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Salt Spring
South Fork of the American River
Below, a thirty years site update, August 11, 2014
Now identified as a prehistoric salt manufactory.

February 13, 1844: Charles Preuss was at the Long Camp near Carson Pass, and had just gotten the news from Tom Fitzpatrick that he had not been able to get any of the horses up from Grovers Hot Springs to Charity Valley.

Fitzpatrick had killed a lean animal [horse or mule] and sent us part of it, together with the bad news. I really cannot say whether it tasted good or bad...without salt nothing has any flavor to me, so to speak.

Some of the men seasoned their meat with gunpowder, which contains 60-75% sodium nitrate, but Preuss found this no substitute for good old NaCl. The salts in the black powder and priming are what corrodes the gun barrel if you don't clean it immediately, preferably with lots of hot water.

February 15, 1844: Preuss is in the "Same situation."

The little dog [Tlamath] tasted all right, but the great good news is that the men have bartered rock salt from the Indians. Just now Taplin is bringing in a big lump.

Preuss's term "rock salt" is, of course, a translation from the original German, which may be a distinction between salt from mountains (as Salzberg) and salt taken from the sea. Frémont (below) describes it as "a cake of very white fine-grained salt."

February 16, 1844: Preuss is "Still in the old snowhole."

The horse meat is all right as long as the salt holds out.

February 17, 1844: Frémont and Jacob Dodson returned to the Long Camp from a two-day exploration north into the Canyon of the South Fork of the American River.

Here we had the pleasure to find all the remaining animals, 57 in number, safely arrived on the grassy hill near the camp; and here, also, we were agreeably surprised with the sight of an abundance of salt. Some of the horse Guard [near Markleeville] had gone to a neighboring hut for pine nuts, and discovered accidentally a large cake of very white fine-grained salt, which the Indians told them they had brought from the other side of the mountain [my emphasis]; they used it to eat with their pine nuts, and readily sold it for goods.

Frémont passed this place on February 25, 1844, but he was back up away from the river bottom, and except in the dryest seasons, the salt spring is not evident anyway. I have been aware of this salt deposit for many years, but only after reading the Report did I consider it in relation to Frémont's comments.

It answers the Indians' description of "from the other side of the mountain," being a day's foot travel (in summer) from the Carson Pass, on the north bank of South Fork of the American River, just above Fry Creek at N38° 45' 54", W120° 21' 51". However, there is a similar but larget site on the headwaters of the Mokelumne, and a smaller site on Caples Creek, which might have been the source of salt for the Indians Fémont's men encountered near Markleeville.

go Salt springs on Mokelumne River

The salt springs Frémont passed remain a great attraction to deer, and is within an eighth of a mile of a fairly large concentration of bedrock mortars--most likely Maidu. I reported the sites to the State some years ago, and a "Sensitive Area" tag is on a nearby tree [tree now gone]. Springs seep out of the granite on both sides of the river, and in the driest months of August and September, it dries on the surface of the rocks to a depth of about 3/16 inch. It is quite easy to quickly gather large quantities - bushels in a season.
There are also some half dozen natural potholes in the granite outcrop, where these salt springs collect, before overflowing into the river. The water in these bowls (up to several gallons) is very briney, and could potentially be regularly bailed out onto the surrounding rock to evaporate, thereby increasing many times over the amount of salt that could be harvested.

In addition to the salt crystals which form naturally on the granite surface, there are about twenty 3-4' diameter excavated basins in the granite which collect the seeping brine. Some are now rubble filled from slides and from river flooding. Two are currently below the surface of the river, but were probably high and dry before the Caples Lake Reservoir, and even drier during the Medieval Climate Anomaly and the Little Ice Age, which lasted right up until about 1890.


Update thirty years later.
August 11, 2014

Archaeologists from the Eldorado National Forest, and Sonoma State University, under the direction of Placerville District archaeologist ~Karen Klemic, make an initial survey of the prehistoric salt manufacturing site. On the day of this visit, the salinity of the brine in the basins had reached the point where course salt crystals were precipitating out of solution and settling to the bottom. A manufactory, still working away, unattended, for who knows how many centuries.

Summer 2015.
I now learn from Jim Moore, a US Geological Survey archaeologist and specialist in such salt manufacturing sites, that he has become involved in this project. As a swap for my publication The Crossing, Jim has sent me copies of the following scientific publications on similar prehistoric basin excavations spanning the length of the western flank of the Sierra Nevada:

Hand-Hewn Granite Basins at Native American Saltworks, Sierra Nevada, California, James G. Moore and Michael F. Diggles, Scientific Investigations Report 2009-5225, U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey.

Origin of Meter-Size Granite Basins in the Southern Sierra Nevada, California, James G. Moore, Mary A. Gorden, Joel E. Robinson, and Barry C. Moring, Scientific Investigations Report 2008-5225, U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey.

Bedrock Basins in the Sierra Nevada, Alta California, James G. Moore, Mary A, Gorden, Thomas W. Sisson, California Archaeology, Vol. 4, No. 1, June 1012, pp. 99-122.

I've caught an awful lot of trout along this stretch over the last 60 years.

go For more about salt as a very necessary item, go to the 2nd expedition on the winter crossing of the Sierra Nevada.

And read Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky


This associated granite outcrop about 50 yards upstream contains 14 bedrock mortor holes, which were once used for grinding acorns. They are found throughout the area, including at least one I have seen several hundred feet up Fry Creek from the river.

After the Indians, and after Frémont, settlers used the salt spring. Below is the ruin of what is apparently an old salt lick. It is located in the same rock formation on the opposite (south) side of the river. It is built over native American excavated basins in the granite. The names are J. A, Read, L. Randall, and Jack C. Read. I don't know anything of the Reads, but the Randalls early owned much property in the area, including the Hotel at Whitehall. Cattle were ranged in the mountains in summer. A house owned by a member of the family was across the river from what is today called Randall Tract, just above Whitehall near the 26 milestone. Below is another photo with a hand print. The writing says "Witness my Hand. October 18 (illegible)." There is a small cairn on a granite outcrop just above, and rather than an old, boundary marker, we surmise that it may have supported a post to locate the spot when looked for by its developers from the original 1860-1930s road alignment, 160' higher than the present highway.

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Bob Graham