My mom and I have been in Santa Barbara on vacation for more than a week. It’s been lovely, but, all good things must come to an end. This past Sunday was supposed to be that end, according to our plan. I’d mentally prepared for Sunday to be the end, for Sunday to be spent in the car on the road back to the San Francisco Bay, and quite frankly, I was almost excited to get back to my daily routine. But the universe, it seems, had other plans—for me, for my mom, and even for my car.

My car was the first of us to fall victim to the universe’s tomfoolery. Early Sunday afternoon, about an hour before we were due to get on the road, my car wouldn’t start. The ignition barrel wouldn’t turn—it was as if a safety lock had somehow engaged; that is, a safety lock whose existence was exempt from the owner’s manual, and of which I had not previously been aware. I tried everything—jiggling the steering wheel, wiggling the gearshift around, pushing the clutch all the way down to the metal, holding the brake pedal—but nothing worked. The ignition barrel was simply stuck. The lights on the dash wouldn’t even come on.

I pulled out my AAA card, ready to call for help, but hesitated when I was struck by a flashback from that morning: my mother, asking to borrow my hotel room key and I, handing her the AAA card by mistake—I can’t help but wonder, did I inspire the universe’s latest stunt? Or was that a sign of what sort of goods the universe had in store for us? Did the universe want us to see this sign, or did it just slip out in all the excitement?

Whatever the case, my poor old truck, after enduring the humiliation of being towed, is at the shop, and my mother and I are at a hotel just down the street.

If it hadn’t been for my truck’s malfunctioning ignition barrel—or, if you will, the universe’s insatiable need to stir the pot—my mom and I wouldn’t have wound up at the Pacifica Suites in Goleta, California. If we hadn’t wound up here, and if my sister hadn’t dropped us off right where she did, we wouldn’t have seen, or even heard of, the Joseph Sexton House.

Fringed with roses and exotic plants, the Sexton House sits staunchly beside the hotel lobby, peering austerely at hotel guests as they pass by. It held my gaze as my sister drove us around it to get to our hotel room. It’s strikingly beautiful—a remarkable specimen of Victorian-era architecture—but it holds an air of secrecy.

The conglomerate of trees—the Sexton Grove, as it’s called—that sets the house and adjacent hotel buildings back from Hollister Avenue only serves to intensify the mysterious atmosphere, so that you are no longer sure whether you’re in Santa Barbara or in some timeless, nonlocal space, like one of Walt Disney’s magic jungles.

A footpath through the historic Sexton Grove
Inside the Sexton Grove

Some of the mystery surrounding the structure has since cleared up for me, however. Being stuck here in the room with no car and nothing to do, I dug right into the history of this property.

The Sexton Family

The Sexton house was, of course, at one point inhabited by the Sexton family; namely, Joseph Sexton and his wife, Lucy Foster Sexton, and their twelve children. Joseph Sexton commissioned its construction in 1880, in response to his ever-growing family. The designer he hired was none other than Peter J. Barber: the first licensed and most-famous architect in the Santa Barbara region.

From what little information I could find on Peter Barber, it seems that he primarily designed public buildings, most famously the Arlington Hotel (1874) in downtown Santa Barbara. He got his start as a cabinet maker and carpenter in his birth state of Ohio, until, like many pioneer-era Americans, his career was interrupted by the lure of the California Gold Rush. In 1852, he temporarily ditched Ohio and his designer dream to search for California gold, but he picked it right back up in San Francisco in 1855, where he secured a job as a draftsman. He moved down to Santa Barbara in 1869, where he became an architect and quickly developed a reputation for Italianate-style designs. His fondness for Italianate architecture speaks of his early life in Ohio, where he undoubtedly saw many an Italianate structure, and where he watched that style grow, bloom, wither, and fade. His reliance on Italianate character assisted the genre’s perpetuation in the West; that is, he helped to extend America’s Picturesque movement a decade or so beyond its heydays in the Midwest and Eastern United States.

Joseph Sexton moved from Ione, California to Santa Barbara when he was twenty-five years old, late in the year 1867. He stayed with his parents for a bit, who had moved there earlier in the year in hopes of starting up a nursery business in the wake of their failed nursery business back in Ione. Joseph helped his parents build their nursery, near where Castillo Street and Montecito Street intersect today, and in May of 1868, Joseph purchased some land of his own. He bought two parcels that May—one nineteen acres, the other twelve acres—and a third parcel in June—the largest, at 98.28 acres. All three parcels were located on Hollister Avenue, and were previously a part of La Goleta Rancho, which was the region we know as Goleta Valley today.

