Indians of Northern California: A Case Study of Federal, State, and Local Policies, 1850 - 1860


Please note that this site is being revised - it should be completed by June 2012.



Introduction for the Teacher

This three-day lesson introduces students to the complex story of federal, state, and local intervention into the lives of American Indians living in California during the first decade of the state's existence - 1850-1860. It is divided into three parts - as well as an optional fourth lesson, each of which can be taught in a day:

  • California Tackles its "Indian Problem"
  • The Federal Government tackles California's "Indian Problem"
  • The 18 Lost Treaties (optional lesson)
  • Citizen Vigilantes and Extermination


Grade Level and Standards: While the lesson is designed specifically for 8th grade, it also can be used in 11th, and 12th grade classes with appropriate teacher revisions. At the end of the lesson you will find the California standards that this lesson meets for 8th, 11th, and 12th grade classes.


Objectives: The student will be able to

    1. Understand what became known as the "Indian Problem" that arose in California shortly after statehood.
    2. Learn about California policies created to deal with the Indian Problem during its early years.
    3. Examine the Federal Indian Policies that were applied to California Indians during the first decade of California statehood.
    4. Discuss the attitudes toward and violent reactions of Northern California's non-Indian citizens to the Indian people of the region.
    5. Understand the consequences of federal, state, and local policies on the Indian people of the region.


Academic Language (words or phrases with which students should be familiar will be in bold the first time they appear in the text of the lesson): Euro-Americans; constituencies; trust relationship; sovereignty; vigilante; vagrant; indentured servitude; ratify; intervention; extermination; genocide; militia



Day 1 Lesson Content - California Tackles its "Indian Problem"


Pre-Contact Map California Indian tribesMap California Gold Rush


Introduction: In 1848, somewhere between 70,000 and 150,000 Indians and less than 1,000 Euro-Americans lived in America's new acquisition - California. At the time of white contact, Indian people occupied all the land that we now know as California.


Hook: Students will examine the map of California Indian Pre-contact Tribal Territories. After 1 minute of observation, ask the following:

  • Where were most Indian tribal territories located in California before the arrival of Euro-Americans?


Now, let's keep in mind that Northern California had many more Indian tribal territories than any other part of the state as we examine a map of the California gold fields that were discovered after 1848. After 1 minute of observation, ask the following:

  • Since there were more Indian tribal areas in Northern California as well as plentiful gold deposits in the same area, what can you predict might happen when more and more American settlers begin to move to the area?


Certainly we can predict a great deal of conflict. Today we are going to explore the conflict that arose between the new American settlers in Northern California who came to mine gold and the Indian people who had lived in the region for time immemorial.


Note to the Teacher: Both of the above maps can be enlarged if you click on each image. If you want to go to the original sites, they can be accessed by clicking on the links for each.


Lesson Content: By the time California became a state in 1850, the rush for gold had attracted hundreds of thousands of white settlers to the northern region of the state. Consequently, in just two short years, the Indians of Image of California gold rushNorthern California had become a minority as well as what most of the new settlers called a "problem." Solving the problem during the first ten years of California statehood involved four different constituencies:

  • The Northern California Indians who wanted to live undisturbed in their ancestral homelands.
  • The new white settlers who largely wanted the Indians removed from Northern California as quickly as possible.
  • The California government which wanted to protect white settlers and miners from Indian attack, protect white property from Indian loss or attack, and regulate Indians as a labor force.
  • The Federal government which was bound by its trust relationship with Indian Nations throughout the United States to maintain some degree of safety and well-being among the Indian People.
    • Can anyone describe the trust relationship that existed between the U.S. goverment and Indian people? ( The trust relationship originated when the US government signed its first treaty promising to provide benefits and right to American Indian people in exchange for their land. The trust relationship, or responsibility, bound the United States to represent the best interests of the tribe; protect the safety and well-being of tribal members; and fulfill its treaty obligations and commitments.)
    • How do the interests of each of the four constituencies compare and contrast?

