Saturday, February 27, 2010

"Oh, the horror"

I promised myself that I wouldn't do this post. I wanted to ignore the annual shamefest that people seem to want to delve into.

Recently Jerry Rohde, a respected North Coast historian, wrote an article and published it in the North Coast Journal, a respected North Coast publication. The article was about what most of us already knew, the early settlers were scoundrels, thieves, murderers, and ne’er do wells. Much like we have here today.

I hate these revelations over what “really” happened in early California history. Certainly there was a genocide of the Indian people. If any of the young people, that advocate anarchy, would just look at California’s history from the 1800s, they could easily see what anarchy is like. Greed corruption, and yes, even genocide will occur. May-the-toughest-thug-win. Lawless conflict will turn even the meekest toward the lawless pursuit of survival.

Few understand the pressures placed upon people when they are put into a lawless environment with the challenge to survive. Many will bluster and act tough, with the hopes of scaring away any challengers. We see it all day long in Southern Humboldt. The people that don’t have law enforcement for protection will stockpile guns and ammunition. Many times, automatic weapon fire is heard echoing down the canyons. Most of the people that I know, that have those weapons, don’t really intend to use them on anybody, but they want anyone that might mess with them to think that they would. Beautiful-little-meek-but-rich-girl Patty Hearst readily grabbed an automatic weapon and helped her captors rob a bank. She did that out of trying to impress her captors that she had value, and to not kill her. It’s called Stockholm syndrome in psychology. But, the issue at hand is the pressure that the people of the 1800s found themselves in.

The “Murdering scum” that the North Coast Journal’s Hank Sims referred to were people like the Kelsey’s. The Kelseys that Kelseyville was named after. Their trip to California was to come over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The Kelseys and a man by the name of Bidwell, (Maybe you have heard of him) had hired Indians on several occasions to guide them. The Indian guides that they hired invariably led them into ambush, where they would have been killed if they hadn’t been well armed. They finally abandoned the idea of hiring Indian guides and decided that they would have to make it over the mountains on their own. Mrs. Kelsey was only sixteen years old and had an infant child to care for. In trying to find a path over the mountain they left Mrs. Kelsey behind with their provisions. When they returned they discovered that Indians had stolen most of their provisions while Mrs. Kelsey hid. The Kelseys and Bidwell lived on wild game that they could find. Game was scarce in the high snow covered elevations. They finally made it to the Sacramento Valley in the area of Stockton. They almost starved, and they almost froze to death. On their trip to California they gained a deep and abiding hate of Indians that they kept up until the day that they died. Many more reasons for them to hate Indians came up during their lifespan. It is said that a Kelsey would shoot and Indian just to watch him jump.

These are the kinds of stories that I hate to tell because somebody will always say; “The Kelseys didn’t belong in California anyway”. Like it or not the Kelseys are an important part of California history. They were involved in the Bear Flag Revolt among other things. Mrs. Kelsey, who was the first white woman to cross the Sierra Nevada mountains, was also the one that made California’s first flag. The Bear Flag. Yet, there are people that want to change the name of Kelseyville because the Kelseys killed Indians. There are people that want to change the name of Larabee Valley because Larabee killed Indians. If that were the criteria for changing name of a town, they will have to change the name of all of the towns named after the California Missions, or the Franciscan Monks, including san Francisco, because they all ruthlessly used, and slaughtered, the Indian people.

Jerry Rohde hinted at some of the thuggery that can abound in the absence of law and order. He mentioned the rancher that was killing other ranchers and blaming it on the Indians. Many ranches became part of other ranches that way. It was hard to protect yourself against that kind of person. You had to be on his side, or some value to him, or you might be the next victim. To survive on the north coast you had to be tough as nails, or belong to a group of people that was. Clearly people feared for their lives. They conducted themselves in such a fashion to appear that nobody should mess with them. When the Indians on Indian Island were killed, it was well understood that it was the act of a conspiracy of a large, and tough as nails, group of people. Nobody gave any information about the murders out of fear. Those that said anything probably voiced approval. It wasn’t healthy to go up against the group of thugs. But, I’m also sure that not many in the group really liked what they were doing. Many felt they had no choice. It was clear that the law wasn’t going to help them. They had petitioned many people, many times, to no avail. Yet, many in the group probably didn’t even tell their wives what they had done.

I know many stories about how brutal and ruthless the Indian people could be, and I know many stories about how brutal and ruthless the white man was. The fact remains that it was a failure of law and order that allowed what happened to happen. To say that the Indian owned the west and that the white man was the interloper is ridiculous. The intrusion in the west by the white man wasn’t anymore stoppable than the recent intrusion of the “Newcomers”. The only difference was Law and order. The Newcomer came to the north coast, and law-and-order made him pay for the land. Never mind that the white man “stole it” from the Indian people.