In 1869, Joseph Sexton started his own nursery, known creatively as the Sexton Nursery. That same year, he sold four acres of his wonderfully fertile land to the Fosters, Isaac G. and Roxanna. Oddly enough, the section of land sold to the Fosters was right about where my truck is being serviced right now, near the intersection of Patterson and Hollister. Shortly after the Fosters made this purchase, Joseph Sexton took the hand of their daughter, Lucy Ann Foster, in marriage. They got married on November 18th on the Foster property.

The Sexton House

Lucy and Joseph had eight children between 1871 and 1879, and by December of the latter year, they were convinced it was time to build a bigger house. Enter architect Peter Barber. In terms of his Italianate tendencies, Barber did not disappoint: in 1880, the Sexton house was complete; irregular floorplan, belvedere, asymmetry and all. The house sits two stories high and has a wood frame. Its foundation was originally composed of brick, although that may have been altered during earthquakes and renovations. I read much more about the house, but since I didn’t get to visually verify the descriptions myself (the house is closed to tourists because of COVID-19), I’m not comfortable reporting them. If you’d like, you can read them yourself right here.

For comparison, below are some photos of the exterior of the house from my own camera.

Joseph Sexton's Horticultural Interests

Earlier, I alluded to the fact that Joseph Sexton was a horticulturist. Thus, it should come as no surprise that by 1883, the new Sexton house was surrounded by a number of greenhouses in which the family bred plants for their nursery.

Joseph had an interest in experimental agriculture, especially when it involved exotic plants. Crossbreeding and planting nonindigenous seeds to determine whether such plants would thrive or perish in the Southern California climate turned out to be lucrative hobbies for Joseph. In 1867, he purchased a variety-sack of walnuts in San Francisco, from which he developed a walnut breed whose soft shell prevented loss of walnut meat to accidental breakage during the nutcracking process. This breed, known as the Santa Barbara soft shell walnut, was the most popular crop in Goleta Valley from around 1869 until roughly 1910.

Baby walnuts growing on a Santa Barbara tree
A Santa Barbara walnut

The creation of the Sexton flame tree by crossbreeding an Australian flame tree with a Queensland bottle tree, the establishment of a flower shop at 708 State Street in downtown Santa Barbara, and the popularization of the cherimoya tree are among Joseph Sexton’s most noteworthy accomplishments, but by far the most historically significant was his introduction of the pampas grass to the State of California.

If you are familiar with the California coast at all—even if you’ve only been to one California beach—there’s a good chance you’ve seen some pampas grass. If you grew up in the Bay, well, I’d be shocked if you’ve never seen it. Having grown up in the Bay myself, I don’t think I’ll ever forget about pampas grass.

Pampas grass plumes

Look familiar? If you’ve never seen these horrendous plants, you certainly aren’t missing much. My little sister and I played with the plumes when we were kids, and that was fun, but the consequences outweigh the benefits: those long, thick blades are covered in microscopic barbs that have a real knack for snaring exposed skin, leaving a cut or a rash. The tips of the blades are sharp, too, and can slice you pretty good. And then there are the plumes themselves, which are fun, as I said, but can easily become a hellish mess: when they are separated from the plant, the plumes dry and die, and little fluffy puffs break off of the main poof and stick to things like clothing, carpets, upholstery, and the inside of your lungs. Long story short: they’re a real nuisance.

I smiled when I realized that Joseph Sexton is responsible for the torment I endured in my childhood at the hands of the pampas plant. I laughed out loud when I discovered that any trace of the cultivation of pampas plants at the Sexton property has been entirely removed; all I can think is that they got tired of cleaning up residual fuzz and bandaging up their scrapes and scratches.

Joseph Sexton introduced the pampas plant to California around 1873. He is credited with being the first person on the West Coast to grow the plant for commercial purposes—the plumes were used across North America and Europe for decoration on parade floats and at parties—and for developing (or at least perfecting) the method for properly drying the fluffy part so that it doesn’t shed tiny fibers everywhere. The production of pampas plumes peaked between 1890 and 1895 at the Sexton Nursery.

