Silence isn't Golden
Land once wandered by the Wiyots
Old secrets die hard. They clutch the throats of today’s historians–trying to strangle the truth about ancient sins. In today’s post, Ernie criticizes Heraldo’s call for the names of the citizens who committed the Indian Island Massacre.
This horrific mass killing occurred in the early morning hours of Sunday, February 26th. Local Wiyots (and perhaps some representatives from other tribes) had just concluded a week long dance and religious ceremony. Many of the men apparently had gone to get supplies leaving women, children, a few elderly men and some youths on the island. Some 5 or 6 white men paddled to the island and massacred the native people.
Brett Harte, well known writer of the time period, happened to witness the aftermath of the atrocity. He describes in dismay what he saw,
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. We gathered from the survivors that four or five white men attacked the ranches at about 4 o’clock in the morning, which statement is corroborated by people at Eureka who heard pistol shots at about that time, although no knowledge of the attack was public. With the Indians who lived on the Island, some thirty from the mouth of Mad river were staying, having attended a dance on the evening previous. 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.
In fact, these weren’t the only murders committed that night. In an obviously coordinated effort, at least three other rancherias were attacked with upwards of 150 native people killed.
Ernie argues that some secrets should die. He worries that if it were known who committed the terrible genocide that people would scorn the descendants of the murderers. This may be. Though I think it is unlikely. But more importantly, the names may grant some measure of peace to the descendants of the victims.
The massacres that happened in February of 1860 were not isolated incidents. The Ukiah area had already had its own vigilante group rampaging for months–The Eel River Rangers. My ancestor, William Cole, was a member of this group. Hundreds of native people were killed and more were forced onto reservations. The California legislature actually convened a court to look into the accusations of murder charged to Captain Jarboe and his men. What day did this inquiry start? February 27th, 1860–the day after the massacre. Of course, the inquiry resulted in no arrests for the perpetrators.
Evidence linking the murderers to the Masons is sketchy but interesting and would explain the coordination between disparate areas and the secrecy that effectively conceals many of the murderers’ identities even now. I think little is served by repressing information such as this.
However, I don’t think that the names of the perpetrators are necessarily available to be revealed.
My own knowledge of my great great grandfather came not from whispered confidences of family members but painstakingly parsed out info in old records. I think unlikely that most people are aware of the part that their ancestors played on that horrible night. Still, if the knowledge can be dredged up, I think it would be good for all of our area, not just the Native Americans, but the descendants of the settlers also to realize how much evil was done by our own families. The act of recognition is the first step towards reaching out and bridging the gaps between our two people.