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Lassen County California: History and Culture

Lassen County History Links

As the discovery of gold in 1848 sparked a flow of westward migration, an alternative to the Donner Pass (to cross the Sierras) was sought. Peter Lassen, a Dane from Farum, Denmark, first explored these parts and in 1851 William Nobles began leading settlers over a route that ran from the Humbolt River (in Nevada) to Shasta City at the northern end of the Sacramento Valley. Of the thousand's that passed this way, some choose to remain in the Honey Lake Valley. Among these, Isaac Roop, established a trading post where travelers along the Nobles Emigrant Trail could stock up with provision, before crossing the Sierras.

First known as "Rooptown" the settlement later became Susanville, for Roop's daughter, Susan. Today the William H. Pratt Museum is housed in the original structure that Roop built when he arrived in the Honey Lake Valley. Open daily, "Roop's Fort" is a must see for visitors to the area; it is located just off Main Street in downtown Susanville.

In 1856, Isaac Roop and Peter Lassen led a group of disgruntled citizens, who were unhappy over efforts of Plumas County, CA officials to levy and collect taxes in this isolated and sparsely populated region. At the same time, the settlers were equally unwilling to be considered a part of the territory of Utah, a vast region that included parts of what were to become several western states. Roop, Lassen and their followers opted to form a separate territory which they called "Nataqua."

This short-lived republic was largely ignored (since the region affected had but a few hundred settlers) and when the territory of Nevada was  established, Isaac Roop, was made a governor of the Territory. A few years later surveys of the area established that Susanville was actually a part of the State of California; the county of Lassen was established in 1864.

The Roop County War

On Sunday morning, February 15, 1863, the quiet of the town of Susanville was broken by the sound of gunfire as forces of Roop County Nevada and Plumas County California battled for control of the Honey Lake region.

The stage had been set for this conflict two years earlier when an act of Congress approved the boundaries of Nevada as a territory. The concluding line of the act read as follows: '..excepted from the area covered by this description any portion of California that might be included, unless that State should assent to such segregation.'

Surveyors had measured out the boundaries of Nevada such that the town of Aurora in the Esmeralda gold fields was on the Nevada side of the line, and the town of Susanville in the north was on the California side. Both states claimed jurisdiction over these areas and attempted to govern them simultaneously. Saloon fights, and embattled tax collectors became common place.

Despite pleas by Nevada Governor James Nye, the California Legislature refused to acknowledge the Nevada claim to the Honey Lake region. Bowing to the wishes of some of the citizens of the area, that they not be ruled by the officials of California's Plumas County, Nevada organized the disputed area into a new county called Roop. Named after Isaac Roop, Nevada's first Territorial Governor, it's county seat was established at Susanville.

Injunctions were issued by both sides to prevent the other from conducting governmental business, and both sides ignored these injunctions. Finally, Plumas County Judge E. T. Hogan sent Sheriff E. H. Pierce and Deputy J. D. Byers to Susanville with arrest warrants for Probate Judge John S. Ward and Roop County Sheriff William Naileigh.

They arrived in Susanville on the 6th of February, and were immediately served with a counter warrant from Judge Ward. After several arrests and counter arrests, during which Naileigh, Ward, Pierce, and Byers were in and out of each others custody things began to come to a head on the evening of February 13th. About 9 o'clock that night a group of over zealous Roop citizens at Toadtown heard of the latest arrest and release of their officials and rode to Susanville to set things right. Taking the beleaguered Judge and Sheriff into a kind of protective custody they retreated to an old log fort on the edge of town. They posted sentries and settled down to see what the Plumas contingent would do next.

The morning of February 15th found thirty or so Roop county men inside the old stockade originally build by Isaac Roop as a defense against Indians, and almost 100 Plumas County men occupying an old barn on the corner of Union and Nevada streets, about 150 yards away. While attempting to collect lumber to help fortify the barn, the Plumas men came under fire from the men stationed in the old fort, and the battle was on.

The hostilities soon settled into a 4 hour exchange of mostly intentionally inaccurate gun fire. Both sides feeling the disagreement was not worth killing or dying for. All the while negotiations were going on between members of each party that slipped in and out of their respective strongholds. Finally both sides agreed to a 3 hour truce and broke for dinner together at the Cutler Arnold Hotel. Men who had spent the day shooting at each other now spent a pleasant meal talking and trading stories about the recent fighting!

