Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The 1860 Wiyot Indian Massacre

The Wiyot Indians are an indigenous people of California living near the Humboldt Bay and surrounding areas. They are culturally similar to the Yurok people of California.

For several days before the massacre, World Renewal ceremonies were being held at the village of Tuluwat, on "Indian Island" less than a mile offshore from Eureka in Humboldt Bay.

Up to two hundred fifty Wiyot Indians participated in their ceremonies.

The leader of the Humboldt Bay Wiyots was Captain Jim. He organized and led the ceremony to start a new year.

Three days before the massacre, on Washington's birthday, a logging mill engineer from Germany named Robert Gunther bought the island property.

The day before the massacre, February 25th , the Weekly Humboldt Times wrote:

"The Indians are still killing stock of the settlers in the back country and will continue to do so until they are driven from that section, or exterminated"

Meanwhile prominent local residents had already formed a vigilante committee to deal with the problem, and were sworn to never reveal their membership.

The Wiyot Massacre took place on February 26th, 1860, at Tuluwat on what is now known as "Indian Island," near Eureka in Humboldt County, California.

Immigrant whites had settled in the area since the California Gold Rush, over the 10 years before the massacre.

The Wiyot were a peaceful tribe that had never fought with white settlers and had no reason to expect an attack.

The killings followed two years of open aggression by the whites against the residents of Indian Island, numerous editorials in the local newspapers, and the formation of volunteer militia groups.

On the night of 26th February 1860, a small group of white men crossed Humboldt Bay and to avoid drawing attention from nearby Eureka residents, some of whom may not have condoned the killings, carried out the attack primarily with hatchets, clubs and knives.

They came to the island in the early morning after the last ceremony was completed and most of the Indian men had left the island, leaving only women and children.

The whites were armed with hatchets, clubs and knives and had left most of their guns behind so the noise of the slaughter would be only screams rather than gunshots.

Contrary to a commonly held view, guns were also used to kill Indians, because some Eureka residents reported hearing shots that night, but knowledge of the attack was not widespread at the time.

Gunther had been asleep on the mainland across Humboldt Bay from the Island and had woken up to what he thought were screams, but went back to sleep.

The next morning he was awakened by the Justice of the Peace who went with Gunther to inspect the Island following reports that Indians had been killed.

He was appalled by what he saw, recalling “ …what a sight presented itself to our eyes. Corpses lying all around, and all women and children, but two. Most of them had their skulls split. One old Indian, who looked to be a hundred years old, had his skull split, and still he sat there shivering”.

Gunther initially desired to bring the guilty to justice, but learned "We soon found that we had better keep our mouths shut."

This was not the only massacre that took place that night.

Three other attacks on Indian settlements took place within 2 days: at the South Spit (Eureka), at South Fork Eel River (Rohnerville), and at Eagle Prairie (Rio Dell).

Gunther said, "It was never publicly known who did the killing, yet secretly the parties were pointed out."

Reports of the number of Wiyots killed that night vary from 80 to 250; they were mostly women and children, who were apart from the men conducting ceremonies. There was one survivor of the massacred group on Tutulwat, an infant called Jerry James.

News accounts report only the shooting of adult men, but that was not true.

Based upon Wiyot Tribe estimates about 250 Wiyot men, women, and children were murdered - mostly hacked to death.

Because most of the adult able-bodied men were away gathering supplies as part of continuing preparation for the World Renewal Ceremony, sort of like their Spring Festival, nearly all the Wiyot men murdered are believed to have been older men - which is believed to be one reason why the Wiyot were largely defenseless.

It is untrue to say the Wiyot were killed with ease because they were "exhausted from the annual celebration." The celebration usually lasted seven to 10 days, and the men traditionally left at night for the supplies while the elders, women and children slept.

That is why most victims were children, women and older men.

