Killing a gym full of children


This week marks the 150th anniversary of the Indian Island Massacre.

While I know this anniversary is being recognized by tribal members and others , I think it is most important to remember that that those killed were people,  and not just “Indians”. 

John Grisham wrote the book, A Time to Kill, about a black father in the deep south who kills two white men that raped his daughter.  

Through much of the book, race is the overarching issue.  The death of two white men at the hands of a negro.  Two of “us” killed by one of “them”,  and it is only when the jurors are urged to imagine the victim as a little white girl and her father as a father, instead of a black man, that they are able to sympathize.  They are finally able to recognize a family who suffered a great injustice they simply could not abide.

If one hundred and fifty school children and their mothers were brutally murdered during a school event, everyone in the community would recognize the loss years later. This massacre, one of too many that happened in this area during the settlement period, should be no different.  

If you have to, picture a school gym full of parents and children. Imagine a basketball game or school play, everyone joyous, the community together.  Then imagine five or six men coming in and locking the doors behind them.  They are carrying hatchets and knives and you watch from the stands as cheerleaders with ponytails and  boys with long legs and hair in their eyes are struck down, their skulls split with axes, screaming as they fall bleeding and dying to the floor.  Imagine toddlers, who moments earlier, were crawling on the stands, stabbed and cast aside.  Imagine watching as parents are beaten and killed as they run to protect their children.   Imagine the community’s  pain.  Imagine the loss of so much potential. The loss of so many people…

This happened.  Here.  And it makes no difference that they were “Indian”.  Please take a moment to honor the victims and their families.

29 Responses to Killing a gym full of children

  1. Nan Abrams says:

    Excellent analogy you have used to remind us what really happened. I assume you know what Bret Harte wrote and how it cost him his job and his ability to continue living in the community–and I assume he had no more desire to in any case, after what happened.

  2. Kym says:

    Lynette, you are so right. When we stop seeing others as aliens but rather as mothers, fathers, sons, daughters who feel and fear then the world will be a better place.

  3. anjellael says:

    Powerful reminder…thank you!

  4. Kathy says:

    Your blog is always worthwhile but never easy to be with.

  5. […] Killing a gym full of children « Lynette's NorCal History Blog […]

  6. Jim Baker says:

    Vivid analogy, Lynette. To expand upon it a bit, imagine that virtually the entire population of the county and state (including Bret Harte, in this case) within which the gym is situated views the very existence of the parents and children in the gym as a threat to their own safety and economic well-being, are frustrated by the inaction of their government in “dealing with the problem”, and perceive the gym occupants as an inferior race of beings whose opinions, feelings and culture had no value when measured against their own.

    The opinions of the surrounding populace differed only in the extent to which they would go to solve their collective “problem” (and it was, indeed, a problem for non-Indians and Indians alike), Bret Harte included. Read his editorial in its entirety and the rest of his writing during this period and this becomes apparent. There were no heroes in this incident nor its aftermath. The lack of prosecution against the perpetrators, who were known by virtually everyone, is proof enough of that.Yes, Bret Harte left town, but he never had the guts to name names afterwards more out of concern for his professional and financial future than for his safety. Complicity needs to be shared equally among active participants and those passive “bystanders” whose “problem” had been solved by them. Sound familiar?

    Keep writing and digging for answers, Lynette. There is much more to this story than the simplistic “good guys/bad guys” narrative that it has become. We are all part of the continuing story that began 150 years ago, and all of us need to pull together to put humpty dumpty back together again.

  7. j2bad says:

    I keep hearing echoes of Jim Baker’s “hero” argument in the comments about topics like this one, and I don’t think I understand it. On his own blog, and on his comments on Kym’s blog, Ernie repeats his desire to punish “paragons of virtue” who, I suppose, have disagreed with him in the past about the morality of his ancestors. I don’t know if these paragons or heroes are strawmen or real people, but I wonder.

    I mentioned Bret Harte’s contribution to these events a few weeks back, so I guess I could be the strawman in some of these arguments. If so, let me be clear about what I meant: I wasn’t saying that Bret Harte was a hero for pointing out the barbarous behavior of those who claimed to be in possession of a higher degree of civilization than the people they slaughtered; I was merely pointing out that his editorial was evidence of an awareness of the moral position inherent in the act. In other words, regardless of whether or not Harte was morally-superior to those he condemned (and many of his closest friends thought him quite the bastard, including Mark Twain), his editorial shows that the people in the thick of the action were capable of recognizing their actions for what they were. The Anglo-American settlers who came here to take the land that was already inhabited by other people may have been frustrated by their government’s inaction on their behalf, but so what? Are you saying that their frustration somehow justifies the slaughter of those weaker than them? It’s certainly true that most Anglo-Americans believed themselves superior to the Indian inhabitants living on the land they wanted, but at a minimum, we should be able to see their actions as morally incorrect, and clearly so. In black and white terms. Yes, things were complex, but killing defenseless people just because you can is a pretty easy call to make. No?

