Unexpected opportunity

August 19, 2009
Old Mattole Pier

Old Mattole Pier

I  just returned from two days of volunteering at an archeological site survey near the mouth of the Mattole River and feel like the luckiest history junkie I know.  Jamie Roscoe’s team was doing work for the Bureau of Land Management to identify any potentially important cultural resource sites, and needed extra bodies to cover some ground.  I raised my hand (actually,  I put my name on a volunteer list)  and yesterday there I was.

I’ll write more tomorrow about how it felt to ride along the same wagon road that Buckskin Jack Mann would have used, or to be along a river with so much history.

Suffice to say for now that it was a wonderful experience.  We didn’t find much but even the possibility of finding something was enough for me.

Ghosts aren’t the boss of me, but they still kinda push me around

August 18, 2009
Bret Harte

Bret Harte

So I wrote Saturday’s post in what felt like an act of defiance, demonstrating that I have conscious control over the direction of my blog.  I talked about my love of historic homes and posted the photo of one where Bret Harte,  a well known 19th  century write and mentor to Mark Twain, once lived. 

Yet, as some readers may know, the story of Bret Harte leads me right back to the story of the Indian Island massacre.  His story of the massacre.  So much for conscious control :-/.

Some call Bret Harte’s time in Humboldt County his lost years.  He arrived here Humboldt in 1857, twenty-one years old, slender, quiet and a bit of a “dandy”,  in contrast to many of the local frontiersmen, who were rough, tough and armed.  Harte made friends here, but stayed out of the saloons and away from the miners and others who mocked his fine clothes and good vocabulary.

Harte came up here likely at the urging of his sister, Margaret Wyman, who lived in Union and was married to a local judge.  After his arrival, he taught local children, wrote stories and poems,  and eventually landed a job with the Union (Arcata) newspaper, the Northern Californian. 

Harte was acting editor of the paper in the last weeks of February, 1860 and is credited by many for bringing the details of the massacre before the public eye by publishing a description in the Northern Californian.  (I’ll post his article at the end of this post, so only folks that want to read it will see the details).

It was rumored that he was confronted by an angry mob for his sympathetic stance for the Natives and driven out of the county  to San Francisco, never to return.

After leaving the North Coast, Harte found  work editing the Californian and then The Overland Monthly.  It was in these that he published his well known The Luck of Roaring Camp, The Outlaws of Poker Flat and other well known short stories and poems that focused on frontier life in the west.

Harte did not write specifically about his experiences in Humboldt County-though it is obvious in his stories, such as the Three Vagabonds of Trinidad.

Ernie has helped to highlight that it wasn’t just bad guys here, and that a climate of hatred and fear permeated much of the local culture.  For Harte and others like him, it must have been overwhelming…

  Read the rest of this entry »

Burying the dead

August 17, 2009
Indian Cemetery

Indian Cemetery


After the massacre,   John Preston, John Danskin, John Kneeland, Louis Chevret and others helped load the bodies of the victims onto wagons and transport them to the Indian burial ground along the banks of the Mad River.

“Not a word was spoken by the Indians—not a sign of mental suffering given while they were unloading the bodies from the boats until the form of an aged woman was reached, the body of the wife of their old chief.  Then their grief burst forth in the wildest form with frenzied wails and screams of human sorrow, which they seemed unable to control for a time.  Throughout the long day of transferring their dead, they showed no resentment or blame of any kind toward their friends and ever after showed their appreciation of the kindness and sympathy offered them in their trouble. “ [Arcata Union obituary of Caroline Wright, Lucy’s daughter), transcript provided by Susie Van Kirk].

My guess is that Sarah Preston, John’s wife, provided this description for the obituary.

My husband, as I’ve mentioned, is Yurok, and when a family member dies and is buried in Orleans, the family digs and prepares the grave by hand.  There is a great deal of important ceremony that takes place to ensure the departed is sent off to the next life with love and care.

So many people died that day.  Even if only the twenty-eight bodies that Gunther saw  were taken to Union for burial, that is twenty-eight graves to dig.  The equivalent of a classroom full of children .

Ghosts aren’t the boss of me

August 15, 2009

Lucy and her story is the reason I started this post and I don’t want to pretty it up.  After yesterday’s post, I would be a hypocrite if I did.  But. But. “NorCal History” doesn’t say it my posts will always be about the settlement period, Lucy or the Indian Wars.  This may seem like a no-brainer to everyone else, but for me it was a revelation. 

I think the ghosts will be ok if I take a break every once in a while to talk about lighter things.  Fun things.  History related, of course. 

I love old homes.  I ogle old houses like others ogle movie stars or naked people.  Seriously.  I could get arrested for being peeping , what,  Tammy, maybe?  But instead of trying to see people, I am trying to see an old fireplace mantle or ornate window trim.

