The history of Colusa County is very colorful and interesting. It is like reading a historical novel with several public-minded heroes helping to shape the destiny of the county. Its chief historians have been: Will S. Green, who was the county's greatest hero; Justus Rogers, an early day newspaper editor at Orland; Charles D. McComish, Colusa lawyer; Mrs. Rebecca T. Lambert, Willows, prominent in the organization of the "Daughters of the American Revolution" and one of the Charter Members of "The Colusi Historical Society."
Colusi County, which was the original name of Colusa County, was first organized by the California Legislature on February 9, 1850. It was made up for the most part of the present Colusa and Glenn Counties and that part of Tehama County as far north as Red Bluff. In Mrs. Lambert's history she says; "Among the first acts of this first legislature which met before California was admitted to the Union, was one outlining the boundaries of various counties. Colusa was one of these first counties formed, and it's boundaries were defined by the legislature as follows: 'Beginning at a point on the summit of the Coast Range Mountains due west from the red Bluffs, and running thence due east to the said bluffs on the Sacramento River, thence down the middle of said river to the northwest corner of Sutter County, thence due west along the northern border of Yolo County to the summit of the Coast Range, thence in northwesterly direction following the summit of said range to the point of beginning.' The district thus defined was attached to Butte County for judicial purposes."
In 1855, the State Legislature passed a bill reducing the county area to the present northern boundary of Glenn County. The area taken away was thirty-six miles wide and included the city of Red Bluff. At this time the eastern boundary of the county was extended beyond the Sacramento River to Butte Creek and ended a few miles north of Butte City. In 1891, the county was again divided and Glenn County was formed, the latter being named after its more illustrious citizen, Dr. Hugh Glenn, the world's greatest wheat producer.
John Bidwell is one of the first white men who has recorded as being in the county as early as 1843. He says he saw at least ten thousand Indians here at that time. IN Will S. Green's History, he wrote: "while there were many small tribes of Indians living in Colusa County, there were three belts, as it were, of them, the tribes in each having more or less intercourse with each other, and being generally on friendly terms. Those occupying either side of the river formed one, those occupying the foothills along Bear Valley and Stony Creek another, and those occupying the pine timber region of the mountains the third. Many of these tribes have died out entirely and their manes have passes entirely from man. Many persons have supposed that each village was a tribe of itself, but most of these were the temporary residences of families of the same tribe, and while all acknowledged the authority of the principle chief, the government of the villages were largely patriarchal.
One of these tribes was the Colus Tribe, 'Co'-lus' was not the exact pronunciation as the Indians gave it. We were told many years ago by very intelligent Indians that this work originally meant 'scratch' and that the Indians were so named because the young squaws scratched the faces of their bridegrooms after the marriage ceremony. All Indian names had a significance once and the pronunciation of the word meaning 'scratch' was probably gradually changed as much happen with all unwritten languages.
The principle foods of the Indians were grass seeds, acorns and fish. Sometimes they even killed an antelope, a deer, or other game, but game usually required special work so the Indians did no have fresh mean often. The squaws did all the work and even had to carry the fish caught by the braves. The squaws were responsible for feeding their children and husbands. They made water-tight baskets and gathered their food. The acorns were dried and pounded in stone mortars in to very fine flour. The bitterness was removed from the flour by a special process invented by the squaws. The flour was then made into a sort of soup."
The grizzly bears were the most important animals at the time Bidwell came in 1844. There were many of them, the reason being no other animals could match them in fighting power and the Indians did not have the weapons or the courage to kill them. According to General Bidwell, "The grizzly bear was an hourly sight. In the vicinity of the streams, it is not uncommon to see thirty or forty in a day. In the spring of the year the bears lived on clover which grew luxuriantly on the plains especially in the little depressions." The early settlers had a reason for killing off the bears—they were a menace to man and beast alike. The bears retreated to the thick brush and timber along the river and finally to the mountains. Today, they no longer exist in this area.
