|"In fact, during the early mining days in California, there were gathered together some of the wildest, most reckless, savage, and dangerous men ever collected in a similar area anywhere in the world." Ethnography and Archaeology of the Wiyot Territory
Cheryl Seidner is the Tribal Chairperson for the Table Bluff Reservation. She has been active in the Wiyot tribe's religious and political activities for most of her life. She sat down with Chag Lowry and talked about the impact the Gold Rush had on her people, whose traditional homeland stretches along the coast and inland to the first set of hills from Bear River to Moonstone Beach.
He'balo', my name is Cheryl Seidner. Thank you for letting me talk to you. A long time ago, where can we begin? I guess I never think about it as a gold rush. But if you really stop to think about it I think that's where the beginning of the downfall of a lot of the Native American peoples of California (began). And there was no one around to have to war with. Everyone seemed to be pretty co-inhabited (in) the area. But in 1850 Eureka was founded. So was a place called Urechichi, and the white people came in. That's when Eureka was first put on the map as Eureka. So we were here quietly minding our own business. And there were three areas today that we look at. One is Batwat, which is north of here, and that's Mad River. Wiki, which is Humboldt Bay, and Wiyot which is Eel River today. And the Wiyots, that's the name that group of people (settlers) decided would be the whole name for the area.
I was told, probably back in 1852, there was a Freshwater massacre, there is no record of it. But no one ever talks about it, they might not have thought about it. I think the reason why the 1860 massacre was such a horrendous deal was because of Brett Harte, who was living in the vicinity in Arcata at the time, I believe. And he wrote about it. And when he wrote about the 1860 massacre on Indian Island, it did not just get into the local newspapers, it went to San Francisco and then went on to New York, as I understand. So it was one of the first few massacres that got coast to coast publication, or notice. So that was pretty, I don't know, impressive. I don't know what to say, but it got out. The word got out! Other than that, I also was told there was a small massacre prior to 1860 around 1858, but I don't know where that was.
In 1860 the massacre on Indian Island was pretty devastating. Anytime people die it's devastating under those kind of conditions, any kind of conditions. And the south spit was also hit and so was (the area) around the Eel River, the mouth of the Eel River area. Maybe not quite the mouth of the Eel River but up further. And that's where my father's people are from, the Eel River area. My mother's people are from around Batwat, not Batwat but Wiki, around the Humboldt Bay. And her grandfather was the baby found on Indian Island. And his father was Captain Jim. He was what the white people called the leader of the Humboldt Bay Indians. And so he would always put the dances on. He was the man in charge of the Humboldt Bay. And I don't know if he was definitely in charge or the white people said, well we are going to take him and make him leader. But obviously he was some kind of leader because he was the one putting on the dances on the island. And they called him Captain Jim. So that's how my mother's family ended up with the name James. So they lost their Indian-ness already that quickly, and before 1860. He was married and had a baby. After the massacre his wife and the rest of his children were dead, leaving the baby behind with him. He was at home off the island, as all the men usually left during the dances. They would go back to their homes and just left the women and children and the elders, and some young men on the island, while they would go home. It was said at the time that the Wiyot men hid in the bushes and the trees and swam to shore and never helped protect the Wiyot people. And that part wasn't true. They did not flee. They were gone. They weren't there. I think any person would try to defend their families. But they were not on the island. As tradition has it, they would leave the island and go home. For one thing, they would bring back fresh supplies because the island does not support fresh water, to my knowledge. And so they would have to bring back fresh supplies every day. And the dances would last seven to 10 days depending on what they did. (I say this) not knowing all the details of the dances, because since 1860 there was nothing left. They said that they found between 60 and 80 bodies. They know for sure because they came and got the bodies too, and took them home to wherever they were going. There were survivors, but they weren't on the island. They survived because they ran. They said that there were three people, or three adults found on the island the next morning, plus the baby. And there was an old woman. I understand she got stuck in the mud. And she was still alive and they said she was sitting there. She couldn't move because she was stuck in the mud so badly. I guess they said that she was singing. So I don't know what kind of song, I could only think it was a mourning song
. When I was growing up that was our legacy and that's what my mother told me and that's all we know. I knew that story ever since I was a little kid, you know, way back when I was five or six years old. I knew that we were from Indian Island and I knew what had happened. My thing is, I try to make sure people understand. If you know your history, hopefully you won't repeat history. The gold rush made people rich. But the only way it made people rich was because they exploited people of color. I don't understand the greed, "everything can be bought and sold" I guess, is what most non-Indians think. If you are raised Indian, you know that's not possible. But when the massacre took place it really took away a lot of our identity. The old people who lived through it wouldn't talk of it anymore. They just said it's gone, our singers, our regalia, our food, our land, we lost everything. I kind of look at us (Wiyot) as a buffer zone, because you look at the Karuks, and the Yuroks, and the Hupas, they still have their culture pretty much intact. It's not all intact, but there are people who still speak those languages.
As far as I know, my sister Leona and I have probably the biggest vocabulary, I knew only about 25 words when we started out, now I can say 100. So that for me is really good. Leona is our basket teacher. She has three students and we go out gathering together. And now Leona has taken on about four boys, to go out and learn how to do stick games. We are trying to find Wiyot stick game examples. She is also going to teach them how to make eel baskets or fish traps, so we can have examples of the fish basket. So it basically took 140 years to recover one per cent of what was lost from our culture. As to who participated in the massacre, it might have been renegades, a goon squad. You know, those kinds of things.
