Sacramento (/ˌsækrəˈmɛntoʊ/ SAK-rə-MEN-toh; Spanish: [sakɾaˈmento]; Spanish for ‘”sacrament”‘) is the capital city of the U.S. state of California and the seat of Sacramento County. Located at the confluence of the Sacramento River and the American River in Northern California‘s Sacramento Valley, Sacramento’s estimated 2018 population of 501,334 makes it the sixth-largest city in California and the ninth largest capital in the United States. Sacramento is the seat of the California Legislature and the Governor of California, making it the state’s political center and a hub for lobbying and think tanks. Sacramento is also the cultural and economic core of the Sacramento metropolitan area, which had a 2010 population of 2,414,783, making it the fifth largest in California.
Before the arrival of the Spanish, the area was inhabited by the Nisenan, indigenous peoples of California. Spanish cavalryman Gabriel Moraga surveyed and named the Rio del Santísimo Sacramento (Sacramento River) in 1808, after the Blessed Sacrament, referring to the Eucharist in the Catholic Church. In 1839, Juan Bautista Alvarado, Mexican governor of Alta California, granted the responsibility of colonizing the Sacramento Valley to Swiss-born Mexican citizen John Augustus Sutter, who subsequently established Sutter’s Fort and the settlement at the Rancho Nueva Helvetia. Following the American Conquest of California and the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, the waterfront developed by Sutter began to be developed, and incorporated in 1850 as the City of Sacramento. As a result of the California Gold Rush, Sacramento became a major commercial center and distribution point for Northern California, serving as the terminus for the Pony Express and the First Transcontinental Railroad.
Sacramento is the fastest-growing major city in California, owing to its status as a notable financial center on the West Coast and as a major educational hub, home of California State University, Sacramento and University of California, Davis. Similarly, Sacramento is a major center for the California healthcare industry, as the seat of Sutter Health, the world-renowned UC Davis Medical Center, and the UC Davis School of Medicine, and notable tourist destination in California, as the site of The California Museum, the Crocker Art Museum, the California State Railroad Museum, the California Hall of Fame, the California State Capitol Museum, and the Old Sacramento State Historic Park. Sacramento International Airport, located northwest of the city, is the city’s major airport. Sacramento is known for its evolving contemporary culture, dubbed the most “hipster city” in California. In 2002, the Harvard University Civil Rights Project conducted for Time magazine named Sacramento “America’s Most Diverse City”.
Nisenan (Southern Maidu), Modoc, and Plains Miwok Native Americans had lived in the area for perhaps thousands of years. Unlike the settlers who would eventually make Sacramento their home, these Native Americans left little evidence of their existence. Traditionally, their diet was dominated by acorns taken from the plentiful oak trees in the region, and by fruits, bulbs, seeds, and roots gathered throughout the year.
In 1808, the Spanish explorer Gabriel Moraga encountered and named the Sacramento Valley and the Sacramento River. A Spanish writer with the Moraga expedition wrote: “Canopies of oaks and cottonwoods, many festooned with grapevines, overhung both sides of the blue current. Birds chattered in the trees and big fish darted through the pellucid depths. The air was like champagne, and (the Spaniards) drank deep of it, drank in the beauty around them. “¡Es como el sagrado sacramento! (It’s like the Blessed Sacrament.)” The valley and the river were then christened after the “Most Holy Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ”, referring to the Catholic sacrament of the Eucharist.
John Sutter Sr. first arrived in the area on August 13, 1839, at the divergence of the American and Sacramento Rivers with a Mexican land grant of 50,000 acres. The next year, he and his party established Sutter’s Fort, a massive adobe structure with walls eighteen feet high and three feet thick.
Representing Mexico, Sutter Sr. called his colony New Helvetia, a Swiss inspired name, and was the political authority and dispenser of justice in the new settlement. Soon, the colony began to grow as more and more pioneers headed west. Within just a few short years, Sutter Sr. had become a grand success, owning a ten-acre orchard and a herd of thirteen thousand cattle. Fort Sutter became a regular stop for the increasing number of immigrants coming through the valley. In 1847 Sutter Sr. received 2,000 fruit trees, which started the agriculture industry in the Sacramento Valley. Later that year, Sutter Sr. hired James Marshall to build a sawmill so he could continue to expand his empire, however, unbeknownst to many, Sutter Sr.’s “empire” had been built on thin margins of credit.
