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Salt Springs
Prehistoric Hand Excavated Granite Basins
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: John Charles Frémont's 2nd Expedition cartographer Charles Preuss was at their "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.

Note. Charles Preuss made this drawing from the "long camp" sometime between the 10th and 19th of February, 1844, but I have here converted it to an animated moonlit version. go Read about the place and how I located it in 1996.

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 percussion riming are what corrode the gun barrel if you don't clean it immediately, preferably with lots of hot soapy 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 mined from a mountain (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 holdsngh c out.

February 17, 1844: Frémont and Jacob Dodson returned to the Long Camp from a two-day exploration, having crossed the Sierran creast at 9000" elevation and then descending into the canyon of the South Fork of the American River searching for a route of escape from the deep snows.

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 is on the north and south banks of South Fork of the American River, just above Fry Creek at N38° XX' xx", W120° XX' xx". There is a similar but much larger site on the headwaters of the North Fork of the Mokelumne river, and smaller sites on Caples Creek, which might have been the source of salt for the Washoe Indians Fémont's men encountered near Markleeville.

All might answer the Indian's account of the salt having come from "the other side of the mountain," this site being a day's foot travel (in summer) from the Carson Pass.

These 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 acorn mortars--most likely Maidu. 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.

But there is much more than a salt spring and the dried salt deposit as seen in the above summer photo.

In addition to the salt crystals which form naturally on the granite surface, there are about twenty-four approximately 3 1/2' diameter excavated basins in the granite which collect the seeping brine. Some are now covered from road construction fill or are rock and cobble filled from river flooding. Six of the basins are currently below the surface of the river, even in summer, but were probably high and dry before the Caples Lake Reservoir, and the earlier Echo Lake and Silver Lake Reservoirs, and drier still during the Medieval Climate Anomaly and the Little Ice Age which lasted through Frémont's time and right up until about 1890. It has been wetter and warmer since.

Update thirty years later.
August 11, 2014

Archaeologists from the Eldorado National Forest, and Sonoma State University, under the direction of Placerville District archaeologist ~Karin 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.
The saga:

  • In 1996 I left a salt sample, site description, and coordinates at California State University Sacramento, but I never heard from them.
  • In 2001 I left same at the Pacific District Ranger Station for the district archaeologists. The following season a metal "Sensitive Area" tag was found on a tree near the mortar holes.
  • About 2003 I met with Eldorado National Forest archaeologist Judy Rood and we visited the site. Judy told me, "This is the most exciting thing I have seen in all my years in this district." And then Judy retired.
  • It was 2014 before another visit was made to the site by a group of archaeologists and graduate students.

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, which contains the dated comments by Frémont and Preus above, 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:

Summer 2017
Jim Moore has sent the link to the USGS publication of his The Saltiest Springs in the Sierra Nevada, California, Scientific Investigations Report 2017-5053, by: James G. Moore, Michael F. Diggles, William C. Evans, and Karin Klemic.

It includes this salt spring on the South Fork of the American River, another a few miles upstream, one on the headwaters of the Mokelumne, and two sites on Caples Creek. Which are all the known Sierra Nevada salt-making sites! You can download the pdf from this page with the abstract.

I've caught an awful lot of trout along this stretch over the last seven decades.
My grandfather, Ed Pickett, who had a cabin at Whitehall, called this stretch of river "shady lane" because it falls into shade about 4 p.m. in summer, so he could always take their Friday dinner on his usual fly rig of a gray hackle peacock with a ginger quill on a dropper.

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. The Black Oak, Quercus kelloggii, that grows here in the Yellow Pine Belt was a favorite for processing for food.

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