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.



  • As I said on Ernie’s blog, and now yours, knowing the names isn’t going to do any good, and I for one, am sick and tired of “white man’s burden” I don’t care, as much as I don’t really want to know if my family members back in the 1860’s attacked a homestead, or if in 1600 attacked the Spanish.

    Still, Heraldo, a non-local, anonymous blogger screaming for people’s names of a past crime, which doesn’t effect anything today, is a waste of time.

    It’s time to move on.

  • I agree that an anonymous blogger “screaming for people’s names” lacks a certain consistency. However, the fact remains that native people would like to know. The information is part of their understanding of what happened to their people. Were the perpetrators “thugs” who were unknown or were they members of the highest parts of society able with the consent of the community as a whole to pretend that their deeds were for the good of society?

    Also, as a local myself, I believe that opening up and facing unafraid the ugliness of the past helps us confront the mistakes of the present. When we open up discussions on the past, we clear the way for discussions on today.

    I am a genealogist. I study the past–not because I can change it but because with knowledge comes understanding and a desire to not make the same terrible errors.

    Ignoring history, refusing to try and understand the emotions shaping the deeds of our ancestors isn’t “a waste of time,” it is a way of learning from the past–both what they did right and what they did wrong.

  • Although I didn’t have any ancestors in this area in the past at all, I’m sure I have ancestors somewhere at some time who committed some type of atrocity, or at the very least some shameful act that they would not have wanted to be known. We all have them. Whether their acts are ever identified and attached to them or not isn’t important to me at this time. If my ancestors were on the receiving end of one of those atrocities, I might feel differently and want to know who did it. But after so much time has passed, I don’t know that it would really make a difference at all. Are the descendants of those killed on the Island clamoring to know who the culprits were? What would they do if they DID know? Kill the descendants in retaliation, or just simply have peace of mind? Guilt the lawmakers into forcing the descendants to repay in some way, out of a “politically correct” mindset, or find the descendants and make peace with them?

    It seems like the result of having the names of the perpetrators is unknown, really. I see no point in innocent descendants having this burden to bear. The blood of the sins of the fathers should not be smeared on the children. If the names should somehow surface, the descendants should be made aware, but not be held responsible. IMHO.

  • One of the main points of studying genealogy is understanding that our ancestors did both things we can proud of and things we should be ashamed of. We aren’t responsible for what our ancestors did but we should be aware that many of the same forces at work on them –fear, anger, need to survive–work on us. Just like we shouldn’t hide from our past mistakes, we should learn from them, so too, we shouldn’t hide from our ancestors’ mistakes.

    To me, the actual names of the perpetrators are less important than the factors that shaped their behavior. But the best way to understand those factors is to understand who those people were.

    I doubt that anyone thinks less of me because my great great grandfather was involved in terrible massacres in the 1800’s. But, knowing who he was and his position in society may enable the descendants of the people killed to understand more of their history. AND, most importantly, may help our whole society grapple with our roots in racism and genocide. Any information that might move us away from behaving the same in the future is information worth digging out and shining some light on.

  • Keep shining your light, Kym. I love history and geneology, too. It helps us understand the present and plan for the future. We can learn lessons.

  • Two things indicate weakness—to be silent when it is proper to speak, and to speak when it is proper to be silent.
    – Persian proverb

  • Kym… Your post is excellent and right to the point. Jim Baker has done some fine work on the Massacre. Ht suspects that it was hatched in Masonic Lodges. That thought should cause some controversy. The idea that historic fact should be repressed to favor he living is strange to me. I know local Native Americans who are descended from native families and the families of well known perpetrators of the Genocide. They are quite proud of both clans of ancestors but they have no interest in denying the violence and inhumanity of the past. The Wyott Tribe has done lot of work on the identities of the perpetrators.

  • My great great grandfather was a slave owner in Cuba in the 1850’s and 60’s. Cuban and Brazilian slavery were among the worst because they involved sugar and the death rate of the slaves was atrocious. But Cuba also had a high rate of freed slaves who had somehow bought their freedom. My tataro abuelo, don Jose Perez Ruiz, had a reputation as a cruel master. Yet his wet nurse came to see him when he was old and she still loved him?! He had 19 children and when he wife began to go into menopause they took her to bathe in the sea so she could have more children. He lost everything in the War of Independence of 1868. His daughters were raped and his store was burned. His land was worthless after the slaves were freed in 1878….He was a homeopath and I am a homeopath. I am awfully glad to know all this, to know the contradictions in myself and my ancestors……Tui

  • Carol and Ben, I’ve noted that historians and genealogists are always for finding out and speaking the truth. I guess that is what makes us poke around in the past–a belief that information there can help us with the present.

