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Natoma County


By Zachary Vaccarezza


As the wounds of the Civil War remained fresh on the minds of many Americans, a proposal emerged in early 1866 to form a new county in California with Folsom as the county seat. Since the town’s founding in the 1850s, Folsom has sat along the borders of three counties: Sacramento, El Dorado, and Placer. During the Gold Rush, and for many subsequent years, Folsom acted as a regional transportation hub for the various gold mining camps along the American River. To many residents in the region, establishing a new county centered around Folsom may have seemed logical and inevitable due to the town’s geography and economic connections to neighboring communities. However, "Natoma County," as proposed by state Assembly member Peter J. Hopper, was never created, emphasizing one of the many ways in which Civil War politics created lasting rifts within communities across the nation, including in California.


Sacramento County map

The attempt to create a new county centered on Folsom likely stemmed from the town’s geography and position at the base of the foothills. By the mid-1860s, Folsom had become the terminus of the Sacramento Valley Railroad (SVRR), a major route that brought prospective miners from the valley to the Gold Country.[i] The SVRR linked people from Sacramento to Folsom, where they eventually traveled to the mining camps dotted along the forks of the American River. Since Folsom sat at the confluence of the North and South forks, just at the base of the foothills, the town quickly became a hub for miners in the area. Additionally, multiple stagecoach lines ran through or split off from Folsom.[ii] Throughout the 1860s, and into the 1870s, there were bids to expand the rail networks to connect Folsom to other mining communities such as Auburn and Placerville.[iii] Despite the failures experienced by many railroad projects, these attempts highlight the widespread belief many held of Folsom's potential to become a major regional transportation hub within the area.


Although Folsom’s geography likely played a significant role in the decision to propose a new county, its economic connections to nearby communities in neighboring counties undoubtedly also influenced the proposal. While Sacramento City and many other towns throughout the county diversified their economy following the Gold Rush, Folsom remained heavily dependent on mining into the 1880s. According to census data, the majority of people recorded as living within the Folsom area worked as miners between 1860 and 1880.[iv]  In contrast, the rest of the county began to focus on agriculture and manufacturing during this period.[v] Folsom would have had significantly stronger economic ties with the mining camps located in Placer and El Dorado counties along the forks of the American River, compared to other communities within Sacramento County situated on the valley floor.


It is highly plausible that Folsom’s location as a transportation and mining hub in the American River region, coupled with its strong economic ties to neighboring counties, were motivating factors behind the proposal to establish a new county centered around the town. Peter J. Hopper, a resident of Folsom and California Assembly member, officially proposed the new county with Folsom as the county seat.[vi] Hopper would have been aware of Folsom's connections to neighboring communities, rather than with the rest of Sacramento County, possibly prompting his desire for a new county.


In early 1866, local newspapers published articles discussing Hopper’s proposal to create a new county. On January 25th, The Daily Bee in Sacramento claimed, “We have it on pretty good authority that there will soon be introduced in the Legislature a Bill for an Act to create the county of Natoma out of portions of the counties of Sacramento, El Dorado and Placer… The county seat is to be at… Folsom.”[vii] The article also listed potential county officials, with Hopper as the District Attorney and Amos P. Catlin as an Assembly member.[viii] Additional articles posted by The Placer Herald in Auburn and The Folsom Telegraph demonstrate that many residents of Folsom were in favor of establishing the new county despite the inevitability of the proposal to fail. On January 27th, the Herald published an article saying:


A new county has been a favorite project with the people of Folsom for many years; and it seems that they are an exception to the expression that “hope deferred maketh the heart sick,” —as it is state that they will press the Legislature with unusual vigor in favor of the measure—to experience, of course, defeat.[ix]


Still, support continued, and in February the Telegraph claimed residents of Folsom held meetings, “at Jesse Dresser’s saloon, to take action in regard to the proposed new county movement.”[x]


Despite gaining traction among residents in Folsom, the proposal encountered significant opposition from people living within the region, being fueled by the lingering political rifts left in the wake of the Civil War. In March, the Herald asserted, “The [Sacramento] Union charges that the move is to create a Democratic county, and the people of Sacramento fight it so viciously that it will scarcely go through.”[xi] By the end of March, it was reported that:


The bill in the Assembly, for the organization of the county of “Natoma,” out of the territory of Sacramento county, was defeated after a sharp struggle. Folsom will have to yield its aspirations for the honors and emoluments of a county seat, or nurse them until a more pliant Legislature comes into power—a thing hardly in the range o [sic] Possibilities. [xii]


Amidst the challenges of the Reconstruction Era and the ongoing struggle between the early Republican and Democratic parties, it is evident that divisions created by the Civil War played a significant role in the failure to create a new county. Similar to many of the conflicts that led to the Civil War around the addition of adding pro-Slavery states to the Union, the possible creation of a new, “Democratic County,” prompted a deep disagreement between members of California’s Assembly.[xiii]


Recent work done by local historian Kevin Knauss provides a closer look at the political conflicts within Sacramento County during this period. According to Knauss, in the months leading up to the 1865-1866 Assembly session, a “micro-civil war” was occurring between local politicians.[xiv] The disagreements, that divided political parties into multiple factions, revolved around the ratification of the 13th and 14th amendments.[xv] Open conflict often occurred between opposing party members, with Hopper and Catlin even becoming political opponents.[xvi] Directly addressing the political conflicts within this era, Knauss stated, “The great fear was that if the Democratic nominee for Governor, Henry Haight, was elected, California would never ratify the proposed amendments to the Constitution.”[xvii] Although Hopper was elected to be an Assembly member, it is clear that these political divisions promoted the failure of his proposed Democratic leaning county.


