Accounts of the early days of Nevada City are best told by the people who were there, in the original texts written at the time.
Below are excerpts from Sketch of Nevada County written by Aaron A. Sargent, from Brown & Dallison's Nevada, Grass Valley and Rough and Ready Directory from 1856,
Links to the complete originals are at the bottom of the page.
The earliest settlers in this place were Capt. John Pennington, Thomas Cross and William McCaig, who prospected in Gold Run in September, 1849, and built a cabin there. In October of the same year, Dr. A. B. Caldwell built a log store on Nevada street, back of Main street ravine, and from this circumstance the place was known, till long after, as “Caldwell's Upper Store.” Dr. Caldwell had previously built a store at Beckville, four miles down the Creek. In October a man, named Stamps, brought his wife and several children here, and built a cabin on the forks of the ravine back of Cayote street. His wife was the first lady that graced this rough part of creation with her presence. Now, thank Providence, Nevada, with the progress of improvements in other respects, is blessed with the society of a large number of the “dear, bewitching creatures."
The first building on Broad street dates back to the last of September, 1849, and was built by John Truesdale, just back of the lot where the Hotel de Paris now stands [now Bonanza Market on Bridge St]. In the Spring of 1850, Truex and Blackman built a log store on the spot where A. W. Potter's handsome brick building [South Yuba Canal Company Office and Ott’s Assay Office] now stands on Main street. Robert Gordon, about the same time, built a log store on the lot where Lachman's building now is on Commercial street. The first board building in Nevada was built by Madame Penn, in the spring of 1850, on the spot where the Empire now stands, near the foot of Main street.
The first hotel opened in Nevada was by Womack and Kenzie, early in the spring of 1850, on the spot now occupied by Espenscheid's brick building [northwest corner of Commercial and Main St]. In April, 1850, the “Nevada Hotel," on the site of the present Oriental, was built by J. N. Turner, of rifted pine boards; and what is singular as illustrating the immense size to which the heretofore unmolested tenants of the forests hereabouts had attained, the whole house — thirty-eight feet front and forty-eight in depth, all the rafters, beams, floors, etc. — were taken out of one tree. The house opened on the first day of May with forty boarders. The moderate price of board and lodging in these days was $ 25 per week. The winter of 1849—50 was of very severe nature, and the transportation of goods from below was very difficult. In March, 1850, the snow was ten feet deep on the banks of Deer Creek — three times the depth it has ever since attained. Goods of all kinds sold at exorbitant rates. We instance a few of the staples of those days : fresh beef and pork sold at 80 cents per pound; molasses, $7.50 per gallon; flour at 44 cents; potatoes, 75 cents; onions, $1.50; calf boots, $20; stout boots, from $30 to $40; long-handled shovels, $16. The only kinds of medicines in the pharmacopæia of the physicians of those days were calomel, laudanum and opium, which were. administered for all diseases and wounds, with little respect to symptoms.
On Wednesday, the 11th of March, 1851, occurred the first great fire in Nevada. One half of the city — the principal seat of its business was rubbed out, like an old account on a slate. At two o'clock in the morning a destructive conflagration commenced, which, in two hours, laid waste one hundred and twenty five stores, dwellings, hotels and saloons, filled with valuable goods, and thickly inhabited. So rapid was the spread of the flames, that merchants, several buildings from the one first ignited, had not time to save even their papers, money or watches; and those most distant could not remove the bulk of their goods. The buildings were extremely dry, of light construction, and burned with vast rapidity — the conflagration being accelerated by quantities of powder stored everywhere in the houses — which exploded momentarily at various points, as the heat overtook it, casting flaming timbers, brands and missles of all descriptions into the air. Nevada was built in the midst of a pine forest, and many tall pines were left standing in the heart of the city, while the houses closely hemmed them in. These trees, extremely pitchy, caught the flames as they writhed round their stems, and shot them hundreds of feet into the air, where they danced and quivered like malicious spirits over the scene of a burning world. The rushing flames presented a spectacle of meteoric splendor seldom equaled. As building after building was subjected to the destructive element, the column of flame shot higher and higher, undampened by the application of water, or by brick and mortar barriers. The only way in which the tide of flame was finally stayed was by tearing down and removing distant houses; and even then the fļames trod sharply on the heels of those employed in this work, The scene at sunrise was sickening — discouraging. A vast waste of ashes and chared timbers was all that remained of the buildings and their valuable freights. The loss was estimated at half a million. The worst feature in the case was that the disaster was undoubtedly the work of incendiarism. Three men were denounced as the incendiaries by a committee of inquiry of the citizens, and they would have been instantly hung, had they been taken. Perhaps hanging was too good for them. Chances of accidental fires are sufficiently strong in these wooden cities, and no man can calculate with certainty on the amount of property he will have on the morrow. But the infernal spirit of the man who deliberately applies the torch, when it must produce so much mischief to property, perhaps involve destruction of life, seems the direct inspiration of the devil.
The very earliest settlement of which we can obtain a trace in the territory now known as Nevada County, was in the summer of 1848, at a place known as Rose's Corral, between what is now the Anthony House and Bridgeport. A man named Rose here built an adobe house, in which he traded with the Indians of the neighborhood, and a corral. The spot is now in ruins, and has been but little used since — the location not being valuable for the purposes of trade, as the county became more fully developed and no mines having been discovered in the vicinity. Rose also gave his name to a bar on the Yuba. Early in the spring of 1849 a company of Oregonians - old mountaineers, known as Greenwood & Co., in which were also some of Stephenson's regiment - followed up the South Yuba. They creviced for gold from what is now called Illinois Bar up to Washington. Some emigrants from Indiana, who arrived in 1849 at Sacramento, followed in their trail, and worked along the river steadily and with much success, with rockers. In the fall of 1849 they stopped at Washington. Greenwood & Co. stopped at Jefferson, which place was then known as “Greenwood's Camp" and Washington, as “The Indiana Boys Camp.” The winter was very severe, and the snow fell to a great depth, so that little mining could be done till spring.
In August, 1849, an Oregon trader by the name of Findley, commenced a store near Bear River, near what is now known as Storms' Ranch, on the old emigrant trail, to trade with the emigrants. Findley was an old mountaineer, inured to hardships, and had three times crossed the plains to Oregon, at a time when the passage was as much more difficult than it is at present as the route to Panama was in 1849 more than it is since the completion of the railroad. Findley sold out his establishment to one Brooks, by whose name it is at present known. In September, 1849, David Bovyer established himself on the South Yuba, near Jones' Crossing, for the purpose of trading with the Indians, and moved in October of the same year to White Oak Springs.
The only places in the county that date back as far as 1849, that are at present of importance, are Nevada City, Rough and Ready, Washington, and Jefferson.
Click to read the complete Sketch of Nevada County written by Aaron A. Sargent, from Brown & Dallison's Nevada, Grass Valley and Rough and Ready Directory, published in 1856.
Click to read the complete Historical Sketch of Nevada County written by E. G. Waite, from Bean's History and Directory of Nevada County, California, published in 1867.