Arcata's local newspaper, the Northern Californian, described the scene as follows:

"Blood stood in pools on all sides; the walls of the huts were stained and the grass colored red. Lying around were dead bodies of both sexes and all ages from the old man to the infant at the breast. Some had their heads split in twain by axes, others beaten into jelly with clubs, others pierced or cut to pieces with bowie knives. Some struck down as they mired; others had almost reached the water when overtaken and butchered."

Were there witnesses, survivors?

Yes, there were few survivors who watched the whole thing.

One woman, Jane Sam, survived by hiding in a trash pile. Two cousins, Matilda and Nancy Spear, hid with their three children on the west side of the island and later found seven other children still alive.

A young boy, Jerry James, was found alive in his dead mother's arms. Polly Steve was badly wounded and left for dead, but recovered.

One of the few Wiyot men on the island during the attack, Mad River Billy, jumped into the bay and swam to safety in Eureka.

Another woman, Kaiquaish (also known as Josephine Beach) and her eleven month old son William survived by not being on the island in the first place.

Kaiquaish had set out in a canoe with her son to take part in the ceremonies, but became lost in the fog and was forced to return home before the attacks began.

Coordinated attacks

The Tuluwat/Indian Island massacres was part of a coordinated simultaneous attack that targeted other nearby Wiyot sites, including an encampment on the Eel River.

The same day the same party was reported to have killed 58 more people at South Beach, about 1 mile south of Eureka even though many of the women worked for the white families and many could speak "good English."

On 28 February 1860, 40 more Wiyot were killed on the South Fork of the Eel River, and 35 more at Eagle Prairie a few days later.

That Didn't Matter To The Press

The Humboldt Times newspaper editorialized:

"For the past four years we have advocated two—and only two—alternatives for ridding our country of Indians: either remove them to some reservation or kill them. The loss of life and destruction of property by the Indians for ten years past has not failed to convince every sensitive man that the two races cannot live together, and the recent desperate and bloody demonstrations on Indian Island and elsewhere is proof that the time has arrived that either the pale face or the savage must yield the ground."

One writer in nearby Union, which is now Arcata, California, was the then-unknown Bret Harte who wrote against the killers.

Harte was working as a printer's helper and assistant editor at a local newspaper at the time, and his boss was temporarily absent, leaving Harte in charge of the paper.

Harte published a detailed account condemning the event, writing:

"A more shocking and revolting spectacle never was exhibited to the eyes of a Christian and civilized people. Old women wrinkled and decrepit lay weltering in blood, their brains dashed out and dabbled with their long grey hair. Infants scarcely a span along, with their faces cloven with hatchets and their bodies ghastly with wounds."

Harte would soon need to leave the area due to the threats against his life.

Harte was threatened and in danger of mob violence. He quit his job and left Union in March 1860 by the Columbia steamer for San Francisco, where an anonymous letter published in a city paper is attributed to him, describing widespread community approval of the massacre.

While a few local citizens also wrote letters to the San Francisco papers condemning the attacks and naming suspected conspirators, local sentiment was in favor of what took place.

The Humboldt Times apparently represented the mainstream opinion in the area at the time.

An investigation failed to identify a single perpetrator, although those who did the killing were rumored to be well known. The grand jury summoned witnesses and held hearings, no one was indicted.

Yes, its true, though the attack was widely condemned in newspapers outside of Humboldt County, no one was ever prosecuted for the grisly murders.

Motive for the attacks was never clearly established, but greed for their lands and racial hatred is believed at the root of what took place.

The local sheriff, Barrant Van Ness, stated in a newspaper editorial published in the San Francisco Bulletin a few days after the massacre that the motive was revenge for cattle rustling.

Ranchers in the inland valleys claimed as much as one-eighth of their cattle had been stolen or slaughtered by Indians over the previous year and one rancher, James C. Ellison, was killed while pursing suspected rustlers in May 1859.

However, the area where the ranches were located was occupied by the Nongatl tribe, not the Wiyot, so the victims of the massacre would not have been responsible for any rustling.

