A History Of Massacres

Ishi's Urn. Photo: Bob Dawson/ Farewll, Promised Land Project, 1996.

Settlers sometimes took revenge by tricking unsuspecting tribes. Upon learning that five white men had been murdered, a group of Oregonian prospectors decided to exact revenge on some of Marshall's workers in the central mines, despite the fact that none of the workers could have possibly been involved in the incident.

Marshall reported that the Oregonians "found our friendly Indians; induced a part to come, telling them I wanted to talk to them; brought them to Coloma; picked out eight which were most friendly to me, and dismissed the others; drank plenty of whiskey; took out the eight Indians ... bid them run, commenced shooting, killed seven of the eight prisoners."

In the northwest the Modoc were tricked into a cold blooded ambush after accepting an invitation to a peace-making feast. Ben Wright, an infamous hunter of Native communities, invited them to a truce at Tule Lake in 1852 and tried to feed them strychnine-laced food. When they grew suspicious and refused to eat, he and his men whipped out pistols and massacred 41 out of the 46 that attended. Later Wright was murdered at the order of a female interpreter whom he humiliated who then personally ate his heart.

The Wintu peoples, a tribe that lived further to the south, were victims of a similar ruse. "About 300 Indians came ... They had been there several days, feasting and dancing, when some Numsoos from Trinity Center came and warned them of danger, telling them of a similar trick played on their people at a place called Kal-le-ke-le where many were slaughtered ... Then Dol-le-ken-til-le-ma (a leader) warned his people to be on their guard. The Indians began to slip away quietly ... The chief noticed that whenever an Indian left the table, a soldier followed. This alarmed him, so he (waited for) his chance and slipped down to the river. A soldier followed. The chief dived and when he came up the soldier fired at him, but he dived again and escaped. The 45 Wintoon warriors remaining at the table were all massacred by the soldiers and volunteers."

One of the tribes that suffered greatly from the new settlement rush were the Wiyot, who are also often referred to as the Humboldt or Eel river tribes. Che-na-wah Weitch-ah-wah of the Yurok writes that the whites forcibly moved any Wiyot who tried to resist taking of their lands to Smith River to live among a rival tribe. They were moved again to the Klamath River and eventually to the Hupa river reservation on the Trinity River. The resettlement was often bloody, as she describes.

"The order came to move them to the Hoopa (Hupa) reservation ... so the Humboldts (Wiyot) were gathered together ... by the soldiers, and were kicked and clubbed, the children thrown in boats, and when killed they were cast into the river."

"Some escaped and returned to their old home on what is now called Humboldt Bay but then tragedy struck February 26, 1860. As they were having a festival on what is now called Gunther Island, just north of Eureka, a crowd of six or eight white men took a canoe and slipped over there in the night with axes, clubs and knives and murdered innocent men, women and children," wrote Weitch-ah-wah.

Accounts of the same events from a senior army official paint an even more vivid portrait of what happened. "Volunteers, calling themselves such, from Eel river, had employed the early part of the day in murdering all the women of ... (M)idst the bitter grief of parents and fathers - many of whom had returned - I beheld a spectacle of horror, of unexampled description - babies, with brains oozing out of their skulls, cut and hacked with axes, and squaws exhibiting the most most frightful wounds in death which imagination can paint - and this done without cause as far as I can learn." He counted bodies of 35 women, 11 children and one man.

Weeks later, the Alta California reported a massacre conducted by a Captain Jarboe among the Achomawi in 1860. "The attacking party rushed upon them, blowing out their brains, and splitting their heads upon with tomahawks. Little children in baskets, and even babes, had their heads smashed to pieces or cut open. Mothers and infants shared the same phenomenon ... Many of the fugitives were chased and shot as they ran ... The children, scarcely able to run, toddled towards the squaw for protection, crying with fright, but were overtaken, slaughtered like wild animals, and thrown into piles ... One woman got into a pond hole, where she hid herself under the grass, with her head above water, and concealed her papoose on the bank in a basket. She was discovered and her head blown to pieces, the muzzle of the gun being placed against her skull and the child was drowned in the pond."

The victorious captain sent a boastful report on his exploits to Washington asking for reimbursement for his military successes. They were paid but some objected to the obvious cruelty. Senator Henry Wilson (Republican, Massachusetts) told his fellows: "He fought the Indians 23 times! Deliberate, cowardly, brutal massacres of defenseless men, women and children he calls fighting! He killed nearly 300 of these poor people"

Some of the communities were wiped out altogether. For example the Yana peoples of the Sacramento valley were largely wiped out by deliberate massacres conducted by the gold miners between 1850 and 1870, according to accounts of the times gathered by Kroeber. A few, notably the Yahi tribe, escaped detection and survived through fishing on Deer Creek and Mill Creek and sneaking scraps from white camps. Undetected for almost 40 years, their existence came to light when Ishi, the last of their number, was arrested trying to gather food behind a slaughterhouse in Oroville in 1911 and brought to San Francisco to be studied.

These massacres had a devastating impact on indigenous communities by quickly erasing entire language and cultural groups. As a result, the Native peoples of the California region (with a few exceptions) were cowed into submission, fulfilling state desires to take over the west. The few peoples that were not wiped out had to accept a very degrading and inhumane features, as we will see in the next section.

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