Before the 1849 California Gold Rush, American, English and Russian fur hunters were drawn to Spanish (and then Mexican) California in a California Fur Rush, to exploit its enormous fur resources. Before 1825, these Europeans were drawn to the northern and central California coast to harvest prodigious quantities of southern sea otter (Enhydra lutris nereis) and fur seals (Callorhinus ursinus), and then to the San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento – San Joaquin River Delta to harvest beaver (Castor canadensis), river otter (Lontra canadensis), marten, fisher, mink, gray fox (Urocyon cinereoargenteus), weasel, and harbor seal. It was California's early fur trade, more than any other single factor, that opened up the West, and the San Francisco Bay Area in particular, to world trade.
Just three years after Juan de Ayala sailed the first ship to pass through the Golden Gate in 1775, North America's Pacific Coast fur trade began, but not by the Spanish who had sailed the California coast since João Rodrigues Cabrilho's voyage in 1542 and Sebastián Vizcaíno's mapping of coastal California in 1602. It began in 1778 with Captain James Cook's third voyage, when otter skins were obtained at Nootka Sound on the Northwest Coast and, although Cook was killed in Hawaii on the way to China, his men were shocked at the high prices paid by the Chinese. A profit of 1,800% was made. In 1783, when John Ledyard reported in Connecticut that enormous profits could be made selling otter skins to China, New England began sending American ships to hunt sea otter, and later, beaver, on the Pacific coast as early as 1787. That the California fur trade had begun by 1785, just ten years after Ayala discovered San Francisco Bay, is evidenced by the Spanish issuance of regulations to govern the collection of otter skins in California. The west coast fur trade enabled New England merchants to recover from the economic collapse which followed the American Revolutionary War, and was exacerbated by closure of British home and colonial ports to American trade.
France sent La Pérouse to California in 1786 to investigate the fur trade opportunity and he "obtained about a thousand sea otter skins which he sold in China for ten thousand dollars" and shared that "The Indians...at Monterey...catch them on land with snares...". La Perouse also said that "Antecedent to this year (1786) an otter's skin bore no higher value than two hare's skins; the Spanish never suspected that they would be much sought after." Apparently the Spanish had not earlier appreciated the value of furs, being from warmer climes, despite sea otter described in 1776 off Fort Point (then Cantil Blanco) in San Francisco Bay by Father Pedro Font on the De Anza Expedition. Font wrote, "I beheld a prodigy of nature, which is not easy to describe.... We saw the spouting of young whales, a line of dolphins or tunas, besides seals and otters..." However, they mounted a major commercial otter hunting enterprise in California when Vicente Vasadre y Vega arrived just one month before La Perouse, and implemented a plan whereby all otter skins had to be sold to him and they quickly recruited the Christian Indians at the Missions to bring in pelts. Vasadre sailed to San Blas on November 28, 1786 with 1,060 otter skins, to be shipped to the Philippines on the Manila galleons.
Robert Gray, captain of the ship Columbia rediscovered the mouth of the Columbia River in 1792 on his second voyage to the Pacific Coast. Although the Spanish explorer Bruno de Heceta discovered the river's mouth in 1775, no other explorer or fur trader had been able to find it since. By the 1790s American ships dominated the coastal fur trade south of Russian America. In fact, Bostonian ships dominated the fur trade between California and China through the 1820s, when the sea otter supply was exhausted, and well before the first American mountain man, Jedediah Smith pioneered overland to California in pursuit of beaver pelts in 1826.