Now, to get to my point of this whole manuscript. What pains me is the need to continually pick the scab of old wounds in the name of “history” or “getting it right”. Sadly, for the later-day-historians, they will never get it right, because there is too much that they don’t and never will know. There are too many stories that will never be told. Stories about rapes and murders and mayhem on both the Indian and white side. If the historians were smart they would listen to the very wise Indian people that say they have forgiven the white people. As indeed, I have forgiven the Indian people for the things that they did to my family. I take the blame and the credit as Hank Sims said that I should. The Indian people and the whites have, for the past 140 years, have lived in peace and harmony. Indeed, they went to the same schools, intermarried, hunted fished and worked together, and have become close friends.

It was the same white settlers, that the later-day-historians claim whipped up the hate against the Indian people, that actually petitioned the Governor, and indeed the President of the United States, to solve the Indian/white conflict. Little or no help came. The Government solution was tantamount to telling the settlers that the Government officials understood that they needed protection, but we're busy right now. The government and law enforcement came too little, too late. It was a failure of government and law-and-order that led to the inevitable chaos that settled the West.

The locals, both white and Indian learned to live together and respect each other long ago. In a lot of cases we are one family. I have many Indian relatives and friends. Usually when an Indian person is outraged about what happened and wants to drag up the past, pick open the scab, and bring back the pain, it is an outsider Indian. Not many locals want to start the fight over. They do not want to bring up who-did-what again.

I’m sick to death about “Oh, the horror” every time the horror is brought up. There was horror enough to go around on both the white and the Indian sides. What I would like to see more of is “Oh, the History” or “Oh, the culture”. I would like to see more of how the Indian people made baskets, or how and why they burned the land to manage the bush and provide new shoots for making baskets. I would like to see more of what Ben Schill recently did. He translated an Indian poem, "Abalone Woman" about how the flint came to the ridge behind Salmon Creek, and how the red marks came to be in the abalone shell. Why a man said “Women don’t like me, only squirrels I will eat”, and he became an eagle. Great and interesting stories, about how the north coast came about according to the Indian Legends. One thing that I’ve always wondered, is how did the Indian people know when to not eat mussels to avoid paralytic shellfish poisoning? So much has been lost and so much time has been wasted on, “Oh, the horror”

I want to see the tales of the horror ended. Too much has not been told, on both sides, to delve into “Oh the horror.”


suzy blah blah said...

Ern, you r soooo right on, picking scabs will only serve to aggravate a situation no matter how tough as nails one is. Suzy says, rather than dwell upon the ugly past, better to see what we can do to bueatify the present

The Boy Most Likely to ... said...

Ernie, what an excellent commentary. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, and helping one Newcomer get a better understanding of the area's past.

Ernie Branscomb said...

Thanks Boy,
I wish that I could articulate my thoughts well enough, so that people that move here could, from the onset, understand that our past was not only painful but fruitful. Many wonderful things came out of the inevitable occupation of California by the white man.

When I wish to transport people back into the past, it is not to punish them, but to try to get them to walk a mile in the pioneers boots, or in some cases the Indians Moccasins. I wish they would try harder to understand that it wasn't all just hate and greed, but some fear and survival, without the benefit of law and order.

It's not a sound-bite subject. You can't just wake up one morning and decide killing is bad, feel good about yourself, and go on to breakfast. Some of us learned history by the Suzuki method. We were raised in in for generations. That seems to somehow change your perceptions.

lunatic fringe said...

Great article, thanks.

J2Bad said...

I may not be an expert on the specific history of the Humboldt area, but out of fairness to the scab-pickers, I'd like to point out something that I do feel qualified to comment upon - the transmission of our collective, national, factual history to the youth of this country. I've taught U.S. history at a few universities across the country over the past decade, and it's become clear to me that even the best and brightest students don't have the faintest idea about U.S. history. Even worse, they've been conditioned by arguments like the one I see in your post to resist the factual history of the country when it's presented to them in what few texts there are on sensitive subjects like this one. It's your history, so it makes sense that you're sensitive to the more negative aspects of it, but I'd like to point out that most people have never heard it. And they've never heard it, mostly, because people have been unwilling to talk about it, and remain defensive when it comes up.

J2Bad said...

Let me also say, I second your call for a greater awareness of the positive aspects of the U.S. cultures (plural) of the 18th and 19th centuries, but you can't tell those stories without addressing the reason why so many of those cultures are so poorly known. The two go hand in hand.

Ernie Branscomb said...

If you are a U.S. history teacher, you know that what comes out of the history books is also, in many cases, someone’s opinion of history. Do you teach the real history? Or the book history. Or Zinn’s history? Ray Raphael’s? As you well know, each historical event will take on a different twist depending on who’s doing the telling. An intelligent person will read everything with an open mind, and realize that nobody is sure of the truth, but something horrible happened at Indian Island.