The official policy of the Federal government was to protect Indian people, while California policy and the desires of its growing white population sought to remove Indian people and ensure that they did not present. All three goals clashed with the wishes of the native population who did not wish to be protected, removed, or used as a labor force. Today, we are going to learn about the first policies that the new state of California adopted as it sought to address the Indian problem.


The famous historian of California, Hubert Howe Bancroft, summed up the state politics towards Indians in a few sentences:


“That part of the early intercourse between aboriginal Americans and European which belongs to history may be briefly given ...The savages were in the way; the miners and settlers were arrogant and impatient; there were no missionaries or others present with even the poor pretense of soul saving or civilizing. It was one of the last human hunts of civilization, and the basest and most brutal of them all.” (Bancroft: 474)

  • What do you know from these sentences about the fate of Northern California Indians?

During its first ten years as a state, California neither recognized Indians as citizens with civil rights, nor did it treat Indians as sovereign people.

  • What is sovereignty?
  • Do you think Californians will create laws that require them to treat Indians as sovereign people?

As soon as the state government was created, the new legislators set about to pass policies that legally did the following:

  • encouraged Indian slavery,
  • denied Indians equal protection under the law, and
  • encouraged white settlers to use violence against Indian people.


To these ends, in April 1850, California's first legislature passed the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians which, in part, stated that regardless of what was done to an Indian person, "in no case shall a white man be convicted of any offense upon the testimony of an Indian." Additionally, the Act carefully prohibited slavery in any form, while it also endorsed the following:

  • The arrest, based upon the complaint of any resident, of any "able-bodied Indians" if they could not support themselves, were found loitering or strolling about, or were leading an immoral life.
  • The hiring out of such Indians within 24 hours for a period not more than four months, if it was determined by proper authority that he or she was a vagrant.
    • In our own words, what did this law allow?

This law made it so that no Indian could receive a fair trial in the state, allowed all Indians - including children - to be arrested for almost any reason and then subjected to indentured servitude. Once they were indentured, they could be held indefintely, thus resulting in a kind of slavery where women and children were bought and sold for household work. The law also allowed officials to arrest Indians as vagrants. These officials would then turn the Indians over to the ranchers and other people who needed laborers. After four months, the employer would return the Indians to the city. Shortly after their return, the Indians would be picked up once again as vagrants, and returned to the labor force.


In 1860, the Act was amended to declare that any Indian not already indentured could be kidnapped. Under the law, Indian children and any vagrant Indian could be put under the custody of Whites for the purpose of employment and training. Further, it was possible to retain the service of Indians until 40 years of age for men and 35 years of age for women. This continued the practice of Indian slavery and made it legal for Indians to be retained for a longer period of time and be taken at a younger age. The law finally decreed that if Indians resisted such forced employment, "war" could be waged on them and "prisoners" could be lawfully taken.


In 1861, the Superintendent for Indian Affairs for California, George M. Hanson, reported to the Bureau of Indian Affairs:


"In the month of October last I apprehended three kidnappers, who had nine Indian children, from three to ten years of age...The fact is, kidnapping Indians has become quite a business of profit, and I have no doubt is at the foundations of the so-called Indian wars. To counteract this unholy traffic in human blood and souls, I have appointed a number of special agents in the country through which the kidnappers pass when carrying the Indians to market in the settlements, with instructions to watch for them, and thus, I think that a temporary check has been put to their commerce". (United States Office of Indian Affairs, 1851:315).


Other sources document the kidnapping of 35 young Yuki girls and their sale to settlers in Sacramento as slaves, the kidnapping and selling of hundreds of Indian children for $50 to $200; and the sellling of over 10,000 Indians - 4,000 of whom were children - in California between 1850 and 1863 when the practice was finally repealed (Norton, et. al, 1998:5-8). Clearly, if California were left alone and the federal government failed to intervene, the Indians of Northern California were destined for destruction.



