History of Fremont (Yolo County), California
From: The History of Yolo County, California
History By: Tom Gregory
The Historical Record Company.
Los Angeles, California 1913


A history of the cities and towns of Yoko county should properly begin with Fremont, which, though it does not exist today, was the first town in Yolo county, its first seat of government and once by far its most inaportant place of business.

The locating and founding of towns in Yolo county, like most commonwealths, was inspired at the beginning of development by conditions which existed particularly relative to business convenience. The pioneers were not strong on beauty of surroundings, sanitation and such things which in later years constituted important factors in the matter of selecting sites for the permanent habitation of men.

Fremont was located on the west bank of the Sacramento river opposite the mouth of the Feather river, which at this point empties into it, by Jonas Spect, a speculator, on the 21st of March, 1849. If the conditions Mr. Spect relied upon in determining the location of Fremont had prevailed, that historic town must necessarily have become one of the important cities of the Sacramento valley.

Its founder believed when he stopped there that he had reached the head of navigation of both streams, the Sacramento and the Feather rivers. His purpose was to ascend the Sacramento river as far as he could in order to establish a trading post as near as possible to the thriving mining camps which then flourished in the mountains from which flowed these streams. He brought a small schooner, laden with suitable merchandise, from San Francisco, having left that port, via San Francisco bay and the Sacramento river, March 1, 1849, and was twenty two days en route. Mr. Spect left the vessel at Sacramento on the twentieth day from San Francisco and proceeded overland across the country. He arrived at the junction of the two rivers on March 21 and there awaited the arrival of the schooner, which came the following day.

Mr. Spect's decision as to the site for his trading post was influenced wholly by an obstacle which rendered further navigation impossible and which also forced the conclusion that he had reached the head of navigation. He encountered a sandbar across both streams over which the schooner could not pass. There being nothing else to do, he ordered the cargo removed from the vessel, pending which he erected a crude structure of willows and canvas, brought for that purpose, and there and then opened his place of business.

Regarding the naming of the town there is nothing authentic in such data as is available. That it was named in honor of General Fremont, a conspicuous figure in the early history of California, there can be no doubt, but just when the name was bestowed and by whom remains unknown.

At the time Mr. Spect landed at Fremont he was probably the only white inhabitant of what is now Yolo county. The thirty or forty white people who had previously settled upon the plains lying between the river and the Coast Range mountains, some thirty miles to the west, had, upon the news of the discovery of gold, left their homes and fields the previous year and joined the mad rush for the "gold diggings" in the mountains to the east.

Mr. Spect must have possessed considerable courage to invade an unbroken country, uninhabited save by a small band of Indians which he found settled upon the spot, to carry a commercial campaign into the heart of the interior of what was then an unknown country and to set up his place of business where there were no signs of life other than the Indians and the wild animals which inhabited those parts. He must have rested secure in his firm belief that he had reached the highest point of navigation and was perhaps shrewd enough to know the importance, commercially, of a direct water way communication with the metropolis of the state. Believing these things, he felt that the post he had established was destined to become an important place of trade.

For several months his dreams of a future for Fremont seemed sure of materialization. The trading post rapidly grew into a settlement and as miraculously developed into a town. At one time there was an estimated population of 3,000 people in Fremont and business houses of considerable magnitude had been established. Fremont was in fact a trade center for much of the business that found its way into the mining regions and the civilizing influences of school and church were felt. An idea of the importance of the town may be estimated by the valuation placed upon the site in a genuine offer to purchase the same, although the title was seriously affected. Fremont stood within the boundaries of the Harbin grant and there is nothing on record to show that title ever passed from the grantee. Notwithstanding this disparagement William McD Howard, acting for the firm of Mellus, Howard & Co., offered Mr. Spect and T. B. Winston, who was then associated with Mr. Spect as a partner, the sum of $150,000 for their town site privileges. But let us take up these matters in their order.