The Russian-American Company's Ivan Kuskov sailed into Bodega Bay in 1809 on the Kad'yak and returned to Novoarkhangelsk (Sitka) with beaver skins and over 2,000 sea otter pelts. They settled Fort Ross and vicinity in order to pursue the animals in the region and to provide food for their Alaskan settlements. In his 1896 history of the Russian settlement of California, Thompson wrote of Kuskov's first voyage to Bodega Bay in 1809: "After carefully exploring the surrounding country, some temporary buildings were erected, some otter and beaver skins were procured, and friendly relations were established with the Indians". Before establishing a southern colony at Fort Ross, the Russian-American Company contracted with American ships beginning in 1810, providing them with Aleuts and baidarkas (kayaks) to hunt otter on the coast of Spanish California. From 1810 to 1812, Americans contracted to the Russians snuck Aleuts into San Francisco Bay multiple times, despite the Spanish capturing or shooting them while hunting sea otters in the estuaries of San Jose, San Mateo, and San Bruno and around Angel Island. Kuskov, this time in the schooner Chirikov, returned to Bodega Bay in 1812; finding otter now scarce, he sent a party of Aleuts to San Francisco Bay where they met another Russian party and an American party and caught 1,160 sea otters in three months. By 1817, sea otters in the area were practically eliminated and the Russians sought permission from the Spanish and the Mexican governments to hunt further and further south of San Francisco. In 1824, Russian-American Fur Company agent and writer Kiril Timofeevich Khlebnikov contracted with Captain John Cooper to take several of their hunting baidarkas on his trading schooner Rover along with Aleut hunters to hunt sea otter as far south as the 30th parallel on the Baja California peninsula. The Russians maintained a sealing station in the Farallon Islands from 1812 to 1840, taking 1,200 to 1,500 fur seals annually, though American ships had already exploited the islands. The American ships Albatross under Nathan Winship O'Cain under his brother Jonathan Winship were sent from Boston in 1809 to establish a settlement on the Columbia River. In 1810, they met up with two other American ships at the Farallon Islands, the Mercury and the Isabella, and at least 30,000 seal skins were taken. By 1822, the Farallons' fur seal hunt had diminished to 1,200 annually and the Russians suspended the hunt for two years. From 1824 on, the subsequent catch continued a steady decline until only about 500 could be taken annually; within the next few years, the seal was extirpated from the islands. As the marine fur-bearers became too depleted to hunt and contracts with the Hudson's Bay Company provided food for the Alaskan settlements, the Russians abandoned Fort Ross in 1841.
As the oceanic fur industry began to decline, the focus shifted to California's inland fur resources. The founding of permanent British and American Settlements on the Pacific Coast, took place as part of this inland, rather than coastal fur trade. After merging with the North West Company in 1821, the British-owned Hudson's Bay Company sent parties out annually from Fort Astoria and Fort Vancouver down the Siskiyou Trail into the Sacramento and the San Joaquin valleys as far south as French Camp on the San Joaquin River, with the goal of denuding the lands of modern-day Oregon and California of all fur bearers, so that the Americans would "have no inducement to proceed thither". In 1840, explorer Captain Thomas Farnham wrote that beaver were very numerous near the mouths of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and on the hundreds of small "rushcovered" islands. Farnham, who had travelled extensively in North America, said: "There is probably no spot of equal extent in the whole continent of America which contains so many of these muchsought animals."
Grinnell, Tappe and other 20th-century naturalists limited the historical range of beaver in California to the California Delta and the portions of the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers and their tributaries below elevations of 1,000 feet. These remarks conflict with indirect and direct (physical specimen) evidence of beaver as distributed throughout the state, as summarized below. In fact, 19th-century writer, John S. Hittell, in his 1863 "Resources of California" described beaver as "very abundant in all the large streams of California, and it was chiefly for their sake that the first American trappers entered California".
Although 20th-century naturalists were skeptical that beaver were historically plentiful in the San Francisco Bay Area below the Carquinez Strait, earlier records show that the California golden beaver (Castor canadensis ssp. subauratus) "was one of the most valued of the animals taken", and apparently was found in great abundance. In 1832 fur trapper Michel La Framboise travelled from the "Bonaventura River" (Sacramento River) to San Francisco and then the missions of San José, San Francisco Solano (Sonoma Mission) and San Rafael Arcángel. La Framboise stated that "the Bay of San Francisco abounds in beaver", and that he "made his best hunt in the vicinity of the missions". Alexander R. McLeod reported on the progress of the first Hudson's Bay Company fur brigade sent to California in 1829, "Beaver is become an article of traffic on the Coast as at the Mission of St. Joseph alone upwards of Fifteen hundred Beaver Skins were collected from the natives at a trifling value and sold to Ships at 3 Dollars". In 1840 the port of Alviso, California shipped beaver pelts, cattle hides and tallow to San Francisco. Thomas McKay reported that in one year the Hudson's Bay Company took 4,000 beaver skins on the shores of San Francisco Bay. At the time, these pelts sold for $2.00 a pound or about $4 each. While staying with General Vallejo, Sir George Simpson of the Hudson's Bay Company wrote in 1842, "Beaver and otter have recently been caught within half a mile of Mission San Francisco de Solano (Sonoma Mission). In the 1840s Kit Carson was granted rights to trap beaver on Alameda Creek in the East Bay where they "abounded...from the mouth of its canyon to the broad delta on the bay". Skinner wrote that there is evidence that beaver historically lived in Coyote Creek, Sonoma Creek and the Napa River. This is consistent with John Work's Hudson's Bay Company expedition catching beaver on Sonoma Creek on April 11 and 12, 1832, and on the Napa River on May 24, 1832. Also William Trubody, who arrived in California in 1849, wrote of catching beaver on Napa Creek. A Sacramento Daily Union news article in 1873 describes "About Lake county there are wood ducks, panthers, lynxes, foxes, coons, wild cats, beavers, otters and mink..." In 1881 the same newspaper reported, "Beavers are being trapped near Healdsburg" (placing them on the Russian River). In late April 1883, Mariano G. Vallejo, after a trip through the Russian River watershed described "in its basin great tulare lakes teaming with beaver." Physical evidence of golden beaver in San Francisco Bay tributaries is a Castor canadensis subauratus skull in the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History collected by zoologist James Graham Cooper in Santa Clara, California on December 31, 1855. The Emeryville Shellmound by the mouth of Temescal Creek is also notable for its remains of beaver (Castor canadensis).