Houses have histories, just like people do.  They tell stories, too.   I look forward to sharing some of them here.

Bret Harte, friend to Mark Twain and writer of Gold Rush fiction, lived in Arcata for a time in the 1850s

Bret Harte, friend to Mark Twain and writer of Gold Rush fiction, lived in Arcata for a time in the 1850s

No happy little story

August 14, 2009

Man in a word has no nature; what he has. ..is history.

~ Jose Ortega y Gasset


I am sitting here trying to find some happy little story to post in order to break up the litany of horror that my blog has become, but …  I can’t.  Even the articles I find about folks that sympathize with the natives do so because the indigenous people were suffering such atrocities.  I can’t seem to filter out the bad when I write about that time period, and probably shouldn’t try to.  Violence and disregard for human rights, Native human rights, permeated everything.    I am writing about war, and war is ugly. Terrible.   

Perhaps part of why we do repeat history is that we don’t like to look at it.  Why would we?  The things human beings are capable of are scary as hell.   We like to believe in cause and effect.  Personal cause and effect, in that there  is a reason bad things happen to people.  And if we can believe there are reasons, then we can also fool ourselves into believing we can control our fate, and avoid bad and scary things.  History, if carefully considered, blows that theory out of the water.

 If one wants to read a truly terrifying book, find Holocaust Testimonies, the ruins of memory, by Lawrence L. Langer.  It contains testimonies of survivors and while the memories recounted are heartbreaking, the greater realizations are even worse.

Read the rest of this entry »

Lessons never learned

August 13, 2009

Recently US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton went to a refugee camp in the Congo and was horrified to learn that rape is common there and in the towns, sometimes perpetrated against children as young as four.  Clinton, of course, is calling for action to address this appalling problem.

According to the BBC, from 1998 to 2003 armies from several countries fought each other on Congolese territory, resulting in an estimated four million deaths and rampant sexual violence.  The violence has continued over the years, and troops and rebels have continued to abuse women and children.

Clinton told the BBC’s Network Africa programme that she met a woman who was with her two children, ages 12 and 14, in their home when they were attacked. “She begged the rebels to rape her children first and finish with her because she had HIV/Aids. But she was crying because they didn’t listen.”

 I’ve included that last paragraph, not for shock value… actually, yes, for shock value,  because I don’t know that even I truly understood the horror of what I was reading until I read that. It should bring any reader to tears.  I am crying now.

Yurok Children

Yurok Children

 This is happening now. Today.  And I’ve posted it here because it does make me wonder sometimes at the value of history. If we are capable of learning.  One hundred and fifty two years ago, two white men went to the reservation on the Klamath River (reservation = prison or refugee camp) intent on finding and raping young Native girls.

Read the rest of this entry »

A thing explained…?

August 12, 2009
Hopefuls on their way to California

Hopefuls on their way to California

Maybe, just maybe, there is some explanation for what happened here.

My daughter came to visit yesterday and I told her about Ben Madley’s paper—his discovery of certain patterns in any invasion.

1)      The indigenous people are surprised and unprepared for invaders and fail to realize they are a threat

2)      The native people start responding , resisting and retaliating to – the incursion and abuses suffered at the hands of the invaders

3)      The invaders see the native response as a threat to life, limb and successful settlement, and eventually determine that isolation or extermination is the only answer .  Of course many believed the savages couldn’t be trusted and wouldn’t stay put on the reservations, so extermination seemed to be the only choice.

I am starting to wonder if part of the reason things were so violent here is that though the natives in this area started at phase one, the invaders came in with phase three attitudes. Many emigrants grew up in areas where all three phases had occurred and crossed country where they were yet happening.  Some lost family to Indians and many more lived in mortal fear they might.   Many of the settlers that arrived in California were  already convinced that  Natives were violent, blood-thirsty, scalp stealing savages  that needed killing before they killed you. Any perceived threat was met with an extreme response because east of California, natives were a threat… not that you could blame those Natives if they experience anything like what happened here.

Of course others just equated  genocide with  natural progress.  Manifest destiny and all that.

Read the rest of this entry »

When I quit whining

August 12, 2009

A few weeks ago I called Pam M. , who was Peter Palmquist’s  life partner until he he was tragically killed in a hit and run accident in 2003.

I met Pam a few years ago while doing research on Lucy and she graciously invited me into her home and shared some of the projects Peter had been working on regarding Humboldt County’s settlement history.   She also gave me a book Peter wrote called A Collector’s Obsession: Photographs of Humbolt County, CA.

In it Peter describes how a chance encounter with a well-meaning antique store owner turned into an obsession with early photographs and photographers.  An obsession that lead Peter to collect thousands of photos, write many articles and create many books.   After hearing about my discovery of Lucy’s inquest and the research I was doing, I guess she thought I’d relate.