  • Why do you think Californians passed these laws against the American Indians? Do you think they posed a real threat to the "progress" of white settlers?
  • What do you think the federal goverment will do?


Tomorrow we will learn how the federal government got involved in California's "Indian problem."


Day 2 Lesson Content - The Federal Government tackles California's "Indian problem"










While the state was enslaving and eliminating California natives, the federal government spent the next four decades trying to bring California Indian policy in compliance with Federal Indian policy. (See the lesson plan on Federal Indian Policy.) Between 1850-1860, they enacted two policies: negotiating treaties and removing Indians from their ancestral lands and placing them on newly-created reservations.


Negotiating Treaties. In 1851, the federal government appointed three Indian Commissioners to negotiate treaties with California Indians. The treaties were negotiated because the federal government recognized Indian tribes as foreign nations, and treaties were the legal means for developing an agreement and ensuring peace with them. Thus, in 1851, Redick McKee, George W. Barbour, and O. M. Wozencraft began a 500-mile journey through California.

The federal goverment described their job as follows:


"The object of the government is to obtain all the information it can with reference to tribes of Indians within the boundaries of California, their manner, habits, customs, and extent of civilization, and to make such treaties and compact with them as may seem just and proper...The board will convene...and will determine upon some rule of action which will be most efficient in attaining the desired object, which is, by all possible means, to conciliate the good feelings of the Indians, and to get them to ratify those feelings by entering into written treaties, binding on them, towards the government and each other."

  • What did the U.S. government define as the role of the new Indian Agents?


None of the three Commissioners had any knowledge whatsoever of California Indians or the cultural practices, especially those regarding land ownership and use. Indeed, the three Commissioners did not have the slightest idea of the actual extent of tribal lands of any group with whom they met, nor did they understand the political nature of the tribes or if any of the “chiefs” with whom they negotiated the treaties had any authority to cede tribelet or village lands.


While the agents knew their job was to negotiate treaties and recommend sites for reservations, the agents, and Photo of Ray Raphael's front cover of "Little White Father" - Redick McKeeespecially McKee, had their own ideas about what they should accomplish in the name of the US government. McKee believed that while white Californians would never allow the Indians to keep all of their ancestral land or to roam freely throughout the state, Indians, nonetheless, were entitled to reservations that gave them enough farm and grazing land to labor for their own well being.


With these beliefs in mind, McKee and his companions began their journey. In just under a year, they traveled from San Francisco to Redding, meeting with Indian tribes along the way. As they moved with their wagon trains through the state, they sent out the word that the treaty-making party was anxious to talk with the local people and invited local Indians to attend treaty-making sessions. While their first three months resulted in two treaties in the San Joaquin Valley, thereafter they each went their own way. McKee was responsible for Northern California and between May and November of 1861, he created four different reservations and negotiated five treaties with tribes along the lower Eel River Valley, Clear Lake, Scott's Valley, and the Klamath-Trinity regions.




By the end of 1851, all three of the US Indian Agents had traveled most of the state, negotiating a total of 18 treaties:

  • Treaty of Camp Belt, May 13, 1851 (Barbour)
  • Treaty of Camp Keyes, May 13, 1851 (Barbour)
  • Treaty of Camp Buron, June 3, 1851 (Barbour)
  • Treaty of Camp Persifer F. Smith, June 10, 1851 (Barbour)
  • Treaty of Dent’s and Ventine’s Crossing, May 28, 1851 (Wozencraft)
  • Treaty of Camp Union, July 18, 1851 (Wozencraft)
  • Treaty of Camp Bidwell, August 1, 1951 (Wozencraft)
  • Treaty of Reading’s Ranch, August 16, 1851 (Wozencraft)
  • Treaty of Camp Colus, September 18, 1851 (Wozencraft)
  • Treaty of Camp Cosumnes, September 18, 1851 (Wozencraft)
  • Treaty of Temecula, January 5, 1852 (Wozencraft)
  • Treaty of Santa Isabel, January 1, 1852 (Wozencraft)
  • Treaty of Camp Fremont, March 19, 1851 (Wozencraft, Barbour, McKee)
  • Treaty of Camp Barbour, April 29, 1851 (McKee)
  • Treaty of Lipayuma, August 20, 1851 (McKee)
  • Treaty at the Russian River (Camp Fernando Felix), August 22, 1951 (McKee)
  • Treaty of Lower Klamath, October 6, 1851 (McKee)
  • Treaty of Upper Klamath, November 4, 1851 (McKee)


