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History of the Blue Lake Rancheria Tribe
Indian Island Massacre
Historical Commentary

Recounting history is a sensitive process The Blue Lake Rancheria Tribe does not dwell on the past However, in order to understand the Tribe’s vision of, and motivation for, a better future, it is important to have a basic understanding of the realities the Tribe has encountered

A persistent attitude outside Indian Country is that the atrocities suffered by Native Americans are historic, perhaps not as relevant today, and should become less of a consideration in drafting and revising policies and law  What is not widely known, however, is that significant injustices and erosion of basic rights have occurred within the lifetimes of living Tribal Members, and in places still continue.

These recent events provide a modern day reminder of the fragility of both legal and societal structure, and the inherent potential for abuse of those without power, money or voice The Blue Lake Rancheria combats that fragility, and potential vulnerability, with eternal vigilance.

Today the Tribe is focused on the growing opportunity to restructure the social, economic, and political dimensions of a people who have gone largely unheard since first contact with Euro-Americans, over 200 years ago.

In comparison to the physical and spiritual hardships their ancestors overcame, the Blue Lake Rancheria Tribe feels their current achievements are minimal  They feel a lifetime of work by each Tribal Member will be needed to get the Blue Lake Rancheria Tribe and all of Indian Country positioned for the future, and it is incumbent on the Tribe and each individual Tribal Member to make as much positive change as possible.


Because of the relative speed and severity of the Native population destruction in Northern California, (for example, on the plains, 9 in 10 Indians lived; in California, 9 in 10 died) most of the historical information on the Blue Lake Rancheria Tribe and their ancestors was irrevocably lost Much of the information available today is a combination of oral histories, regional newspaper articles, correspondence between individuals, and scant documentation largely drafted by non-Indians.

The Tribe relies on the information passed down through its Members for generations, the research and recounting of other area Tribes, relevant documentation (such as press articles), the impressive resources of Humboldt State University and the work of individual ethno-historians such as Llewellyn L. Loud and A.L. Kroeber – who have provided some of the most comprehensive documentation of California Native Americans prior to Euro-American contact.

History of the Blue Lake Rancheria Tribe

It is impossible to chronicle the history of a nation of people in a few short paragraphs So what follows is a surface summary of a few of the important events that have impacted the course of the Blue Lake Rancheria Tribe’s existence over the last few hundred years.

Prior to the first Euro-American contact, there were approximately 1,000-4,000 Native Americans in the greater Humboldt Bay area. (For descriptions of traditional Native American life, please see Culture.) In about 1775, the first non-Native ships arrived in Trinidad Bay From the 1770s to the 1840s, outsiders to the area were primarily Russian fur traders who visited intermittently for hunting and trapping seasons and had amicable trade relationships with the Native populations

In 1849 the California Gold Rush began. Miners, settlers, other opportunists flooded the area in search of fortune. During the 1850s and ‘60s, non-native peoples progressed further up the river valleys and into the mountains to look for gold and then homesteads, timber and other resources. Tensions escalated, and eradication of the native populations began in earnest During the 1860s the gold rush weakened, but more settlers, loggers and ranchers flocked to the north coast region The ancestors of the present day Blue Lake Rancheria Tribe- Wiyot, Yurok, Tolowa and Cherokee- were attacked and often killed. Survivors were forced from their established village sites and took refuge in the remote mountain forests where food was scarce Many Natives, mainly Wiyot, attempted to return to their villages along the Mad and Eel Rivers and Humboldt Bay, but were sought out by volunteer militias, and, as recorded in local newspapers, “annihilation” and “termination” ensued (“genocide” was not a term that was yet in common use)

Indian Island Massacre

1860 marked the beginning of perhaps the darkest times of physical hardship for Humboldt Bay area Tribes, especially the Wiyot One of the worst massacres in California history occurred on February 25th, 1860 Local landowners and businessmen from Eureka embarked on a systematic slaughter of area Indians.

Beginning on Indian Island, just offshore from Eureka in Humboldt Bay, a group of men silently attacked in the pre-dawn hours No distinction was made as to who were killed Over 200 mainly women, children and elders of area Wiyot and other Tribes were on the island to observe annual “World Renewal” ceremonies They had been there for a week, and most of the men had gone hunting to replenish food supplies Those remaining on the island were surprised as they slept, and killed with quiet weapons – axes, clubs and knives – in order to avoid detection by others on the mainland Two small groups of Yurok, two Wiyot women, and twelve children survived.

