Fort Visalia – Visalia’s First Neighborhood
Recently, Fort Visalia has been in the news. The experts have finished their report and basically confirmed what many have believed for a long time. The block bounded by Garden, Bridge, Oak and School streets is the site of Fort Visalia – the town’s earliest neighborhood. It is an exciting announcement and, in light of the publicity, it seems appropriate to review some of what we know about the fort and a little background related to it.
The structure probably began because of an incident that happened nearby a few years before it was built. In December 1850, John Wood and a dozen or so members of his work crew were camped along the Kaweah River about seven miles east of what is now Visalia. The local Native Americans visited them and, for reasons not totally clear, they ordered the men to leave, giving them 10 days to do so. The men ignored the demand and a violent confrontation ensued. Wood and almost all of his entourage were killed, and some say that Wood was skinned alive and his skin nailed to a nearby tree.
Word of the Wood party “massacre” spread throughout California and beyond. The horror and mental images of the fight lingered for some time and likely dampened some settler interest in the area, but the lure of fertile farmland was strong and tugged hard on those looking for a better life. So still they came.
One of the immigrant groups was led by three brothers – Osee, Warren and Reuben Matthews. They gathered up their families, some relatives and a few others, loaded them into seven wagons and, on April 18, 1852, the small wagon train left Red Rock, Iowa, bound for California. Edgar Reynolds, the brothers’ 19-year old nephew, was chosen as hunter for the group and fortunately kept a journal of their travels.
After a mostly uneventful cross-country trip, the group arrived in Stockton in September 1852, and soon the brothers began looking for a place to settle. Their family had come from
a long line of millers and “community builders,” so it was not surprising that the brothers had carried the family millstone with them on their trip. New communities needed a good flour mill to thrive.
While pondering a place to call home, the group saw Four Creeks Country
as promising. The land, mostly unsettled, was in the heart of recently formed Tulare County, having fertile soil and lots of water. So before leaving Stockton, they stocked up on farming tools, seed and other supplies, and hired an interpreter to help communicate with the native people. In October 1852, the party headed south.
They arrived in the Four Creeks area and, probably while stopping in Woodsville, they met Nathaniel Vise. He lived in the midst of a large oak forest in a little cabin about seven miles west on land that became Visalia. He persuaded the land seekers to explore the area near him. They did and liked what they saw. So to protect themselves from the potentially hostile native people, they quickly went to work building a log fortress on land within the block now bounded by Garden, Bridge, Oak and School streets.
They cut down oak trees in 15-foot lengths and split them in half. They then placed them side by side vertically in a 3-foot-deep trench with rounded sides facing out. The grouping formed the exterior walls of the fortification. On each corner of the enclosure, a 4-foot extension structure was built for improved visibility. The fort walls stood about 12 feet high, and the overall structure footprint was about 60 feet square.
A tunnel was dug under one wall, and it became the entrance and exit point.
During construction, the native people watched as the structure took shape.
According to Reynolds, the settlers’ interpreter had put the “fear of God into the Indians” and, as a result, they created no problems. However, Reynolds added that after the fort was finished, the locals paraded around the structure making “threatening gestures.”
Some claim that the interior of the fortress was large enough for cabins to be built inside and, according to others, it was large enough to accommodate wagons. The inside also provided opportunities for entertainment. Rough-cut boards were laid on the ground, creating a dance floor, and fiddle music filled the air each evening.
The settlers would spend nights inside and, during the day, they would leave the compound to work the land, but Reynolds noted that they were always armed with shotguns and pistols. The journal writer also shared that at the end of November, he had plowed a furrow in Tulare County soil, the first man ever to do so. He added that he was the first to plant a “patch of turnips.”
The safety of the fort gave the settlers peace of mind, but after a time, they decided that the enclosure was not necessary and vacated it. Exactly how long the fort stood or was occupied is not known, however local historian Joe Doctor provided a clue when he wrote that “during the Indian war on the Tule River in 1856, David Bice James rounded up some Indians and put them inside the stockade [fort] at Visalia to keep them from being harmed by vengeful whites.”
Applied Earth Works Inc. concluded in its report that the block is “the most likely location of the fort,” but its exact footprint remains a mystery. The company added that “Fort Visalia represents a significant event in the history of the city.…”
In 2010, the city of Visalia purchased the Fort Visalia block and it is very likely that the property will soon be going up for sale. Before that happens, the city has an opportunity to learn more about the earliest Visalians.
As a city, let’s take reasonable steps to make sure that we don’t miss an opportunity. I encourage further study of the site.