Similarly, early 20th-century naturalists were skeptical that beaver were extant in the coastal streams of northern California. However, as noted above, Kuskov returned with beaver after anchoring in Bodega Bay and exploring fifty miles of the Russian River in 1809. In addition, the American ship Albatross after hunting the Farallon Islands and San Francisco Bay for seal and otter, also reported taking 248 beaver (presumably from the nearby shores) in 1811. Hudson's Bay Company's McLeod reported in 1829, "The Country to the northward of Bodega is said to be rich in Beaver and no encouragement given to the Indians to hunt." On April 5, 1833, John Work's Hudson's Bay Company expedition, while visiting Sonoma Mission, described a couple Americans who had left Ewing Young's party near Fort Ross, and caught "very few beaver" while returning to the Mission. John Work proceeded to search the California coastline for furs from Fort Ross north as far as Cape Mendocino but found none. Finally, the Southern Pomo, who inhabited the lower half of the Russian River, had a word for beaver ṱ'ek:e (N. Alexander Walker, personal communication, 2011-01-23) and beavers in their "Coyote Stories". It appears that extirpation of beaver in the coastal areas north of San Francisco occurred rapidly and completely, as it had with the sea otter not long beforehand. Rapid depredation of beaver on North America's western coastal streams by Americans is likely since New England ships were sent to hunt otter and other fur-bearers beginning in 1787. In fact, McLeod complained about his beaver hunt on the ship Cadboro to Johnstone Strait in coastal British Columbia in 1827 that they had returned "with only a few Skins, as the Coast had been scoured by the Americans..." Further evidence of Boston-based ships stripping fur-bearing otter and beaver from the California coast is found in Richard Henry Dana, Jr.'s Two Years Before the Mast when after voyaging on the ship Pilgrim engaged in the cowhide trade, he finally shipped out from California (from San Diego) with a cargo of "40,000 hides and 30,000 horns, besides several barrels of otter and beaver skins..." In addition, In 1828, the Jedediah Smith fur trapping expedition was helped across the Trinity River by the Yurok and camped on the east side of the Trinity River. His clerk, Harrison G. Rogers wrote, "Mr. Smith purchases all the beaver furs he can from them", suggesting that beaver were then plentiful on the Trinity. Joseph Grinnell in his "Fur-bearing Mammals of California" noted that beaver had been present on other Klamath River tributaries such as the Scott River and Shasta River, and further cited a Fish and Game report of beaver from 1915–1917 on High Prairie Creek at the mouth of the Klamath River near Requa, California.
Physical evidence that golden beaver were historically extant in coastal streams of southern California includes a Museum of Vertebrate Zoology specimen of a male adult California golden beaver (Castor canadensis subauratus) documented as "wild caught" in May 1906 (just prior to California instituting statewide protection from 1911–1925) "along the Sespe River in Ventura County" is physical evidence that golden beaver were historically extant in coastal streams in southern California. The skull of the Sespe Creek specimen is housed at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology in Berkeley, California and was collected by Dr. John A. Hornung, of Ventura who assembled a large private mammal and bird collection lost "in the San Francisco fire" (presumably the California Academy of Sciences in 1906). However, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, where Dr. Hornung was a taxidermist and zoologist, still has over 2,000 bird specimens collected in southern California between 1911 and 1928, including the only specimens of the varied bunting (Passerina versicolor) ever taken in California (from Blythe on the lower Colorado River). Hornung also made major specimen donations to the American Museum of Natural History. Although the California Department of Fish and Game re-introduced beaver throughout California, the first documented restocking was 1923, well after the 1906 Sespe Creek specimen was collected. The authenticity of the Sespe Creek (a Santa Clara River tributary) specimen is supported by a detailed oral Ventureño history of beaver in the Santa Clara River taken by ethnolinguist John Peabody Harrington in the early twentieth century. The full reference is: "The beaver comes and gnaws the tree on the side towards which it leans, and at last falls over. The tree is leaning towards our house. I am beginning to fear that it will fall on us. The beaver builds its house in the river or the cienegas in the time of our ancestors. There were beavers at Ventura and also at