Green wrote, "It seems proper that a chapter on the early settlement of the county should be commenced with the following letter from General John Bidwell, published in the Colusa Sunday of January 6, 1877: 'I first saw that a portion of Colusa County lying west of the Sacramento River, in 1843, at which time I passed thought it's entire length. It did no contain a white inhabitant. No one had ever thought them of obtaining a grant of land there. No Mexican had ever lived there, and I have some doubts if one had ever been there. The territory comprising the present County of Colusa so far as settlement, or the least sign of civilization was concerned, was new as when Columbus discovered America."
The first settler in the county was Bryant, at the mouth of Stony Creek; the next, John S. Williams, at what is now the Boggs place, south of Princeton; the next, Charles B. Sterling, William's successor in the employ of Larkin; the next, Swift and Sears, on the south side of Stony Creek, and some twelve or fifteen miles from the Sacramento River. The number of white people living in the county at the time gold was discovered could have been counted on both hands. As soon as the county's boundary lines were settled in 1850, a controversy arose over the location of the county seat. Monroeville was located towards the northeast boundary line of the county, near the mouth of Stony Creek, and was named after U.P. Monroe, an active landowner of the proposed site and the first inspector of elections in the county. The State Legislature had passed an act providing for the organization of a county by the district judge upon petition of the electors of the county. U.P. Monroe was quick to take advantage of the act. Instead of presenting the petition to the district judge, he gave the petition to Judge Moses Bean, Superior Judge of Butte County. Judge Bean proclaimed that an election would be held at Monroeville on January 10, 1851, for the organization of the county and the election of county officials.
The following officials were elected: U.P. Monroe, County Clerk, J.S. Holland, Superior Judge, W.G. Chard, Assessor, Joseph C. Huls, Surveyor, and John F. Wills, Sheriff. On April 12, 1851, Judge Holland, who had been ill for some time, died. On May 3, John T. Huges was elected Superior Judge. Shortly afterwards, however, Huges left the county and another election was held on September 3, 1851. This was the first election of which there are any official records. The returns were as follows: for Assemblyman; C.D. Semple, 23, H.L. Ford, 47, Newall Hall, 23, S. Gwynn, 5; for County Judge, William B. Ide, 40, L.H. Sanborn, 35; for County Clerk, James Yates, 11, E.D. Wheatly, 74; for Treasurer, G.P. Swift, 3 Ben Knight, 82; for Assessor, W.G. Chard, 21, W.H. Sheppard, 52.
Mrs. Lambert says, "The letters of William B. Ide, former leader of the Bear Flag Revolt, furnish the main source of information concerning the life and history of this period. While performing his several official duties at Monroeville, Ide contracted the smallpox, which terminated fatally on December 20, 1852. By his death the county was deprived of their most public-spirited citizen, whose influence on behalf of law and over could ill be spared in such a turbulent period."
The people of Colusa were not pleased with the location of the county seat. First blood was drawn in the contest in 1851, when Colonel Charles Semple had the County Proclamation amended by the State Legislature by the insertion of the words, "and the seat of Justice shall be the town of Colusa." Nothing happened, however and the Monroevilleites proceeded with the work of staking out lots and planning the future of their town. The Colusa faction then brought the matter up again at the next general election in 1853, when the vote was overwhelmingly in favor of Colusa. Monroeville was by that time so far outnumbered in population by Colusa that it cased to struggle to maintain its hold. Its inhabitants settled in other localities and the site of the town afterwards merged into the farm purchased by Jubal Weston Jr., in 1868.
The government of the county was no fully organized with proper officials, and the records previously kept at Monroeville, were transferred to Colusa, were, during the summer of 1854, a three thousand dollar frame building was erected for a Court House.
According to Rodgers, it was during the years 1850 and 1851 that a number of ranches sprang into being to help supply the needs of the miners who passed through Colusa County in a steady stream to the northern mines. Barley, oats and hay were in great demand for the horses. Cattle, sheep, hogs, and chickens were needed for the tables of the hotels at the stage stops. Thus, the county led in the production of agricultural products early in the settlement of the Sacramento Valley.