Taken together, the 18 treaties:

  • created reservations on about 11,700 square miles representing 7-1/2 percent of California's total land;
  • promised various kinds of federal aid - especially livestock, schooling, clothing, farming instruction and equipment; and
  • guaranteed rights to maintain traditional hunting and fishing practices.


When they were done, McKee and his colleagues believed that they had negotiated the treaties in good faith, that they would be honored both by the California and Federal governments, and that the new reservations would be "forever guaranteed." What they quickly discovered, however, was that many Californians were absolutely opposed to creating reservations and giving "savages valuable land." (Raphael, 1993:108.) The following comments - one written for a newspaper and the other written to persuade committee members in the California Assembly - illustrate such opposition.


"To place upon our most fertile soil the most degraded race of aborigines upon the North American continent; to invest them with the rights of sovereignty, and to teach them that they are independent nations, is planting the seeds of future disaster and ruin." The Los Angeles Star (As quoted in Raphael, 1993:108.)


"As to the wild Indians now located within this State, your committee must protest against locating them within our limits. Occupying an important frontier position on the great is indispensable that this State should be wholly occupied by a homogeneous population, all contributing, by their character and occupation, to its strength and independence. To take any portion of the country west of the Sierra Nevada, for the home of the wild, and generally hostile Indians, would be manifestly unwise and impolitic..." (As quoted in Raphael, 1993:113.)

By early 1852, the treaties were clearly in trouble in the U.S. Senate. Redick appealed to California's Governor Bigler. Redick's letter to the Governor of April 5, 1852 described brutalities committed by whites against the Indians - brutalities that he argued might be avoided if the Indians had their own reservations as negotiated in the treaties. But the Governor responded that it was not the whites who were attacking the Indians, but rather the "savage enemies" who were "daily guilty of committing outrages upon unoffending citizens" (Raphael, 117). Thus, it came as no surprise that the Governor and the California legislature successfully pressured the U.S. Senate not to ratify the treaties, arguing that the Indians had no right to any portion of the land that had once been theirs. In July 1852, ratification was denied based upon the overwhelming opposition coming from the State of California.



  • Why do you think Reddick McKee was upset about the failure of the treaties to be ratified? (He had negotiated in good faith - believing that the Indians ought to be given enough land for their continued economic survival. He also believed that he had "forever guaranteed" the Indians their newly-negotiated lands.)
  • Why do you think so much secrecy surrounded the unratified 18 treaties?
  • What sort of protection do you think the federal government may have provided the California Indians in return for the deducted $12,029,099?

With no legal treaties, the Federal government was still responsible for protecting the indigenous population of California; and it was becoming extremely clear that the Indians would be exterminated if nothing was done. Thus, it decided on a new approach for protecting California's Indians - the creation of military reservations.


The Office of Indian Affairs proposed the creation of a different kind of reservation for California Indians - one that was based upon the model of the Spanish missions. The Spanish missionaries had converted the Indians to Christianity and quickly enslaved them. Thereafter, the missions, forts, and other public buildings were built by forced Indian labor. Once within the province of the mission, Indians were not allowed to return to their previous ways of life. It was this model - forced relocation and labor enslavement - upon which the new reservations were based.


Five new military reservations were approved in March 1853. The Congressional resolution that created the reservations made several points quite clear.

