A Look Into a River's Past

California has funded scientists from the San Francisco Estuary Institute to reconstruct an image of the San Joaquin Delta’s pre-Spanish landscape. They layer navigational charts, government land surveys, drawings, photographs, and journals to paint detailed picture of the Delta ecosystem of 200 years ago.

California has funded scientists from the San Francisco Estuary Institute to reconstruct an image of the San Joaquin Delta’s pre-Spanish landscape. They layer navigational charts, government land surveys, drawings, photographs, and journals to paint detailed picture of the Delta ecosystem of 200 years ago.



For more on this story, read Restoring the San Joaquin River and Recalling Its History.

On the Banks


This 1900 photo shows European-Americans boarding rowboats on the banks of the San Joaquin.

With the widespread arrival of Europeans in the 1800s, the Delta’s ecosystem began to change dramatically, for the worse. Photo: Bank of Stockton

Early Maps


This 1824 map by Spanish missionary Father Narciso Durán is one of the earliest European depictions of San Francisco Estuary, showing over a dozen distinct indigenous communities in the Delta.

In the early 1800s, the Delta’s indigenous populations declined precipitously due to forced relocations to Spanish missions and epidemics of European diseases that decimated entire villages. This effectively ended native land management of the Delta.

Accounts from the 1830s and 1840s describe once-thriving villages within the Central Valley deserted and strewn with the bones of the former residents. By the Gold Rush era, which began in 1848, the indigenous population of the region was significantly reduced. Photo: University of California, Davis

A Flourishing Ecosystem


For over 6,000 years, native groups in the Delta modified the environment through their fishing, hunting and gathering of food plants; harvesting tule grass to construct boats, rafts, huts, and mounds; and altering vegetation with controlled fires.

This woman of the Tachi Yokut tribe is holding a bundle of tule reeds, which have been used for construction for centuries. Photo: San Joaquin Valley Library System

Turning Marsh into Farmland


Following the Gold Rush, the fertile Delta marshland was turned into farmland to feed a growing population. Rivers were leveed, wetlands drained, tidal sloughs dammed, riparian forests cut and flows altered, forever changing the landscape and ecosystem.

This photograph, taken between 1904 and 1907, shows workers from Middle River Navigation and Canal Co. standing on a dredge scoop in used to convert Delta marshland into agricultural land. Photo: UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library

Row of Rowboats


Men tend to boats in a Delta canal around the turn of the century. Photo: UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library

Turn of the Century Abode


An A-frame house with a grass roof near the San Joaquin River in the early 1900s. Photo: UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library

A Lake Disappears


The San Joaquin River was not the only body of water diverted for agricultural use.

Until the late 1800s, southern San Joaquin Valley’s Tulare Lake, named for the tule rush that lined its banks, was the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi and the second largest freshwater lake in the entire United States.

The 690-square-mile lake went dry after its tributary rivers were diverted for agricultural irrigation and municipal water uses. This late-1800s image shows workers in Tulare County drilling a water well with the help of a horse. Photo: Tulare County Library

Family with Baskets


Tulare Lake was home to the Tachi-Yokut tribe, who fished its waters and built boats and homes with the tule reeds.

This Yokut family of the Wuksachi tribe in Eshome Valley in Tulare County, Calif., poses with tightly woven baskets in October 1903. The baskets are able to hold water. Photo: University of California, Berkeley

Man with a Tule House


In Tulare, Calif., the namesake tule reeds were made into homes. Photo: UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library

Yokut Portrait, 1910


This 1910 photograph shows a group of Yokut people from the Woodlake and Badger areas of the San Joaquin Valley. Photo: San Joaquin Valley Library System

Preparing Acorns


This October 1903 photo shows baskets and a structure used for drying and shucking acorns, a staple in many early Californian’s diets.

Photo taken in Eshome Valley, Tulare County, Calif. Photo: University of California, Berkeley

Santa Rosa Rancheria Family


“Indian John” poses with his family at the Santa Rosa Rancheria near Lemoore, Calif., in the Central Valley.

The Santa Rosa Rancheria belongs to the Tachi Yokut tribe and is still active today. Photo: San Joaquin Valley Library System