Masters Thesis

Indian Island massacre : an investigation of the events that precipitated the Wiyot murders

In February 1860, a small group of anglo men virtually exterminated the Wiyot people of Humboldt Bay. While the act appeared to be unprovoked, and the victims were largely women and children, no one spoke out against the murders. When assistant editor for the Northern Californian Bret Harte editorialized the slayings, his life was threatened and he was forced to flee. In addition, no one was ever brought to trial, despite the evidence of a planned attack and references to specific individuals, including a rancher named Larabee and other members of the unofficial militia called the Humboldt Volunteers. During the same period of time other Native American “campaigns” and resettlement policies from in California can be documented. This paper will attempt to determine if similar cycles of abuse/slaughter/relocation occurred throughout Northern California, or if Humboldt Bay’s massacre was a unique historical event. What was the reason for the overwhelming suppression of dissent over the massacre? Research will be undertaken to determine the roles that cultural bias, prevailing Indian policies, and escalating Indian/settler conflicts played in shaping the climate that allowed the atrocities to go unpunished. Historical events and time lines of Indian/settler conflicts around the bay and throughout Humboldt County will be assessed as to their level of correlation with escalating tensions, to determine if the Indian Island event was a culmination of local tension. Editorial discourse from local publications of the mid 1800’s will be reviewed to examine the anti-Indian sentiments of local settlers. A close look will be taken at how the viewpoints expressed shaped the communities overall perspective on the Wiyot people. In addition, economic factors will be discussed in relation to how land use policies, pressure from large land holders, and city business interests might have contributed to the suppression of dissent in order to preserve the status quo of an area struggling to attract more settlers or promote economic interest. Finally, other Native American “campaigns” and resettlement policies from the 1850-1880s in California will be documented to determine if similar cycles of abuse/slaughter/relocation occurred, or if Humboldt Bay’s horrific level of abuse could be attributed to its geographic isolation and lack of law enforcement.