Clear Lake
Clear Lake is the largest natural freshwater lake in the state of California. Created from a landslide that blocked a natural drainage basin, it is also thought to be the oldest lake in the United States. This rather beautiful body of water, providing fishing, boating, and other outdoor recreation for thousands of people a year has a dark history. In May 1850 soldiers came and almost wiped out an entire village of Pomo Indians for something they hadn't done.

California Indians The Indian tribes of California were very diverse—something like four major language groups and over 100 distinct dialects, though possibly as many as 100 languages and 300 dialects. Because of the relative abundance and variety of food, they were able to have a fairly dense population without the need for agriculture (though some tobacco farming took place). Fishing and other marine food, hunting of small game (rabbits and water fowl), roots and berries, insects, and plenty of acorns. Acorns were a staple food for the Indians and certainly easy to find. They were collected, dried out, and ground into flour. To get rid of the bitter taste caused by tannic acid, they would pour hot water on the flour until it was gone.

At the time of contact in the 1700s, it is estimated that there were about 300,000 Indians in some 500 "tribelets," a politically loosely defined organizational structure, containing 50 to 500 people. Governed by a single chief, each village was mostly autonomous (beyond trading) had its own shared history and tradition. This is partly what led to the diversity of tribes and subtribes. There was also very little warfare among the many groups—unlike many other bands in North America, few had a war chief or ways of bestowing war honors. Violence was usually acts of revenge for serious transgressions like murder or rape. And warfare that occurred was generally brief and often ended (or was avoided) by negotiation and compensation.

Unlike the Atlantic side of the continent, the west coast did not have the massive influx of immigrants from Europe or the density of non-Indian population that pushed so many tribes westward. Or led to the clashes that killed so many. There was less contact and less assimilation, in general. The Indians had more freedom to adapt as they felt necessary.

A notable exception is in the southern areas of the state where the mission Indians lived a far more grim life than is usually depicted for the tourists. Forced assimilation, particularly religion (Roman Catholicism) and the rejection and suppression of Indian customs and traditions, was the order of the day, and—in the name of Christ—was grinding out cultural genocide. There was shelter and food but it was highly dependent on cooperation and work. Many of the Indians were used for what was, at best, comparable to sweat shop labor, at worst virtual slavery. The amount of daily food intake was inadequate, especially for the labor imposed. That said, outside of the mission system, things weren't quite as bad.

Interestingly, the laws that applied to Indians by the Mexicans were somewhat less harsh and more accommodating that those that would be passed by the Americans. Not to say things were great. Mexican ranchers "hired" Indians to do the work for them under conditions that sometimes rivaled those of the missions. They also were quick to break resistance with the sword. With the end of the Mexican-American War and the passing of the Treaty of Hidalgo, the US took possession of California. The treaty had no provisions to protect Indian land and while it outlawed slavery (which had been practiced by the Mexicans prior to the war as many Indians knew well), that did not apply to Indians. Things would get particularly strained with the gold rush in 1849 when people with dreams of wealth and glory rushed to the state, overrunning land, despoiling nature, and mistreating those "savages."

Within a hundred years of missions, ranchers, and various other settlement and the problems that came with it (disease, murder, forced labor, starvation), close to two-thirds of the Indian population in California was wiped out. Worse, many of those tribes disappeared without ever being studied or written about.

The Pomo were up to 70 related bands with seven languages. Each language was distinct and largely unintelligible to the other Pomos (only three are spoken today). The range was from about 50 miles (over 80 km) north of San Francisco Bay to about 60 miles (97 km) near Clear Lake where there was a concentration of small villages.

They were known for the clam shell beads they used as currency (not round like one usually imagines beads but flat and button shaped). Thickness, size, and luster all reflected value and they would add up by being threaded on string. Going along with the currency came an elaborate counting system using base 20 and units of 400. A second type of "bead" (sometimes actually bead shaped, though commonly cylindrical) was made from magnesite, a mineral that could be fired, often with other minerals, to produce deep and varied colors. These were prized and while the clam shell beads were strung together to increase the value, magnesite beads were individually traded. They thought of them as the West would gold, while the other ones were less valuable—like silver, as they would tell non-Indians. They were also known for the fine baskets they wove.