  • Reservations did not require the federal government to make a treaty with the California tribes, nor did their establishment require any Indian approval.
  • Each reservation could not exceed 25,000 acres so the entire California Indian population received 125,000 acres. (This was about 60 times less than the over 11,700 square miles that the unratified 18 treaties had set aside for reservations.)
  • Reservations could not be established in any lands inhabited by white California citizens. All reservations, then, would be created in the most undesirable and uninhabited areas of the state.
  • The federal government, not the Indians, would own and control reservation land. All Indians would be forcibly removed to an assigned reservation for their own "protection."


Subsequent federal policy ensured that Indians from many different tribes were forced onto small reservations where they would be involved in labor directed by the white reservation managers. Any chance that the Indians might create a new way of life that would be fulfilling and self-sustaining quickly diminished.


The first military reservation was located at Tejon Pass in 1853 and the last was located in San Diego County in 1887. The first two reservations established in Northern California were the Klamath and the Hoopa Valley.

  • The Klamath Reservation was established on November 16, 1855 when President Pierce set aside 20 miles along the lower Klamath River extending a mile from the banks of the river in each direction. According to one local historian, the function of the Klamath Reservation was to "pacify a few troublesome Indians in the immediate area [of the river]" and to "serve as a dumping ground for displaced natives from all of Northwest California (Raphael, 1993:174).
  • The Hoopa Valley Reservation was established in 1864 under a "treaty of peace and friendship between the United States Government and the Hoopa, South Fork, Redwood, and Grouse Creek Indians."

None of the Northern California Indian Nations wanted to relocate. The Hupa and Smith River people moved only after extensive threats of violence by the military and promises of kind treatment and subsistence. Once removed to the new reservation, many tried to return to their native lands. However, violence was used to keep them within the confines of the reservation. After a huge flood in 1861-62, the Indians were marched north through rain, mud, and snow to a new site along the Smith River. Within a few years, they were again transported over the mountains to the Hoopa Valley Reservation.


But the federal government's forced marches onto reservations and the State of California's efforts to enslave and exterminate Indians were not the only actions that were destroying the Indian people of Northern California. The citizens - primarily farmers and miners - turned to vigilante actions designed to exterminate the local Indian population.



  • What is a vigilante action? What is a vigilante group?
  • Are you aware of any vigilante actions against Indians in Northern California?
  • Why do you think Northern Californians felt the need for vigilante actions?


Day 3 Lesson Content - The 18 Lost Treaties (optional lesson)








Chronology at http://americanindiantah/lesson_plans/EighteenTreaties.html




Day 4 Lesson Content - Citizen Vigilantes and Extermination









Article VII of the first California Constitution gave the Governor the power “to call for the militia, to execute the laws of the State, to suppress insurrections, and repel invasions.” In his annual address to the California Legislature on January 7, 1851, Governor Burnett highlighted significant events that occurred during 1850, including “repeated calls…upon the Executive for the aid of the militia to resist and punish the attacks of the Indians upon the frontier.”

  • What is a militia?
  • According to Governor Burnett, how were the people of California asking him to use the militia?


In April 1850, the California Legislature enacted two laws: An Act concerning Volunteer or Independent Companies, and An Act concerning the Organization of the Militia.

  • The Volunteer Act provided that citizens of any one county could organize a volunteer unit that was armed and equipped to respond when summoned or commanded under the law.
  • The lengthy Militia Act established that all “free, white, able-bodied male citizens, between the ages of eighteen and forty-five years, residing in [the] State” were subject to state-mandated military duty.


Consequently, between 1850 to 1859, the governors of California called out the militia on “Expeditions against the Indians” many times and at considerable expense – $843,573.48. ((Comptroller of the State of California, Expenditures for Military Expeditions Against Indians, 1851-1859, Sacramento: The Comptroller. Initial payment for such efforts to exterminate the Indians began in 1851 whentwo new laws set the rates of pay for the troops - including $1,100,000 for the “suppression” of Indian hostilities. Then in 1857, the Legislature issued bonds for $410,000 for the same purpose.