Major Gabriel J. Rains was the Commanding Officer of Fort Humboldt at the time.

The vigilantes, calling themselves the "Humboldt Volunteers, Second Brigade", had been formed in early February 1860 in the inland town of Hydesville, one of the ranching communities in the Nongatl area.

Major Rains (sometimes spelled "Raines"), reported on the massacre to his superiors that "Captain Wright's Company of vigilantes held a meeting at Eel River and resolved to kill every peaceable Indian - man, woman, and child."

In his army reports, appalled at the massacres and at the openly discussed aims of the local white settlers to kill the Wiyot, he stated there were 55 killed at Indian Island, 40 on South Fork Eel River, and 35 at Eagle Prairie.

South Fork Eel River became Rohnerville and was later annexed by Fortuna. Eagle Prairie is now the site of the town of Rio Dell.

Sheriff Van Ness closed his written statement by saying he did not excuse the killers for their deeds, specifically saying they spent most of February "in the field" attacking Indians along the Eel River.

A petition had been sent to California Governor John G. Downey asking that the Humboldt Volunteers be mustered into service and given regular pay.

Gov. Downey declined the petition, stating that the U.S. Army was sending an additional Company of Regulars to Fort Humboldt.

The Wiyot Tribe said their people were not allowed to return to the island or their other land and they often found their land stolen or destroyed.

The Wiyot people were decimated.

They were corralled at Fort Humboldt for "protection."

Soldiers from Fort Humboldt took many of the surviving Wiyot into protective custody at the fort, later transporting them to the Klamath River Reservation.

Survivors were herded mostly to Round Valley, established as an Indian reservation within California.

So what is the deifference between "protective custody" and prison? Not much, because they kept escaping and returning to their homeland.

What was a tribe of a few thousand Wiyot and Karok people living within that area in 1850 changed drastically after the 1860 massacre, and by 1910 there were fewer than 100 full blood Wiyot people living within Wiyot territory.

The rapid decline in population was from disease, slavery, dieing in protective custody, being herded from place to place in what survivors' and their descendants describe as "death marches," target practice and out right murder.

Only recently has the Wiyot Indian tribe repurchased the land in order to perform their annual World Renewal Ceremony.

File:Indian Island Tolowot California.jpg
This is a view North from Woodley Island Marina at end of Startare Drive showing National Register Marker with Indian Island shell midden on other side of channel. There is no public access to Indian Island itself,
it can only be seen from Samoa Bridge, Woodley Island or a boat.

Story by Tom Correa


  1. We can never be a wholly mentally, spiritually, or physically healthy people until we acknowledge these slaughters of defenseless natives whose lands we invaded, we of the Christian Faith.

    1. Dear Barbara,
      While I agree with you that those Christians who came here did in fact commit some horrible things, I wouldn't say we "invaded" this land, or that they were "defenseless". While Americans have acknowledged a lot of what took place, when it comes to waging war, the many many American Indian tribes were incredible fighters extremely skilled at warfare. What they lacked in advanced technology compared to the whites, they made up for in tactics and smarts, While it is true that Europeans waged war on the Indians, we should keep in mind that the multitude of tribes waged horrible brutal war - almost to the point of ethnic cleansing on each other for over a thousand years before whites ever step foot on this land. From all that I have read, what the Indians did to each other before the advent of the whites makes what the whites did to them pale in comparison. They were not the "close to the earth, peace loving peoples" that some today are painting them to be. Their warfare upon each other was extreme and vicious.

      Thanks for visiting,
      Tom .

    2. indians wanted to be left alone and for some reason whites have never been able to leave these people alone. all through history the sickened debacle has presented itself. i sometimes think the reason for sand creek's massacre were the deseases given to the whites who had come to their village earlier for just such a purpose. perhaps this was again the case.

  2. I think the whites should of just left the natives alone or left and go back to there own lands. Natives only ad wars because the whites felt intitled to everything when they had no right.


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