    • lynette77 says:

      I apologize, J2, for not reading your post more carefully before. You’re absolutely right. There were many people here who recognized the barbarity of what was happening. Indians (humans) were “hunted” to quote a phrase often used by the local newspaper editor; this was not “war” until much later, when the Native peoples started acquiring guns and learning how to use them.

      A very few did chose to call attention to the injustices happening, though often anonymously through letters to the paper. Even fewer chose to act. There are accounts of white men aiding the Indians by supplying arms and more than one account of white men living and fighting with the indians against the militia groups. Unfortunately they were few and far between and too often died with their friends.

  8. Kym says:


    I think that many of us feel frustrated that the murdering settlers are seen only in that context. I hate what they did. I think their actions murdering the natives are pure evil. That does not mean that they are purely evil.

    And there is a tendency among many modern people also to act as if somehow their ancestors were lily white. This is such a dangerous I-am-pure-but-you-are-not attitude that it drives me nuts. As a genealogist I can just about guarantee that any given person has a slew of murders/thieves/etc contributing to their DNA.

    Let us be shocked and horrified about what happened but let us not lose sight of the fact that otherwise good people will do evil. Maybe that way we can avoid doing some of it ourselves.

    Now, having said that, I completely agree with you that Harte’s editorial is evidence that people back then had access to a moral viewpoint. Many of them shamefully disregarded it. The incredible slaughter of entire tribes was evil. The people who did it were wrong.

    The most horrifying part is not that evil people do evil but really it is that otherwise fine upstanding members of the community do evil or at least condone it.

    • lynette77 says:

      Hi everyone,
      Kym, I have to say I haven’t seen many folks that act as if their ancestors are lily white–and I don’t know that the actions of THEIR ancestors really have any relevance in the conversation. Actually, I don’t know that the topic of ancestry really has any bearing at all, other than descendants of people directly involved in a situation ususally have more info than those whose ancestors weren’t involved.

      If you take an infant and kill it by bashing his or her head against a tree, that’s just wrong. If you shoot someone because you want their land, or woman, or child, it is simply wrong. I don’t even see the possiblity of debate there.

      I think the biggest challenge we have here is that people still take, or assign, responsiblity for the actions of their ancestors… and that gets in the way of more important discussions. When my kids were young, I discouraged them from talking about their friends (gossiping). But I have come to realize that discussion about others’ actions and decisions can help one understand and process their own choices and decisions more effectively. If we avoid certain topics, how can we learn…?

      This isn’t about ancestry or assigning or accepting blame. It is about our history, and (yes, sometimes uncomfortable) discussion. Folks really should leave the rest behind.

  9. Kym says:


    Folks really should leave the rest behind but if you read the comment section in mine and Ernie’s posts you will see where some (certainly not even most) people act differently.

    I agree that if you bash an infant’s head against a wall–that is evil. If you shoot someone that is wrong. But what I don’t believe is that anything gets better by labeling that entire person evil.

    Maybe you have never known someone who has done a truly evil (not just wrong or mistaken) act. I have. But if I were to just label that person evil, I would be ignoring the truly kind, committed person that also is contained in the same body. Blanket labels aren’t useful in understanding people or history.

    • lynette77 says:

      Kym, your point is well taken. Even James Brown, one of the named perpetrators of the Indian Island massacre, and likely one of the men that killed Lucy, had a sense of honor that didn’t allow him to “kill other mens’ squaws”. Even he respected other mens’ “property” (I know, pretty awful at the face of it but, still. At least it is some kind of moral code he lived by).

      I also think people are (hopefully) sometimes able to later recognize the harm they’ve done and then try to make amends. Learn and pass that learning onto others. Humans are such complex creatures–we use labels to try to simplify and help our understanding, but it can also restrict our learning.

  10. Kym says:

    And Lynette, I agree, we MUST talk about what happened for all of our sakes.

  11. Kym says:

    The horrible things that were done then in the name of self preservation (though often for much more ugly reasons) aren’t much different than some of the things we do now. When I think of a 15 year old boy, held in Guantanamo and tortured and then I look at my teenage sons, I want to scream, stop. No.
    I want us all to scream, “STOP.”

