The Discovery and Settlement of Humboldt Bay

This is a historial post from Hiking the California Trail, a 1998/2002 book set by Bob Lorentz and Richard Nichols. Where possible an update has been provided.

The Algonkian Wiyot people were the original residents of the Humboldt Bay region, inhabiting Pacific and bay shores from lower Mad River on the north to lower Eel River on the south, thriving on the marine abundance of this rich and gentle coastal strip. Their mythology’s depiction of abalone as the first people confirms the Wiyot are an ocean-oriented, coast-dwelling society.

Early European explorers overlooked Humboldt Bay because its narrow and shallow mouth was often hidden in fog. The notable exception to this came in 1806 when American sea captain Jonathan Winship discovered the bay when exploring for the Russian-American Fur Company. Winship’s discovery was forgotten because he deemed the bay unnavigable.

After gold discoveries along the Trinity and Klamath Rivers in 1848, the search for a safe north coast harbor resumed, driven by the difficult inland route to the new mines. In late 1849 a party of eight men led by Dr. Josiah Gregg left the Trinity mines seeking the Trinidad Bay shown on Spanish maps. Though local natives told Gregg the journey to the coast would take eight days, his party lacked guides and lost the native trail in a snowstorm. After a four and a half week ordeal, Gregg’s starving party finally reached Trinidad Bay. They traded with the Yuroks for provisions, then followed the coast south.

They soon found Humboldt Bay, California’s second largest. Christmas Day found Gregg’s party camped beside the bay at the future location of Arcata, feasting on elk and clams provided by friendly Wiyots. The party headed south to tell booming California of their discoveries, but quickly found their ordeal had just begun. Gregg died of starvation en route. Their second leader, L. K. Wood, was mauled by grizzly bears in the Eel River canyon and crippled for life, but the survivors reached Sonoma eight grueling weeks after leaving Humboldt Bay.

Several ships immediately left San Francisco racing for Humboldt and Trinidad Bays. Settlement began at Trinidad in March 1850, at Humboldt Bay in April. By summer a trail was completed to the Klamath and Trinity mines, and by September Eureka had its first sawmill. By 1853 nine Humboldt Bay mills shipped 20 million board feet of lumber to San Francisco.

Originally Published in Hiking the California Coastal Trail: Guide to Walking the Golden State's Beaches and Bluff from Border to Border - Volume One: Oregon to Monterey (2nd Edition) by Bob Lorentzen and Richard Nichols
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