GOLD RUSH: Extra! Extra!

New bridge spans Negro Bar's past

Historical site of Gold Rush town under Lake Natoma's waters

By Walt Wiley
Bee Staff Writer
Published July 20, 1998

Soon, motorists will be zooming across Folsom's spectacular new bridge over Lake Natoma linking Folsom Boulevard and Folsom-Auburn Road, bypassing and probably eliminating the ages-old traffic jam in the city's historic district and on Rainbow Bridge.

The old-town buildings and Rainbow Bridge still will be visible from the new bridge, but invisible beneath the bridge and even beneath the lake's waters will be the place that started it all: Negro Bar.

Negro Bar is now brought to mind by the state park of that name on the lake's north shore, but the original gold camp was on the south bank of the American River long before Nimbus Dam created Lake Natoma in the 1950s.

It was a mining camp named for the African American miners who first worked the gravel bar there in 1849 and in short order became one of the larger gold camps along the lower American River.

Actually, Negro Bar was not a particularly significant spot for African American miners. They were scattered throughout the transient Gold Rush population, said Clarence Caesar, a historian with the state Office of Historic Preservation and a student of African American miners.

By 1850, there were only 962 African Americans enumerated by the census in the entire state, and it is not known if the number includes slaves, he said.

Three years later, the population of African American miners had doubled, but the overall population had so mushroomed that they still amounted to only about 1 percent of the population.

The word "Negro" or the pejorative N-word occurred often in the names of Gold Rush places, according to historian Erwin G. Gudde, "not because there were large numbers of Negroes but because the presence of a single one was sufficiently conspicuous to suggest" such a name.

In the case of Negro Bar, there is no direct record of who the original miners were, but historian Mary Maniery, in preparing a history of Negro Bar for the city of Folsom, found Sacramento County court documents from 1860 that indicate one of the men was named Samuel Smith.

Folsom Constable B.N. Bugby testified of Smith, "I think he was one of the Negroes who gave the name Negro Bar," Maniery wrote, telling of a trial in which Smith was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in San Quentin for murdering a man named Freeland Morton in Folsom.

Another name connected with African ancestry and Negro Bar is that of William Leidesdorff, a Dane born in the West Indies who came to California in 1841 and became a businessman and property owner in San Francisco.

He became a Mexican citizen in 1844 and was granted the 35,500-acre Rio de los Americanos rancho along the south bank of the American River from Sutter's Sacramento grant upriver past Folsom including Negro Bar.

Leidesdorff died of typhus in 1848 before he could profit from the excitement of the Gold Rush, and Army Capt. Joseph L. Folsom bought up Leidesdorff's holdings.

According to historian Rudolph M. Lapp, "General" Folsom sent a lawyer to the West Indies to negotiate the purchase of Leidesdorff's estate and there it was learned that Leidesdorff's mother was of African descent.

But Folsom historians indicate Folsom traveled to St. Croix himself to meet with Leidesdorff's mother, who was probably half of European descent and half a mixture of African and Carib Indian ancestry.

Leidesdorff in either case held himself forth to his California contemporaries in those racist times as European -- something Caesar said would have been necessary for his success.

"His African ancestry would have been something he'd have kept to himself," Caesar said.

For African Americans who could not hide their race, slavery was a very big issue, said historian Cindy Baker.

"There were African Americans throughout the population, some free and some slaves," she said. "This was before the Civil War, remember, so there were all sorts of situations."

In many cases, slaves worked to buy their own freedom and that of their families.

By the time slavery ended with the Civil War, the easy diggings had cleaned out most of the placer gold. Miners turned to hard-rock mining, which required capital, and most of the old-time miners -- black and white -- moved on or went to work for one of the mining companies.

There were a few African American companies formed, according to Lapp, most notably the Colored American Joint Stock Quartz Mining Co., recorded in the records of Sierra County in 1866.

As for Negro Bar, it had 700 residents by 1851 and it continued to thrive through 1856, with the Meredith Hotel and Store and A.A. Durfee & Bro. and Rowley & Richardson's stores as commercial mainstays. According to historian Baker, the commercial buildings were two stories tall and there was a doctor and a theater.

"Don't get the idea it was luxurious, though," she said.

Mining continued on Negro Bar into the 1880s, but the little town was eclipsed by Folsom.

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