Ursus mendocinensis, Mendocino Grizzly Bears and Pomo Bear Shamans and Doctors


Inspiration for this post was found by visiting and researching the Berkeley “Bear in Mind” The California Grizzly at the Bancroft library Online Exhibit and the book, “Ceremonies of the Pomo Indians and Pomo Bear Doctors ” by SA Barrett.

Ceremonies of the Pomo Indians and Pomo Bear Doctors

By S. A. Barrett

“This is an animal that cannot compromise or adjust its way of life to ours. Could not by its very nature, could not even if we allowed it the opportunity, which we did not. For the grizzly bear, there is no freedom but that of unbounded space, no life except its own. Without meekness, without a sign of humility, it has refused to accept our idea of what the world should be like. If we succeed in preserving the wild remnant that still survives, the glory will rest primarily on this bear whose stubborn vigor has kept it alive in the face of increasing and seemingly hopeless odds.”

Adapted from Robert Porter Allen U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service “Grizzly Bear Recovery Plan” 1982

In the 1800s and early 1900s in Mendocino and surrounding areas bears, panthers, raccoons and even deer attacked people in broad daylight. Giant octopi lurked in caves waiting for unsuspecting boys to pass above. These attacks, documented by the records of the time, happened as early as 1895 and as late as 1934.

Not all animal attacks on the coast of Mendocino happen solely on land. One aquatic attack happened to a sixteen-year-old boy named Zeno Manning in the fall of 1934 during abalone season. Zeno and two of his friends, Raymond Miller and Lloyd Miller, went diving for abalone at Noyo Point during low tide. The three went out a fair distance. While Zeno was looking under a rock, a large tentacle reached out and grabbed Zeno around both of his legs–holding them together. Another large tentacle then grabbed Zeno around the waist and pulled him under the water. Zeno’s call for help was heard by his two friends who instantly came to his rescue. The only weapons they had were their abalone bars–large, heavy, pieces of metal used to get the stubborn abalone off the rocks. With only these bars the boys frantically started beating the monster, but it wouldn’t let go of Zeno.

Lucky for them there was a large wooden plank nearby that they used to pry the beast off of the rock where it was perched. When they pried the octopus off of the rock, they continued beating it with their abalone bars. The monster finally released Zeno and instead grabbed the wooden plank with its tentacles. When it was clear that the monster was dead, they dragged its limp body to shore. The monster was later revealed to be an octopus that measured eight feet from tip to tip.


There were many grizzly bears along the Mendocino coast. The earliest account of a serious bear attack was in the early 1900s at Cuffey’s Cove. One of the first non-Native American settlers along the coast was a Portuguese man named Fransisco Faria, known as “Frank”. Frank told the story to Jim Skiffington, and Jim put Frank’s story in the Mendocino Beacon.

“When Frank finished his stockade to keep bear out, he put pins in all the posts so that when the pack train came in they could hang elk quarters on the pins. Well, one old grizzly would rear up, reach over the fence, take the quarter and go. To try to stop him, they set a row of posts inside and away from the fence. It was no use; he came over the fence, and the meat was gone anyway.”

“Then Frank built a store  house for his own meat, and figured this was safe. One day he killed a big fat buck and brought it home and put it in the store house. The bear came over the fence, tore out the side of the store house, and took the buck. That was too much. Frank sent an Indian up to Fletcher’s (at the mouth of Navarro) to borrow the big gun. The Indian came back with the gun.”

(Fletcher was also an early settler who had the largest gun in the area. Fletcher eventually got so tired of lending people his gun that he had a special barrel made that weighed two hundred and thirty-one pounds so no one except him could lift it.)

“Harvey Bell was there, and he had a muzzle-loaded pistol that shot a good sized slug. They put a big charge of powder in the rifle, and sixteen of those slugs.  They had a big chopping block and fastened a quarter of meat to that; then Frank waited for the bear.”

“The bear came in so quietly that night that Frank didn’t even hear him until he was at the block. Frank turned loose the old gun at a big object he could hardly see between him and the stars. There was a terrible roar, and Frank ran into the house. They wouldn’t let him go out again until morning. When daylight came, they found he had blown a hole right through the bear’s heart. They estimated that the bear weighed a thousand pounds.” “Frank said after that he was bravo for bear.


After the incident described in the last story, and told by Frank to Jim Skiffington, Frank was now fond of hunting bears. Frank and a man named Taylor started on a hunt down the coast. At Malo Pass, they ran into a bunch of grizzlies. Frank shot and knocked one down, but it got up and got into the bush.”