    Ben, are you sure you won’t start a blog. Your posts are fascinating!

  • Whenever we get to the subject of native americans in school, almost every student eagerly shares that they have “a little (insert tribe here) blood” in their family tree. Why is that? I think the sins of the father are always visited upon the children, to mangle a metaphor. Even if silenced, the significance of tragedy is passed on in an unspoken way, and our whole culture has inherited a sense of guilt that we try to soothe in part by romanticizing native people.

    When my sister researched our family tree, ancestors were revealed in all contexts in relation to the natives of New England: the killers and the killed, captive prisoners, adopted wives, harsh public officials and quiet heroes. My mom descended from the apothecary, Louis Hebert, first successful settler of Quebec. He survived and thrived in large part because he developed close relationships with the native canadians and learned about all their edible/medicinal plants. As a pioneer diplomat, he’s my ancestral hero, but trying to relate to the conditions that my other forefathers & mothers lived/acted under is difficult. How would I have behaved in a war? Would I have dared speak out against murderers in my village? Would fear override morality?

    I agree with you, though, Kym,that scrutinizing history is essential to understanding the present and making choices for the future. The more we see historical figures as real people connected to us, to more important our own roles become in shaping the future. To ignore, hide or edit the past is the real “waste of time”.

  • Kato, I like how you said “the more we see historical figures as real people connected to us, the more important our own roles become in shaping the future.” I absolutely agree that seeing our forebearers as real people with faults and good points is essential to understanding our own responsibilities with problems we face today.

  • Kym said “I absolutely agree that seeing our forebearers as real people with faults and good points is essential to understanding our own responsibilities with problems we face today.”

    I think that if we were able to meet our forbearers, we would have found them the be as hard as nails. They would have been ashamed to show any weakness whatsoever. They may have been real people, but they had more things to fear than we have today, and they had to be tough to survive. They formed strong alliances, and didn’t have much to do with people that weren’t just like them.

    I’ve been following this post, but I haven’t said much. I’m sorry that I haven’t, it is a very pertinent post for the generational natives.

  • Ernie, I think that to a point you are right. The times shape who we are. So our ancestors are going to be tougher minded and probably more likely to form alliances with like minded people. I know that there are ancestors of mine whose deeds disgust me. But, I think in reading your post, that you want modern people to understand that there was much to admire and like about them too. And, I do.

    I just think it is also important to not ignore what they did wrong…and not ignore what they did right either.

  • Anon.R.Mous said:
    knowing the names isn’t going to do any good, and I for one, am sick and tired of “white man’s burden”

    Ironically, “The White Man’s Burden” is a cliche originating from a Kipling poem that encouraged U.S.- and Eurocentric imperialism to better the lives of darker-skinned, “primitives” around the world. Whether he intended it sincerely or satirically, the term refers to a supposed natural responsibility white folk have for improving the lot of “lesser races”. If that’s what you’re sick and tired of, I’m with you!

    I think, though, that you’re using the term to refer to the guilt a lot of white americans feel whenever native genocide or slavery are discussed. I say it’s a good sign to feel badly about it: it means you have a conscience and recognize injustice! But it’s not enough to feel badly, which is where most people stop thinking about it. We have to look at ourselves in today’s world and realize a)how institutionalized racism shapes culture; b) how realities of the present have evolved from such systems and c)what can be done differently in society now.

    As far as the specific incident in question, I have to agree that disclosure of names at this point in history would, given human nature, be more painful than productive for all parties. The nameless killers can still be remembered and prayed for along with the nameless victims. Maybe Heraldo should focus his energy on the hundreds of ordinary citizens who were silently complicit, or the courage of Bret Harte to publicize the slaughter. The names are only a small part of the picture.

    The fear and tension of those times is still with us in many parts of the world: that’s the real outrage.

  • Well said, Kato. I still believe the community is best served by the truth but you make a lovely case for the other point of view. Thank you.

  • i am trying to do a little researcha nd the information about this tribe the wiyots. my grandmother goes on and on about how we are some of the remaining few of our tribe and how we are now adopted by the bear river bear creek or some such tribe does any one have any information that they could give me about this tribe and what has become of them?

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