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William H. Knight and Knights Landing in Yolo County

03/28/2019 11:00AM ● By Al Rocca

Settling History

April 2019
Story and photos by Al Rocca 

DRIVING SOUTH from Yuba City, most motorists do not pay much attention to the sign that indicates Highway 113 west to Woodland. The road, at first, heads directly West with small farms and orchards on either side. After a mile, the highway meets George Washington Boulevard and turns southwest. Now, vast acreages of orchards, mostly almonds and walnuts grow in perfectly straight rows. Then suddenly vast stretches of water-covered rice fields dot the landscape. According to Yolo County officials, agricultural production brings in more than $600 million, with almonds the top-earning crop, followed by tomatoes and wine grapes.   

After driving about 30 miles, you approach the Sacramento River and the small town of Knights Landing. Driving over the steel-girded bridge, visitors note the serene waters of the river and the steep banks built high above the surrounding fields. To the west, a small fleet of motorboats float lazily, tied up to a narrow pier. Farther away, a concrete observation tower, apparently abandoned now, rises from the far bank. The scene gave little impression that the area once held any importance in California history, or even Yolo County.

The community took its name from William H. Knight. Born in 1800 in Annapolis, Maryland, the bright young man obtained his medical degree in Baltimore, then abruptly headed west, reportedly as a “Mountain Man” traversing the continent as a fur trader and scout, stopping for a short stint in the busy Mexican pueblo of Santa Fe, New Mexico. There he became a Mexican citizen and married. Moving on in 1841 to California, he journeyed up from the small and sleepy pueblo of Los Angeles. Still not satisfied with his environment or opportunities, Knight checked out the Sacramento River lands. He liked the Cache Creek area, named by Hudson Bay trappers years before his arrival. Finding a high mound near a sharp turn in the river, Knight built a small house and farmed. Thinking that others would soon move into the surrounding areas to startup agricultural pursuits, he constructed a ferry. 

Knight and his wife, Carmel, struggled but survived. In the summer of 1848, everything changed. The growing number of American settlers put pressure on Mexican officials such as General Mariano Vallejo to curtail further immigration. According to historical reports, Carmel learned from Vallejo’s secretary, Francisco de Arci, that the general desired to collect horses from the surrounding area, bolster his Mexican cavalry, and attack nearby American forces led by visiting Captain John C. Fremont. 

Knight warned Fremont, then led other settlers in the capture of de Arci and the horses. Historians mark this as the first action of the Bear Flag Revolt. As the story continues, Knight galloped on to the town of Sonoma where the band of American “rebels” made Vallejo prisoner, raised a quickly made flag depicting a grizzly bear and a lone star, and declared the area – and all of California – free from Mexican rule.  

Caught up with the “gold fever,” the Knights moved to the “diggin’s sites” along the Stanislaus River. Again, he founded a town and developed a ferry where the river turns sharply south as it comes out of the nearby Sierra Nevada foothills. This site lies just west of the soon-to-be-boisterous gold boomtowns such as Chinese Camp, Angels Camp and Jamestown. This site, later named Knights Ferry, proved economically successful for the Knights as numerous newly arrived gold seekers eagerly paid the small fee to cross the Stanislaus River on their way to get rich. 

However, prosperity quickly ended on the evening of November 9, 1949, when William met an early death. His assailant, never identified, reportedly gunned down Knight in “one of the most cold-blooded murders” remembered by locals. There is some disagreement as to the actual means of his death. Meanwhile, back at Knights Landing in Yolo County, the town grew as it became an important landing and shipping point for ferries from Sacramento.  

While Knights Ferry remains a quiet, historic community just off Highway 120, Knights Landing with a population of just over 1,000 remains firmly grounded in its support of the surrounding agricultural industry. Visitors might stop for lunch at Las Maracas Mexican restaurant. Rumors abound that their bacon-wrapped burrito attracts curious patrons from all over Northern California. Be sure to cruise down a few side streets to see some of the historic buildings still standing. •