The Sexton Grove

Since the grounds of the Sexton Nursery were also the Sextons’ personal garden, Joseph and Lucy also carefully landscaped portions of the property with their favorite plants and trees. Some of the species said to have been planted there are as follows:

· Pink, red, and white roses

· Some 200 varieties of dianthus and carnations

· Cork oak from Portugal

· Bunya-bunya tree from Australia

· Sweetshade tree from Australia

· Guadalupe palm from Baja California

· Chinese fountain palm

· Chilean wine palm

· Jacaranda tree from Brazil

· Australian flame tree

· Bottle tree

· Strelitzia (giant bird of paradise)

· Norfolk Island pine

I can say firsthand that what’s left of Joseph’s tree collection is truly jaw-dropping. The trees reach so far into the sky above that you feel like a speck of dust in a thick carpet. The leaves blur together overhead, but every trunk is different, and the artificial forest’s high ceiling allows plenty of sunlight to stream through sideways in the afternoon, illuminating not only the textures of the varying barks but the intertwining foliage comprising the underbrush. Blooming creepers and shrubbery blanket the floor, pressing tight to some tree bases and giving others a wide berth.

Sexton Grove
Afternoon sunlight in the Grove

I was able to find at least some of the species on the list above in the Sexton Grove. Pink, red, and white roses are by far the most prevalent. The giant bird of paradise was also abundant.

I also saw some species in the Grove that were not listed. I am not a horticulturist by any stretch of the imagination, but after looking through tons of photos and characteristics for each species, I was able to identify, to the best of my knowledge, a few of them. They are as follows:

See for yourself in the photos below.

By far the most magnificent of all, however, are the supposedly original nursery specimens. These are trees that were planted by Lucy and Joseph back in the early days of the Sexton Nursery, carefully tended in their infancy and adolescence, and then left to their own devices when the Sexton family sold the house in 1954. They are the oldest trees of their kinds in the state of California. The most notable originals are the Norfolk pine, the cork oak, and the bunya-bunya. Words cannot describe the immensity of these trees; below are some photos that I took, but still, nothing can do them justice apart from physically seeing them in person.

The End of a Agricultural Legacy

Joseph Sexton’s death on August 17, 1917 marked the end of the Sexton nursery business. Family tensions arose, Lucy moved out of the house and back onto her parents’ old property, some of the children took off, and many of the buildings were altered, removed, or replaced. Mariette, Lucy and Joseph’s granddaughter, inherited the Sexton house in 1927, when Lucy died. She lived there until her own death in 1951, and the remaining family tried unsuccessfully to sell the property to Santa Barbara County.

Instead of being celebrated for its history in the Sexton family, the house saw a number of different uses after Mariette passed away. In 1954, the property was sold to Robert H. and Margaret Seaton, who moved into a small house on the property and rented out the Sexton house to numerous tenants over the years. In 1977, the property fell into the hands of Johnson and Juliette Eymann, who converted the onsite barn into a chapel for their religious group, the Jubilee Christian Church, which they’d established in 1974. The house itself was used as a sort of communal housing space for congregation members. The Eymanns sold the property to Invest West Financial Corporation in 1984. Allegedly, the house was in a sorry state at that point: the Eymanns had altered the structural integrity to the point that it was, in essence, no longer the same house. Invest West bought the property with the intention of bringing it back to its original grandeur, while also establishing a hotel—then called Quality Suites Hotel—on the property.

Because of the short notice and difficulty in finding information about the Sexton house, I am not entirely sure how Pacifica Suites came to be at this location. I am sure, however, that it had something to do with Invest West, since Invest West now owns the Pacifica Hotel Company.

Ideally, by the time you’re reading these words, I’ll be well on my way home to the Bay. Regardless, I’m grateful to have gotten the chance to see and learn about the Sexton House, in spite of all the shenanigans that put me in this position. If you’re ever stuck in Goleta, make sure you stay at Pacifica Suites on Hollister Avenue.

Notes, Sources, & Acknowledgements

Santa Barbara County lists the Sexton House as a historic landmark. The property is also on the National Register for Historic Places, listed in the National Register Information System (NRIS) as 91002033.

Pretty much everything I've learned about the Sexton House comes from the following two sources, as well as in-person conversations with staff and personal experiences on the property:

Conard, Rebecca. "Encore for the Sexton House." Goleta Historical Notes, vol. 5, no. 1. Goleta Valley Historical Society, Fall 1990, Goleta, CA.

