss army officer with something of a history of bad business judgment.   In addition to the fort on the eastern bank of the Sacramento river, Sutter established a sawmill in the eastern foothills.  In January of 1848, one of Sutter’s business associates, John Marshall, found gold at the mill located in Coloma, California.  Despite Marshall’s and Sutter’s efforts let word out, news of the gold discovery spread rapidly.    Soon, several hundred thousand people were on their way to California.  Sacramento became the commercial outpost for the Gold Rush.

Originally known as New Helvetia, the city was planned and named by Sutter’s son.

John Sutter

Johann Augustus Sutter (1803-1880) called himself "John" after he came to America.

With the influx of immigrants from around the world, Sacramento was a booming center of commerce in the 1850s.  The Legislature decided in 1854 to make Sacramento the capital. [The Legislature had sat in Monterey, San Jose, and Benicia.  The apocryphal story is told that Sacramento civic boosters planned a party aboard a river boat for legislators in Benicia.  The boat was stocked with fine liquor and many prostitutes.  As the lawmakers got drunker, the boat moved upriver through the night to Sacramento.  When daylight came, the disgraced legislators were too embarrassed to return to Benicia and decided to stay in Sacramento!]

Sacramento played an important role in  changing the history of America.  A Connecticut engineer named Theodore Judah had come to California and built the Sacramento Valley railroad.  This  was the first railroad west of the Mississippi.  It ran from Sacramento’s Embarcadero to Folsom, a mining town on the western edge of the gold fields.  But Judah had bigger plans: he wanted to build a trans-continental railroad.  To finance his big plan, Judah sought venture capital in and around San Francisco.   There were no takers.  Judah then returned to Sacramento and found four local men, Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, Collis Huntington, and Mark Hopkins, who were willing to take a risk on Judah’s plans.  The “Big Four” as they were known formed the Central Pacific Railroad Company to build Judah’s railroad over the Sierra–a plan thought foolhardy by more than just a few.

Theodore Judah

Theodore Judah (1826-1863) died before the Transcontinental railroad was completed.

The grand plan was that the Central Pacific Railroad would be built from the west and link to the Union Pacific Railroad being built from Omaha.  Two Acts of Congress and generous grants of government land helped the project along.  And as every schoolchild knows (or at least used to know), six years of work, much of it through the Civil War, culminated in March 1869 with the driving of the last spike to unite the lines at Promontory Summit, Utah.

The greatest technological feat of the nineteenth century wouldn’t have happened as it did but for the four Sacramento businessmen who believed in the project. The railroad changed American commerce forever.

Before the railroad was completed, Sacramento was the western terminus of the Pony Express.

5Mark Hopkins, Jr. Collis Huntington
Leland Stanford Charles Crocker

The “Big Four”: Mark Hopkins, Collis Huntington, Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker.  Stanford went on to serve as Governor and United States Senator from California, and founded Leland Stanford, Jr., University. Crocker later founded a bank which became Crocker Bank (later acquired by Wells Fargo).  It was a Crocker Bank branch in the Sacramento suburb of Carmichael (home of the GeneaBlogie  Bloggcast Center) in 1975 raided by Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army, resulting in the killing of customer Myrna Opsahl.

Sacramento today is at the heart of a metropolitan area of about 2 million people.  Agriculture remains important in this region, but a slew of high-tech and service industry business has moved in to supplement state government employment.   Situated at the confluence of the American and Sacramento rivers, Sacramento is nicknamed “River City,” and is sometimes called The City of Trees because of its lush foliage.

So today we’re at the California State Railroad Museum in Old Sacramento where it all began. The Museum occupies the space on the Embarcadero where the Sacramento Valley line had begun.  It’s regarded as the most popular rail museum in North America.  Stay awhile; have a look around.

