Thursday, October 13, 2011


            My husband and I spent last weekend in Downieville, a tiny old town set like a glittering gem high in the northern Sierras. Here, the Downie River flows into the north fork of the Yuba River, as delicate mists rise and fall from the surrounding mountains. The spirit of the place is one of overwhelming sublimity. The story of Downieville’s human presence, however, is marked by volatile transformations – ecological, economic, and demographic – much like the history of California itself.

View of the Downie River Bridge. It was here that a Mexican woman (Juanita or Josepha) was murdered by a Downieville lynch mob in 1851.
           Downieville was named after William Downie, a Scot who arrived at “The Forks” (where the two rivers converge) in November 1849. His diverse company included Jim Crow, a “Kanaka” or Hawaiian; seven African Americans; a Native American; and Michael Deverney, an Irish boy. At Durgan Flat, Jim Crow discovered gold in a pot in which he had a boiled a freshly caught salmon. (That this noble fish once swam so high into the Sierras is a sad reminder of the destruction of the California salmon runs.) By 1851, five thousand immigrants had descended on Downieville to mine its rivers and dry diggings for gold. Mining continued long after the Gold Rush came to an end, much of it conducted by Sierra County’s once-significant Chinese community.

            CHS’ library and archives has many photographs, ephemeral items, and other materials that document the changing history of the Downieville area. One of the most fascinating is a photograph album of Chinese men and women in Sierra County, dated between 1890 and 1930 and pictured here:

The album was kept by justice of the peace John T. Mason and includes 176 identification portraits of Chinese men and women, many of whom lived in Downieville. Presumably kept as an informational tool to aid in the enforcement of the Chinese Exclusion Act, this album now serves as a rich and precious source of historical and genealogical insight. The guide to this album, which includes the name, occupation, and place of residence of each person photographed, can be found on the Online Archive of California:

Marie Silva
Archivist & Manuscripts Librarian

Sources consulted for this blog post include:

  • James J. Sinnett, Downieville: Gold Town on the Yuba, Mountain House Books, 1983.

  • Mildred Brooke Hoover, Hero Eugene Rensch, Ethel Grace Rensch, and William N. Abeloe, Historic Spots in California, Stanford University Press, 2002.

  • Sierra Nevada Virtual Museum,

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