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

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…


When the facts were generally known, it appeared that out of some sixty or seventy killed on the island, [Indian Island, on Humboldt Bay, opposite the town of Eureka, and distant only few hundreds yards from it,] at least fifty or sixty were women and children.  Neither age or sex had been spared.  Little children and old women were mercilessly stabbed and their skulls crushed with axes.  When the bodies were landed at Union, 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, scarce a span long, with their faces cloven with hatchets, and their bodies ghastly with wounds.  We gathered form the survivors that four or five white men attacked the ranches at about 4 o’clock in the morning, which statement is corroborated by people at Eureka who heard pistol shots at about that time, although no knowledge of the attack was public.  With the Indians who lived on the island, some thirty from the mouth of Mad river were staying, having attended a dance on the evening previous.  They were all killed with the exception of some few who hid themselves during the massacre.  No resistance was made, it is said, to the butchers who did the work, but as they ran or huddled together for protection like sheep, they were struck down with hatchets. Very little shooting was done, most of the bodies having wounds about the  head.  The bucks were mostly absent, which accounts for the predominance of female victims.

~ On Monday we received a statement from our senior editor, at Eureka, en route for San Francisco.  He says; “About 9 o’clock I visited the Island, and there a horrible scene was presented.  The bodies of 36 women and children, recently killed, lay in and near the several ranches—they were of all ages, from the child of but two or three years, to the old skeleton squaw.   From appearances, the most of them must have been killed with axes or hatchets, as the heads and bodies of many were gashed, as with such an instrument. It was a sickening and pitiful sight.  Some five or six were still alive, and one old woman was able to talk, thought dreadfully wounded.  Dr. Lee, who visited them and dressed the wounds of those alive, says that ‘some will recover if properly cared for’.  It is not generally known that more than three bucks were killed, though it is supposed there must have been 15 or 20.  It is thought that the bodies of them man were taken away by Indians early this morning, as four canoes were seen to leave the island.  ~ On the beach south of the entrance it is reported that from thirty to fifty were killed.  It is also reported that at Bucksport all were killed that were there.  I passed in sight of them about 11 o’clock and saw the ranches on fire.  It is also said that the same has been done at the several ranches on Eel river.  No one seems to know who was engaged in this slaughter, but it is supposed to have been those who have suffered from the depredations so long on Eel River and vicinity.”  It is said that some jerked beef, about 100 pounds, was found in one of the Indian ranches on Indian Island and South Beach. ~ Indian Island is scarcely one mile from Eureka, the county seat of Humboldt County. With the exception of the conjectures that the Indians on the island offer aid and assistance to the mountain Indians, they are peaceful and industrious, and seem to have perfect faith in the good will of the whites.  Many of them are familiar to our citizens.  “Bill” of Mad river, a well-known and rather intelligent fellow, who has proven a faithful ally to the white men on several occasions, has had his wife, mother, sister, two brothers and two little children, cruelly butchered by men of that race who he had learned to respect and esteem. ~Some of the victims lived a few hours after having been brought up to Union.  A number of citizens visited the scene where the canoes were unloaded; and it is but justice to the community and simple humanity to say, that he general expression was one of deep sympathy with the miserable suffers, and honest, deep and utter abhorrence of the act of wanton brutality, and its perpetrators. 

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

  1. Kathy says:

    “The general expression was one of deep sympathy with the miserable suffers, and honest, deep and utter abhorrence of the act of wanton brutality, and its perpetrators.”

    Was there any public reaction? I am guessing not, as Harte was asked to leave for reporting sympathetically. Rather like now, no news of our War in Iraq or Afghanistan. Rather like now.

    There were three locations that night that were attacked? And did it ever become clear who the attackers were? or would mention of them put one on the Harte express?

  2. I wish that Bret Harte had written more stories. I’m sure that he wrote less than he knew, and he probably looked over his shoulder a lot. Very definitely, he would have ended up with his name on a grave marker, had he stuck around.

    I can’t believe that Harte was such a poor newsman that he couldn’t find the names. So, if he did know the names and he didn’t publish them, he must have felt some of the pressure that the old-timers lived under. He took his outrage, tucked it between his tail and left town. I’ve said many times, some of us would not have lived a day back then. The thugs ruled above the law. Not even the Pony Soldiers could control them that much.

    • lynette77 says:

      HI Ernie,
      I think is says a lot that Harte didn’t write about Humboldt after he left, though I guess there are a few more of his short stories that are based loosely on his experiences here. I bet you’re right that he knew, but I think MANY people knew. They were just scared and as it was for the Natives, there was no more “west” for them to flee to either.

      I think we need to also remember how young Harte was. Early twenties… And by the nature of his stories, it is easy to assume that he was a sensitive, highly observant person. This would have made his experiences here a nightmare….