After dinner the men parted company and headed for their respective redoubts to strengthen the fortifications for the next day's battle. Pierce quickly sent for reinforcements, but learned it would be ten days before any help could be expected. He knew by then his own small force would probably be surrounded by the local Roop County men. When a delegation from the town showed up with a petition to cease the hostilities, Pierce took the opportunity to offer the Roop men a deal. An armistice was signed pledging to cease the battle and submit the grievances of both side to the proper officials in California and Nevada to be settled.

A new survey was ordered and it was determined the town of Aurora lay in Nevada and the Susanville and Honey Lake areas were in California. These boundaries were ratified by both state's governments by early 1865, stranding the Roop County people over the border in California. Unable to completely accept this situation, the Honey Lake residents finally gained independence from Plumas County by forming Lassen County with it's seat at Susanville.

Roop County Cowboy Shooters Association
PO Box 5088
Sparks, NV. 89432-5088


By Lassen County Historian, Tim I. Purdy

Lassen County has so many interesting facets to explore, and its heritage is no exception. Whether your interest is of emigrant trails, railroads, logging, ghost towns, politics, another area, there can be found in the annuals of Lassen County something of interest for everyone. So whether you are contemplating a visit or moving here, we will provide you with many of the highlights of our past, in what is referred to as the "Land of the Neversweats".

Among the original explorers of the region were fur trappers of the Hudson Bay Company who roamed the northwest region of the county known as Big Valley in the 1820s. Little did these fur trappers know that their network of trails left behind in the 1830s would assist John C. Fremont and his small army of the 1840s. Fremont who was ordered out of the state by Mexican governor Pio Rico, brought his small band of troops to Big Valley and remained there for a time to plan his Bear Flag revolt and embark on his colorful campaign which would lead to the creation of California.

However, it would take the gold rush of '49 before the region was noticed. The development of the Lassen and Noble Emigrant Trails brought emigrants through the region. (Remnants of these trails still can be seen today and certain sites have historical markers). While traffic continued through the area, it would not be until 1854 when Isaac N. Roop and Company established a trading post in the west end of Honey Lake Valley. This was the humble beginnings of the town of Susanville, the second oldest settlement in the eastern Great Basin. Two years later, a small gold rush occurred just south of Roop's trading post causing the permanent settlement of Honey Lake Valley and Lassen County.

These new residents found that they needed some type of government for their new home and established the Territory of Nataqua. It was perceived that the area was outside the jurisdiction of California and the Utah Territory (Nevada having not been formed yet.) By the early 1860s, with a survey of California boundaries, it was discovered that Honey lake was part of the Golden State and belonged to Plumas County. The citizens were not pleased with the fact, since a part of their independent nature was due to their isolation being cut off from the rest of the State by the Sierra Nevada mountains, nor were they pleased with the fact that now they were being forced to pay taxes. These ensuing events led up to the Sagebrush War, a two-day skirmish fought in Susanville in February 1863 between the residents and the Plumas County Tax Officials. While the residents lost that battle, they did win the war and on April 1, 1864, the County of Lassen was created. The county was named after Peter Lassen. Lassen was a Danish emigrant who came to this state in 1840 and spent his last years prospecting the Honey Lake Valley. He was murdered in 1859 on an expedition in the Black Rock Desert.

By 1880 settlements had sprung up all over Lassen County. Bieber, Hayden Hill, Toadtown, Madeline, Buntingville, and Paradise City to name a few, some of which no longer exist. This time period brought the arrival of the iron horse, namely that of the Nevada-California-Oregon Railway which traversed the eastern side of the County. The railroad, sometimes referred to as the Narrow Crooked & Ornery, was a narrow gauge line that operated from 1880 to 1927. It has the unique distinction of being the nation's longest narrow gauge line in this century.

Though the N-C-O railroad helped develop the high desert region of eastern Lassen, it would be the Fernley & Lassen Railroad built in 1913 that would tap the vast timber resources of the County's western region. Among these developments was the Red River Lumber company's town of Westwood. The Red River Lumber Company was the world's largest electrical sawmill of the times. Two other large mills followed suit and located in Susanville. All three of these companies had extensive railroad logging lines and camps throughout the forest, which finally closed down in 1956. So don't be surprised when you go hiking in the woods and come across sections of old railroad grades with the ties still in place or an abandoned logging camp.

While the large mills are now memories they transformed both Susanville and Westwood into the communities we know today. Yet don't overlook other towns like Janesville, which missed out by one vote of becoming the County seat in 1864, or Standish, established in 1897 as an experimental utopian village. Herlong, which took four different attempts to establish a town at the location since 1892, though it did not evolve until 1942 as a part the Army's ordinance depot. Doyle, the small town with a big heart and the railroad town of Wendel or Bieber in its idyllic setting that once served the needs of the bustling but now ghost town of Hayden Hill.

