Some people believe it was Sutter’s Fort that put Sacramento on the map. Other people contend that Sacramento attained national prominence by being the gateway to the gold fields along the American rivers in 1849. However, it was Amos Parmalee Catlin who sponsored legislation in 1854 to move California’s State Capitol from Benicia to Sacramento that has created the more enduring recognition for Sacramento City on the national map.
Amos P. Catlin, The Whig Who Put Sacramento On The Map, chronicles Amos’ life from his arrival in California in 1849 to his death in 1900 in Sacramento. Particular attention is paid to Amos’ work on organizing and building the Natoma water ditch in the early 1850s. It was during the ditch construction that Amos was elected to the California Senate. He wrote the bill to relocate the state’s capital to Sacramento. However, Amos did not consider the water projects or the state capital his most significant accomplishments in life.
Amos P. Catlin, a young New York attorney, sailed to California in 1849 to mine for gold and practice law. He settled at Mormon Island and established the Natoma Mining Company. In 1851, Amos organized the Natoma Water Company to build a dam on the South Fork of the American River, above Salmon Falls, and then run a water ditch down to the Folsom region. Amos also organized the American River Water and Mining Company to complete the construction of the North Fork Ditch on the North Fork of the American River. Remnants of both of these important Gold Rush era water projects can be seen when Folsom Lake water levels are low.
From Chapter Two: Natoma Ditch & Sawmill to Senator, 1851 – 1852
Before Amos could get the lumber mill sawing, he would learn that other men had their sights on his water ditch proposition. Darius Mills wrote to Amos on December 25, 1851, warning him of a competing group of men. Mills informed Amos that a Mr. Laird was preparing a similar water ditch company to compete with his. Amos, John Veatch, and Edgar Mills should immediately occupy locations along the route of the ditch from the dam to critical junctures along the path. Since there was no means of buying the land, all Amos could do was station men at the various points to intimidate any interlopers.
D. O. Mills, being in the banking business in Sacramento, came across the confidential information about the competing ditch company. The act of breaking confidentiality regarding a business plan could have serious repercussions for D. O. Mills’ own business. “As we fully understand the importance of this advise [sic] to you, we know such a special messenger and as soon as you comprehend the contents of this letter please destroy it as the sound of this information would at once be understood by Mr. L if he should in any way learn of it.”
In addition to being historic Gold Rush water projects, the water canals supplied water to south Placer and northeast Sacramento counties in to the 1950s. The water helped establish farms and towns. The water rights created by these water projects continue today with the water passing through Folsom Dam to local communities.
In 1852, Amos was elected to the California Senate as a member of the Whig party. He wrote the legislation to relocate California’s Capital from Benicia to Sacramento in 1854. The permanent move of California’s Capital to Sacramento forever changed the city and kept it on the map as a destination for decades to come. Even after agriculture and the railroads moved away from Sacramento, the California Capitol has continued to be an economic generator for the region.
Amos was an investor, director, and promoter of both the Sacramento Valley and California Central railroads. Parts of the of old California Central Railroad are preserved as important streets such as Greenback Lane. Amos formed a close friendship with Theodore Judah and was involved in Judah’s early survey work for a Pacific Railroad through Judah’s American River Railroad company.
Between building the Natoma ditch, managing a sawmill, and being a state senator, Amos ran into financial difficulties. He couldn’t pay some debts and had to take out loans from business associates to keep his finances from collapsing. In short, he had bitten off more than he could chew in the mid-1850s. After his senate term ended, Amos focused on business and paid off his debts.
Amos was elected to the Assembly in 1856. He would go on to lead the investigation and impeachment of the state’s Treasurer for embezzlement. Corruption associated with party politics led Amos to form independent political parties. These local political parties were successful in electing several men to office. Amos would eventually drift to the Republican party after the Civil War.
Gold mining, railroads, and water ditch construction were not Amos’ true passion. He loved studying and practicing law. In 1863, Amos traveled to Washington, D.C. to defend the original map of the Leidesdorff land grant map before the U.S. Supreme Court. Amos had purchased 9,600 acres of the Leidesdorff land grant for the Natoma ditch. The town of Folsom was within the Leidesdorff land grant. A newly drawn map of the land grant would throw the town of Folsom and thousands of acres of his purchase into legal limbo.
In 1864, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with Amos’ arguments for the original Leidesdorff land grant map. Amos, along with his law partner at the time, George W. Bowie, would become the agents for selling the thousands of acres still in the land grant. With a favorable decision from the Supreme Court, Amos’ law career was set as well.