The river area settled early due to the stage traffic and the river boats. Then the foothill area, ideal for raising cattle and sheep, progresses rapidly. The plains weren't settled as rapidly. It took the coming of the railroad up through the plains in 1878 to give such places as Arbuckle, Williams, Maxwell, and Willows a real boost in population. Shipping by rail become important to Willows in particular, as it grew by leaps and bounds.
Rogers says: "From 1858 to 1861, Colusa County received a steady growth of development. Colusa grew to the dignity of a town. Princeton became a lively place and Newville and St. John had post offices. Numerous steam boat landings were recognized by names."
The territory on the East Side of the river (between the river and Butte Creek) became settled during 1852 and 1853. Among prominent landowners were: Mayberry Davis at Union, Dr. A Lull, opposite Princeton, Thomas C. McVay, L.F. Moulton and E.W. Jones closer to Colusa.
On Grand Island such names as Thomas Eddy, Cleaton Grimes (who gave the town of Grimes its name), E. Grimes, Daniel H. Allen, and John Fitch were among those listed as being prominent in their area.
Will S. Green was only a lad of sixteen when he left his home in Kentucky to come to California with his uncle Colonel Charles Semple in 1849. He set off with money borrowed at an exorbitant 400% interest rate, which he tells us he eventually paid back. He arrived in San Francisco on October 10, 1849, having traveled by Panama. In the summer of 1850, as related above, he became a resident of Colusa. In the period between 1851 and 1863, he seems to have made a living as a hotel keeper, joint founder of a bakery, by selling fresh vegetables and trying his hand at magazine articles. He was truly self-educated as schooling for him ceased early in his teens.
On September 26, 1863, with J.C. Addington and his partner, he bought up the Colusa Sunday, which had been founded as a weekly on January, 1862, by Charles R. Street. Pioneer of the West and Dean of provincial newspaper editors in California, for more than forty years Green shaped the Colusa Sunday as the voice of Colusa County.
In 1863, he married Josephine Davis, step-daughter of Howell Davis of Sycamore. To them were born four girls and two sons. Mrs. Green died in 1881 and ten years later he married Sally B. Morgan. The second Mrs. Green continued to edit the Colusa Sunday until 1925, twenty years after his death in 1905.
According to his granddaughter, Mrs. Lucille LaBourdette, "From 1850 to the day he died, he talked, wrote and lived irrigation. The idea came to him early because the land became so dry during the seasons of little rainfall. He spent a fortune on surveys of canals—the Grand Central having been surveyed and commenced thought his efforts. He spent the last days of his life traveling with a Congressional Committee on Irrigation. He made his last speech at Red Bluff on the subject. At the time of his death he was President of the Sacramento Valley Development Association, which office he had held from the time of its organization. Mr. Green had held the office of United States Surveyor –General during President Cleveland's Administration. When the Treasurer of the State died, he was appointed to the position by governor Budd.
In September 1905, a stone was places in Sloat Monument in Monterey next to that of Governor Burnett, and Thomas O. Larkin. Though Colusa has had many great men, I wonder how many now living in Colusa know that for fifty-five years, one of California's great men once lived a simple quiet life in their town!"
Among the first churches of Colusa County was Trinity Methodist Church which celebrated its centennial in 1956. The Catholic Church was the second and was founded in 1863 at Dry Slough Schoolhouse. The First Presbyterian Church was the third being founded in 1874.
The first public school in the county was opened in the old court house in Colusa in March in 1855, with a session of three months and twenty-nine children in attendance. From that time on, the people of Colusa County have tried to give their children the best education that was available. In time High Schools were established, in Colusa first and then in Willows and gradually the larger centers provided such schools for their children. Two colleges were located in this area for a number of years. Pierce Christian College was founded in September 1874 and Orland Normal College was founded in 1884. Many prominent men and women received their education in these two colleges until they ceased as institutions of learning in middle of 1890's.