“Taylor went around to see if he came out, but Frank was impatient and started in after him. The bear let him pass, then gathered him in with his good leg (the other had been shot), and went to work on him. He grabbed Frank’s head, and Frank shoved his left arm up, And the bear took that and started chewing on it. Frank would hit the bear on the back once in a while with his other arm, calling to Taylor, who finally got there. The latter said, ‘I can’t shoot or I will hit you.’ Frank answered, ‘Shoot, or he will kill me anyway.’ Taylor shot and finished the bear, but the bullet also went through Frank’s leg. Taylor went out and got the Indians, and they packed Frank home. They put elk steaks on the wounds and took care of him for six months until he was able to get around again.”

After the attack, Frank’s arm was in such bad condition that he could only hold his pipe in his hand. Children always asked Frank how he got the large scars on the back of his head, neck and arm. He would tell them the story, wheezing the whole way through because of his injuries, and say that the wheezing was the bear’s spirit living inside him.

Exhibit item: SADYE MADALENE HAGEMAN, Children of Grizzly: How They Learned the Secrets of Health, illustrated by H. Boylston, 1927Exhibit item:
Children of Grizzly: How They Learned the Secrets of Health
Illustrated by H. Boylston, 1927 

Picturesque California, 1894

“… They held that the grizzly bear was the father of the Indian. The mother of the Indian they asserted to have been the daughter of the Creator, who dwelt in Mount Shasta.

They held that the mountain was, of old, hollow like a tent; that they could see the smoke coming out from the top of the great wigwam. And their story is to the effect that once when the wind was blowing fearfully from the ocean … the Great Spirit sent his daughter up to beseech the wind to be still; that he warned her not to put her head out for fear the wind would get into her hair, which was long as the rainbow, and blow her away.

Being a woman, however, she put her head away out, and so was blown out and down to the very bottom of the snow where the chief of the grizzly bears was camped with his family. The Indians further insist that the grizzly bear at that time talked, walked erect, and even went hunting with bow and arrows and spear, and the story goes on to say that, in violation of all the laws of hospitality, the daughter of the Great Spirit was made captive and compelled to be the wife of the chief’s son, and so became the mother of all good Indians.

Finally when the great spirit found out what had happened to his daughter, he came out and down the mountain in a great fury; and calling all the bears together he broke their hands and feet with a club and made them get down on their all-fours like other beasts. He made them shut their mouths so that they could talk no more forever, and then, going back and down into the hollow of Mount Shasta, he put out the fire in his wigwam and was seen no more.

And as evidence of the truthfulness of what they say about their origin, [Indians] point to the fact that the grizzly bear is even yet permitted to use his fists and stand up and fight like a man when hard pressed.”

Grizzlies on The Great Seal of California


The Great Seal of California
Click here for larger version.

Eureka! (I have found it)

Under the gaze of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, a miner works near the Sacramento River. A grizzly bear rests at her feet and ships ply the river. The Sierra Nevada mountains rise in the background. Wildlife, agriculture, natural beauty, commerce, and opportunity are all represented on California’s Great Seal.

The state motto, Eureka, sits over the mountains. A Greek word that means “I have found it,” Eureka refers the discovery of gold in California. The miner, working with a pick, is another reference to the gold that was found in California. A pan and a rocker are also depicted on the seal near the miner. The pan was used to separate the gold from the dirt; just add water. The rocker is a larger and more sophisticated “pan.” It allowed miners to process more dirt and sand faster. At the time the seal was designed, people were coming from all over the world looking to “strike it rich” in the gold fields.

Virtually all of the products coming in and out of California were carried over water routes at the time the seal was designed. Mining supplies, letters from home, luxuries, household items, and gold were all carried on ships. From the eastern United States, ships sailed south around Cape Horn and north to California. The ships, on a representation of the Sacramento River, symbolize the commercial greatness of California.

A sheaf of grain in the foreground represents California’s agricultural wealth. In fact, many who came looking for gold found farming more profitable. Today, California is an agricultural giant among the states.

At the feet of Minerva, stands the California grizzly bear. A symbol of strength and independence, the grizzly bear is the Official State Animal and is the prominent feature on the California State Flag. Grizzly bears were, at one time, common in the state but the mass movement of people into California during the gold rush strained their habitat and caused their numbers to decline sharply. Today there are no wild grizzly bears left in California.