 Pam is a kind person, supportive and wise and when I called her I guess I was … just looking for help. I felt a little stuck with the story of Lucy and others like her.  Other Lucys.  The information was swirling  around in my head like a typhoon (do typhoons swirl?), and with every book I read, every fact I learned, that pile ‘o stuff just got bigger until I felt like my head would explode.  Of course I didn’t share this rather dramatic description with Pam, but I did tell her that I wanted to do something with Lucy’s story. With all the stories I was finding that needed to be told. 

She was very understanding and (kinda)  jokingly told me she would channel Peter’s ghost  to see what he would say.

I hung onto the silent phone for a moment and then Pam said rather matter-of-factly, “Peter would say, quit your whining.  Just get the info out there. Do it.”

 So that’s what I’m doing…

Thanks Pam.

When thugs ruled

August 11, 2009

Early Fort Humboldt, established to address the "Indian problem"

Early Fort Humboldt, established to address the "Indian problem"

Recently blog  reader Ernie B    observed  HERE  that at least some of the perpetrators involved in the massacres may have been coerced into doing so. 

 “… As you continue your research you will find that rule by intimidation was very prevalent. Many thugs had henchmen to do their dirty work. People that crossed the thugs were shot, and witnesses would swear that it was self defense. Many small ranchers were poisoned with strychnine…

It is not a stretch to think that the people that joined Larrabee in the Indian Island massacre were there through intimidation, or the desire to prove themselves to be one of the gang. Very much similar to some motorcycle gangs of today…

Most likely the people that were helping Larrabee were intimidated into being there, and that is why we don’t know who they were. They didn’t want anybody to know. Just a educated guess. “ ~Ernie B, 8 Aug 2009

Note  to readers unfamiliar with our history:   Hank Larrabee was often named in military and other documents as a perpetrator of the Indian Island massacre and other atrocities against the natives.

Ernie may be  on to something here… one of the most striking things about the massacre was the lack of justice demanded by the public on behalf of those murdered.   The perpetrators, though apparently known by at least a few, were never called to answer for their crimes.  It would be easy to assume that the  residents around the Bay didn’t care enough to bother…. but perhaps there was another reason.  

After  the massacre, the following letter was sent to the editor of the San Francisco Bulletin:

”Having lately arrived here from Humboldt Bay, I take the opportunity to inform the public…  of a few of the recent instances of shameful and horrible crime committed upon the Indians  in Humboldt county by white men (here the author describes the February massacres and then)…  Some time about the 18th March last, three desperate ruffians, armed with hatchets, entered the hotel at Hydesville, and demanded of the proprietor by what authority he had written a letter to Liuet. Hardcastel, of the U.S.A. at Fort Humboldt,  and if he had not convinced said ruffians that the letter was strictly private, and had no allusions to Indian affairs, and no communications for the Bulletin, he would have been assassinated on the spot. The names of these ruffians I shall withhold for the present.   Society is completely demoralized on Eel River; and the Thugs are largely in the majority, led on by Wiley of the Humboldt Times, and by Van Nest the Sheriff. Young men talk and think of nothing else but hanging and killing young Diggers and their mothers.  The pulpit is silent, and the preachers say not a word.  In fact, they dare not…  Men who detest and abhor the thugging system, from circumstances which surround them, are silent.  Two or three men who were on the last Grand Jury which sat at Eureka were thugs. … I append my name, privately , to this record of some of the atrocious deeds that have recently been perpetrated in Humboldt county. I have left that quarter for good; but as I have a few friends in the place, I do not wish that they should be molested for any doings of mine, and you had better, therefore, not communicate my name, except under such circumstances as you may consider necessary or proper for the public good. [Daily Evening Bulletin-: San Francisco, June 1, 1860]

It is unfortunate for us that the Bulletin editor chose not to make the writer’s name public and that the writer declined to name the thugs, though both decisions were probably fortunate for the author and his friends.  This was an ugly time….  and though I would love to judge those who refused to advocate on behalf of the Natives,  I do know it wouldn’t be fair.

My family recently watched Pale Rider, with Clint Eastwood, which was a typical western story, gold rush, good guys, bad guys who have the local law in their back pocket, and a hero that comes in and saves the town.

Kinda similar here.  Except it looks like perhaps the bad guys were the law… and no good guys came in to save the Indians.

Book Recommendation

August 10, 2009

I really am going to create a resource page eventually.  I swear.

Until then, please note the following from a visitor:



“This book is an incredible source. Not so much for the accounts of the slaughter of the first peoples in the area, but for the comingling of the Karuk people and the first white settlers in an around Somes Bar. Wes Hotelling was a well respected man in the Klamath-Trinity region when I was growing up. I highly recommend purchasing the book for a read that is from an author who was born and raised right in the midst of history and not from someone who arrived in Humboldt County after the 1970’s who writes through conjecture and theory.”


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