California Railroad Museum

California State Railroad Museum

Sacramento is not a town to forget its origins. Today, not far from the railroad museum, you can visit the renowned Crocker Art Museum, endowed by Judge Edwin B. Crocker and his wife Margaret.   Edwin Crocker was the older brother of Charles Crocker and was legal counsel to the Central Pacific Railroad.  “The Crocker” currently is undergoing a multi-million dollar arenovation that will triple the size of its exhibit space. The expanded museum is expected to open in October 2010.  The Crocker is at 216 O Street.

A few blocks from The Crocker is the Stanford Mansion, 800 N Street, a National Historic Landmark known officially as  Leland Stanford State Historic  Park.  Gov. Leland and Jane Stanford resided here.  Take a look around this place!Stanford Mansion

Although Gov. Stanford and two other  succeeding Governors lived here in the late 1800s, California now has no official Governor’s Mansion.  The Stanford house is California’s official reception center for visiting dignitaries.

When you’re finished there, you can go across the street to the California State Library, located at 900 N Street. The Library’s California History Room has many genealogical and family history research resources,

California State Library

including the 1852 California State census, a statewide index to the 1890, great register of voters (a very useful substitute for the 1890 census), city and county directories, going back as far as 1850, historical newspapers, and telephone directories dating from 1899.

A block away from the state library is California’s State Capitol.  Just inside the entrance of the capital, is the state Capitol Museum. This museum has replicas of the offices in the capitol building at the time it was completed in 1874 (after 14 years of construction and 2000% overbudget!).   The museum also has an extensive art collection and an architectural history collection.  And, of course, it has collections relevant to the legislative process in California.

California State Capitol Museum

The California State Archives, a division of the office of the secretary of state of California, is located a short walk away from the Capitol grounds at 1020 O Street.  The archives houses, among other things, County records from 1850 to 1987, including probate court files, wills, naturalizations, deeds, homesteads and vital records for 28 counties. You’ll also find here prison records from 1850-1979, military records from 1850-1942, and state mental hospital records from 1856-1934.

California State Archives

California State Archives at 1020 O Street

The California Secretary of State also operates the California Museum for History, Women and Arts, at the same location as the archives.  This museum known simply as The California Museum, has taken on a more diverse set of exhibits under the patronage of First Lady Maria Shriver.

Here at the California Museum, we’re about 10 blocks away from the Embarcadero.  We’ll head back north on 10th Street to I Street, and turn north.  At 8th and I Streets, is the Central Library, the largest location of the 27-branch  Sacramento Public Library. On the second floor of the library is the Sacramento Room, often described as the “Jewel in the Crown” of the Library. The Sacramento Room houses more than 21,000 artifacts of local history in a climate controlled environment.

sacramento room

The Central Library's Sacramento Room

Elsewhere in the library, you’ll find Ancestry Library Edition and the New England Ancestors database. The Central Library also has a collection of Sacramento city directories, a fair selection of genealogical books, and publications from hundreds of genealogical organizations around the country.

I’ll also point out that Sacramento has its LDS Regional Family History Center in the suburb of Arden-Arcade, and in other Family History Center in the suburb of Elk Grove.

So now it’s time to head for the train station.  Fortunately, from the Central Library, it’s just three blocks to the Amtrak Sacramento Valley station. We’ll be catching the California Zephyr to Salt Lake City.  See you on board!  Don’t be late!


4 Responses to “GeneaBlogie Grand Genealogy Journey – Day 1: Sacramento”

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  • Craig,

    Wonderful piece! I’m looking forward to the rest of the journey. It’s very timely too since one of our members is coming down to Oakland and Sacramento for some research at the end of the month. I’m sending her the link. (Please note that your “California State Library” link seems to be broken.)

  • Tina Micheal says:

    A great write up for us here in Sacramento!I need to make better use of some of these resources,thanks for the reminder!

  • This is an absolutely beautiful and wonderful tribute to Sacramento! Oh, what people are missing! Thanks for sharing Craig, as many times as I have been and through Sacramento I have not been to many of these places, shame on me!

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