While theoretically attempting to resolve White-Indian conflicts, these payments encouraged Whites to form volunteer companies to eliminate all the Indians in California. Many historians and journalists have written about the common practice of "Indian killing" in Northern California – or genocide.

  • What is genocide?
  • Do you think the California laws we learned about today could be called genocidal? Why or why not?


Many historians and journalists have written about the common practice of "Indian killing" in Northern California. Some of the most well-documented incidents include:

  • Thompkins Ferry Massacre, 1851.  After several white miners were killed outside of Trinidad by local Indians, a group of men formed a committee that hunted down and massacred as many local Indians as they were able to find.
  • Bridge Gulch, April or May 1852.  After Colonel John Anderson was killed by some Wintun Indians, 30 volunteers were deputized. A group of 70 men surrounded and open fired upon a camp of men, women, and children.  Between 80 and 300 Indians were massacred, depending upon the accounts given.
  • Orleans Bar, April 1852. After miners discussed the "Indian problem," they voted to kill on sight any Indians having a gun.
  • Weaverville, May 1852.  In revenge for the killing of five cows belonging to a white man, 153 Wintun Indians were killed.
  • Yontoket Massacre, 1853.  200 Tolowa people were murdered by citizens from Crescent City.  A survivor described the massacre:  "The whitemen built a huge fire and threw in our sacred ceremonial dresses, the regalia, and our feathers, and the
  • Round Valley, 1856-1860.  Drydon Laycock, a local resident, claimed that during this period, settlers went out "two or three times a week" and killed "on an average, fifty or sixty Indians on a trip.”
  • Mendocino War, 1859-60. After local Indians stole about 600 head of cattle and killed 19 white settlers, a group of ranchers from Laytonville claimed to have killed 283 men and taken 292 prisoners to the Mendocino Reservation


The citizens of Northern Californians did not seem to have much difficulty justifying their actions. An army officer at Fort Humboldt observed,


"Cold-blooded Indian killing being considered honorable, shooting Indians and murdering even squaws and children that have been domesticated for months and years, without a moment's warning and with as little compunction as they would rid themselves of a dog."


An 1860 editorial in the Humboldt Times stated, "The whites cannot afford horses and cattle for their sustenance, and will not. Ergo, unless Government provides for the Indians, the settlers must exterminate them" (Bordewich, 1996:50-51). On February 16, 1860, one of the most tragic of these exterminations took place on Indian Island in the small Northern California community of Eureka.



  • Why do you think Northern Californians did nothing to stop the extermination of local American Indians?
  • Can you think of other times in American history when people were silent in the face of similar atrocities?

The Massacre at Indian Island

Eureka was founded in the spring of 1850 by miners who needed a more convenient route to the overland trail from Sacramento to the California gold fields. Within a short period of time, Eureka's Humboldt Bay became the busiest port between San Francisco and Portland and many prosperous cattle ranches thrived. As Eureka's population and economy grew, its white residents became increasingly uneasy about local Indians whom ranchers blamed for thefts and cattle loss. Merchants who depended upon commerce generated from the bay - especially fishing and shipping - began to see the Indian villages that thrived around the Bay as a direct threat to growing trade. Uneasy merchants and local ranchers hoped that U.S. Army soldiers stationed at Fort Humboldt would be directed to handle Indian movement in the area, a merchant-funded militia was raised and led by Captain James Seaman.


Seaman's initial targets were the Indian villages on the south shore of the Eel River. From there, his militia was directed to Indian Island where members of the Wiyot villages and tribal members from the Mattole, Yurok, Bear River, Hoopa, and Chilula Nations were gathered for their annual week-long ceremonial ritual of dancing and feasting. The Wiyot Nation - one of the smallest tribes that lived in the region with between 1500 and 2000 people - wove basketry skullcaps, traveled in redwood canoes, and fished for shellfish, trout, and salmon. Their territory began at Little River, continued down the coast to Bear River, and then went inland to the first set of mountains. For over 160 years, the Wiyots had held their annual celebration in honor of a huge earthquake that killed much of their population around 1700. The event was meant to help "balance" the earth and prevent another large tremor (Hunt: A-7).