Ultimately, the new county was never created, and the proposal was quickly forgotten. Hopper was not reelected, and he only served one other term in the Assembly in 1871.[xviii] It is possible that this attempt was one of the reasons behind his short-lived time as a California Assembly member. The proposal to create Natoma County holds significant importance for Folsom residents and offers valuable insights into the region's history. It highlights Folsom's pivotal role as a transportation hub in the American River region, showcasing its economic and geographical significance. Moreover, the failed attempt to establish Natoma County exemplifies one of the many ways in which the Civil War impacted political developments across the nation. Further examination of this moment in Folsom's history can enrich our understanding by presenting diverse and opposing perspectives to Hopper’s proposal, while continuing to explore the complexities of this era. It is possible the proposed county could have failed on its own, with an economy almost entirely based on mining. Still, had Natoma County been approved by California state legislatures, the possibilities of what the region could have become are endless.



 

This article was written by Folsom History Volunteer Zachary Vaccarezza. He is currently a student at Sonoma State University and will graduate in May 2024 with a B.A. in History. As a lifelong resident of Folsom, he has always been intrigued by the city's unique past and the numerous groups that have come to call this area home.


 

 

Bibliography

Secondary Sources

Baker, Cindy L. First in the West: The Sacramento Valley Railroad. Edited by Mary L. Maniery. City of Folsom, California, 1996.

Barrows, Herbert Wray. A History of Folsom, California 1850-1900. 2nd ed. H. Wray Barrows,

1994.

Folsom Historical Society. Folsom, a Brief History: The Hub of the Mother Lode. Booklet.

Edited by Gaynel Wald. Folsom Historical Society, 2006.

Knauss, Kevin. Amos P. Catlin: The Whig Who Put Sacramento on the Map. Kevin Knauss,

2022.

“Peter J. Hopper,” Join California: Election History for the State of California, n.d., https://www.joincalifornia.com/candidate/10648.

Reed, G. Walter. History of Sacramento County California: With Biographical Sketches of the

Leading Men and Women of the County Who Have Been Identified With Its Growth and Development From the Early Days to the Present. Historical Record Company, 1923.

White, John H., Jr. “The Railroad Reaches California: Men, Machines, and Cultural Migration.”

California Historical Quarterly 52, no. 2 (1973): 131–44.


Primary Sources

“All Hail Natoma!,” The Daily Bee, January 25, 1866, 3.

“Boundary Between Placer and Sutter, and A New County.,” The Placer Herald, March 24,

1866, 2.

Census Office, Department of the Interior. “Population Schedules of the Eighth Census of the

United States, 1860, California.” National Archives, 1860.

Census Office, Department of the Interior. “Population Schedules of the Ninth Census of the

United States, 1870, California.” National Archives, 1870.

Census Office, Department of the Interior. “Population Schedules of the Tenth Census of the

United States, 1880. California.” National Archives, 1880.

“Natoma County,” The Placer Herald, January 27, 1866, 2.

“Meeting To-Night.” The Folsom Telegraph, February 10, 1866, 2.

“The bill in the assembly…,” The Placer Herald, March 31, 1866, 2.


[i] Baker, First in the West: The Sacramento Valley Railroad, ed. Mary L. Maniery (City of Folsom, California,

1996).; White Jr., “The Railroad Reaches California: Men, Machines, and Cultural Migration,” California Historical Quarterly 52, no. 2 (1973): 131–44.; Whitney, “The Natural Borderland and the History of the Folsom Locality.”; Barrows, A History of Folsom.; Folsom Historical Society, Folsom, a Brief History.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Census Office, Department of the Interior, “Population Schedules of the Eighth Census of the United States, 1860,

California,” (National Archives, 1860).; Census Office, Department of the Interior, “Population Schedules of the

Ninth Census of the United States, 1870, California,” (National Archives, 1870).; Census Office, Department of the Interior, “Population Schedules of the Tenth Census of the United States, 1880, California,” (National Archives, 1880).

[v] Reed, History of Sacramento County California: With Biographical Sketches of the Leading Men and Women of the County Who Have Been Identified With Its Growth and Development From the Early Days to the Present.

[vi] “All Hail Natoma!,” The Daily Bee, January 25, 1866, 3.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] “Natoma County,” The Placer Herald, January 27, 1866, 2.

[x] “Meeting To-Night.” The Folsom Telegraph, February 10, 1866, 2.

[xi] “Boundary Between Placer and Sutter, and A New County.,” The Placer Herald, March 24, 1866, 2.

[xii] “The bill in the assembly…,” The Placer Herald, March 31, 1866, 2.

[xiii] “Boundary Between Placer and Sutter, and A New County.,” The Placer Herald, March 24, 1866, 2.

[xiv] Knauss, Amos P. Catlin: The Whig Who Put Sacramento on the Map, 131.

[xv] Ibid., 132-133.

[xvi] Ibid., 133.

[xvii] Ibid., 139.

[xviii] “Peter J. Hopper,” Join California: Election History for the State of California.

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