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.