On February 25, 1860, Seaman and his militia began a massacre of Indian Peoples around the bay. That morning, Indians at the Eel River's south shore were killed, along with residents of villages in Ferndale, Rio Dell, and Table Bluff. The militia then moved onto Indian Island, shortly after most of the men had left for a hunting expedition up the Elk River. After killing almost every Indian at the celebration, the militia moved further north to wipe out villages at Bayside, Freshwater Creek, Mad River, and Widow White's Creek.


The massacre at Indian Island was especially vicious, as reported by journalist Bret Harte in his front-page editorial to The Northern Californian:


"A report was brought from Eureka on Sunday morning, that during the night nearly all the Indians camping on Indian Island, including women and children, were killed by parties unknown. A few loaded canoes bringing the dead bodies to Union on their way to Mad river, where some of the victims belonged, confirmed the report. But when the facts were generally known, it appeared that out of some sixty or seventy killed on the Island, 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 gray hair. Infants scarce a span long, with their faces cloven with hatchets and their bodies ghastly with wounds... 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 (Harte, 1860).


In all, 50 to 60 Wiyots were slaughtered, and another 200 - 600 had been massacred on the south spit of Humboldt Bay at the mouth of the Eel River. No one seemed to know just why it had occurred. According to research conducted by Fergus Bordewich:


"The immediate reason for the massacre is still a mystery. At the time some whites maintained, not very plausibly, that the ìhoarse, guttural sounds, interspersed with hideous yells of the Wiyot rite sifting across the bayî scared the citizens of Eureka into believing that an attack on the town was imminent. There is a second possibility. Just three days before the massacre, a certain Captain Moore had purchased the island from another white man. He may have seen practical advantage in removing its occupants. A grand jury was eventually impaneled to investigate the events on the island; it blandly reported that "after a strict examination of all witnesses, nothing was elicited to enlighten us as to the perpetrators." Nevertheless, for years afterwards, the killers were pointed out on the streets of Eureka. They were, it was said, 'men of intelligence,' and nearly all men of family." (Bordewich,1996:32).


Eurekans - then as well as now - refused to talk about it. Over 140 years ago, almost everyone ignored the event, except Bret Harte who was literally run out of the county after printing his editorial in the local newspaper. And today, as Wiyot historian Lynda Dionno of Eureka recently recalled, "A lot of people don't want to be reminded of what happened on that island. A lot of people still living here today have relatives involved in what happened on that island" (Hunt,1998:A-7).



  • Harte mentions that “the people of this county” have faced consistent problems with the Indians. What were they?
  • What justifications for the massacre does Harte suggest in the article?
  • Do you think this was an act of genocide as defined in class today? How and why?
  • Shortly after publishing this article, Harte was forced to leave Eureka. Why do you think this happened?
  • Had you heard about the massacre at Indian Island prior to reading this? How and when?
  • Why do you think Humboldt Country residents would not want to remember this act?
  • Do you think this is a piece of local history that every student should learn in school? Why or why not?

Note to the Teacher: You may expand this lesson plan by including the chronology of what happened at Indian Island, as well as it's history into the 21st Century at _______________________________






Despite inconsistent federal efforts to "protect" the Indians of Northern California, the legal policies of elected California representatives and the vigilante actions of white citizens were deliberately genocidal. To some degree, their genocidal actions were successful: by 1870, the vast majority of the Indians who had lived in Northern California had either been forcibly removed to Indian reservations, or they had been killed. Indeed, the Indian population of 1850 which ranged between 70,000 to 150,000 had dropped to about 30,000 just twenty years later. By the 1900 federal census, only 16,000 Indian were recorded in California. Those who survived suffered great indignities, as well as the loss of much tribal sovereignty. On the other hand, despite the many attempts to destroy the Indians of Northern California, within cultural, political, economic, and spiritual traditions.