In conjunction with his store Mr. Spect opened a hotel, and these soon attracted the attention of not only the mining camps he intended to reach, but also capitalists and spectators. The paths of travel to and from the mines were diverted that way and not long after his arrival there many people had visited Fremont. There was perhaps another factor which influenced the stream of traffic toward Fremont. The Feather river at that point was fordable at its mouth, perhaps on account of the sandbar previously mentioned, and the Indians contrived to ferry even loaded wagons across the Sacramento river by using their canoes and a skiff. Wagons were loaded upon four canoes, one wheel in each, and thus paddled across the river. This ferry, primitive though it was, afforded transportation over the waterway which constituted an obstacle which must have caused those early pioneers much inconvenience in their migrations to and from the mines

During the remainder of the year 1849 the population of Fremont was materially increased by the arrival of several parties, attracted, no doubt, by the spirit of adventure and laudable ambition to acquire wealth. About the first of these was as expedition from Oregon, headed by John E. Bradley, a Cumberland Presbyterian minister, who preached to the people of the new settlement for several weeks. Mr. Bradley afterward settled in Santa Clara, where he resided as late as 1870. Families arrived from across the plains and from the eastern states and in July, 1849, a corps of civil engineers arrived from Louisiana. Among them was William J. Frieson, who afterward became a resident of Knights Landing. With the increase of population the business houses also multiplied and before the close of the year mercantile establishments were plentiful, as were also saloons and gambling houses. The first lawyer in Yolo county was C. P. Hester, who located at Fremont. There was no state or county organization at that time and law business, in a country where every man made and executed his own laws, must necessarily have been very slack, but notwithstanding this Mr. Hester had the temerity to hang out his shingle. He was awarded in after years by being elected judge of the third judicial district.

Other professional men and women made their appearance at Fremont contemporaneously with Mr. Hester. Dr. R. W. Murphy, afterward a practitioner in Sacramento, established an office Fremont and although the early records are silent on the subject, it is only a reasonable conclusion that the doctor enjoyed a more lucrative practice as a result of the self made and self executed laws than did Mr. Hester, though the latter was a lawyer. Miss Matilda McCord, of Bloomington, Ind., opened the first school at Fremont in the spring of 1849 and the first regular church was established by Rev. Isaac Owen, a missionary preacher from Indiana. About the same time C. H. Gray and H. B. Wood, with a company of employes, arrived at Fremont with the frame work of a building, in sections, which had been shipped from Bedford, Mass., via Cape Horn, on the whaling vessel William Henry. They were also supplied with a stock of goods and after setting up their building, opened therein a general merchandise store. Mr. Gray afterward served several terms as sheriff of Yolo county and his partner, Mr. Wood, became the proprietor of a hardware business in Woodland, where he died about twenty years ago. The business section of Fremont received further augmentation, soon afterward, by the arrival of a large cargo of goods under the care of Henry Hare Hartley, who represented a large company of capitalists. These goods were shipped from Bangor, Me., around the Horn and were unloaded from the vessel at Fremont. Mr. Hartley, like many of the pioneer merchants, eventually found his way into politics and afterward served as county judge.

The first homicide in Yolo county occurred at Fremont in October, 1849, when a soldier who arrived with a troop guarding a supply train on its way to Benicia, became intoxicated and abusive and in an altercation with a gambler was killed. The slayer was not arrested and the incident caused only a temporary ripple of excitement.

The first record of anything political in Yolo county was an election in November, 1849, under a proclamation issued by Provisional Governor Riley for the purpose of electing delegates to a constitutional convention. It appears that the importance of Fremont as a center of population was overlooked by his Excellency in the proclamation, but notwithstanding the people of Fremont held an election, and although more votes were cast there than in all the remaining territory of the Sonoma district, into which Yolo county had been apportioned, the ballots were not finally considered in determining the result of the election.

