In 1850 Commander Ringgold of the US Navy made the first official navigation chart of the travel route to Sacramento, the new state capital, via boat from San Francisco. The navigation chart and Commander Ringgold written description and sketches on the map are very helpful for understanding what the Sacramento River Delta area looked like at that time. In addition, the natural islands of the north Delta are named in some of the maps of that time period. What we call Ryer Island now actually started out as two islands in the 1850s. One of the islands was called Sutter and the other Priest. To see many Delta maps from this time period go to http://SaveTheDelta.org or go to the David Rumsey Map Collection and Archive.org also has historical maps available to view online.

Commander Ringgold referred to the Sacramento River as splitting into several “forks”. The Middle Fork was later referred to as Steamboat Slough because it was the preferred travel route for steamships-deeper water and faster travel time between Sacramento and San Francisco. The West Fork later was renamed as a portion of Cache Slough, and when Ryer Island was leveed, ended up being a stream in the middle of Ryer Island labeled Elk Slough. Note the city shown on the map was called “Suisun City” but all later maps call this area Rio Vista. The island called Gillespi was later referred to as Wood Island. The Island shown as Taylor is referred to as Grand Island after the surveys and sales of the lands. Brannan Island still uses that same name.

Note the sketches on the map. Those sketches give the viewer a first official glimpse of the natural environment of the North Delta in 1850, when California became a state. The water was always fresh, the tall trees along the natural levees were oaks, sycamores, willows and cottonwoods. Wild blackberries were abundant. Middle Fork of the Sacramento River ended up being the boundary line between Solano County and Sacramento County.

It is important to use maps of the correct time period when researching Delta history, because the island names did change in the early years. Any References to “Sutter Island” from 1850 to perhaps 1874 are really about the Sutter Island that became Ryer Island. SFEI historian located the above sketch wrong in the 2012 Delta Historical Ecological Study. That is a wonderful study with lots of useful information, except for the incorrect location of important North Delta terrestrial and fresh water limits or boundaries.
This is the sketch from the original map that should have been used by SFEI in the 2012 Delta Historical Ecological Study as the location by current-day Rio Vista. If you were on a boat in the middle of the Sacramento River, in approximately the location of current-day Rio Vista bridge, you would see a similar view of the water routes, but the huge trees have almost disappeared now. WHY is this important in the 21st Century? Because it indicates that the fresh water line was naturally about five miles west of the current day Rio Vista bridge, or down by the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. The terrestrial forested areas along the Sacramento River natural levees extended down to parts of Sherman Island based on written records and sketches.

Two great references of books written about the Delta and Delta travel are available online through historical websites and by the links here. First you might want to look at “Scenes of Wonder and Curiosity…” by James M. Hutchings. Mr. Hutchings was the publisher of the California Magazine-a gold rush days newspaper. He spent two weeks traveling the Delta, with local guides, and compiled his experiences and what he observed into many news articles that later became a popular book. Look for the chapter on salmon on the Sacramento River, traveling by Steamboat to Sacramento and to Stockton, and note the description of the “snug little cabins” on Steamboat Slough.

The second reference gives you a glimpse of just how WILD the west was in the early days!! The shenanigans reported in the papers about steamboats and travel are sometimes humorous, often sad, and makes me really glad there are laws to protect commuters in the USA! See Paddewheel Days written by … in 1935. Part 1 Part 2 If you want to read more about steamboats and paddle wheelers and shipping in the Delta from 1840’s to 1900s, the state of California did a good study in 1986 Hard to find online, so here are links to the full 400+ page document scanned, and then links to the same in smaller sections if you go to http://snugharbor.net and look for the Delta History pages.
Sacramento River and Steamboat Slough Shipwrecks

For a look at many early sketches of the Delta, go here and also here.

Sketch from writings found in California Magazine and James M. Hutchings various books on travel and scenes along the way to Yosemite.

As of 1865, a map of the area still indicated the island names of Sutter and Priest had not changed, but note the waterway changes in the below map.