I agree with you that most people, especially the young students, know little about U.S. history. How can they know anything if they can’t get past “the horror”. People pick right up on events as tragic as the Indian Island Massacre. What makes me sick to my stomach is that a historian will dramatically get the attention of the audience, then let it slip away, and give a small minded explanation, usually made up of their own personal opinion. To say that it was greed, and that they did it for the money, and to leave out information that counts for so much, is unfair to history.

How can they do that? You think that they would want to see the real reasons behind the superficial motivations. Unfortunately some of our local historians get to “Oh the Horror” then spiral continually around that point, never moving beyond it.

Something like the Indian Island massacre demands people's full attention. What an opportunity to inform, while their minds are open. Then to pass of the chance to inform and instruct, they just say it happened because the settlers were horrible, greedy, evil people.

I want to point out that even though I was raised in the stories of the north coast. I’m no expert. Even being “no expert” I can see the mistakes in many of the local historian’s stories. They might get the facts straight, but their opinions are pure myth. It is probably embarrassing to Jim Baker to keep saying this, but he is an expert on north coast history. He gets it right, and he even sees the motivations behind many of the north coast historical events. They go way beyond “greed, evil, and racial hatred”. Anyone would be wise to give his facts due consideration. Many of the local people can see that. I have no problem with history, but I would like to see less opinion. Unless the opinion is well informed.

In closing, j2bad, I want to thank you for commenting here. It’s always nice to hear from a qualified person. Our opinions aren’t as far apart as you might think.

Ben said...

adeforneErnie... When I was in elementary and high school in Southern California, We made occasional forays into California history. There we discovered that history began with the arrival of the Spanish missionaries and their enlightened treatment of the poor savages they encountered in this beautiful, God given land. The kindly padres gently gathered the Indians and taught them new trades....etc.,etc., Total baloney. I certainly hope we now do a little better job teaching our children.
If we were to remove the Indian from the story of Americans in California, we would still find the semi anarchic society you have described. Corruption was the order of the day and the reason one pursued politics was to gain wealth. The story of the development of water resources in California is a jaw dropping tale of theft, lawlessness and deceit, with some murder thrown in.
I believe that we are drawn to know the reality of history. What really happened. What was it like? In high school I would have told you that history was a useless subject. We knew about WWII in grim detail but nothing of the "sensitive" topics at home like segregation in the south or the simple fact that black kids were discouraged from going to our community swimming pool in South Pasadena. Times have changed for the better but what happened is history and needs to be part of the community memory. We need to continue to change for the better and to do that we require a clear vision of our past with all its warts and blemishes.
When I was a kid, if I had remarked in school that: "All great fortunes began with a great crime." My teachers would have denounced me as unpatriotic. We were to wear blinders to such ideas and go out into the world convinced that honesty, decency and justice will prevail in the USA.... Not!
I'm for history as it happened.

spyrock said...

i think the main thing that people forget when they talk about early american history is the fact that everyone that came here was escaping serfdom or slavery themselves. i have several ancestors who renounced their loyalty to their king to become american citizens. the concept of freedom as exemplified in the american indian lifestyle was intoxicating to these immigrants and the real reason we became the land of the free.
almost all of these pioneers became indiafied by their experience here. when you talk about uncle jack and all those scalps that just meant he was a great warrior by indian standards because that's what he had become by living or surviving here. so in the clash of cultures, they both became more like each other. until they were no longer europeans. they became native american. i'm a six generation native american. and i'm proud about that. not ashamed. ernies right. you had to be tough to survive in those days and everyone of my ancestors who lived during that time were. they all sort of gave you the feeling that they were the wrong people to mess with. they passed that on to me even though i never really felt that way about myself unless i was mad and i had been raised by those pioneers never to get mad. but other people could see it in me and kept their distance just like i had some kind of sign on my forehead.
the real question is. how brave are these self righteous people who are just now pointing these things out. its funny for me to watch these pure blood spirtual indians and their counterpart holier than thou spiritual white people point out whose to blame for all of this. whodats goonna cast the first stone.

Anonymous said...

So, why did you promise yourself that you'd never do this post?

Anonymous said...

Why is it people can't help but sounding self-righteous when pointing out others self-righteousness?

Ekovox said...

Ernie, there was a great discussion on this very subject on your blog back on December 27th, 2007. New readers may like to take a peek at your previous posts.

Spyrock...great comment.

~Ross Rowley

Naoma said...

A question for olmanriver....My dad had a radio he had hooked up to a 12 volt car battery. We heard on the news that a Japanise sub had come into the portoGordo area and the men had disimbarked to explore. tracks had been found in the sand and went into the hills. This made my mother very nervice. Do you have any history of this or was it just a rumor? Thanks Naoma