United States Department of the Interior, National Parks Service. NPS Form 10-900 & NPS Form 10-900-a: National Register of Historic Places Registration & Continuation Sheets. Sept 1991.

Throughout my research, and during my many walks through the Sexton Grove, I found Cal Poly SLO's SelecTree: A Tree Selection Guide tool incredibly useful. I highly recommend it to others in the business of trying to identify trees and plants in California.

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TRIGGER WARNING: This article contains excessive explicit language and references to nicotine and cigarettes. Not recommended for readers trying to quit smoking, or those who have recently quit and want to distance themselves from it.

Returning from Colorado did a number on me.

Just as Mountain Man had years before, I’d fallen in love with the place—at least in a superficial sense. Looking back, I’m pretty sure my perceived “love” for Colorado was more of a “love-by-proxy;” and yet, back in the Bay Area, I spent a week in a state of catatonic depression, yearning to be back in Colorado.

Mountain Man had no sympathy for my devastation—nope, he was under the impression that I had no right to miss Colorado because it was “his place.” This angered me more than he could know—I never told Mountain Man that he was not the first of my romantic partners to get Colorado Fever. My high school sweetheart had fallen victim right after we graduated from high school. He got into one of the universities out there and took off, leaving me to take my gap year alone and grief-stricken. Naturally, from my perspective, I had every right to wallow in Colorado-induced sorrow and longing. But when I was in Mountain Man’s company, I had to keep it to myself.

The unfairness of my situation finally congealed on January 27th, 2016, in the form of the first in a series of self-destructive, desperate decisions. My “diary” entry from that date does the best job of explaining what happened, so, I’ll let it do the talking. Names have been changed, of course, for privacy and obscurity. To set the scene, I had just arrived back at my apartment in Oakland by bicycle from somewhere in Berkeley. It was late at night and I was tired and hungry, and, as you will see, dangerously frustrated.

16 new messages, I noted as I took off my bike shoes and sat down on my floor-bed. I checked them. Most were from Mountain Man. “Shut up,” they said, basically. Because apparently I’m not allowed to complain about missing Colorado. He used to do it all the time, shortly after he left it behind.

The anger from before—when I stopped at the intersection next to his apartment to call him incessantly, to demand that he tell me where his weed was hidden at his apartment—came flaring back up.

“You fucking selfish, narcissistic bitch,” I muttered, slamming a fist down onto my thigh. “Fuck you! I can fucking complain about whatever I want. I’m allowed to miss Colorado too.”

Apparently a lot of people like me miss Colorado because pretty much everyone I enjoy the company of has moved or is going to move to Colorado.

I got off my bed and pulled sweatpants on over my leggings, put my Colorado hoodie on, slipped on my moccasins. I stood for a moment, glued halfway between my door and my bed, thinking of taking a long drag on a spliff, watching the smoke billow out and up into the night air—

“Xannie, dinner,” I instructed myself, but I couldn’t get myself to budge. It’s not like I could even smoke a spliff if I wanted to, I reminded myself. The weed was at Mountain Man’s place, and so was the tobacco. Maybe I could buy my own supplies?

I groaned and plopped back down on my floor-bed, whipped out my laptop and typed in my password. I went to Google and searched “cigarettes near me.” Nothing useful came up, so I searched “liquor stores near me.” That got more results. There was a liquor store a few blocks away.

I sighed angrily, slamming the laptop closed, and went to the kitchen. I set a pan on the stove, turned on the burner, pulled out the butter, opened the fridge—and paused. After a moment of drumming my fingers against the fridge door and staring unseeingly into its white interior, I caught myself daydreaming once again about the comforting red-orange glow and thin, curling smoke at the tip of one of Mountain Man’s tobacco-heavy spliffs. So I shut the door to the fridge and turned off the stove, ran to my room to get my keys and wallet, and took off into the night.

I basically ran to the liquor store. I burst inside, asking, “Do you sell Amsterdam Shag?”

The guy looked at his shelf of tobacco pouches. “We have Bali Shag.”

“Can I see it?”

He pulled it out and held it in front of me. It looked like a rip-off.

“Eh,” I said, “that’s probably not a good idea.” I looked up at the bottom of the shelf, knowing that hundreds of packs of cigarettes were stuffed behind it. “Hm,” I said. “I don’t know if I should do it.”

