For thousands of years, native California Indians known as Nongatl lived in this area. They spoke an Athabascan language. Native groups traded with each other; local objects such as ceremonial blades and shell beads have been identified as far away as America’s Deep South and East Coast.
The ceremonies of Athabascan-speaking people often included multiple groups, and intermarriage between groups was common. Many local indigenous people spoke or still speak two or more languages. Four native language families exist in the region today: Athabascan, Algic, Hokan, and Yukian. Though these languages are distinct from one another, their speakers share many cultural traits.
With the coming of Europeans and Americans, native lands around the Van Duzen River were turned into farms and ranches. In the 1860s, U.S. Army troops from Fort Humboldt took the Nongatl people to the Round Valley, Hupa Valley, and Smith River Reservations. Many of these people eventually returned to their homelands, and the Rohnerville Rancheria was established north of Fortuna in 1910.
Some descendants of the Nongatl belong to the Bear River Band of Rohnerville Rancheria, maintaining cultural and ancestral ties while retaining and practicing their own traditions.
In the late 1860s, the Van Duzen River area—named for New Jersey gold seeker James Van Duzen—was a stagecoach stopover and resort. When the state of California acquired the acreage in 1943, the river and its banks had long been popular with visitors. Cheatham Grove was added in 1984, after Georgia Pacific donated it to the Nature Conservancy and the Conservancy identified Save the Redwoods League as an interim steward.