A park blossoms in Peace Valley
Area in heart of Sutter Buttes designated as newest state park
To most of us, the Sutter Buttes are that odd little group of peaks that pop up in the middle of the Sacramento Valley near Marysville, “the smallest mountain range in the world.” To Aaron Pugh, they were home. He lived in a place called Peace Valley near the center of the range for more than 40 years, built a home, raised sheep and farmed grains, married and buried three women, had a passel of kids and, on one rough day, had his gangrenous leg cut off there, on his kitchen table.
Pugh, who survived the surgery and afterwards got around on a false leg fabricated by his son, died in 1897 at the age of 75. He, his wives and several of his children are buried in a small family grave site on an oak-shaded hilltop. It’s a beautiful spot overlooking Peace Valley, which last week became the newest California state park.
In September, 2003, the state purchased 1,735 acres of the former Pugh ranch for $2.9 million. Last Thursday, April 7, District Superintendent Bob Foster and several of his California State Parks rangers led a tour of the site for, among others, several members of the State Parks Commission. The commission would be meeting the following day in Sacramento to designate how to use the land, and the commissioners wanted a firsthand look.
It’s a secluded place. The only access is via a rugged private road belonging to a local cattle rancher, and the ride in is about three miles. It was immediately obvious to everyone that, whatever designation the commission decided on, access would be limited. Foster said the state was negotiating to buy more land to the west that would allow easier access, but that was still up in the air.
The state parks department has wanted to do something with the Sutter Buttes since the 1920s, but heretofore the land has been solely in private hands. For several years a private group, the Middle Mountain Foundation, has worked with the landowners to lead a limited number of hikers—about 1,000 annually—into the range, but that has been the only public access.
The Buttes have tremendous archeological, geological, historical and natural value, Foster said. Geologically, the Buttes are one of the most anomalous areas of California. Long thought to be entirely volcanic, they are now known to be the product of not only a series of small volcanic eruptions, but also of a massive uplift of marine sediment dating from the time when the valley was undersea.
“Every single type of rock found in California can be found here,” Foster said. Nearly a mile of sea floor uplifted at this site, he explained, bringing with it not only all different kinds of rocks, but also numerous aquatic fossils.
Historically, the site is of interest not only because it’s an original California homestead, complete with pioneer cemetery, rock fences and Pugh’s original 1854 homestead site (now reduced to its stone foundation), but also because the San Francisco-Marysville stagecoach line ran right through it. The Buttes were the high road that allowed the stage to avoid the flooded swamps of the Butte Sink, itself created by the uplift of the mountains.
To the original Native American inhabitants of the Sacramento Valley region, the Buttes were a power center, a holy place that figured in many of their creation myths. None lived in the Buttes, but they visited, as shown by the grinding stones found in Peace Valley.
Among the various groups represented on the tour—area ranchers, the Middle Mountain Foundation, hunters and the media—was a small contingent of women from Chico’s Mechoopda Tribe. One of them, Arlene Ward, talked at length of the area’s significance to Indians, noting that she’d always heard they traveled to the Buttes only “for pilgrimages.”
One site in particular seemed to have resonance for Native Americans. There’s a large, round, flat stone smack-dab in one of the larger meadows, and Foster noted that some anthropologists have suggested it might have been a “council rock” around which Indians from various tribes would gather when they had confabs.
The next day, April 8, following a public hearing, the commission designated the site as a state park but agreed it wouldn’t be opened anytime soon because of the limited access. Ranchers and others who’d worried about mobs descending on the Buttes were assuaged. Only hunters, who wanted to stalk the estimated 1,000 wild pigs now loose on the land, went away disappointed. Hunting is not allowed on state parks.