So come explore undiscovered California for its past, present, and future. We think you'll enjoy it.

Lassen County History & Archives: Exploring Northeastern California History
Tim I. Purdy is recognized as the Lassen County "Historian of Record".

Honey Lake

Honey Lake lies in the southeastern corner of Lassen County about ten miles west of the present California-Nevada line at an elevation of 3,950 feet. It occupies an elevated basin formed by a great uplifted fault block adjacent to the Sierra. The entire basin was once submerged beneath a northwestern arm of the ancient post glacial Lake Lahontan, a great inland sea formed more than two thousand years ago. At its height, about 100 A. D. Lahonton covered an area of 8,000 square miles in the Great Basin. With its final subsidence it left seven vestigial pools along its western extremity -- Honey Lake, Pyramid and its neighbor Winnemucca, Humbolt Sink, North and South Carson sinks, and Walker Lake. All of these lakes, or playas, are fed by mountain streams; they have no outlets; their waters are alkaline; and they show either a steady shrinkage in area or extreme fluctuations.

Its alkalinity, its landlocked waters, and its environment bare hillocks and broken, sage-covered plains in the east and wooded mountains in the west -- make Honey Lake a typical Basin playa. So do its startling fluctuations. It is fed chiefly by the Susan River, but it changes in level have often seemed to be independent of any visible intake. At present it is little more than a mud hole; when full as it was when Lassen and Bruff first saw it and when Roop and Lassen settled in its valley, it was all of fifteen miles in length and nine in width. In 1859 and in 1863 it was completely dry; in 1867 it covered an area of 90 square miles; and in the following year a sudden and record rise of waters threatened to inundate bordering farm lands. Its maximum depth in 1877 was eighteen inches; in 1882, four feet. Despite its generally shallow waters, however, it has been a hazard on windy days, and people have managed to drown in it from time to time. Honey Lake Valley

The California Gold Rush

During the Gold Rush, emigrants in wagon trains began toiling past Honey Lake along the "Horn Route," a more direct drive toward Sacramento. The trail went through bad Indian country, and the emigrants stopped only briefly, to feed and water stock. Settlers, seasoned Californians, arrived in 1854. The first to arrive was Isaac N. Roop, a widower of thirty-two, who had migrated to California from Ohio in 1850. His prosperous mercantile establishment in Shasta City had recently burned, and with it most of his capital stock. A more practical man might have tried to re-establish himself in the settlements. Roop, however, was impulsive and imaginative by nature, and trade seems to have been a secondary motive with him. At any rate, when he moved in, in May 1854, with his brother Emphraim and a small party from Shasta, Roop's first act was to record to himself a lush land claim along the Susan river (a stream which he named after his daughter, then in the East).

In the following year Peter Lassen himself returned to the valley which he had first seen in 1850. Old Pete had sold his Deer Creek holdings at a loss and was already searching for another Promised Land. He brought five or six men with him, including Isadore Meyerowitz, a former member of the Lassen-Bruff Gold Lake expedition.

For a decade the curious history of Honey Lake was largely the history of the two first settlers, Roop and Lassen. Neither they nor the followers knew exactly which they were when they settled in the valley, and their uncertainty accounted for much of the long seriocomic drama which followed their arrival. It was hard to tell whether this strange country belonged to California or to Utah Territory. But the anomalies of the place did not lessen its attractions. For Roop, with his recent crushing misfortune, and for Old Pete, with his simple Utopian dreams, the spacious lake plain was the Happy Valley, the end of the long trail.

Roop and Lassen found the valley and the fickle lake much as they were in 1850. The mountains on the western side were heavily timbered, and the low northern and southern hills were dotted with occasional clumps of scrub juniper. Game abounded in the hills -- deer, antelope, bear, puma, and mountain sheep. In the brush thousands of rabbits mingled with flocks of sage hen, and great flights of water fowl wheeled over the lake or settled, screaming, on the water. Apart from its ever-present Indian signs, this was a hospitable and burgeon-deposit brought down upon the plain from the mountain gorges. Wherever water reached it, it was covered with rich bunch grass, or with acres of waving rye, sometimes taller than a horse. Before the delicate balance of Nature was disturbed by prodigal lumbering and careless diversions of water, the porous alluvial earth produced without cultivation and apparently without limit. Men simply turned their animals out in the tall rye and let them fend for themselves; and even in winter the thick clumps of dried fodder showed everywhere above the snow.