Their first, or first repeated, contact was with Russian fur trappers (the river that fills the lake is called the Russian River) who established a base at a fort near Bodega Bay in 1812. They made it a practice to attack a village and kidnap the women and children. That served two purposes. The younger women were used for sexual purposes (they considered them wives) and servants. Children and less desirable women (usually older) worked fields. Having these hostages ensured cooperation from the men who had to do the heavy labor and procure food and other supplies. Obedience was achieved through the usual channels of physical punishment (even torture), withholding essential needs, and the occasional summary execution. Meanwhile, European diseases did their own dirty work.

While there was some resistance, it wasn't organized or overly successful. It did encourage unity between the bands of Pomo despite their linguistic differences. (It should be noted that the Pomo were not alone among the tribes in the area that were subjected to this treatment.) Around the time of the gold rush, the Russians abandoned their outpost.

Kelsey & Stone
When the Mexicans moved on, Americans took over their ranches or started new ones. Since the law did not address Indian slavery, that was precisely the form of labor used. In 1847, a pair of men—Charles Stone and Andrew Kelsey—bought a ranch from a Mexican named Salvador Vallejo. Vallejo had used forced labor and the practice was continued. Stone and Kelsey were particularly brutal. In 1849, fueled by the gold fever, Kelsey took 50 of his "workers" to help him stake his claim. Like so many of the miners, he was a failure at finding gold and sold off all the supplies to other miners (except what he personally needed). On the return journey, the Indians had no food and only a couple made it back alive.

Not that starvation was uncommon on the ranch. Each day the Indians would be paid with food. Four cups of wheat, per family. The wheat was boiled ahead of time and doled out into cups that held about one and one half pints (three cups). Three quarters of a gallon (just under 3 L) for a whole family for an entire day. Over one winter, 20 people died from illness, the elements, or starvation. And it wasn't like they could sneak away to forage for food. Kelsey and Stone made the Indians erect tall fences around their villages (there were two) and had head riders posted to make sure no one left the encampment, not even to hunt or fish.

Anyone who dared try to escape to search for food would be dragged back to the ranch house and punished in what was a common means of sending a message: the Indian's hands would be bound with rope and the rope thrown over a tree branch. The victim would be drawn up until his feet barely touched the ground. He'd be left to think about what he'd done. Whipping was also common. At least four Indians died from severe lashings. Once during that terrible winter, a young boy whose mother was sick and starving, went to the ranch where he met the woman's sister (sexual slavery was all part of the Kelsey and Stone business model—those fathers who tried to keep their daughters from being concubines would be whipped or hanged by their hands in the standard way). He begged for a handful of wheat. She tied five cups of wheat in an apron and sent him back to the starving women. Stone found out and rode up to the boy. He demanded the youth stop. He obeyed and was forced to give up the wheat. Stone shot him. It took two days for the boy to die.

There are two conflicting stories about what happened next. One suggests the impetus was the men turning their eyes on taking the chief's wife. The other more common—and the one that has been passed down from the tribal historian (William Benson, born in 1862; a Pomo who was a self-taught reader and writer)—follows. It was December 1849 (or very early 1850). Starving and desperate, two Indians named Shuk and Xasis decided to go kill some of ranch's cattle (they may have been hired to do the job). To do so they went to borrow horses from the barn. They took the strongest and fastest ones (both of which belonged to Kelsey and Stone, personally) and set out to lasso an "ox" (as Benson refers to the livestock).

Unfortunately, it was raining off and on that night and the ground was wet and slippery. The men, who had gotten off the horses to rope the "ox," lost their footing and the herd got spooked, beginning to stampede. This caused the horses to run away and the two spent precious time trying to catch them. Kelsey's horse was finally captured but not Stone's. This would be serious trouble. They convened with the other Indians to decide what to do—it was clear that Stone's likely course of action would be to kill the two and probably give out additional punishment to the others.

They also knew he wouldn't believe any story they tried to tell, leaving them with the option to kill the two men before they found out. Meanwhile, the servants at the ranch were told to gather up any weapon in the house and hide it so Kelsey and Stone would be unarmed (another account suggests that the women in the house poured water into the muskets to disable them). About five Indians went to the big pot where the wheat was boiled and waited, claiming that they were just hungry. There was some small talk/commotion and Stone got up asking what was going on. An Indian shot him in the stomach with an arrow. Stone pulled it out fought back, breaking someone's arm before escaping to the main house where he quickly bolted the door.

