Sierra County is divided by the Pacific Crest at the midpoint, with the western side of the county made up of steep canyons and forested ridges. The county was home to both Maidu and Washoe Indians, but its modern history is tied to the California gold rush. The discovery of gold, and subsequent gold rush, resulted in some 16,000 miners settling within the county between 1848 and 1860.
Dozens of communities with colorful names such as Brandy City, Poker Flat, Poverty Hill, and Whiskey Diggins, were settled, thrived for a period and are now survived by Bassetts
, Forest and Alleghany
, Goodyears Bar
, Sierra City
, Sattley, Calpine and Sierraville
. As the gold rush waned, Sierra County’s population slowly diminished to its present 3,263.
The most visible relic of the history of those years is the 1885 Sheriff’s Gallows that remain standing adjacent to the County courthouse. Built for the specific execution of a young murderer, James O’Neill, the structure was used only once.
The eastern side of the Pacific crest also has deep canyons and timberland, and, in addition, opens out to the great Sierra Valley, the largest valley in the Sierra Nevada Range.
During the gold rush, communities in the eastern side of the county, with agriculture as their base, developed to provide commodities to the growing gold camps. A number of century-old ranches still continue the tradition of cattle ranching in the Sierra Valley
Loyalton, the county’s only incorporated city, today has about a thousand residents.
The Maidu and Washoe Indians
The Maidu and Washoe Indians were the first residents of this area of the Sierra Nevada. During summers they came into the mountains to hunt and fish. During the fall and winter, they returned to the foothills and valleys below. Artifacts such as spears and arrowheads, beads, mortars, pestles and grinding rocks have been found, particularly along Henness Pass Road. James Marshall's discovery of the yellow metal at Coloma signaled the ending of their peaceful way of life.
Gold in the mountains and valleys slashed by the forks of the North and Middle Yuba Rivers and their tributaries was so plentiful that by April 1852 the area was teeming with people. Sierra County was formed from the then-much larger Yuba County. By the mid-1850's, Downieville, the county seat, was one of the largest towns in California--surpassed only by San Francisco, Sacramento, Grass Valley, and Nevada City. It missed becoming the state capital by only one vote!
Until 1860, all supplies were brought in by mule trains, which sometimes included 75 animals, as there were no roads wide enough for wagons. Downieville and Sierra City and points east were reached from Nevada City by way of Alleghany--there was no Highway 49 back then. Sierra County is comprised of two very different regions. On the west side of the crest of the Sierra it is mountainous and heavily forested, therefore supporting miners and loggers. On the east side is the 5,000-foot-high Sierra Valley, which is said to have been an ancient lake bed that was once part of the great inland ocean of Lake Lahontan. It is one of the largest alpine valleys in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
The settlers who remained after the euphoria of the Gold Rush era was over were a hardy and independent breed. Periodically, winter storms have left as much as thirty feet of snow, blocking roads and passes.
Today we still cherish our country and vistors.
Today, Sierra County is home to slightly over 3,300 souls--no less fiercely independent--who cherish a land of incomparable beauty.