Dutch Bill Creek, named for “Dutch Bill Howard,” runs from the town of Occidental to the Russian River. The man was many things. More than once his life changed dramatically on a moment’s impulse, but he wasn’t Dutch and his name wasn’t really Bill Howard.
Born Christopher Falkmann in Denmark, he went to sea at the age of 13. Eventually making it to the United States, he enlisted in the Navy and sailed to California aboard a sloop-of-war that dropped anchor in San Francisco Bay just after gold was discovered in 1848.
Christopher and two other sailors came down with gold fever, stole a military boat and deserted. According to one account, during their getaway, the three hid in a logjam. His friends were captured, but Falkmann escaped and began calling himself “Bill Howard,” the name of a captain he had served under. Bill made a small fortune in the gold fields, then lost it in cattle speculation. By 1850, he had settled in the forest near the future site of Occidental.
Like his naval career, Bill’s bachelorhood ended abruptly. In those days, ministers were few and far between; when one showed up, couples from miles around gathered at a central spot to be married on the same day. Such a ceremony took place in the west county in 1855.
Impressed by the bridegrooms’ generosity toward him, the minister offered to wed anyone else who stepped forward. Caroline Kolmer, a young woman who had come by wagon train years before, caught Bill’s eye. On the spur of the moment, he whispered his proposal in her ear and she accepted.
As the newlyweds started their life together, loggers were beginning to cut trees in the area. Like the forest, Bill’s character also grew less shady as the years went on. He and Caroline eventually had nine kids.
About the time the youngest was born, Bill donated a right-of-way across his land to the North Pacific Railway. In return, he received a lifetime pass, and the train station near his home was named “Howard’s.” The town of Occidental soon sprang up, with Bill as one of its founding fathers.
Today the forest has grown back and Dutch Bill Creek is known as a spawning stream for steelhead and coho salmon. As Brock Dolman of the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center observed, it’s ironic that restoring the creek’s habitat includes creating logjams. Without that crucial logjam to hide in, Dutch Bill might never have reached Sonoma County and raised his own offspring here.
Contact Glen Ellen-based historical ecologist Arthur Dawson at firstname.lastname@example.org.