I noticed there was a lady waiting to buy some booze so I told her to go first and stepped aside.

“I think you should definitely do it,” she said. “I don’t even know what you’re talking about.”

I laughed lightly. “I’m trying to decide whether or not to buy a pack of cigarettes.”

“Oh,” she laughed. “Don’t do it!”

I laughed nervously in return.

“How long have you been off them for?” she asked, handing the guy a twenty.

“Not…long,” I said. “Honestly, I’m sort of just starting out, but also trying not to start out, if you know what I mean.”

“Oh, yep.”

“I’ve been smoking spliffs.”

She laughed again. “Yep!”

“I don’t have weed,” I said. “So. That’s why I’m here.”

She laughed and moved towards the door.

“I don’t know which ones to get,” I blurted, and cringed at the desperation in my words.

Her lips creased into a sad but understanding smirk. “I’d go with either the teal American Spirits, or the black ones.” And then she was gone.

I looked at the guy behind the counter. “How much for the teal ones?”

He looked up. “Oh, I don’t have those,” he said.

“What do you have?”

“Yellow, blue, black—”

“How much for the black?”

“Seven dollars,” he said, looking back at me. “Always seven dollars.”

“Ok, I’ll do it,” I said quickly, extricating a tangled wad of ones from my wallet with trembling fingers.

Walking home, I kept looking at and feeling the plastic film on the outside of the box. I was set, before, on smoking one all by myself; but when I got home, I was so disturbed by the fact that I bought a pack of cigarettes that I didn’t smoke one. Instead, I made dinner and cracked a beer and just sat there, chewing on toast and eggs, staring at the pack, turning it over and over in my hands.

I don’t want a pack of cigarettes, I kept thinking. I just want a spliff.

"Oh God what have I done?"

But there was no going back: I’d bought my first pack of cigarettes. American Spirit blacks are the heftiest, heartiest type of American Spirits you can get, too—their perique blend—and every smoker knows that American Spirits are notoriously strong and nicotine-heavy to begin with. I didn’t smoke one that night, but I eventually caved and smoked my first one and the next thing I knew, I was smoking one or two every day, then three or four, then five or six, and eventually, half a pack to two-thirds of a pack. I couldn’t have done a faster job of getting myself addicted to nicotine.

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Looking south along Crescent Beach towards Crescent Beach Overlook, just south of Crescent City, California.
Crescent Beach, Del Norte County, CA

Have you ever heard of Del Norte County, California?

Prior to this March, I certainly hadn’t. I came across it while messing around on Google Maps in Northern California, and now, after a month and a half of research into its history and two separate excursions into its vast and diverse domain, I seem to know more about Del Norte County than every Californian I’ve engaged about it. And yet, I still feel that I know very little, since its history and statistical materials are hard to come by. If any sort of consensus can be assembled from written descriptions and personal experiences in Del Norte County, it is simply that it is an isolated, rugged, and mineralogically lucrative region.

As evidenced by its name, Del Norte—Spanish for “of the North” or “from the North”—is one of the three counties that comprise California’s northern border. It’s the State’s northwesternmost county, flanked on the East by Siskiyou County, on the North by the California-Oregon border, on the South by Humboldt County, and on the West by the Pacific Ocean.

Del Norte County area map showing neighboring counties and California-Oregon state line
Del Norte County and its neighbors (Map source: GAIA GPS)

Inherent Isolation

Del Norte County is small. If we were to list California’s 58 counties from largest land area to smallest land area, Del Norte, which comprises only 1,006.37 square miles, would come in 42nd. According to my calculations, it’s smaller than 72.4% of all the counties in California. In other words, you could fit almost 20 Del Norte Counties inside of San Bernardino County (the largest county in California).

Del Norte is lightly populated. To this day, most of the county’s 27,812 inhabitants reside on the coast, which accounts for roughly 10% of the county’s land area, according to my calculations. The largest community is Crescent City, which has a population of 6,676. Crescent City is the only incorporated community in the county, so the exact populations of other communities along the county’s coast must be taken with a grain of salt. That being said, I managed to create the following charts using data supplied by the U.S. Census Bureau:

The following pie chart, from the same source as above, shows how much land in Del Norte County is actually settled. "Unincorporated, Other" refers to the county's tribal and wilderness lands.

