Tulare County was settled in the area, called “Four Creeks” more than one hundred and fifty years ago. Adventuresome settlers built their first fortress, Fort Visalia, and before long Visalia became a thriving community.
This 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. Desirous of local autonomy, the group petitioned the state legislature for county status, and on July 10, 1852 Tulare County became a reality.
In the Heart of "Four Creeks Country"
In the heart of "Four Creeks Country" the site of John Wood’s cabin became the first county seat, known as Woodsville. In the same year, just west of Woodsville, another settlement was beginning on the banks of a little creek. The early pioneers, fearful of attacks by Native Americans, built a log fort for protection but soon discovered that it was not necessary.
How Visalia Got Its Name
One of the first inhabitants of the fort was Nathaniel Vise, who was responsible for surveying the new settlement in November of 1852. In a letter of that year 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 - Visalia grew rapidly.
The "Kern River Excitement" to the south in the mid 1850’s brought many transient miners through the town on their way to the promised gold fields.
However, the gold failed to materialize and many returned to Visalia to live their lives. In 1858 the town received another boost. John Butterfield’s Overland Stage chose Visalia as a timetable stop on the St. Louis to San Francisco route. Waterman Ormsby, a newspaper correspondent for the New York Herald, was a passenger on the inaugural trip. The reception given 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 & Divides Civil Rights
In 1860 the telegraph arrived in Visalia, as did indications of serious unrest in the East. Unrest that would ultimately 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 in the community. 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.
The town’s second incorporation occurred in 1874, moving the 1,000 citizens into city status. A Common Council was formed with Summerfield Sheppard being appointed President and ex-officio Mayor.
The mid-1870’s brought a building boom to Visalia and the future of Visalia appeared bright. The end of the 19th century saw the railroad bypass Visalia slightly to the west and headlines of the day featured the adventures of local train robbers Chris Evans and John Sontag.
Visalia Enters a New Century
As Visalia entered the new century the City 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 20th Century.
It wasn’t until the 1960’s that Visalia, the Valley’s best kept secret, was really discovered. By 1970 Visalia’s population had grown to 27,268 according to the U. S. Census.
Visalia now has more than 117,000 people within its boundaries. Serving as the cultural, economic, and commercial hub of the County, Visalia continues to grow - in population, diversity, and sophistication.
Once a creekside settlement, Visalia has become a thriving community that takes pride in the small town feel and high quality of life that accompanies its big city amenities.