Indian Island was one of several simultaneous attacks at different locations:  villages at Slide (modern-day Fortuna) on the Eel River, Rio Dell, Ferndale, Centerville, Indianola, Table Bluff and Salmon Creek also fell that day.

Contemporary Wiyot actively remember and honor those who lived and died on February 25th, 1860 Their efforts serve to underscore the significance and necessity of participation by the Wiyot and other Tribes in planning, developing and managing the Humboldt County area today.


The killings of February 25th, 1860 decimated Native population numbers But unfortunately that was not the end of the suffering Surviving members were rounded up and interned for varying lengths of time in a variety of settings Tribal Members were moved from site to site, and after several years in most cases, permanently placed at area reservations including Smith River, Hupa, Table Bluff and eventually Blue Lake.

After the massacres, soldiers rounded up the survivors and took them to Fort Humboldt They were kept outside (in February) locked in an uncovered cattle pen, which was 80 feet in diameter Here they were kept for several days Then, with space becoming limited, the Army decided to move survivors to the North Jetty Further, the Army combed the countryside for all the remaining Indians As villages were located, the Natives were moved to the North Jetty, and to discourage any attempts to escape, their homes and village sites were destroyed so there would be nothing to return to.

In September of 1862, it was decided to move the North Jetty residents to the already established Smith River Rancheria 840 men, women and children were placed in the cargo hold of the steamliner Panama where they were held for 3 days without food, water, blankets or toilet facilities The ship’s manifest listed simply, “Cargo:  Indians.”

The supplies promised to the Indians when they arrived at Smith River never materialized Despite the enormous increase in population, the reservation’s food allotment was not increased, nor were supplies for additional shelter provided A year and a half went by Understandably, fighting broke out between groups over the meager rations The U.S. Department of Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs determined that the 636 survivors of the Panama (204 original survivors from the North Jetty had died in the intervening months) should be moved again, this time to the Hupa Reservation These people were force-marched through the mountains in the dead of winter Only 427 people arrived at Hupa, 209 having perished during the journey.


Through the latter half of the 1800s, Native numbers continued to decline rapidly through murders, starvation and disease For example, of the estimated 1,000-4,000 Wiyot people living in greater Humboldt Bay and up the Mad and Eel River Valleys prior to 1849, by 1910 there were approximately 100-300 left in the entire Humboldt Bay area.

On December 24th, 1908, the Blue Lake Rancheria was established by Executive Order as a refuge for homeless Native Americans.

At this time, though Northern California Tribes were not literally extinct, their cultures, families, homes and way of life were almost completely destroyed From this time until 1954, Tribes were even more devastated through gross mismanagement and negligence from the U.S. administrators charged with their care Basic needs – food, shelter, education, power, plumbing – remained unmet or ignored completely Policy generally shifted toward assimilating Tribes into the general U.S. population.

1953-1968 is referred to as the “Termination Era” in U.S. policy toward Indians During this time, Congress adopted several pieces of legislation to speed assimilation of Tribes House Concurrent Resolution No. 108 (HCR 108) was a shameful, short-sighted effort to quickly reduce federal trust responsibility to the Tribes The 85th Congress adopted House Resolution 2824, Public Law 85-671 which called for the termination of federal trusteeship of 44 Rancherias and over 100 Tribes in California Congress did not understand Tribes’ need to remain separate in order to preserve their cultural identity and sovereignty Tribes were outraged by termination as another in a long list of betrayals based on ignorance of their societies.

Though administrative negligence / neglect was not an immediate physical attack as experienced by their parents and grandparents, the effect on Tribal peoples was largely the same – in a fight once again for their very survival, as individuals and as Nations The services provided to Tribes by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs fragmented even further as they were largely transferred to other federal, state, or local governmental agencies or to Indian nations themselves – most of whom had neither the training nor the resources to take up the responsibilities in a sustainable way Minimal health care, lack of basic public infrastructure / education, a commodity approach to food supply and nutrition – these were decades-long systemic abuses that further eroded and enervated quality of life for the Native American and cemented the chronic societal issues Indians are fighting their way out of today.

The Blue Lake Rancheria was dissolved and terminated by the U.S. Government in 1954 Rancheria lands were taken out of trust and sold or deeded away Many Tribal Members left in desperation to seek lives elsewhere But a few were able to stay on the land and fight for reinstatement - a fight that would take almost three decades During this period Tribal Members also battled against hopelessness and despair They lived in trailers, one-room plank houses and other impermanent homes, most without indoor plumbing, conventional heating or power.