Del Norte County is isolated due to the nature of its settlement. Tribal communities located their villages along the county's coast long before the white man came into the picture, only venturing inland for hunting and gathering purposes, and never in large groups—only by foot, or by canoe via the Klamath or Smith Rivers (Tushingham, 39). Although the white pioneers first stumbled across Del Norte’s coastline from California’s interior on-foot, most of the county’s original white settlers arrived by boat to the crescent-shaped shoreline where the county seat, Crescent City, sits today (Chase, 5). As a result, most of Del Norte’s communities sprang up along the coastline.

Naturally, since most of Del Norte County’s people live on the coast, most of its roads are also on the coast. These roads consist of four paved highways: US-199, US-101, State Route 169, and State Route 197. Only the first two on that list are interstates, and, as can be seen on the map below, all four of these routes take a meandering path and are far from “efficient,” in terms of timeliness and shortest-possible route.

Map of major roadways and highways in Del Norte County, CA

Even if the roads were straighter, however, the people of Del Norte County would still be limited by their distance from larger communities. If Crescent City doesn’t have what its people need, they have to travel more than 75 miles to get to a bigger community. The closest one would be Arcata, California, which is still relatively small, with a population of 18,431 as of 2019, and it’s located 77.6 miles south of Crescent City, or an hour-and-a-half drive. The second closest is Grants Pass, Oregon, at 82.5 miles in the opposite direction (or an hour and forty-two minutes of driving), and it’s got 38,170 occupants. The biggest city around is Redding, California, which has a population of 92,590; but to get to Redding from Crescent City would mean driving 211 miles along those slow, winding highways. There are always the backroads, of course, which eventually lead to the upper portion of Sacramento Valley—right next to Redding—but to those require the traveler to have an all-wheel-drive vehicle, at the very least.

Closest communities to Crescent City showing mileage, population, and drive times for each community
Closest largest communities to Crescent City

Treacherous Terrain

Aside from the sliver of coastline on which the population is situated, Del Norte County is composed primarily of rugged, heavily-forested terrain. The forest is conspicuous, no matter where the observer stands on the coastal plain: like a gentle, evergreen wave, the trees roll in from the East, following the slope of the land as it dips towards the ocean. They end abruptly at the edge of the coastal plain, forming a distinct boundary between civilization and stark wilderness. This wilderness is owned by the government, mostly, and occupies the entire eastern portion of the county, totaling roughly 914 square miles (2,366 square kilometers), according to my measurements.

The forest encroaching on one of the lonely highways in Del Norte County

Walking into the forest is like stepping into another world. Under the nearly 400-foot-high ceiling of old-growth redwood trees, the air is humid and damp, the underbrush thick and tall. Sword ferns cascade over the mossy banks of turquoise-blue streams; white-pink rhododendrons reach high for the dappled sunlight above; long-deceased trees up to 20 feet in diameter lie under blankets of fungus and groundcover, crossing fire roads and trails in some places—the whole scene is green and dark, and not unlike a sublime dream.

But the trees mask the most significant feature of this wilderness—the feature that prevented, and still prevents, the construction of adequate transportation facilities (Maxson, 126). As mining engineer C. McK. Laizure puts it, the forest “somewhat softens the outline of [the county’s] otherwise almost Alpine ruggedness” (Laizure, 281).

The "other side" of Del Norte County

Most sources I used in my research describe Del Norte County as “rugged.” If they don’t use the word directly, they tend to use the same language found in both Merriam-Webster’s and the Cambridge English Dictionary’s definition of “rugged,” with respect to land:

Merriam Webster's definition of "RUGGED"

Cambridge English Dictionary's definition of "RUGGED"

Park brochures for Smith River National Recreation Area and Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park explain, respectively, that “rock canyons” and “scenic river canyons, dense forests, and steep cliffs” are the primary features responsible for this ruggedness. While visiting Del Norte County in 1863, William H. Brewer—the man who visited nearly every mining camp in California from 1860 to 1864 on behalf of the first State Geologist, Josiah Dwight Whitney, and wrote about them in his diary—described the Siskiyou Mountains, which cut through the easternmost edge of the county, as “rugged,” and Del Norte’s interior in general as “rough landscape” with “canyons deep and steep, the hills rising two or three thousand feet.” In 1881, Anthony Jennings Bledsoe—ex-Confederate soldier who moved to Del Norte County from Missouri in 1875 and wrote what is considered to be the most extensive history of the region—casually described the entirety of the Coast Ranges (of which the Siskiyou Mountains are a part) as “rugged,” positing that a person capable of crossing such mountains would need to be “more adventurous than any of his fellows [and] armed with his trusty rifle” (Bledsoe, 12).