According to C. P. Sprague, in his history of Yolo county, published in 1870, tardy recognition of the importance of Fremont was made by the selection of Jonas Spect, its founder, as a member of the senate from Sonoma district in the first legislature of the state, which followed closely upon the adoption of the Constitution. Mr. Sprague was not sure upon this subject, he having been unable to verify the report with any documentary record, but it is more than likely true.

Fremont was made the county seat of Yolo county by the act of legislature, February 18, 1850 (Statutes of 1850, Page 61), which also established the legal origin of the county. By an act of March 16, the same year, the state was divided into judicial districts, the counties of Yolo, Sutter and Yuba constituting the eighth district, and so it came to pass that the first session of any regularly constituted court of justice in Yolo county was held at Fremont in September, 1850, by W. R. Turner, district judge, who served as such only a short time, the state being soon afterward redistricted.

At this session of the court there were two cases upon the calendar, one criminal in character and the other civil. The records show an indictment returned against Emma Place, which upon motion of the district attorney was dismissed because the necessary witnesses could not be found. The civil suit was entitled Austin & Johnson vs. Conwillard et al. The last term of the court was held at Fremont, October 2, 1850.

The beginning of the end of Fremont came in the winter of 1849, when the town was only several months old. The excessive precipitation of rain and snow resulted in "high water" in both rivers and a corresponding increased velocity of the currents with the result that the sand bars were washed away. This action opened navigation in both streams for many miles inland and with it commenced the onward march of commercial development and civilization. Towns sprung into existence much nearer the scenes of mining activities, which then constituted the principal sources of trade, and business in Fremont simultaneously commenced to decline. One year later there was practically nothing left of this thriving town other than a name and memories, fond, sad and otherwise. Many of the frame buildings were moved to Knights Landing, a town which had sprung into existence a few miles farther up the river, and to Marysville, in Butte county, and to Sacramento.

All this, however, did not come to pass without efforts upon the part of its people to preserve the importance of Fremont. Realizing that its chances as a great commercial center had passed with the disappearance of the sand bars in the rivers, the residents contrived to make it at least a center for local retail trade, but in the meantime the settlements of Knights Landing and Washington, the latter situated on the Yolo side of the river opposite Sacramento, began to attract attention, and perhaps because of their closer proximity to the then populated district of the county (the people having resumed the pursuit of stock raising in the interior) soon captured most of the trade which had been left to Fremont. And thus it came to pass that "the city builded upon the sands" of the rivers, fell and history had repeated itself.

The people of Fremont, in their desperate effort to keep their town upon the map, resorted to the proverbial power of the legislature and in this we have the first record of "lobbying" in Yolo county. Although the voters of Yolo county on March 25, 1851, elected to remove the county seat from Fremont to Washington, the records of the legislature show that four weeks later that distinguished body declared Fremont to still be the seat of government for Yolo county and in pursuance with that act the court of sessions, on May 22. 1851, made the following order:

"It is ordered by the court that the seat of justice of this county shall be at Fremont - the legislature of the state of California having on the twenty fifth day of April, 1851, passed a law to that effect, which law, having been passed subsequent to the election held on the twenty fifth day of March, 1851, for the removal of the county seat of said county, annuls said election."

Notwithstanding this order there were no sessions of the court held at Fremont after July of the same year, and in humble submission to the will of the people, the court comfortably established itself at Washington, where it held, its first session one month later.

And thus endeth the history of Fremont. At this late day many people of Knights Landing and Woodland are wont in pleasant weather to visit the site of the first town of Yolo county for the purpose of outing and fishing. There is nothing there now other than those things furnished by nature for the adornment of mother earth. Where was once a lively town, there is now only the placid bosom of the mighty river wending its way leisurely between banks studded with tree and vine to the ocean. Where once prevailed the noises of thriving traffic, there is now only the musical hum of insects and the songs of nature, except at such times as pleasure seekers invade the spot and contribute sounds, harmonious and otherwise, of the human voice.

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