Timeline created by the San Francisco Estuary Institute, Historical Ecology Program, 2008. Full View
Late 1700s-1840s: Spanish Mission and Rancho Eras
1840s-1870s: Early American Era and the California Gold Rush
1870s-1940s: Modernization of Infrastructure
1950s-1980s: Suburban Expansion
The watershed has been changed by a succession of major Euro-American land uses that began in the Spanish Mission era. During the Mission era, cattle grazing began to modify the grasslands. Timber began to be extracted from nearby watersheds during this period as well. After Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821, former mission lands, or ranchos, were granted to prominent Mexican citizens. Miller Creek Watershed occupies the northern portion of Rancho San Pedro, Santa Margarita y Las Gallinas, which was granted to Don Timoteo Murphy in 1844. Grazing continued throughout the Mexican Rancho era.
A few years after Murphy obtained his land grant, California was ceded by Mexico to the United States. After gold was discovered in 1848, the regional population grew rapidly. As a result, grazing in the watershed intensified. New changes in the landscape were also initiated during the early Anglo-American period. The margins of the Bay filled with sediment from hydraulic mining in the Sierra. By the 1890s, the baylands extended a mile farther into the Bay because of the massive transfer of sediment from the Sierra Nevada foothills.
Increasingly modern infrastructure was built in the watershed beginning in the late 1800s. The Northwest Pacific Railroad connected San Rafael to Petaluma. The railroad crossed the watershed and was completed in 1878. Other infrastructure continued to expand during this era as well. These developments included roads, bridges, dikes, levees, and water delivery and drainage systems. From the late 1800s until soon after WWII, ranching and dairying dominated the valleys and grassy hillsides. As ranching was modernized, the amount of supporting infrastructure increased.
From the late 1950’s and into the 1980s, expanding residential suburbs were built in the valley. Storm drains, sewers, power lines, and communication systems were added. As the number of people living or working in the watershed increased, the supporting infrastructure was further developed. Highway 101 now includes successive widening projects and HOV lanes. Natural processes such as flooding and creek migration have been constrained in favor of using floodplains for agriculture, housing and other development. Agriculture has largely been relocated from the valleys to the diked baylands.
All of the various land uses and practices described above were the result of an ever-increasing ability to modify the environment. They were accepted and encouraged by the dominant cultures of their time, however we may view them today. In the last few decades, public attitudes and land use priorities have shifted. Efforts to protect and restore the ecology of the watershed have gained momentum. These efforts include the dedication of historical ranch lands to public open space, the local celebration of native ways of life, and the restoration of selected wetlands and reaches of Miller Creek.