There is a book called "Little White Father," it's not a real flattering book when it describes Wiyot people. But, it talks about the massacre and it talks about people like Larrabee. And I think the Indian people in Humboldt County need to start getting together and saying we no longer want it to be Larrabee Valley or Larrabee Creek. The Indian people need to band together and say this is an outrage, because he was one of the main characters, as I understand it, one of the main goon squad leaders. He got people together and did little raids here and there. But he owned property up from this man on this river on the other side of Bridgeville, and probably the Van Duzen. And he killed this little (Indian) boy, whose parents lived on this other man's ranch and worked for him. And this little boy just happened to be on Larrabee's property and he killed him, and pinned a note to him and sent him down the river on a makeshift raft. And I think the note said something like, this is what's going to happen to you if you continue to harbor Indian people. Larrabee also used Indians as target practice. They see an Indian up on the ridge, you know, they start shooting at them and things like that. It's all in that book. And it just makes your stomach turn. And he brought his goon squad into Eureka and started gathering people. And doing things, you know, beating up people. I guess they said that he was given guns by merchants or the people in town. And they say these people knew who did it. And it wasn't just the island that got hit that night, it was also the (Indian) people on the south spit and on the Eel River. And they kept saying this is only a coincidence. How can you put together three massacres? They had to have talked about it.
What was interesting in that book is they said they tried to find some family of Larrabee's. But the heat got so bad for him they moved out of the area. I think the other thing about the gold rush era that really marked our people was after the massacre. They (soldiers) rounded up all the people and put them in the stockyards at Fort Humboldt to "keep them from harm." Where women got raped, consider this was winter time. It had been raining all the time so you can imagine being out in that rain with no shelter. And women were taken away and raped and brought back. And babies died because of exposure. And then they corralled them all up and shipped them off to three places. I don't know if they had to walk to these places. I would assume so because there was no modern transportation. They took them to Smith River, Hoopa, and Round Valley. And they all came running home, so they packed them up and shipped them out again. And they came back and after a while they decided just to leave them alone. Some stayed behind because they married into families where they were at. Some came home.
So Wiyots are all over the place! People may not think so but they are. Somebody told us one time that there was no culture left in the Wiyot peoples, and I was so angry and the guy's like 6'3'' and my whole whopping 5'5" you know. I was livid. And I said who do you think you are telling me I have no culture. And this gentleman was of my tribe. "We have no culture left." I said I differ with you. Down to my socks I differ with you. I said because I was always Wiyot. And I said my culture is in my blood. Whether I speak the language, sing the songs or weave the baskets. I know its in me, don't just sit there and say we don't have any. You know, the only way you can reclaim something is to do something about it. And I think that is what Leona and I have been doing and I know other people have been doing the same thing. But we are bringing back the basketry and the language. It will be slow. It may never amount to anything. But all I can say is that we did what we could, and I think we can be pretty proud of what we have done, whether it goes any further than this
. The book Ethnogeography and Archeology of the Wiyot Territory, using newspaper accounts of the massacre at Indian Island, describes the slaughter that occurred in February of 1860. "About four o'clock Sunday morning five or six men came to the island armed with hatchets. Mercilessly, the hatchet descended on all alike, old and young, women, children, and infants. Their skulls were cleft, their spines severed, their bodies thrust with bowie-knives. The work of destruction was finished in a few minutes, and while the dead and dying lay strewn over the ground, the fire from one of the burning cabins lit up the ghastly scene."
Newspapers carried a different account of the rounding up of the Wiyot people after the massacres. The Red Bluff Semi-Weekly Independent wrote "The troops engaged in hunting and 'punishing' Indian marauders in Humboldt County, have captured about 875 men, women and children, who are 'corralled' on the Peninsula between Humboldt Bay and the ocean, under the charge of the garrison at Fort Humboldt, and are guarded by lines of sentries. They are well provided for, having comfortable huts, and spend their time in fishing and catching clams and crabs. They will be removed to a reservation, we presume?"2
The most anyone in the white community ever did to promote justice in the case of the Indian Island massacre was to write anonymous letters to San Francisco newspapers. The group of armed murderers Ms. Seidner referred to as renegades were known as "thugs" in Humboldt County during the Gold Rush era. The San Francisco Bulletin ran an anonymous article on June 1, 1860, part of which reads. "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." The article goes on, stating "Two or three men who were on the last Grand Jury which sat at Eureka, were Thugs. The man L____, is the same person who boasted of having killed sixty infants with his own hatchet at the different slaughter grounds. This is the same man who peddled whiskey to the United States soldiers and the Indian not 18 months ago."3 It has been noted during research that whenever the man Hank Larrabee was mentioned in the newspapers ,only an "L," was used, perhaps for fear of retaliation by those who supported his murderous ways.
Volunteers in the "California Battalion of Mountaineers" were behind the atrocities that occurred at Indian Island, the South Spit and the Eel River in February 26, 1860. This Battalion, which was officially mustered into the service of the United States on April 20, 1861, consisted of 45 regulars who received pay donated from merchants and ranchers in Eureka. (1)
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.
No action was ever taken against these men. Sheriff Van Ness of Humboldt County, indicating his lack of interest, left for San Francisco the next day. He has been quoted as saying of the massacred Indians, "Served them right." The county grand jury, which met in April, did nothing when informed of the massacres. (2) News about the killings was carried in newspapers across the U.S. The New York Times and the New York Tribune printed accounts of the massacres on March 26, 1860.
(1) Humboldt Times, April 18, 1861
(2) Kellogg, Michael J. Minority Groups in Humboldt County: A History of the Treatment of Indians, May 1973.
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