      • Olmanriver says:

        I found a little Bret Harte storyline written by the fella whose job opportunity Bret took at the Uniontown newspaper:
        “Many of the occurrences of those far-away days have faded from my mind, but one of them, of considerable significance to two lives, is quite clear. Uniontown had been the county-seat, and there the Humboldt Times was published; but Eureka, across the bay, had outgrown her older sister and captured both the county-seat and the only paper in the county. In frantic effort to sustain her failing prestige Uniontown projected a rival paper and the Northern Californian was spoken into being. My father was a half owner, and I coveted the humble position of printer’s devil. One journeyman could set the type, and on Wednesday and Saturday, respectively, run off on a hand-press the outside and the inside of the paper, but a boy or a low-priced man was needed to roll the forms and likewise to distribute the type. I looked upon it as the first rung on the ladder of journalism, and I was about to put my foot thereon when the pathetic figure of Bret Harte presented itself applying for the job, causing me to put my foot on my hopes instead. He seemed to want it and need it so much more than I did that I turned my hand to other pursuits, while he mounted the ladder with cheerful alacrity and skipped up several rungs, very promptly learning to set type and becoming a very acceptable assistant editor.

        In a community where popular heroes are apt to be loud and aggressive, the quiet man who thinks more than he talks is adjudged effeminate. Harte was always modest, and boasting was foreign to his nature; so he was thought devoid of spirit and strength. But occasion brought out the unsuspected. There had been a long and trying Indian war in and around Humboldt. The feeling against the red men was very bitter. It culminated in a wanton and cowardly attack on a tribe of peaceful Indians encamped on an island opposite Eureka, and men, women, and children were ruthlessly killed. Harte was temporarily in charge of the paper and he denounced the outrage in unmeasured terms. The better part of the community sustained him, but a violent minority resented his strictures and he was seriously threatened and in no little danger. Happily he escaped, but the incident resulted in his return to San Francisco. The massacre occurred on February 5, 1860, which fixes the approximate time of Harte’s becoming identified with San Francisco.”

  3. Omr says:

    A descendant of one of the survivors of the massacre, lists the murderers.

  4. […] (or was forced from) Humboldt County, he didn’t write about his three years here (hence the “lost years” description).   Other than his editorials, and what he consciously or unconsciously reveals in […]

  5. Heraldo says:

    From the link above:

    Sergeant Charles A.D. Huestis, Corporal Henry “Hank” P. Larrabee, Privates Wallace M. Hagan and George W. Huestis all took part in the murder of women and children at Indian Island. Feared by Indians and non-Indians alike, James D. Henry Brown was a known Indian murderer and was thought to be involved.

    • lynette77 says:

      Good ole’ James D.H. Brown. The Preston family thought Lucy was murdered because she survived the massacre and was a witness–and it looks like some went so far as to think he may have killed her.
      LOTS of questions were asked about Brown during the inquest, but he was never called to testify. That tells me people were scared of him.
      The Huestis boys were the sons of a Judge/Justice, which explains that one. I don’t know much about Hagen other than he was thought to have killed even friendly indians for no reason.

  6. Olmanriver says:

    One of those Huestis is also on the ‘indentures’ list you posted.

    • lynette77 says:

      That’s dad, I believe. He was the Justice that issued all those indentures. He also indentured Sylvia himself… and there are stories about her that I’ll share eventually. Please remind me if I forget.

  7. […]  It is interesting to note the  Carpenter’s article was published in the Overland Monthly—  in 1893, by our own Bret Harte . […]

  8. […] in the Overland Monthly,  by Bret Harte,  I thought I’d found a progressive thinker and I was thankful that someone had provided […]

  9. Ben Talley says:

    Hi Lynette. Can you help me find more information? I am interested in both Austin Willey and esp. “Smoky. Smokey was, at age 8 in 1860, indentured for 17 years to Austin Willey by AJ HEUSTIS, County Judge of Humboldt. Sourced at: The Other Californians: Prejudice and Discrimination Under Spain,Robert F. Heizer, Alan J. Almquist – 1977 -278 pages.

    Also at AJ HEUSTIS, County Judge of Humboldt County We summarize the data available to us from 70 of the 114 Humboldt County indentures and add the possibly ……

    • lynette77 says:

      Hi Ben,
      I would love to help. I’ve done a little research on Wiley and Smokey myself… but it might take me a little while to dig it up.
      I do remember one paper saying that Wiley’s “experiment” with Smokey didn’t go well and he ended up sending the boy to the reservation…

      Can you email with your email/contact info and I will dig up and share what I find.


  10. […] years after this painting was done, it was believed that all who lived in that village were killed…  I may enjoy the tangents, but the original driver for this blog, the murder that began an […]

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