Redding: A Brief History

Before we take a closer look at the religious movements in Redding, its necessary for us to sketch out a brief history of the city and the peoples of the region. 

The city of Redding sits right on the edge of the Cascade’s rolling foothills, located roughly halfway between Sacramento and the Oregon border along the Sacramento River. Towering pines and Douglas firs blanket the area—on a day trip to the coast you can view the Redwoods for which Northern California is famous. Being situated below the Cascades means summers in Redding can be very, very hot. The north winds that blow down Klamath Mountain heat and dry once they reach the valley, where temperatures often hit triple digits in the summer months. Unfortunately for Redding, the Delta Breeze does little to help—the winds that cool Sacramento and Stockton lose their coolant by the time the arrive in Redding. The hot winds from Klamath and the failure of the cool winds to reach Redding make for dry conditions that can spell disaster for residents. Something as innocuous as sparks from a popped tire can set fields ablaze. This is exactly what happened in 2018 when the Carr Fire burned through 229,651 acres of those towering forests of firs and pines, devastating Redding and the surrounding communities. 

Redding was founded in 1887, but our story begins long before then, with the tribes whose history in the region extends as far back as 12,000 years. These Native Americans were members of the Hokan and Penutian language families, comprising of tribes such as the Wintu, Klamath, Shasta, Pit, and Modoc. The Wintu tribes however were the primary group that inhabited what is now Redding, living in villages of earthen and thatched homes. These Wintu villages clustered around Clear Creek, where they lived off of Redding’s abundant natural resources, gathering acorns, roots, seeds, and berries as well as hunting the wildlife, mostly waterfowl and fish. The acorns found from the California live oak were a fundamental part of their diet, which they ground to make breads and soups; deer, duck, and salmon served as ample sources of meat. Like other neighboring tribes, the Wintu were semi-nomadic, moving with this wildlife up the slopes of Shasta Bally, the tallest peak along Whiskeytown Lake, during the hot summer months. Naturally, their religion and myths were deeply influenced by their reliance on the natural world for sustenance, which provided sacred spaces blessed by the gods. Mount Shasta, which dominates the landscape roughly 60 miles north of Whiskeytown Lake, was perhaps one of the most important sites that served as a religious focal point for the Wintu and other tribes in the region. Shasta was and still is regarded by many as sacred ground where purification ceremonies can be conducted and healings and blessings received from the supreme beings these tribes worship. For the Modoc this was G’mokumk; for the Klamath, this was Skell, the spirit of the Above-World. Both gods were said to have either resided on or descended upon Mount Shasta, contributing to its reputation as a holy place associated with the spiritual. 

Tragedy struck these tribes when the first settlers appeared in the region in the early 19th century and set off the California Genocide, one of America’s darkest legacies. This mass destruction of native populations was a perfect storm of disease, displacement, enslavement, and outright massacre. When trappers first appeared in northern California in the 1820s they brought with them malaria and smallpox, reducing tribes like the Shasta in the Klamath mountains to half of the previous population as a result of these epidemics alone. Wave after wave of cholera and influenza devastated the Wintu in Redding. The Gold Rush only made things worse—miners competing for resources forcefully displaced the natives, raiding and massacring entire communities. In 1846 settlers killed somewhere between 150 and 900 total Wintu, cornering them on the Sacramento River. The Bridge Fork Massacre of 1852 saw the murders of over 150 Wintu men, women, and children in a single day at the hands of settlers under sheriff William H. Dixon. Earlier, in 1850, a “friendship feast” was held “in honor” of the Trinity Wintu, poisoning over 100 of those who partook of the food offered them. Wintu and other nearby natives like Kate Camden were often kidnapped and forced into slavery in the households of settlers, something that was allowed under the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians. The near complete destruction and displacement of the northern California tribes continued well into the early 20th century, by which time the flourishing community of 34,000 Wintu had been reduced to just 710. 

What was initially known by settlers as Poverty Flats became incorporated as an official community when Pearson Barton Reading received the Rancho Buena Ventura land grant in 1844, encompassing what would become modern day Redding and Cottonwood. Reading’s primary interest was the gold that could be mined from the Whiskeytown Lake area. There he established a mining operation where settlers and natives toiled in search of California’s greatest prize. For a time the city was known as Reading, however it’s Benjamin B. Redding to whom we owe the final name, a decision made 36 years later when the Central Pacific Railroad’s prominence in the area became well established. The former Sacramento mayor brought the locomotive with him to northern California in 1872 after purchasing and beginning construction of the railroad on a tract of land running through Poverty Flats that would transform the town of 600 into a major hub, officially incorporated as a California city in 1887. 

The gold which had so attracted settlers had run dry by the time Redding gained township, as had the copper and iron once the Roaring Twenties arrived. However the lumber industry revitalized the economy when the construction of Shasta Dam was completed, something that further alienated the remaining Wintu in the region. These survivors had been forcibly moved to the Redding Rancheria in 1922, and no natives lived in their ancestral territory in the Whiskeytown National Recreation Area. The Shasta Dam wasn’t the only dam to be constructed on native lands—the Whiskeytown Dam was later constructed in the 1960’s, again bringing with it a slew of workers in its colossal construction effort. The dam’s construction produced Whiskeytown Lake with its 36 mile long shoreline, a massive recreational space that served to further tourism in the region. 

Redding’s history is a tragic one, as are the histories of other cities in Northern California. While many current residents might not realize it, the native presence there, once rich and flourishing, has been decimated by years of replacement and development. Efforts have been made by the remaining Wintu in the region to continue their traditions and preserve their culture and language. Today, 2,500 Wintu survive, living on the Round Valley Reservation and Redding Rancheria. 

Further reading: 

“The Wintu” (https://www.nps.gov/whis/learn/historyculture/the-wintu.htm)

“How Redding Got its Name – A Tale of Two Men With Nearly the Same Name” (https://www.activenorcal.com/how-redding-got-its-name-a-tale-of-two-men-with-nearly-the-same-name/)

“Historic Redding California” (https://www.cityofredding.org/about-us/brief-history-of-redding#:~:text=Redding%2C%20a%20land%20agent%20of,through%20the%20area%20in%201872.&text=With%20600%20settlers%2C%20Redding%20was,laws%20in%20the%20State%20Constitution

“Genocides of California” (https://www.angelfire.com/sk/syukhtun/excerpt3.html)

“Wintu” (https://web.archive.org/web/20160407121550/http://www.siskiyous.edu/shasta/nat/win.htm

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: