Petaluma History Blog


Given America’s bedrock belief in the right to privacy and individual freedoms, answering questions for the Census has always raised questions by some who are concerned that the government may be intruding too much into people’s lives.

Petaluma has been participating in census taking since 1850, the year California became a state. That first survey, a copy of which resides in the Petaluma History Room consists of twelve randomly numbered pages, and lists residents who came to Petaluma from all over the world, including England, Peru, Mexico, the Sandwich Islands, Switzerland, and a number of American states. Most of the occupations listed are farmer, laborer, clerk, or merchant.

The fifteen national censuses undertaken every decade since are critical to businesses, government, and other organizations that rely on census information for decision-making and community design. The Argus-Courier and its predecessors provide a wonderful view into the concerns and reasons for taking part in the census. In 1910, the Petaluma Argus encouraged everyone to participate and noting that: “there’s nothing in it for the Argus except that it takes pride in this city and in getting all that is coming in population as well as in other matters.”

Concern that everyone be counted prompted the Argus-Courier to continue to encourage participation by inviting readers who might not know where or how to get counted to contact the paper; which would connect them to the proper folks.

Census gives state...

May 13, 1910

Why did they think it was important to be counted? Because in December of 1910, after the count came in, California was awarded four new seats in the U.S. Congress. More congressional seats equaled more political power for a growing state, made possible thanks to the census.

Census gives state...

Dec 2, 1910

The newspaper also offered this advice: “Don’t be suspicious or ‘cagey’ in your answers. Give the facts, even if they seem personal. They will be held in confidence and not used against you.”

Questions about the kinds of questions included in the census are as old as the census itself.

“It’s getting to the point,” the Argus-Courier reported a senator from Pennsylvania saying in 1940, “where a housewife will have to account for her pots and pans and a man will have to take inventory of his tackle.” That same year, President Franklin Roosevelt went out of his way to reassure citizens “there need be no fear that any disclosure will be made regarding any individual person or his affairs.”

There is always the issue of the census takers. Petaluma’s 1850 census contains a footnote that states: “The 1850 census-taker was an extremely inaccurate man who took no time to get the correct spelling of names and his handwriting in many instances is illegible.”

Census of 1860...

Sonoma County Journal
Jan 27, 1860

Two issues in attracting census takers since the beginning have been money and proper aptitude. In 1860, census takers earned a lucrative $10 a day, or roughly $290 in today’s currency (approximagely $34 per hour for an eight-hour day).

To be more selective in hiring local census takers, in 1940, a test was administered for 150 aspiring census takers, of which 55 were ultimately chosen.

Test given for applicants...

Sonoma County Journal
Jan 27, 1860

Likewise, in 1980, prospective census workers in Petaluma needed to pass a test for positions that started at an hourly rate of $3.50, or $11 in today’s currency:

The census bureau...

In the 1930s, when Petaluma was still largely rural, the Argus-Courier encouraged everyone who lived on a farm to remember the census taker might be frightened away by barking dogs. “When the census taker calls,” the editor recommended, “tie your dog and greet your visitor with a smile. He is just a hard working emissary of Uncle Sam. And a human being to boot.”

It also offered some advice for census takers who turned up during supper time:

If it is mealtime...

March15, 1930

While most of the data captured and used in a census pertain to issues of the day, for historians, genealogists, and others interested in finding information on their family roots, information collected in census records is critical. This year’s census, like those before it, will help future generations in understanding our lives today.

On that score, while it was not a part of the official U.S. Census, during the 1930 census in Oakland, a proposed local ordinance outlawing the private ownership of chickens and other fowl led to the city conducting a “hen census.” I thought that their conclusion was pretty spot on:

Hen Census at Oakland...

Apr. 2, 1930


Welcome to the New Petaluma History Room Blog!

This is the first in a new monthly series of blog posts – please join in and comment with insights and experiences...and some family history if you have some! Each month we’ll pick a topic to consider and I’ll include some images found in the Sonoma County Library Special Collections, newspapers, books, and when possible some on-line links so that you can follow up and get the whole story.

Petaluma, CA

Reading the news of the day, especially as the election here in town unfolded, the topic of dredging came up as part of the election conversation. I thought it would be an interesting look into the history of dredging here in Petaluma and discovered that it’s been a topic not only of conversation, but of interest to a wide variety of people from the Petaluma’s very beginning.

As early as the 1860’s, the newspaper reported on the desire to dredge the river. In February of 1892 Charles Minturn, the owner of the Steamer Petaluma “has commenced the work of straightening the creek so as to establish a landing for his boat at, or near, the Italian garden, one mile below this city”. (Petaluma Argus, Tues Feb 11, 1862). The ability to travel from here to San Francisco was desirable not only economically for shipping goods, but for local citizens.

Petaluma river barge photo

A brief history of the River in the September 25, 2015 Argus Courier

Around the late 1870’s new styles of dredging machines were invented and utilized on rivers across the country. They invited much speculation as to their possible use here. Finally in 1876, A bill was introduced, and passed in Congress to appropriate $25,000 for “the improvement of Petaluma Creek” (Petaluma Weekly Argus April 28, 1876). Work was accomplished, and the Steamers Gold and Petaluma among others plied their trade up and down the Creek.

How Petaluma Creek became a River

Through the years, the improvement of Petaluma Creek had its ups and downs with community desire and financing determining the ability to complete a regular dredging. It was in the late 1950’s that newly elected Congressman Clem Miller discovered that regulations in Washington determined whether a town could access the Army Corps of Engineers financing and assistance for dredging. Turns out – they’d dredge a river; but not a creek. This was a hurdle that Congressman Miller was determined to climb.

Ike Signs the Bill - Creek now a river photo

How Petaluma Creek became a River

Detail, U.S. Geological Survey “Petaluma” quadrangle, 1914. (U.S. Geological Survey)

He introduced a bill that would establish the Petaluma Creek as officially: Petaluma River.

The process of moving a bill through Congress is sluggish at best, but after it passed in August of 1959, Petaluma is moved forward in the process towards getting a River. All it needed was the President’s signature.

Ike Signs the Bill - Creek now a river photo

The Congressional Record shows no objection to the bill and it passed with little fanfare. The Record also shows a little back and forth conversation about the bill – with reference to the Army Corps of Engineers (did they not know the reason for the change? Maybe not!). Public las 86-193 was passed into law on August 25, 1959.

The Argus Courier, on August 29, 1959 celebrates the re-naming of the Petaluma Creek. It is now officially: Petaluma River.

The result of all this was a movement forward to the dredging of the River. This on-going improvement will be a part of Petaluma’s conversation for many years. Learn more about dredging and the focus being taken by the Petaluma City Council and Mayor Barrett’s “Dredge Pledge”

UPDATE: on February 2, 2020, Congressman Jared Huffman announced that the Army Corps of Engineers has allocated $9.7 million dollars towards dredging the river. Watch for more news as the process begins... and watch for wonderful results!

Clement Miller became best known for his work as the “Congressman who introduced the legislation advocating for the formation of the Point Reyes National Seashore, thus saving us from freeways and condos”. (Dave Cook Pt. Reyes Light, 8/31/2017)

Clem Miller died in a plane crash in 1962; and was the subject of the movie “Rebels with a Cause

The Point Reyes Environmental Education Center is named for him.