    • lynette77 says:

      Oh Kym, I hear you. It upsets me so much that there is so much emphasis on protecting women and children… I always wonder, is my son’s life less valuable??? Is anyone’s life less valuable than another? Or more or less sacred and deserving of honor and protection? We’ve come far in our social evolution, but we have much further to go.

  12. olmanriver says:

    I am going to get that bumper sticker I saw the other day: HUMANKIND BE BOTH

  13. Kym says:

    River, now that sounds like a bumper sticker that I might actually put on my car. We three can start the blogging bumpersticker group.

  14. olmanriver says:

    I am ordering four of them, you two will get one.

  15. Jim Baker says:


    My remark that “there were no heroes”, including Bret Harte, in the story of the Wiyot massacres of February, 1860 was perhaps a little hyperbolic, and I apologize. I had not read your postings on Ernie’s or Kym’s blogs, so my posting was not in reply to anything you had said. I certainly agree with you, and with Harte’s editorial, that killing defenseless people is never justifiable. I was trying to make that very point, albeit apparently unsuccessfully. I’ll try again.

    Many people in the County, certainly Bret Harte among them, knew who most of the actual participants in the massacres were, and who actively played a part in the coverup which followed. While the acts themselves were shocking in their barbarity even for that period in our history, it was a well-planned, well-executed operation which was principally intended to send a message to State authorities as much as anything else. Many, if not most, of the influential individuals in the county were aware of the very real possibility that it was going to take place, although there was disagreement among them as to whether it should, whether on moral or tactical grounds or a combination of the two. This is borne out by circumstantial evidence, oral family tradition, and the writings of many of the perpetrators and their supporters themselves. There was a second chance for those who disagreed with the massacres to redeem themselves through the existing justice system. That did not happen, for a number of reasons. Those reasons obviously included physical intimidation, but also the threat of isolation from the existing economic and political power structure. There was an opportunity for Bret Harte and others to take a principled stand and demand justice from the local legal authorities. Except for Harte’s initial editorial condemnation, that did not take place within the county. Bret Harte left the area and did not speak of the matter again in public. Others who could not stomach the situation removed themselves from the scene and editorialized anonymously from afar. I would not call that heroic.

    Another important thing to remember when discussing this particular incident or the period during the 1850’s and 60’s in California in general, is that the national expansionist policy itself (accelerated by the California gold rush) made the conflict between Indians and non-Indians in California inevitable. As usual, there was no planning nor even agreement among federal and state policy makers as to how to effectively (let alone morally) deal with it. Settlers were encouraged to go west and occupy the western territories by legislation like the Homestead and Preemption Acts. The settlers themselves believed that their occupation of land already in use by Indian people was done under color of federal law. Many believed that if Indians resisted it was they who were bringing tragedy upon themselves. I’m not saying that this is and excuse for bad behavior by particular individuals, it is simply historical fact.

    The following is a notice published in the “Alta California” by one of the U.S. Indian Treaty Commissioners for California on January 14, 1851. It represents the official position of the U.S government at the time, as clearly state by the government’s appointed representative to the Indian people of California.
    “As there is now now no farther west to which they can be removed, the General Government and the people of California appear to hav left but one alternative in relation to these remnants of once numerous and powerful tribes, viz: extermination or domestication.”.

    Extermination or domestication — I would imagine neither choice was acceptable from the Indian point of view. But is it any wonder that so many recently arrived non-Indians in Humboldt County and the rest of California in the 1850’s and ’60swould be able to rationalize the killing and “indenturing” of Indian people in the name of economic and cultural progress? They believed it was sanctioned by policy makers in their own government, and for the most part they were right. Let the chips fall where they may.

    For better or for worse, the strategy of extermination and/or domestication eventually evolved into an assimilation process for those Indian people who survived. Whether “assimilation” is actually “domestication” is probably open to personal interpretation.Nevertheless, I think all of us non-Indians should take a cue from Cheryl Seidner and the re-emerging Wiyot tribe, and from my friend Ernie, and move on in a positive way. That is not to say that some of us will not continue to pursue the unraveling of the yet unresolved mysteries surrounding the 1860 Wiyot massacres. We wouldn’t have to do it if Bret Harte and many others had not shut their mouths for good in its aftermath. Whatever is discovered should not reflect (positively or negatively) on the present-day descendants of our ancestors in any case, and I for one do not plan to live what is left of my life in fear of discovering a skeleton or two in my family closet.

