There are still around 450 Wiyot Indians living in the Humboldt Bay area. At one time they were the sole people in the region. The Spanish missionaries didn’t go that far north of San Francisco (200 miles) so they were spared the cultural indignity of being forced into churches preaching even stranger mythology than their own. They lived their life in small communities spread out around this vast Humboldt Bay area.
In 1806 a ship from the Russian American Company sailed into the bay looking for sea otter. They saw many Indian villages along the shores and named the place Indian Bay. Wisely they left and the Wiyot (pronounced Wee-at) people enjoyed another four decades of peace. But, in 1850, everything changed.
Gold had been discovered in California and hauling supplies over the mountains to and from San Francisco had become time consuming, expensive and sometimes treacherous. Many seafaring expeditions set out from San Francisco to explore the possibility of a waterway shortcut to the inland mines. One of those expeditions headed up by Douglas Ottinger discovered this vast harbor and named it for the naturalist and explorer Baron von Humboldt. That was the beginning of the end for the Wiyots. White men poured into this beautiful land where the mountains filled with giant redwoods met the ocean. To protect themselves from those “savages” who had lived on this land for hundreds of years, they built Fort Humboldt. General Ulysses Grant was stationed there in 1853 and 1854.
Obviously the Indians weren’t happy with this sudden encroachment into their homeland and hunting grounds. Fights flared up and the white guys decided to form a vigilante committee (sworn to secrecy) and go after them. In late February, 1860, the Wiyots were celebrating a World Renewal ceremony on a small island called Indian Island. There were about 250 men, women and children attending the celebration. On Feb.23, a German logging mill engineer, Robert Gunther, filed a deed to purchase the Indian inhabited island and named it Gunther Island. He let the locals know he would like the Indians to leave one way or the other. On February 25, many of the young braves left the island to attend another gathering, leaving all the women, children and elders. On February 26, the vigilantes attacked and brutally killed every one left on the island, around 200 Indians, the majority of which was women and children. One baby survived.
In what is present day Arcata, then called Union, lived a young printer’s helper who worked for a small local paper and he chronicled the event in detail. His boss, the newspaper owner, was out of town and this wannabe journalist editorialized about the massacre and it was reported in San Francisco and New York. This young American writer was Bret Harte. He wrote, “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 scarcely a span along, with their faces cloven with hatchets and their bodies ghastly with wounds.”
Two other villages were attached over the next two days with dozens more killed, some speculate it was another 200 Indians murdered. Nobody was ever held accountable.
Bret Harte was in serious danger and threatened with mob violence so he escaped by steamer to San Francisco, and then an editorial attributed to Harte was published stating that “ …there was community wide approval of the massacre.”
This was a turning point for Bret Harte and started him on his writing career. By 1868 he was the editor of “The Overland Monthly” and in the second edition his story, “The Luck of Roaring Camp” appeared and he became a national celebrity author.
When Bret Harte moved to San Francisco he met another famous author who had just moved there from Missouri. More about that on Friday.