Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The 1860 Wiyot Indian Massacre

Dear Friends,

California has more Native American Indian Tribes than any other state. And yes, this was one of the worst massacres that ever took place against Indians in California. Arcata, California'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."

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. Their stretch of shoreland was mostly sandy tidal marshes. And yes, the Wiyots were among the last native Americans in California to encounter white settlers.

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.

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. 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.

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.

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 as some Eureka residents reported hearing shots that night. Sadly, knowledge of the attack was not widespread at the time.

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

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

Were there survivors who witnessed what took place?
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. May Burton is said to be the only child saved from the Indian Island Massacre.

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

The Massacres And The Truth Did Not 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. Yes, Harte was threatened and in danger of mob violence. He quit his job and left Union, California, in March 1860. He left on the steamer Columbia for San Francisco, where an anonymous letter published in a city newspaper is attributed to him. His letter described the widespread community approval of the massacre.

While a few local citizens also wrote letters to the San Francisco papers condemning the attacks, and even 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. But though many knew that was the case, 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. But the area where the ranches were located was occupied by the Nongatl tribe and not the Wiyot.

So really, the victims of the massacre would not have been responsible for any rustling. Besides, how can anyone possibly justify the hacking to death of women and children and old men over a few stolen cattle? Really, massacre people over a few head of cattle? Friends, no one in their right mine, back then or today, can excuse such barbarism on the part of the settlers -- especially if it were over a a few stolen cattle.

Fact is, while cattle were prized possessions, cattle and even mules were routinely stolen by tribes up and down California during the Gold Rush and afterwards. Part of the reason for the thievery was that wild game was depleted because of the huge influx of people from arriving all over the world into California. This influx of people consumed what was was traditionally the food source for the tribes.

Because of the game being hunted by new arrivals, the tribes faced starvation if it weren't for the cattle and mules they stole. While that might not make stealing right, it does make it understandable why they resorted to stealing livestock. I believe they really had no choice. After all, you would too if you were faced with possible starvation.

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. But Governor 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 decimated Wiyot people.

They were corralled at Fort Humboldt for their "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 also herded mostly to Round Valley, established as an Indian reservation within California.

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

The tribes 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 the Wiyot territory of California.

The rapid decline in population was from disease, slavery, dying 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.

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. 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.

    1. Actually, tribes waged war on each other for thousands of years before Europeans ever got here. We can all try to rewrite history all we want, but that doesn't take away from what really happened.

  3. Well if, savagery is a capable word to muster of the ravaging raping murdering and eliminating the native of this land is loud enough words to comprehend,then justify the mentalities of the barbarian slaughter of this land people's. And why justify or accept what has been done. What has happened.

  4. It's a known fact that natives drove dozens of major species to extinction long before the arrival of whites. They were not particularly conservation-minded and had no problem shooting pregnant animals. Animal husbandry was not part of their skill set. Wikipedia gives a list of massacres, and very often, these were perpetrated by natives and their white allies. Settler massacres often involved whites as perpetrators as well. Mary Jemison's family was attacked and murdered by a raiding group made up of 6 natives and 4 French, I believe. Reading the accounts of Indian captives (available on Project Gutenberg) has been a real eye-opener. The wars between British, French and Americans created chaos as well. Alliances were fluid; they broke and shifted. History is messy and nuanced, not black and white, and the "noble savage" and the "white savior" are both myths.


Thank you for your comment.