For twenty-five years Tribes pursued administrative and then legal remedies to this illegal termination In 1983, 17 Rancherias, including Blue Lake Rancheria won the class action lawsuit known as Tillie Hardwick v. United States of America This victory resulted in the full reinstatement of federal recognition for all seventeen Rancherias.

The "Blue Lake Rancheria, California" Tribe was again federally-recognized, with a small portion of its former Rancheria lands back in trust From reinstatement in 1983, it took another six years to reorganize the Tribe, gathering together the dispersed Tribal Members who had scattered to the four winds.

Since the end of the “Termination Era” in 1968, depending on the date of each Tribe’s federal reinstatement, Tribes have exercised their rights to self-govern while maintaining rights and responsibilities as Americans Congress has changed the termination policies of the 1950s, and the years from 1968 to the present are known as “Tribal Self-Determination”.

Today the Blue Lake Rancheria Tribe is a Sovereign Nation which exercises jurisdiction over its Tribal lands and Tribal Members The Tribe is fully organized under an IRA Constitution and has the authority to administer programs designed to meet the needs of American Indians residing on the Blue Lake Rancheria, largely through a PL 93-638 Self Determination Contract, and the operation of its Economic Development Corporation.

Historical Commentary

As Indian Country was being decimated throughout the newly-formed United States, there were those willing, some compelled, to speak At the same time, laws and policies regarding Indians that would be almost unthinkable today were being enacted and methodically practiced.

Below are a few examples that correspond with the Blue Lake Rancheria Tribe’s own experiences They give heartbreaking immediacy to an era from which the Blue Lake Rancheria Tribe and the majority of Indian Country is just now recovering, generations later

"The California valleys cannot grace her annals with a single Indian war bordering on respectability. It can boast, however, a hundred or two of as brutal butchering, on the part of our honest miners and brave pioneers, as any area of equal extent in our republic.”
- Hubert Howe Bancroft, History of California, 1880s

"I know of no people who have more righteous claims upon the justice and liberality of the American people....All or nearly so of the fertile valleys were seized; the mountain gulches and ravines were filled with miners; and without the slightest recognition of the Indians' rights, they were dispossessed of their homes, their hunting grounds, their fisheries, and to a great extent, of the production of the earth.... With no one of the many tribes of the state is there an existing treaty. Despoiled by irresistible force of the lands of their fathers; with no country on earth to which they can migrate; in the midst of a people with whom they cannot assimilate, they have no recognized claims upon the [federal] Government, and are almost compelled to become vagabonds--to steal or to starve.....[I]n our refusal to recognize their usufructory right in the soil ["occupancy right"], and treat with them for its relinguishment, thereby providing for them the means of subsistance until such time as they shall be educated to conform to the widely altered circumstances by which they are surrounded."
- Commissioner of Indian Affairs William P. Dole, 1862, quoted in Oscar Lipps, The Case of the California Indians, 1932

Sec. 3: "Any person having or hereafter obtaining a minor indian, male or female, from the parents or relations of such indian minor, and wishing to keep it, such person shall go before a justice of the peace in his township, with the parents or friends of the child, and if the justice of the peace becomes satisfied that no compulsory means have been used to obtain the child from its parents or friends, .... shall give to such person a certificate, authorizing him or her to have the care, custody, control, and earnings of such minor, until he or she attains the age of majority [male 18, female 15]...."
- From An Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, 1850

"If these treaties failed it is clear that the Indians are still legally as well as morally the owners of the lands covered by the treaties…. No amount of money can repay these Indians for the years of misery, despair, and death which the Governmental policy has inflicted upon them…they can be given what is sometimes expressed as ‘a white man’s chance.’ It ought to be possible to put an end to the periodical wiping out of the Indian children [from famine and disease]. It seems that we are under the necessity of civilizing the Indian whether we like the job or not, or whether the Indian wants to be civilized or not. We are therefore under obligation to make at least a decent effort to accomplish the task without injury to the Indian.”
- C.E. Kelsey, Special Agent to the California Indians, 1906

"Today we record acts of Indian aggression and white retaliation It is a humiliating fact that the parties who may be supposed to represent white civilization have committed the greater barbarity."
- Bret Harte, The Northern Californian, commenting on the Indian Island Massacre in 1860 (Harte’s editorial rage almost cost him his life – a local mob literally ran him out of town.)