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From the Files of the Lassen Historical Society: Happy Birthday Peter Lassen

Thursday, October 29th, 2020


By Susan Couso

Lassen County’s namesake, Peter Lassen, only lived in the Honey Lake Valley for four years, yet his name has been used extensively throughout northern California.

He was born in Farum, Denmark on October 31st, 1800. Peter’s father, Lars Nielsen (Lar’s son – Larsen – Lassen) was a poor farmer with many children, and Peter was fortunate to learn the blacksmith trade from his uncle while he was still a teenager.

In 1830, Peter was granted permission to leave Denmark and began a new life in Boston to attempt to escape the poverty of his childhood.

But Lassen did not like life in the city. He then set his sights on Keytesville, Missouri where he resided until 1839. He decided to try his luck ‘out west’. He first went overland to Oregon but, unsatisfied with the prospects there, in the spring of 1840 he and a small group of men sailed south on the ship, Lausanne.

The ship made shore at Bodega Bay, and from there Lassen traveled to Fort Ross. From Fort Ross, Lassen went to John Sutter’s New Helvetia (which became Sacramento), and worked for Sutter.

Lassen had met Sutter while they were both in Missouri. After a little while, Lassen had saved enough money to try a new venture. He went to Santa Cruz and oversaw the building of the first water-powered sawmill in what was to become California.

With the mill completed, Lassen again moved on, and went back to work for John Sutter. He asked to be paid in livestock for his work. During his time at Sutter’s Fort, a group of emigrants stole some livestock and headed north. Peter Lassen and John Bidwell offered to go in search of the thieves. They traveled up through the northern valleys, and were very pleased with the landscape.

It isn’t clear if the two men ever caught the emigrant thieves, but they both decided to settle in the area. Bidwell settled on the area now known as Chico, California, and acquired a Mexican land grant.

Lassen was granted land along Deer Creek by Mexican Governor Manuel Micheltorena in 1844. Both Lassen and Bidwell were required to become citizens of Mexico to get title to the land. Here, along Deer Creek, Peter Lassen built his ranch. It was called Lassen’s Rancho or Bosquejo, and was over 22,000 acres in size. Lassen envisioned a new city on his land. It was to be named Benton City.

Peter Lassen is known for his establishment of the Lassen Trail, a long arduous trek that never did gain popularity with emigrants. The trail took them many miles out of the way through very rough country, and it soon fell into disuse. Its purpose was to bring emigrants to his Deer Creek ranch. But things again did not work as Peter had planned.

In 1850, California became a state, and that year, through some shady business deals, Lassen lost his ranch. He then moved on to Indian Valley, Plumas County and attempted to begin again. Here he built a small trading post, catering mainly to miners, and even grew fresh vegetables to sell.

Lassen came to the Honey Lake Valley in 1855, and first camped where his monument stands today. Lassen came to this area to find gold. He dug the Lassen Ditch, now called Lassen Creek, to supply his place with water. The gold did not come easily, and Lassen like so many others, was always searching for new prospects.

In 1856, the short-lived Nataqua Territory was formed, and Peter Lassen was elected President and also official surveyor of the new government. He remained the president until his death.

In 1859, Lassen began construction of a grist mill in Milford, California, and then took off to prospect in the Black Rock Desert. He met disaster there, and was killed April 26, 1859, along with his fellow prospector Edward Clapper. The third member of their party escaped and rode about 140 miles through the desert for help.

When news of the murders reached Susanville, a party of men left to retrieve Lassen’s body. His remains were buried under the huge pine tree where he was said to have camped his first night in the Honey Lake Valley.

Lassen’s death fueled controversy throughout the area. Many felt that the men had been ambushed by renegade Paiutes, but doubts were abundant. The true nature of Peter Lassen’s death will never be known, but his legacy remains throughout northern California and Nevada. He was well-liked by most, and the Masonic Lodge worked to honor their fallen brother and in 1862, placed a monument on his grave.

Peter Lassen seemed to continually be searching for fortune, but it was always just out of his grasp.

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