Here is a photo of one of the paddle wheel boats, this one called the “Yosemite”.
A Mark Twain quote that mentions the Yosemite and both boats being on Steamboat Slough passing by the Hogs’s Back.
An 1873 survey map for the State of California indicates some name changes, and the shape of current-day Ryer Island is shown. This is the first time we see a mapped reference to Sutter Slough, and “West Branch” is named as connected to Steamboat Slough, while the Sacramento River is referred to as “Old River”. This is important to note, since historic references to “Old River” that relate to the Sacramento River are sometimes mistakenly used to reference Old River-San Joaquin, which had a very different terrestrial environment.

Surveys and Land grants 1855 to 1800’s provides good official records of who bought what when…

Above is a screen print from a publication of the Delta Vision Blue Ribbon Committee from DWR 2006-2008 planning. Phil Isenberg and the Delta Vision group created their own map of the Delta from the 1860s, and it is wrong for that time frame.
The lands of Ryer Island were surveyed and sold in the 1870’s based on records found at Solano and Sacramento County offices, and at State lands Commission offices in Sacramento.
By the 1880s the island of the North Delta are defined by natural levees supplemented by the efforts of the farmers who are reclaiming the lands. After all, as a condition of the land grants, the state required that lands sold must be reclaimed for farming and raising of food source animals. Note also that Steamboat Slough is now listed for the whole length of that waterway. Island names of Ryer, Grand Brannan, Andrus, Tyler and Staten are clearly marked.
In 1957 John Thompson did his dissertation on Delta History. You used to be able to find it online and at Bay area university libraries. Now you just see summaries. This is important because since 2004 DWR has been revising the dates of when the islands were first reclaimed. Why? Check out 2006 to 2008 pages.
Compare the above map from DWR with the undisputed authority, John Thompson, regarding reclamation timing, and for some reason DWR shifted Ryer Island reclamation into a later time period. Ryer Island land grants were recorded in the 1870s’s. More info 2006-2008 pages.

Looking at original deeds or grants, the name WM Ryer and Blanche Ryer show up alot. Then Blanche became Blanche Erskine-Bolst. There is also Blanch Fletcher Ryer, and Blanche Ryer Nixon. Blanche’s life sounds like something to research!

Hogs Back was often referred to by writers in the 1850’s to 1900’s. It is a natural island or shoal that annoyed the unwatchful ship captain as one could get stuck at low tide by Hogs Back and then have to wait for the next high tide.
Between Ryer Island and Grand Island there was an island sometimes referred to in ships logs and local articles as the area of “Hog’s Back Shoals. This island was surveyed and sold as well. G.W Blake was the first owner. 1876 but recorded 1878. Records indicate he was the second contractor for the State Capitol building in Sacramento. Note that William Blake is named as a surveyor on many of the survey maps from the Rail Road surveys, and contributed sketches and descriptions of the plants and animals observed in California during the Rail Road survey days.
Strange historical fact: The Sacramento-Blake family was related to the Blake family in the Los Angeles and San Diego area. The paternal grandmother of current owner of a portion of “Hog’s Back Shoals” married into the Blake family just before the start of WWI. The current owner of a portion of Hog’s Back Shoals, renamed Snug Harbor in the 1950’s, learned of the family connection to Solano County lands after purchase of Snug Harbor’s resort in 1997. The Blake-Schirm family also had a cement mixing location in what is now called the Grizzly Island area of Suisun Bay. The Blakes also bought land next to the developing Del Coronado Island, and the Schirm Cement Company building can still be seen in Old Town San Diego, and the Los Angeles sidewalks sometimes still display the company logo. The Sacramento-Blakes used the island as a fishing get-away, and the island was connected to Ryer Island by the end of the 1920’s
1852 map sketch gives us an idea of what it looked like at the junction of current-day Steamboat and Sutter Sloughs. Note that large sailing ships needed at least 10 feet of water so that the keel would not get stuck in mud. However the steamships were built for shallow waters so could go all the way up the Sacramento River to Red Bluff, even in low flow times of summer in the early ears.

All the larger Islands of the Delta have their special family stories. Many of the farms have stayed in the same family for five generations. To learn more about the history of the Delta, as told by maps, books and sketches, please look at the information found at SaveTheDelta.org

And even in the 1870’s plans were being made to alter flows and create a conveyance route to irrigate as much farm land as possible.