Kelsey showed up and saw the blood. They fought, during which he was stabbed twice in the back. He broke away, running for the creek. He was hit in the back with another arrow. Kelsey wrenched the arrow out and dove into the creek. When he surfaced, he saw an Indian he knew and who he thought might help him. He begged for his life but the Indian told him even if he did, he would be killed as well. Weak from loss of blood, Kelsey could no longer flee. An Indian gave a spear to his wife, saying that he was the man who killed their son. She took it and thrust it deep into his chest. The body was left for coyotes.

The others managed to get into the house where they prepared a final assault on Stone. After waiting a bit (they could see where he'd hidden himself and were waiting to see what he'd do), they realized he was already dead. They took the body and threw it out the window. Another version has Stone jumping out the window and being beaten to death with a rock. Then the Indians raided the ranch for food and fled, some killing cattle for additional food, as they went.

News of the killings worked its way westward until the army heard of this Pomo uprising. A Captain Nathaniel Lyon was sent out to put it down. It was a few months later, at least, and the Indian slaves who had done the killing were long gone. But there was a Pomo village on an island in Clear Lake. Lyon and his army regulars apparently mistook them or settled for them or just decided it was a way to send a message to the restless natives. Whatever the ultimate reason, that village that had nothing to do with the murders would be made to pay for them.

Accounts differ here, too. Benson's account (written down around 1930) has the army approach the island where the Indians plan to meet them peaceably. When they went to greet them, the soldiers began firing. The other account has the soldiers with whale boats and two small brass field cannon (boats and cannon figure into Benson's version, too) that they maneuvered as close to the island as possible. Not knowing exactly where they were and unable to get to them easily, they used the cannon to flush the Pomo out to the opposite side of the island where the rest of the soldiers and some volunteers were waiting.

Whichever is more accurate, the attack was brutal. Benson tells of soldiers using their bayonets to lift up children and infants and tossing the bodies into the water. Men, women, children, it didn't matter. Hiding or trying to swim away didn't help. The Pomo say that it took four or five days to gather the dead. It's difficult to nail down a number of the innocents killed. Estimates go from 60 to 200—including others that were attacked the next day after the soldiers had finished at Clear Lake. Basically, they attacked and killed whatever Indians they found as they marched back. Most or a significant number of the village ceased to exist. Mop up operations continued in the months following the massacre. It didn't matter what tribe the victim belonged to or if he offered to surrender.

Between 1851 and 1852, the government set to drawing up treaties with the various California tribes. Eighteen tribes, yearning for peace, negotiated (from as weak a position as could be possible) and signed. They were supposed to be guaranteed 8.5 million acres of protected land. The treaties went back to congress but were never ratified (pressure from mining interests and ranchers effectively killed the legislation). Of course, the US government has broken virtually every treaty it ever signed with the Indians, so it was probably moot.

Nearly forgotten
Besides Benson's account—which certainly may have embellished or misremembered information (the detailed description of the killings, for instance)—there is precious little documentation on the incident. Inconsistent details of some things make it more difficult to say precisely what happened and when. The site of the massacre would later be called "Bloody Island (and the event sometimes referred to as the Bloody Island massacre). The island isn't an island anymore. The water has receded from it enough that it's now connected to the shore. Many of the Pomo are gone. There were about 15,000 in the early 1800s. About 4,700 were around in 1990. No one knows how many other California Indians and tribes have disappeared over the years. No one bothered to tell their story.

"Bloody Island"
"Bloody Island - Indian Viewpoint" (Benson's account—apparently transcribed from the original. Numerous spelling and punctuation errors testify to the author's unsophisticated ability with English. The story shines through.)
"The California Pomo People, Brief History -- Native American Art"
"Clear Lake Massacre - Lyon at Bloody Island"
Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes (1988; 1999 rev. edition) Carl Waldman
"Five Views: An Ethnic History Site Survey for California (American Indians)"
"Hot Topics" Section from article: "Some Historical Notes of Interest"
A Native American Encyclopedia: History, Cultures, and Peoples (2000) Barry M. Pritzker

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