Sacramento in 1849, when the city was an economic center of the California Gold Rush.
In 1848, when gold was discovered by James W. Marshall at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma (some 50 miles (80.5 km) northeast of the fort), a large number of gold-seekers came to the area, increasing the population. In August 1848 Sutter Sr.’s son, John Sutter Jr., arrived in the area to assist his father in relieving his indebtedness. Now compounding the problem of his father’s indebtedness, was the additional strain placed on the Sutters by the ongoing arrival of thousands of new gold miners and prospectors in the area, many quite content to squat on unwatched portions of the vast Sutter lands, or to abscond with various unattended Sutter properties or belongings if they could. In Sutter’s case, rather than being a ‘boon’ for Sutter, his employee’s discovery of gold in the area turned out to be more of a personal ‘bane’ for him.
By December 1848, John Sutter Jr., in association with Sam Brannan, began laying out the City of Sacramento, 2 miles south of his father’s settlement of New Helvetia. This venture was undertaken against the wishes of Sutter Sr., however the father, being deeply in debt, was in no position to stop the venture. For commercial reasons the new city was named “Sacramento City,” after the Sacramento River. Sutter Jr. and Brannon hired topographical engineer William H. Warner to draft the official layout of the city, which included 26 lettered and 31 numbered streets (today’s grid from C St. to Broadway and from Front St. to Alhambra Blvd.). Unfortunately, a certain bitterness grew between the elder Sutter and his son as Sacramento became an overnight commercial success (Sutter’s Fort, Mill and the town of Sutterville, all founded by John Sutter Sr., would eventually fail).
The citizens of Sacramento adopted a city charter in 1849, which was recognized by the state legislature in 1850. Sacramento is the oldest incorporated city in California, incorporated on February 27, 1850. During the early 1850s, the Sacramento valley was devastated by floods, fires and cholera epidemics. Despite this, because of its position just downstream from the Mother Lode in the Sierra Nevada, the new city grew, quickly reaching a population of 10,000.
The California State Legislature, with the support of Governor John Bigler, moved to Sacramento in 1854. The capital of California under Spanish (and, subsequently, Mexican) rule had been Monterey, where in 1849 the first Constitutional Convention and state elections were held. The convention decided San Jose would be the new state’s capital. After 1850, when California’s statehood was ratified, the legislature met in San Jose until 1851, Vallejo in 1852, and Benicia in 1853, before moving to Sacramento. In the Sacramento Constitutional Convention of 1879, Sacramento was named to be the permanent state capital.
Begun in 1860 to be reminiscent of the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C., the Classical Revival style California State Capitol was completed in 1874. In 1861, the legislative session was moved to the Merchants Exchange Building in San Francisco for one session because of massive flooding in Sacramento. The legislative chambers were first occupied in 1869 while construction continued. From 1862 to 1868, part of the Leland Stanford Mansion was used for the governor’s offices during Stanford’s tenure as the Governor; and the legislature met in the Sacramento County Courthouse.
With its new status and strategic location, Sacramento quickly prospered and became the western end of the Pony Express. Later it became a terminus of the First Transcontinental Railroad, which began construction in Sacramento in 1863 and was financed by “The Big Four“—Mark Hopkins, Charles Crocker, Collis P. Huntington, and Leland Stanford. Both the American and especially Sacramento rivers would be key elements in the economic success of the city. In fact, Sacramento effectively controlled commerce on these rivers, and public works projects were funded though taxes levied on goods unloaded from boats and loaded onto rail cars in the historic Sacramento Rail Yards.
In 1850 and again in 1861, Sacramento citizens were faced with a completely flooded town. In 1861, Governor Leland Stanford, who was inaugurated in early January 1861, had to attend his inauguration in a rowboat, which was not too far from his house in town on N street. The flood waters were so bad, the legend says, that when he returned to his house, he had to enter into it through the second floor window. From 1862 until the mid-1870s Sacramento raised the level of its downtown by building reinforced brick walls on its downtown streets, and filling the resulting street walls with dirt. Thus the previous first floors of buildings became the basements, with open space between the street and the building, previously the sidewalk, now at the basement level. Over the years, many of these underground spaces have been filled or destroyed by subsequent development. However, it is still possible to view portions of the “Sacramento Underground“.