Should any of us succumb to the temptation to chide Carey and his fellow swamplanders for their arrogant and ultimately futile quest to control nature, we need only look at the huge new housing developments that now spread across the expansive American River floodplain north of Sacramento, where for almost 150 years, no one dared build at all. Another “flood of the century” awaits only a break or two in the levee.
This lecture, through the experiences of “swamplander” Ransom S. Carey and other gold-rush migrants, examines the failure of early private, county, and state efforts to reclaim California’s Sacramento Valley, which routinely filled up like a bathtub during the winter flooding season. Ignorant of the region’s volatile environment yet seduced by its “natural advantages,” confident in their ability to tame nature yet lacking due respect for its power, swamplanders were utterly unaware of the enormity of what lay ahead of them. More than a few would battle the forces of nature in the second half of the nineteenth century with a resolve and, indeed, a vengeance that can only be described as remarkable–if ultimately futile.