Indeed, by the end of the twentieth century, California had more Indians than any other state in the nation. About one-sixth of the estimated Indian population lives in California -- approximately 320,000 Indians. The Bureau of Indian Affairs serves about 56,000 Indians who live on California's 104 federally recognized Indian reservations, about one-third of which are located in Northern California. About 200,000 urban Indians and 75,000 other indigeneous Indians live on about 80 reservations that are not federally recognized. (As of late 1999, approximately 52 California Indian Nations had applied to the Bureau of Indian Affairs for federal recognition.)



Bancroft, History of California, 1963

Bordewich, Fergus M. Killing the White Man's Indian. New York: Anchor Books, 1996: pp. 50-51.

Goldberg-Ambrose, Carole and Duane Champagne. A Second Century of Dishonor: Federal Inequities and California Tribes. Los Angeles, CA: UCLA American Indian Studies Center, March 27, 1996. (

Harte, Bret. "Indiscriminate Massacre of Indians: Women and Children Butchered." The Northern Californian. Vol. 2, Issue 9. February 29, 1860:1.

Heizer, Robert F. (ed) Federal Concern about Conditions of California Indians, 1853-1913 (Ballena Press, 1979.)

Hunt, Chris. "Island of Tears." Times Standard. March 15, 1998: A-1, A-7.

Loughery, A.S. "Letter as Acting Commissioner of Indian Affairs, to Redick McKee, October 15, 1850." Senate Exec. Doc. 4, Serial 688, p. 52.

Norton, Jack; Nora Norton; Thomas Hunnicut. A Teacher's Source Book on Genocide: The Native Experience in Northern California - The Bridge Gulch Massacre, 1852. 1998.

Raphael, Ray. Little White Father. Eureka: Humboldt County Historical Society, 1993

United States Office of Indian Affairs. Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs: Accompanying the Annual Report of the Secretary of the Interior, for the Year 1851. Washington, D.C: A.O.P. Nicholson, Printer, 1857.


California Social Science Standards used in this lesson:


Eighth Grade


8.8 Students analyze divergent paths of American people in the West from 1800-1850 and the challenges they faced, with emphasis on the West... .


In this lesson, students learn about the divergent interests and perceived needs of the Euro-American population entering Northern California in the late 1840s and how they dramatically effect the social, political, economic, and religious lives of the American Indians living in that area.


Eleventh Grade


11.3 Students analyze the role religion played in the founding of America, its lasting, moral, social, and political impacts, and issues regarding religious liberty in terms of ... (3) incidences of religious intolerance in the United States... .


In this lesson, students learn about the religious, political, social, and economic intolerance demonstrated by newly-arrived Euro-Americans in their relationships with the American Indians who were indigeneous to Northern California.


Twelfth Grade


12.7 Students analyze and compare the powers and procedures of the national, state, tribal, and local governments, in terms of (1) how conflicts between levels of government and branches of government are resolved ... (5) how public policy is formed... .


In this lesson, students learn about how both the federal and state governments negotiated with Northern American tribes, how the conflict between federal and state interests led to the victimization of indigenous Indian nations, and how public policy at the local level had genocidal consequences on many of the local Indian peoples.


12.10 Students formulate questions about and defend their analyses of tensions within our constitutional democracy and the importance of maintaining a balance between the following concepts: majority rule and individual rights; liberty and equality; state and national authority in a federal system; civil disobedience and the rule of law ... .


In this lesson, students learn about the manner in which liberty and equality was not applied to the rights of American Indians in Northern California, the way in which majority rule led to mob violence against local Indian nations in Humboldt County, and the conflict between state and federal authority in terms of handling the "Indian problem" in Northern California.