If we begin the story of Delta agriculture in 1772 before the explorers and early settlers began to arrive, hundreds of generations of Indians had created a population of roughly 330,000 people in California. Approximately 70% of them lived around the Bay and Delta because of the fresh water, and abundance of food including fish, oak trees, wild game, roots and berries. They used acorns for flour and wild game and salmon were their sources of protein. The settlement of California and the immigration of Spanish, Russian, Mexican, and early settlers from the eastern half of the US and Europe caused a significant and rapid decline in the native Indian populations.
During the first half of the 19th century, cattle were driven north from Mexico. Ranchers under lease from the Spanish and then the Mexican government had some of the first “farming operations” around the margins of the Delta as we know it today.
The discovery of gold in 1848 and the ensuing gold rush from 1849 to about 1865 began to change the Delta landscape. Tens of thousands of people came to California from the eastern part of our country, Europe and Asia, once they heard about the opportunity to strike it rich. Many of the early Delta’s early farmers were unsuccessful gold miners returning to the lifestyle that they had left.
A continuous influx of people, coupled with a decline in the successes of the miners, lead people to set up other types of businesses and to start farming. Water availability and fertile soils were needed. The Delta beckoned. Beginning in1861, the State and federal governments began passage of a series of laws intent on encouraging the creation of levees and reclamation of marshlands so that farmland and buildings could be protected from floods. The creation of levees to help form islands was labor intensive. Farmers needed help to build levees and produce crops. In 1850 there were 25,000 Chinese living in San Francisco. Many of these, plus others from China, immigrated to the Delta region and began the task of constructing levees. Some 10,000 Chinese worked on the levees in the second half of the 19th century. 2,000 Filipinos immigrated to the Delta in the early 1900s, followed by the Japanese and the Hispanics. Most came to work harvesting crops.
As more and more farmland was reclaimed and became available, more farmers immigrated to the Delta Region. By 1930 the 57 Delta islands we know today were formed. The soil was excellent for growing crops. At the turn of the century hundreds of river boats were in service transporting crops from the Delta region. When the various Delta bridges were constructed, trucking gradually replaced riverboats. In 1952 the Sutter, the last riverboat working in the Delta, was taken out of service helping transport Delta produce to market.