Annual Indian Island Vigil of Remembrance and Healing, Sat. 2/23 5pm
Everyone is welcome at the annual Indian Island Candlelight Vigil of Remembrance and Healing, Saturday 23rd February from 5 to 7 p.m. at the west end of Woodley Island, Eureka. Please bring your own candle. The vigil has been held rain or shine on the last Saturday of February for the past 22 years. From a central fire, a Wiyot elder will light a candle from which all the other candles will be lit. As in past years, a moment of silence will be observed for the victims of violence - prayers, songs and poems will be shared as the spirit inspires.
Directions: West end of Woodley Island which is the island with the marina on it in Humboldt Bay between Eureka and Samoa. From Samoa Bridge (Highway 255) exit at Woodley Island. Drive carefully to the west end and park. Walk north towards the the Fisherman’s Memorial Statue.
Some history behind the event:
Indian Island has been the center of the Wiyot world since it was given by the Creator to the Wiyot people when time began. Groups of Wiyot lived in very familiar areas: around the Eel River on or near present day Fortuna, Loleta and Ferndale; around the southern end of Humboldt Bay on or near South Spit, Hookton, King Salmon and Bucksport; and around the northern end of Humboldt Bay from in Samoa, Manila, Arcata, Jacoby Creek, Freshwater and Eureka. Every year, the Wiyot held dances at the center of the world on Indian Island to which all were welcome.
While Wiyot people may have met individual white people from the visits of the Spanish and the Russians, nothing prepared them for arrival of the American white settlers in 1850.
When Humboldt Bay was settled in 1850, there were between 1,500 and 2,000 Wiyot in the area and thousands more native Americans in other groups in the vast relatively unexplored territory north of Fort Ross.(1)
Native peoples in this part of California traditionally had a cycle of ceremonies and dances to maintain and bring about world renewal. One of these, the seven to ten day long World Renewal ceremony had been held at the village of Tuluwat on Indian Island since time immemorial.
The Wiyot had no way to know that 1860 would be any different than the previous ten years of American settlement. Yes, the local press was on the usual rampage against Indian problems and yes there had been harsh words from locals, but no warning was given to the Indians, no presentiment of disaster felt as the 1860s ceremonies continued on 26 February 1860.(2)
As was customary, the men left the island at night to return the next day with supplies. But this night broke with all tradition when a group of as few as four white American men rowed over from Eureka, shot the few Wiyot men left on the island and murdered between forty and sixty children, women and elders as they slept.(2) Within two days hundreds more Wiyot were dead as whites continued the slaughter at the South Spit, and near Fortuna, Hydesville and Rio Dell (collectively referred to as “Eel River” sites).(3)(4)
And as responsible people, including Robert Gunther who had purchased Indian Island only three days before saw what had happened in the night,(4) some were moved to write about it, including Bret Harte (quoted in (2)), and a U.S. Treasury agent named J. Ross Browne: “Children climbed upon their mothers breasts, and sought nourishment from the fountains that death had drained; girls and boys lay here and there with their throats cut from ear to ear; men and women, clinging to each other in their terror, were found perforated with bullets or cut to pieces with knives all were cruelly murdered!” (3)
One of the few survivors, Jerry James, Captain Jim’s Son, was found covered in his dead mother’s blood. Other survivors had hidden in the sloughs and bay; two girls were hidden in a barrel by their pregnant mother Lucy. The violence didn’t stop with the named massacres. Lucy was later murdered by James Brown, one of the named Indian Island murderers.(5) And the violence continued. Jose Romero, a Spaniard who lived with the Indians was father of two of Lucy’s children was killed by Indians who suspected him of complicity in the massacre. Lucy and Jose’s orphaned children Annie (later Preston) and Charles (later Muhlberg) were raised by white families.(6) Orphaned children who survived the massacres were often sold into slavery by the same men who murdered their parents.(1)
“Some stories told of only one baby surviving the massacre, others of two or three but actually there were several survivors who stayed hid for fear of also being killed. The three children that were known about were two sisters and a brother.” Additionally Mad River Billy survived, he “jumped into the bay and swam across to Eureka, and walked around the bay, arriving at the Nixon ranch just after my grandmother had gotten up. He knocked and as she opened the door, fell through in a faint. She brought him to and his first words upon regaining consciousness were, “Bad white men. He murdered my mother, my brothers, sisters and all my children. Just butcher them.”(6)
Whites were also threatened and at risk from the violence. The metaphysics of Indian hatred ran deep in frontier communities.(7) A contemporary wrote: “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. In fact, they dare not. …Two or three men who were on the last Grand Jury which sat at Eureka, were Thugs.”(8)
Years later, settler Dorcas J. Spencer wrote “My father’s home was probably the only one south of Eel River that was not notified and its *men invited to take part in the massacre* on Indian Island and two others near the coast on the same night, Feb. 26, 1860.”(3)
By 1862, less than 200 Wiyot survived massacres, forced movements to various reservations, starvation, privation and disease.(1) The world was broken.
Even contemporaries of the murderers recognized that the California Indians posed no real threat to the whites: “I am satisfied, from an acquaintance of eleven years with the Indians of California, that, had the least care been taken of them, these disgraceful massacres would never have occurred. A more inoffensive and harmless race of beings does not exist on the face of the earth; but, wherever they attempted to procure a subsistence, they were hunted down; driven from the reservations by the instinct of self-preservation; shot down by the settlers upon the most frivolous pretexts; and abandoned to their fate by the only power that could have afforded them protection [the U.S. Government].”(3)
A hundred years pass… then forty-four more. In May 2004, the Eureka City Council made history by unanimously voting to return 40 acres of Indian Island to the Wiyot Tribe.(9) Clean up of environmental toxins from nearly a century of industrial use continues before the site can be safely accessed.(10)
The world renewal dance from 1860 is unfinished. Perhaps we will live to see it finished on a cleaned Indian Island in our lifetimes. Until then, join us each last Saturday night in February this year and Februaries yet to come for the vigil. Speak with the ghosts of our past as they warn us against the irrational hatreds and violence of our present.
– References –
*(1): Joan Crandell, The Indian Island Massacre: An investigation of the events that precipitated the Wiyot Murders, Masters Thesis, Humboldt State University, May 2005
*(2): Jerry Rohde “Genocide and Extortion: 150 years later, the hidden motive behind the Indian Island Massacre”, North Coast Journal 25 February 2010.
*(3): J. Ross Browne, California’s Indians: A Clever Satire on the Governments dealings with its Indian Wards, Published by Harper Brothers in 1864, reprint with note by Spencer printed on rear cover.
*(4): Lynette’s NorCal History Blog: Gunther’s memory of the massacre
*(5): Lynette’s NorCal History Blog: She was known by the name of Lucy
*(6): Rosaline Preston & Carol Huber, Preston-Lindsey Trail, start around page 98
*(7): Herman Melville, The Confidence Man: His Masquerade. New York: Dix, Edwards & Co., 1857
*(8): The San Francisco Bulletin, June 1, 1860
*(9): Indian Island Candlelight Vigil
*(10): Jessica Cejnar, Indian Island cleanup nearly finished; Wiyot Tribe searching for additional project funding, June 13, 2012
Articles about Indian Island on this blog.