The ruggedness is attributable to the topography of the land. Although the overall elevation of the Coast Ranges is relatively low, it’s the persistence of canyon-ridge transitions that hinders travel across the wilderness (Maxson, 137). This can be seen in the following topographical map of the county.

Gourmet Geology

Beneath the wrinkled, forest-covered surface of Del Norte County lies a geologic smorgasbord, in which can be found a variety of mineral commodities. According to California geologist John H. Maxson, “The general geology of the area … has almost escaped the attention of geologists” (Maxson, 126), and yet, as he later notes, “An extremely varied group of mineral resources is found in northwesternmost California” (Ibid, 137).

Exploitable/commodity minerals found in Del Norte County, California.
A list of the most prominent commodities in Del Norte County

Of all of the above, only copper, chromite, manganese, gold, and quicksilver (cinnabar) were actually exploited. No mining is being done right now in Del Norte County (CEDS), but the mineral resources are still there, under private claim in some cases, and under the protection of the United States Government in others.

Most of my sources agree that the exploitable minerals occur within, or in association with serpentine. Serpentine is abundant throughout Del Norte County’s interior (Maxson, 131). It also happens to be California’s State rock. The California Department of Conservation says, “Serpentine is … the metamorphosed remains of magnesium-rich igneous rocks, most commonly the rock peridotite, from the earth’s mantle.” According to mining engineer C. McK. Laizure, the “succeeding zone of metamorphic and eruptive rocks” dividing the Coast Range from the Klamath Mountains “is composed mainly of serpentine with unaltered masses of peridotite and many inclusions of ‘diorite,’ more or less altered.” He goes on to explain that it is within, or in association with, this “belt” that “most of the deposits of gold, copper, chromite, and platinum” are found (Laizure, 282).

So, there you have it: an impassible interior, tricky terrain, and glitzy geology—three things that, for the most part, indisputably describe Del Norte County. Its population is huddled up against the coast, a mass of craggy wilderness setting it apart from the rest of California (and the United States), and the rock beneath its forests and rolling hills is minerally wealthy—even to this day. It’s both a shame and a blessing that all of Del Norte’s riches were not exploited back when everyone and their mother wanted to get a piece of California dirt under their nails. Perhaps it could’ve brought in a little bit of cash for the county, but, as our friend Mr. Laizure says, “the mines are still there.” He goes on to explain that no mining “operation ceased on account of the mines being worked out. Economic conditions alone have ended mining in the district for the present” (Laizure, 289).


I would like to thank the Del Norte County Historical Society for their assistance with my research during this project.

Works Cited

Tushingham, Shannon, and Jennifer Raggio (Bencze). "Macro and Micro Scale Signatures of Hunter-Gatherer Organization at the Coastal Sites of Point St. George, Northwestern Alta California." California Archaeology, vol. 5, no.1, June 2013.

Chase, Doris. They Pushed Back the Forest. 1959, Sebastopol, CA.

Bledsoe, Anthony Jennings. History of Del Norte County, California, with a Business Directory and Traveler's Guide. Humboldt Times Print---Wyman & Co., 1881, Eureka, CA.

Maxson, John H. "Economic Geology of Portions of Del Norte and Siskiyou Counties, Northwesternmost California." California Journal of Mines and Geology, vol. 29, nos. 1-2, 1933, Sacramento, CA, pp. 125-160.

Laizure, C. McK. "Del Norte County." Mining in California and the Activities of the State Mining Bureau, special issue of Report of the State Mineralogist, vol. 21, no.1, California State Mining Bureau, January 1925, Sacramento, CA, pp. 281-294.

"Del Norte County Comprehensive Economic Development Strategic Plan (CEDS), 2019-2024." Del Norte County Board Report, County of Del Norte Administrative Office, 28 April 2020, Crescent City, CA, Appendix A, Table A-2: "Crescent City Employment."

Note: I literally measured the area of the NPS/NFS land using the measurement tool on the BLM website's ArcGIS map.

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