Original 1849 designClick here for larger version of 1849 seal.

The seal was designed by Major R. S. Garnett of the U.S. Army, and adopted at the Constitutional Convention of 1849 before California became a state in June 1850. At the time of the seal’s adoption, thirty states comprised the United States. Near the upper edge of the seal are 31 stars, anticipating California’s admission. The original 1849 design is depicted to the right.

In 1937 minor changes were made to the seal.

Stories of the Cahto Tribe
Grizzly Woman Kills Doe
(This is a line-by-line translation (within the limits of English readability)

Old Woman Grizzly had her head near the fire 4 at the house, they say.

Bluejay sat on the roof, they say.

Old Woman Grizzly (and her younger co-wife Deer), they went to gather clover, they say.

“Well, I will hunt for lice for you,” she said, they say.

“Well, I will hunt for lice for you,” she said to her younger co-wife, they say.

She cracked open her head, they say.

“Well, go to sleep,” she said to her younger co-wife.

“Okay, I will look”

She put in sand, they say.

She built a fire, they say.

She took out her eye, they say.

Then she took out her other eye, they say.

She put her eye in the seed basket.

Then she put her other eye in the seed basket, they say.

She put clover on top of it, they say.

She put it in the seed basket, they say.

She carried the clover into the house, they say.

She brought it into the house, they say.

She gave clover to the children, they say.

“My mother’s eye, my mother’s eye!” the boy said, they say.

He led her two boys, they say.

“Go into a hollow tree,” she said, they say.

They went in, they say.

She pushed in grass, they say.

She fanned smoke in front of it with a fire, they say.

Their mouths stopped crying, they say.

Then she took them out, they say.

She carried them to the house, they say.

She scraped them, they say.

She washed them, they say.

Then she gave them to Old Woman Grizzly, they say.

She ate them, her own children, they say.

The children left, they say, they ran down to the creek.

Great Blue Heron had made a fishing weir, they say.

They ran down

There was the fishing weir, they say.

“Grandfather, put your neck across, Grandfather,” she said, they say.

“When Old Woman Grizzly runs down and you put your neck across for her you must throw it to one side.

Let her drown,” she said, they say.

They went out on the other side of the stream, they say.

“She eats her children raw!

“What are the children saying?”

“They’re just saying this, they’re saying, ‘She eats her children raw,'” Bluejay said, they say.

Then Old Woman Grizzly ran, they say.

She ran down to the stream, they say.

“Brother-in-law, put your neck across for me.

I will cross,” she said, they say.

“My children are beckoning to me with their hands.”

Then he said, “Yes,” they say.

Then she started across, they say.

Then, right in the middle of the water, he tipped it, they say.

She drowned, they say.

That is all.

Professor P. E. Goddard’s Translation

Grizzly woman used to lie with her head close to the fire. Bluejay, her husband, used to sit on the house-top (and make flint arrowheads). Grizzly woman and the younger wife, Doe, went to gather clover.

“Let me hunt your lice,” said Grizzly woman. “You go to sleep,” she said, taking her head in her lap. She bit the lice and nits, sprinkling in sand (upon which she bit making the expected noise). She cracked her head. She built a fire and dug out one eye and then the other. She put them in the burden-basket and covered them with clover. She carried the clover home and took it into the house. She gave some of it to the children.

“My mother’s eye, my mother’s eye,” said the boy. Doe’s two children led Grizzly’s two out to play. “You crawl into this hollow log,” said one. The bear children went in. The girl, the elder of Doe’s children, stopped up the opening with grass and fanned in smoke until the crying ceased. She drew them out, scraped them and washed them, and took them to the house, presenting them to their mother. Grizzly ate them (thinking them to be skunks).

The children went out and ran down to the creek where Heron had a fish weir. “Grandfather, put your neck across for us,” they said. “When Grizzly old woman comes down and you put your neck across, you must pull it one side and let her drown.”

They ran across and began to call out, ” She eats her children raw.” “What are those children saying? ” the old woman asked. “They only say, ‘She eats her children raw,’ ” Bluejay finally replied.

She ran out of the house and down to the stream. “Brotherin-law, put your neck across for me, I will cross. My children are beckoning to me with their hands,” she said. “Very well,” he assented. She started to cross. When she was in the middle of the stream he tipped his neck and she fell in and was drowned.

That is all.

