The Sinkyone people lived in this area for thousands of years. When Europeans first arrived, the Sinkyones may have numbered about four thousand, with lands extending from the ocean to the main stem and south fork of the Eel River.
The name Sinkyone came from 20th-century ethnographers, who assigned it to separate political groups speaking the same dialect of the Athabascan language. Each group maintained its own geographic area and identity, but formed a larger economy that delivered goods as far as the eastern United States. Today, people of Sinkyone descent live throughout the North Coast.
Practices passed down through generations of Sinkyones have created a highly productive environment. Using time-tested methods, conservation and restoration projects headed by local tribal groups have been instrumental in healing the landscape.
In the 1850s, early European settlers claimed land near Shelter Cove, just north of today’s state park. In the 1860s, settlers also began to occupy the land around what is now Bear Harbor, where they grazed cattle. Soon the landscape was devoted to cattle and sheep ranches, farms, and orchards.
By the mid-1860s, lines of pack mules carried a steady supply of local tanoak bark to San Francisco tanneries. Before long, the settlers were building wharfs and chutes to load ships with lumber, tanoak bark, and other profitable cargoes. In 1872, Robert Anderson built a wire chute at Little Jackass Gulch to slide lumber products to waiting schooners. The gulch, which he called “Anderson’s Landing,” was later renamed “Northport.”
Soon lumber schooners were departing regularly from Usal, Anderson’s Landing, Needle Rock, and other local ports. The Bear Harbor Railroad was built in the early 1890s to haul tanoak from inland forests to Bear Harbor. Plans to extend the line from Bear Harbor to a mill near Piercy were cancelled after a fatal accident and the 1906 earthquake. Railroad remnants may still be seen in the park.
By 1892, the demand for lumber had destroyed thousands of acres of virgin coast redwoods. John A. Wonderly, who had acquired the Usal Lumber Company in 1888, shut it down for lack of timber. Using skillful marketing and partnerships, San Franciscan Robert Dollar resurrected it for a while in 1894, and then shut it down again in 1901. In November 1908, the Nelson Lumber Company of New York State acquired the mill for $10 in gold.
The land continued to change hands frequently, with various attempts to revive logging operations. In 1975, the state of California began acquiring local land to preserve as Sinkyone Wilderness State Park. In 1986, environmentalists sued to prevent Georgia-Pacific Lumber Company from clear-cutting a large parcel of land adjacent to the state’s holdings, including the old-growth redwoods in Sally Bell Grove. Before the case came to trial, Georgia-Pacific sold the property to the Trust for Public Land. Funds for 3,200 acres of the purchase came from Save the Redwoods League, California State Coastal Conservancy, and other donors, as well as the Trust for Public Land. In 1986, those acres were added to Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, adding the Sally Bell Grove and nearly doubling the park’s size.
Another 3,900 acres of the Trust’s land was sold to the InterTribal Wilderness Council in 1997. Operating under a conservation easement, the Council established Intertribal Sinkyone Wilderness Park, which is used by local Native Americans for conservation of cultural and natural resources, including salmon habitat.