Saticoy." There is also a Chumash pictograph of a beaver at Painted Rock in the Cuyama River watershed due west of Mt. Pinos in the Sierra Madre mountains, about 35 miles from the Sespe Creek headwaters. Additionally, the Hearst Museum in Berkeley has a Ventureño Chumash shaman's rain making kit made from the skin of a beaver tail and a tobacco sack. The shaman, "Somik", produced the artifact in the 1870s and resided at Fort Tejon. It "was not utilized by his descendants". In Janice Timbrook's "Chumash Ethnobotany" she states, based on linguist J. P. Harrington's interview with Chumash elder Maria Soares, that the Indians near Tehachapi and also the Chumash believed that "a willow stick that had been cut by a beaver was thought to have the power to bring water. The Chumash would treat the stick with 'ayip ( a ritually powerful substance made from alum) and then plant it in the ground to create a permanent spring of water". In addition the Barbareño and Ventureño Chumash had a Beaver Dance. In addition, Father Pedro Font, on the second de Anza Expedition in 1776, described the coastal Chumash women as wearing beaver capes. Finally, the Chumash word for beaver is Chipik, spelled "č'ǝpǝk'" in Barbareño and "tšǝ'pǝk" (Timothy Henry personal communication 2011-01-23), and "č'ɨpɨk" in Ineseño (Samala). There is indirect evidence that beaver were historically present on the Los Angeles River, as the Beñemé (Mojave) and Jeniguechi (San Jacinto branch of the Cahuilla) Indians of the Mission San Gabriel were described by Father Pedro Font on the second de Anza Expedition in 1776, "The costume of the men in heathendom is total nakedness, while the women wear a bit of deer skin with which they cover themselves, and likewise an occasional cloak of beaver or rabbit skin, although the fathers endeavor to clothe the converted Indians with something as best they can." The Tongva or Gabrieleño Indians of Mission San Gabriel had a word for beaver To-le-vah-che. Font also described the coastal Chumash women as wearing beaver capes. In an historical account even further south, a report on the fauna of San Diego County by Dr. David Hoffman in 1866 stated "Of the animal kingdom we have a fair variety: the grizzly bear, the antelope, the deer, the polecat, the beaver, the wildcat, the otter, the fox, the badger, the hare, the squirrel, and coyotes innumerable." Indirect evidence of beaver in San Diego County includes a creek named Beaver Hollow which runs 3.25 miles into the Sweetwater River (California) about 6.5 miles southwest of Alpine. Beaver Hollow is named on the USGS Topo Map for Cuyamaca in 1903, which is twenty years before CDFG began beaver re-introductions in California. Thus, both indirect and direct (physical) evidence suggests that beaver historically ranged into southern California.
There are three subspecies of beaver in California. The Sonora beaver (Castor canadensis frontador Mearns) inhabits the lower Colorado River valley and Imperial Valley south to the Gulf of Mexico. The California golden beaver (Castor canadensis subauratus) inhabits the majority of California from the Pacific Ocean to the Sierra Nevada, and was most prevalent in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Rivers and their tributaries. The Shasta beaver (Castor canadensis shastensis) inhabits the watersheds of the Klamath River and Pit River, which cross the southern end of the Cascade Mountains in northeastern California. California law protected all three subspecies from 1911 to 1925, saving the state's beaver from extinction from fur trappers.
California golden beaver are recolonizing the Bay Area (from east to west): Kirker Creek in the Dow Wetlands of Pittsburg, Fairfield Creek in Cordelia, Alhambra Creek in Martinez, Southampton Creek in Benicia State Recreation Area, the Napa Sonoma Marsh in north San Pablo Bay, the Napa River, and Sonoma Creek. These beaver likely emigrated from the Delta which once sustained the densest beaver populations in North America. In addition, beaver were re-introduced in the 1930s by the California Department of Fish and Game to Pescadero Creek and sometime before 1993 in Los Gatos Creek, where they continue to thrive.
The spring 2007 sea otter survey counted 3,026 sea otters in the central California coast, down from an estimated pre-fur trade population of 16,000. California's sea otters are the descendants of a single colony of about 50 southern sea otters discovered near the mouth of Bixby Creek along California's Big Sur coast in 1938; their principal range is now from just south of San Francisco to Santa Barbara County.
Fur seals began to recolonize the Farallon Islands in 1996.
Both the California golden beaver and southern sea otter are considered keystone species, with a stabilizing and broad impact on their local ecosystems.