Getting a living from the soil was so easy here that the settlers who followed Roop and Lassen soon acquired an undeserved reputation for indolence. In northern California and in western Utah Territory they were known as the "Never-Sweats," a term that persisted until well into the sixties. The Humbolt Register for April 30, 1864, published a sneering anecdote to justify this sobriquet. A "help-wanted" advertiser, said the Register, once interviewed three applicants for a job. When he discovered that the men where Honey Lakers, he stalked off in a rage, muttering darkly, "Honey Lake be damned! I want men to work! Honey Lake!"

But the Never-Sweats of the fifties had earned their ease, if they ever really had any. Many of them had drifted into the valley in the wake of the Gold Lake excitement and had seen much of the hard and dangerous life along the Yuba and Feather. Men like Pelio Trutters, Comanche George Lawrence, Sylvenus Conkey, Dolphin Inman, and Ireton Warp had "seen the elephant" long before. Weather-beaten and sinewy, they had survived the perilous illusions of the gold rush, and they yearned to put down stakes. If the rich hay grew wild and the deer waxed fat, they deserved the fruits. After all, unlike the fledgling and the impressionable gold seekers, they had the fortitude it takes to settle down.

By 1856 scores had settled in the valley, and 36,000 acres in land claims had been recorded by OOP. Honey Lake had become one of the main gateways to the Sacramento Valley, and the daily emigrant trains with their great herds of stock brought a pleasant surface excitement to the place and at the same time emphasized the satisfying stability of the homesteaders' lives. Between August and December, 278 men, 69 women and 89 children came over the Noble road in 88 wagons, with 323 horses, 22 mules, 4,515 head of cattle, and 3,700 sheep. Roop's house, the first one built in the valley and the nucleus of present Susanville, was the only emigrant station and the nerve center of all activities in the valley.

Roop himself was a busy man. He kept the register, lent money to the down and out, acted as land recorder, gave advice, greeted newcomers in the name of the valley and functioned as an all-around arbiter, indispensable to settlers and emigrants alike. He seemed to have a kindly hand in everything, and with his eager and sanguine nature he made little money out of anything. Old Pete Lassen stood solidly in the background, a sort of elder statesman. Like Roop, he had immense prestige among the settlers, and, like Roop, he had little material gain to show for it. Lassen had discovered gold at last, along and above the little creek where he had settled, but others were doing the actual mining and reaping the rewards.

With all its seasonal emigrant traffic the valley seemed completely detached from the rest of the world. As a direct result of the Gold Lake excitement two counties had been formally established south of Honey Lake -- Sierra in 1852 and Plumas in 1854. But Quincy, the county seat of Plumas and the settlement nearest the valley, lay beyond a spur of the mountain range and was cut off from all communication for at least four months of the year. Genoa, the chief settlement of Carson Valley lay sixty air-line miles away in a southerly direction and could be reached only by two days' travel over rugged and dangerous country. Directly east lay the Bad Lands above Pyramid Lake, unsettled by whites; no man who entered them alone lived long.

The valley was hemmed in on three sides by Indian country. The thieving and treacherous Washoe ranged south of the lake north of it the extremely hostile Pit River and Modoc tribes, and east of it the large and loose federation of the Paiute. There were also internal dangers. By 1856 the influx of settlers had brought with it a certain number of dubious frontier characters who wanted a hide-out--gamblers, road agents, professional gunmen, and rustlers.

It took an unusual amount of personal stamina and social solidarity to cope with these hazards. No other community of early California or Nevada more closely resembled, on the surface, the motion-picture conception of the Wild West; on the other hand, no early community showed less of the picturesque shiftlessness and moronic rusticity which the world has come to accept as the chief ingredient on the American frontier. The Honey Lakers wore six guns and bowie knives as necessary daily accouterments, just as they wore boots and shirts; and no man rode out of the valley, or even far into his own fields, without toting a rifle. But this self reliance merely reinforced a desire for stability and order. In the daily presence of danger it put the well-educated and shrewd, slow-moving illiterate upon an equal footing, and in the tight little valley community a man could put his trust in his neighbor without fear of losing his life, his purse, or his self-respect. By Lassen County Historian, Tim I. Purdy

Lassen County History & Archives: Exploring Northeastern California History
Tim I. Purdy is recognized as the Lassen County "Historian of Record".