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Visalia’s Rich History

Jewel of the Valley 
Tulare County was settled in the “Four Creeks” area more than 150 years ago. Adventurous settlers built Fort Visalia, and before long Visalia became a thriving community. 

In the benchmark year of 1852, the land now known as Tulare County was part of the County of Mariposa. The area consisted of a swampy area within a massive oak forest, with waterways flowing from the Sierra Nevada. Seeking local autonomy, settlers petitioned the state legislature for county status, and on July 10, 1852, Tulare County became a reality. 

In the Heart of Four Creeks Country 
The first county seat, known as Woodsville, was at the site of John Wood’s cabin, in the heart of “Four Creeks Country.” The same year, just west of Woodsville, another settlement, which became know as Visalia, was beginning on the banks of a little creek. The early pioneers were fearful of attacks by Native Americans and so built the log fort but soon discovered it was not necessary. 

How Visalia Got Its Name 
One of the fort’s first inhabitants was Nathaniel Vise, who was responsible for surveying the settlement. In an 1852 letter he wrote, “The town contains from 60-80 inhabitants, 30 of whom are children who already attend school. The town is located upon one of the subdivisions of the Kaweah, and is destined to be the county seat of Tulare. 

Visalia became the county seat in 1853, named for Nathaniel Vise’s ancestral home – Visalia, Kentucky. 

The Gold Rush and Civil War 

Gold Fever 
The “Kern River Excitement” to the south in the mid-1850s brought many transient miners through town on their way to the promised gold fields. 

When the gold failed to materialize, many returned to Visalia to live their lives. In 1858 the town got another boost: John Butterfield’s Overland Mail Stage chose Visalia as a timetable stop on the St. Louis-to-San Francisco route. Waterman Ormsby, a correspondent for the New York Herald, was a passenger on the inaugural trip. The reception given to him by Visalians so impressed him that he wrote, “The rousing cheers they gave us as we drove off…ought to be remembered in the history of the town, so I here immortalize them. 

Telegraph and Controversy 
In 1860 the telegraph arrived in Visalia, as did indications of serious unrest in the East that would develop into the Civil War. The nation was divided on state’s rights issues, as was Visalia. The federal government, concerned about sedition, banned Visalia’s pro-South Equal Rights Expositor newspaper and established a military garrison. 

Civil War Years 
Visalia’s Camp Babbitt was established in 1862 to stop overt Southern support as well as maintain law and order. During the Civil War years, Visalia became incorporated, giving the town new rights. A Board of Trustees was elected, with Nathan Baker appointed as president. 

Modern Visalia 

Second Incorporation 
The town’s second incorporation came in 1874, moving the 1,000 citizens into city status. A Common Council was formed, with Summerfield Sheppard appointed president and ex-officio mayor. 

The mid-1870s brought a building boom and Visalia’s future appeared bright. In 1872, the railroad bypassed Visalia slightly to the west and headlines in the early 1890's featured the adventures of local train robbers Chris Evans and John Sontag. 

Visalia Enters a New Century 
As the 20th century dawned, Visalia had grown to slightly over 3,000 people. Automobiles began to arrive and soon outnumbered horses and wagons. The population of Visalia grew slowly but steadily throughout the early half of the century. 

It wasn’t until the 1960s that Visalia, the Valley’s best kept secret, was finally discovered. By 1970 Visalia’s population had grown to 27,268, according to the U. S. Census. 

Visalia Today 
Visalia now has more than 125,000 people and is Tulare County’s cultural, economic, and commercial hub. Visalia continues to grow in population, diversity, and sophistication. 

Once a creek-side settlement, Visalia has become a thriving community that takes pride in the small-town feel and high quality of life that accompany its big-city amenities. 

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©2018 Visalia Convention & Visitors Bureau
P.O. Box 2734 Visalia, CA 93279
(800) 524-0303 : (559) 334-0141