Life on the Kings River In Days Gone By

May 26, 2012 | 2012 Articles, Hometown History, Jim Bulls, Reedley News

by Jim Bulls

What better way to celebrate the second anniversary of Kings River Life, than to celebrate the lives of those who lived along the Kings River. Some may be familiar and some you may not have heard of, but all of them were a part of the bountiful life along the Kings River.

Lieutenant Gabriel Moraga

One of the first Europeans to camp along the banks of the Kings River also gave the river its name. Lieutenant Gabriel Moraga, a Spanish army officer attached to the Viceroyalty of Spain in Alta, California, explored California first in the 1770s. Then he and his troops were commissioned to explore the interior valley of California for potential mission sites. They came to a previously undiscovered river on January 6, 1805–the Day of Epiphany–and bivouacked on its banks. Moraga named the river “El Rio de los Santos Reyes” or the River of the Holy Kings.

When Moraga and his explorers first entered the valley, they were astonished by the great wealth of wildlife living along the riverbanks. Everywhere they looked there were ducks, geese, cranes, herons, pelicans, curlew, antelope, deer, elk, and grizzly bears. Only the local Choinumni Indians had ventured into this area up to now.

Thomas Jefferson Mayfield

Thomas Jefferson Mayfield was a boy of five when his family headed west to the California gold rush. They were detoured by an Indian attack on a wagon train ahead of them, so they ended up in Texas and took a ship to reach California. The trip around Cape Horn, where they nearly crashed against the rocks, took six months. They landed in Yerba Buena, California (now San Francisco) in 1850, the year that California became the 31st state.

The Mayfields settled in the central valley of California, between Sycamore Creek and the Kings River. Their closest neighbors were the Choinumni Indians. The Indians would often leave food and fresh killed game on the Mayfield’s doorstep. The Indians were being practical as well as friendly—they did not want their new neighbor’s guns to scare off the game.

By age seven, Thomas was orphaned and was taken in by the Choinumni. He learned to hunt and fish the Indian way. He spoke their language, dressed in their clothes and made the annual pilgrimage from the Centerville (California) area to Tulare Lake during the flood season. His story offers a unique perspective to the Indian way of life on the Kings River before the arrival of the ferrymen, Poole and Smith.

John Poole

Poole’s Trading Post and Ferry was located on the Kings River, just south of Adams Ave. Poole and his partner William Campbell (whom Mt. Campbell is named after) ran the business from 1851 to 1857.
A giant oak tree was used by Poole as a ferry cable anchor. The oak was a known landmark and also was used as an election polling place when Tulare County was formed from a portion of Mariposa County. On August 16, 1852, a posse led by newly elected Tulare County Judge Walter Harvey showed up to arrest some Choinumni braves. Trader Jim Savage, an advocate of the Indians, tried to reach a peaceful settlement, but Harvey shot and killed him. The old landmark oak tree survived until about seven years ago, when its root system was undermined and it fell into the river.

James Smith

James Smith

Smith’s Ferry was located on the river bluffs near present-day Olson Ave. Smith’s Ferry outlasted the other ferry operations because of these high bluffs—it was the only ferry boat on the Kings River that could be approached at high water. Smith kept a two-story, 11 room hotel nearby. The business was operated by the Smith family until 1874. Smith was involved in early California politics and Smith Mountain is named after him; his grave is the oldest in the Reedley Cemetery.

Thomas Law Reed

Thomas Law Reed

T.L. Reed settled on the east bank of the Kings River between Poole’s and Smith’s ferries. He set up his ranch headquarters on the present-day Reedley College campus, between his ranches in Tulare and Madera counties. California was known as the “King of Wheat” then and Reed farmed in excess of 20,000 acres of land. He introduced the Houser Harvester to the central valley. He owned nine harvesters. Each one cost $2,000 and took a crew of six men to operate, plus a team of 32 mules to pull it across the field. Reed owned approximately 450 head of mules. He transported the mules from ranch to ranch to pull the wagons and harvesters. The mules would be moved by railroad cattle cars when going north to Chowchilla to work on the Madera County ranch.
Bridges Cross the Kings River
In 1885, the first bridge was built across the Kings River. It was known as the Wagon Bridge (remember, cars are still 20 some years in the future). In 1888, Southern Pacific Railroad built a train trestle over the Kings River. In need of a depot to service their trains, a deal was struck with T.L. Reed and the town of Reedley was born.
Today you can see the stumps of the pylons from the 1885 Wagon Bridge down river from the Manning Ave. Bridge. Up river beneath the train trestle, are the stubs of the first railroad trestle. However, it won’t be long before they will be hidden beneath the waters of the Kings River. Fruit trees will be thirsting for life giving moisture and water will come pouring out of Pine Flat Dam, down the Kings River, filling up irrigation canals and ditches. Carefree floaters will be moving lazily down river on tubes and rafts, trying to beat the heat. Above Reedley Beach, the boaters, water skiers and jet skis will dominate the river all the way to Kingsburg.

Wagon Bridge

The river is beautiful, but you need to respect her. The river current is much faster than it looks and the water is as cold as fresh snow. The river bottom is constantly changing: a “hole” in one place last summer may be a hundred yards away this summer. Use common sense when you are in the river.
Be sure to take some time to enjoy our river this summer. Look for water fowl in the early mornings and in the evenings. Enjoy the shade under the eucalyptus trees. Think about how things used to be and how they are now…it’s just “Kings River Life.”
NOTE: The book Adopted By Indians: A True Story, the story of Thomas Jefferson Mayfield (1843 to 1948) would be a wonderful book to share with your kids this summer. Adopted from the adult version Indian Summer, Adopted By Indians gives younger readers a close up view of traditional Indian life and early California. The book is available online from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Heyday Books.

Jim Bulls is a contributor to our Hometown History section, being a charter member of the Reedley Historical Society; he also restores vintage cars.

1 Comment

  1. Hello, enjoyed reading this! I came across it as I am trying to locate where my Great Grandparents had their ranch which was just east of what was known as the Old Acorn Bridge just off of 10th Ave near the settlement of Oakvale. The family name is Shook. Have you come across the name of this Acorn Bridge by chance?


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