Drought made California inhospitable in the 1840s

Posted by
Tue, February 24, 2009

Drought made California in the 1840s a dusty and desolate backwater, writes Gaye Lebaron in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat.

There was no land suitable for agriculture anywhere around the pueblo of Sonoma, [Lt. Charles Wilkes] wrote in his report. And the Sacramento Valley was no more than a "barren wasteland."

Wilkes, you see, had the bad luck to arrive in California in the year 1841, which was a drought year in this area of such significant proportions as to change the course of history.

I raise this issue now because it looks like the course of history may wobble, or at least bend a bit, in subsequent months. We’ve had rain, but the experts tell us that 2009, like 1841 and a dozen or more years since, will be recorded as another drought year. ...

Certainly the population couldn’t drink enough to matter. There was only a Presidio, nothing more, in San Francisco. Northern California was divided into large (I mean 40,000-acres large) land grants.

[John] Bidwell, traveling south, estimated there were 200 people in Santa Barbara, 250 in Los Angeles and 150 in San Diego. He may have missed a few, since estimates for Mexico’s Alta California in the 1840s placed the population at about 80,000. But there were still a lot fewer water drinkers, lawn-waterers and driveway-hosers than today’s 36 million-plus.

Still, there had not been enough rain to go around. In another recollection, Bidwell wrote about the "parched earth" that blew out of his hand and about the "total failures" of corn and grain crops.

ONE OF THOSE significant failures altered the destiny of our North Coast. If we had had a little more rain that winter, John Sutter might have been able to pay the departing Russians for Fort Ross. As it happened, Sutter had three successive years of crop failures and couldn’t pay the Russians the $5,000 worth of wheat he owed them in ‘41 and ‘42, or the $10,000 in wheat and produce that was due in ‘43, which Bidwell described as "dryest year I’ve ever known, in fact it was almost rainless."