The town of Folsom was Amos’ home for many years. When he had the opportunity in 1856, Amos purchased several blocks in Folsom. Eventually, Amos would move to Sacramento where he became a highly esteemed attorney and counselor to Sacramento City and County. He was involved in many high-profile court cases involving hydraulic mining debris, divorces, and municipal bond debt. Amos’ criticism of Sacramento’s poor sewer system in the 1880s won him an appointment to a citizens’ counsel to propose solutions for waste disposal.
In 1885, Amos worked with the citizens of Auburn to pay off bonds they had defaulted on. The bonds were issued by a newly incorporated City of Auburn for the Sacramento, Placer & Nevada Railroad that was never finished. Rather than pay the bond principal and interest, Auburn chose to dissolve their city charter in the 1860s. Amos’ offer allowed Auburn to once again incorporate and pay off the old bonds at a highly discounted amount.
Once Amos and his family moved to Sacramento permanently in the late 1860s, Amos devoted his energies to his law practice. He was a regular before the California Supreme Court arguing on behalf of clients. He became a noted expert in municipal bond litigation. Amos was also vilified for his work with California’s Board of Equalization in the early 1870s.
It was generally agreed that few men knew more about California law than Amos Catlin. He was asked to participate in the drafting of a new state constitution in the late 1870s, but he declined as he was dealing with the death of his wife Ruth Anne. Amos was nominated to be a California Supreme Court Associate Justice in 1879. He lost the election in part because he was reluctant to campaign for the position.
Because of his legal stature, Amos was routinely asked to give opinions on important issues of the day. When a Sacramento City ordinance to evict Chinese people from the city limits was proposed, Amos was asked to give his opinion. He resolutely declared that such an eviction ordinance was unconstitutional. The proposal died.
Amos was elected a Sacramento Superior Court Judge in 1890. Public opinion would turn against Judge Amos after he ruled that Charles K. McClatchy, editor of the The Sacramento Bee, to be in contempt of court regarding stories involving a divorce case. Judge Amos lost his reelection bid in 1896, but continued to practice law until he died in November of 1900.
From Chapter Seventeen: Administrator, Reminiscing, Legacy: 1891 – 1900
Judge Amos was seated next to other dignitaries, including the mayor of Sacramento, Judge Johnson, and the chairman of the Board of Supervisors. All were watching the parade of lights from the grand reviewing stand on Tenth Street, next to the Capitol grounds. The occasion in 1895 was the celebration of the first distribution of electricity from the Folsom Power House down to Sacramento. Looking back, Amos could easily recall the steam engine he had employed at Mormon Island for mining, the building of dams for the Natoma ditch and North Fork Ditch, and his work with the Livermore family to make the Folsom Power House a reality.
Few men alive in Sacramento in 1895 could lay claim to such intimate involvement with the region, from Gold Rush to state Capitol, railroads to electrification. Judge Amos was a witness to history from a unique position. He had seen Sacramento grow from dusty streets and canvas houses to a modern city with electricity, lighting up a bright future. Where Sacramento’s future once was lit with the gleam of gold, and now with electric lights, the glow of the city’s dominance was beginning to fade.
Amos Catlin could have resettled in San Francisco and made more money as an attorney. The ’49er decided to call Sacramento home. He seemed to know everyone from governors and wealthy railroad barons down to the men and women on the street. Amos was frequently called upon for reminisces of the past, events, and pioneers who had died. He loved history and tried to preserve it.
Because Amos was not flamboyant, involved in scandals, or given to ostentatious displays of wealth, his name has faded from Sacramento history. That is unfortunate because Amos Catlin made several enduring contributions to the Sacramento region including water projects, railroads, land titles, and of course, the California Capitol.
The biography of Amos Catlin includes over 50 images of newspaper headlines, pictures, and maps. Included in the book is a list of property transactions of Amos Catlin from Sacramento, Placer, and El Dorado counties. Source material for the biography came from letters written to and from Amos Catlin, court documents, property deeds, hundreds of stories mentioning Amos in newspapers (Sacramento Union, Sacramento Bee, Placer Argus, Folsom Telegraph), and documents archived at the California State Library and Bancroft Library.
For a timeline of Amos’ life in California and links to other blog posts about Amos, visit Amos P. Catlin – Sacramento on my website.
Amos P. Catlin, The Whig Who Put Sacramento On The Map available on Amazon in paperback and ebook.
In this video, I visit some of the places Amos Catlin worked and lived along the South Fork of the American River, Negro Bar/Folsom, and Sacramento.