    • lynette77 says:

      Beautifully put, and a great perspective. Even though I wholly condemn the cruelty that was suffered here, even I can’t pretend that I would risk the lives of my children and family for the sake of another (however much I might want to believe I would, when I look into my child’s face, I know different). Right or wrong, I know I’d allow another’s suffering if it kept my child safe from harm.

      Many settlers came here looking for a better life, and for most, this was it. No further west for them, either…. The isolated North Coast offered promise for genuinely good people, as well as thugs, and it is natural to make the safety of one’s family their first priority. I can’t and won’t judge those decisions, though I can still wish they’d done more to stop the violence.

      Boy, this topic is so complex, and I think part of our struggle comes from trying to separate the whole into parts and pieces we can understand. I don’t know that we’ll ever truly understand…. I do know that even though many who acted violently against the indigenous people felt justified in doing so (defensive or preemptive measures), that doesn’t change the suffering, the pain, the ultimate LOSS of so many people.

      My husband is Yurok, the foster child I’m raising is Hupa. Too many husbands and children never had the chance to exist because of the genocide that happened here.

      For no other reason, I think our history, and our loss, needs to be honored and recognized.

  16. I started to make a few comments on this blog, but discovered that Jim Baker was already commenting here.

    Hold your ears Jim.

    I accept Jim baker as an expert on North coast history. A REAL expert, who has roots that go deep on the north coast. He is also the quintessential gentleman, that which I struggle to be, but sometimes I don’t make it.

    I would, at anytime, defer to Jim’s greater knowledge and understanding of north-coast history. If I had any advice for anyone reading this blog, is to pay attention to everything that Jim says, and if you don’t understand it the first time, read it again. He has been raised in the history, involved in the history, and has taken the time to put it together in the way it all fits.

    • lynette77 says:

      I do appreciate your willingness to continue these… challenging discussions. I hope you don’t mind a request, though. Often I hear “us” and “them” in your comments, and as I’ve only been here thirty-six years, I’m one of “them”, I guess.

      I interpret your comments to say that outsiders will never understand “your” history. Should never and will never hear some of “your” stories… I think moving out of the “us/generational native” and “them/newcomer” stance will help facilitate communication. Just a thought…


      • Ric Uruchurtu says:

        I came to this site looking for information to share with my children and my grandchildren. What I know is what Ive learned in conversation with my elders. Particularly my grandmother and great-grandmother.(we are wiyot)For hours I listened. I know what I know. I live in Washington State. Does this make me an “outsider”? I really hope it doesent, because when I make share this story with my children im partial to the word “Us” I have read all the letters,blogs and replys and found much valueble information. But Im looking for as much information on this subject as I can obtain. Not who’s moral compass is pointing due north. I am only 48 and already the patriarch of my family. I owe it to myself, my children and all the tribes of the Native Americans. Jim Baker, I hope to someday meet you someday. My Grandmother Lilyan Joslin(Gibson) spoke very highly of you.

  17. History Troll says:

    I am quite please with the serious discussions that have occurred on the different blogs concerning this 150th anniversary of the massacre, and as is now revealed, the conspiracy to cover up the identities of the murderers. What Bledsoe hinted at, Jerry elaborated in a rigorously footnoted article that is a gift to current and future historians.
    The obvious parallels in modern time suggest we have a glacial learning curve as a species, that power and wealth will always take what they want, and that racism is alive and well. Would we kill 1 million white people for their oil? I think not.
    Jim and Ernie can help steer us away from sensationalist wallowing and finger pointing judgement, but the first step in healing is telling and facing the truth. There is a lot of history around here that got swept under the rug out of discomfort and shame. How many times in my research have I heard ‘we didn’t talk about that’.
    The task of the historian is to tell the tale as accurately as is possible. I like to use quotations from the time being studied to avoid defensiveness on the part of those who do not want to hear draumatic repetitions of the “dirty history” they have heard all their lives.

    In my short time on the Northcoast I have become aware that there is a resurgence of Indian culture and pride occuring in many tribes. Turning the compost of our troubled past can help the process of these people regaining their lost languages and culture. Finding ways to support our Indian friends who are doing that, by asking them what they need, is the real work for those so moved.

    Thank you all for your perspectives.

  18. Janice says:

    If you don’t already know there are some very interesting Native American stories on the Blocksburg
    History website. Pre European.

  19. […] today is my birthday, I am chosing not to focus on the other events that happened on the Island, but please know they have not been forgotten.  And never should […]

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