(Based on Cahto oral traditions and beliefs) More Laytonville Cahto Tribe Stories- Cahto Stories

| Exhibit item: SAMUEL A. BARRETT, Pomo Bear Doctor’Suit [photograph]

Exhibit item:
Pomo Bear Doctor’Suit [photograph]

Handbook of the Indians of California, 1925

“The powers of the finished bear shaman were several. He cured bear bites. He also gave demonstrations, such as digging in the fire and producing a living snake, or in the hard-baked ground under the fireplace and bringing up a mouse nest.

Their most important and spectacular function, however, was to go out, alone, or in twos or threes, to kill persons against whom they held a grudge, or people of other localities against whom their own tribe entertained avowed or concealed enmity.”

Pomo Bear Doctors

Read at: http://www.sacred-texts.com

by S.A. Barrett


UCPAAE 12:11 pp. 443-465.

Contents Start Reading

This is a monograph on a typical variety of native Californian shamanism, the animal-impersonator. This describes the practice among the Pomo, a Northern Californian people. Despite the title ‘Bear Doctor,’ these shamans did not cure: they were berserkers, as befits their totem, with a license to kill up to four people per year. Topics include how they fit into Pomo Creation mythology, initiation rituals and comparisons with other Northern Californian groups.

Title Page
Origin Account
Acquisition of Power
Hiding Places
The Magic Suit
Weapons and Their Use
Rites Over the Suit
Communication Between Bear Doctors
Panther Doctors
Comparison With Yuki Beliefs
Comparison With Miwok Beliefs


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| Exhibit item: Pomo Bear Doctor’s Dagger, Facsimile Dagger made by Curt Stevenot, 1970s, Collection of Ira Jacknis

Exhibit item:
Pomo Bear Doctor’s Dagger
Facsimile Dagger made by Curt Stevenot, 1970s
Collection of Ira Jacknis


University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology, 1917

“A bear doctor usually carried one and sometimes two elk-horn daggers. Such a dagger was from six to ten inches in length and was made by pounding at its base and breaking off the large end point of an elk antler and sharpening its tip.”

In his 1937 book, Joseph Grinnell, first director of Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology (1908-1939), included descriptions of the seven subspecies of the California Grizzly first identified by C. Hart Merriam.

“It is a curious fact that the larger the animal the more difficulty we have in gathering accurate information about it.”

Merriam and Grinnell made every effort to recover grizzly skeletons and other specimens when reports of killings reached their attention during the last years as the number of grizzlies declined.

Exhibit item: HARRY DIDIER LAMOTTE, Statement from Harry Didier LaMotte: manuscript, undated

Exhibit item:
Statement from Harry Didier LaMotte: manuscript, undated

Harry LaMotte was only eighteen when he came to California in 1849 and set out to find gold in Humboldt County. In his dictation for Hubert Howe Bancroft he tells of an Indian belief that the corners of the square earth are supported on the shoulders of four grizzly bears. When an earthquake occurs, the Indians must all stand up and yell to persuade the bears to stop fighting and quiet down.


Bring Back the California Grizzly


Bears (Noonii)
Bear (term used for both kinds) noonii bear illustrations
Black Bear doolii
black Black Bear nooniilhtcing (“black bear”)
blue/silver Black Bear nooniilhtsow (“blue bear”)
brown/cinnamon Black Bear toolee
white-footed Black Bear chinyaantc (“little one that eats sticks/wood” ?)
white-footed yellow Black Bear keelhgai (“white foot”)
Grizzly Bear ch’ilhghee, ch’ilhghii, ch’ilhgheechow (“(big) fighter/killer”)
Grizzly Bear noonii-lhtciik (“red bear”)
Grizzly Bear shash Exhibit item: No. 5 Bear Trap, Collection of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, University of California, Berkeley Exhibit item: C. HART MERRIAM PICTORIAL COLLECTION, 'Hiram Kennedy (age 82) with Bear Trap,' Long Valley, Calif. July 31, 1917. Photo by S.W.B. StephensExhibit item:
No. 5 Bear Trap
With permission of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, University of California, Berkeley 

Exhibit item:
“Hiram Kennedy (age 82) with Bear Trap”
Long Valley, Calif. July 31, 1917
Photo by S.W.B. Stephens

The trap on which Kennedy is resting his foot is similar to Newhouse’s “Great Bear Tamer.” The skull he holds is from a grizzly killed with the help of the trap.

Title: Grizzly
Author: Bret Harte [More Titles by Harte]

Coward,–of heroic size,
In whose lazy muscles lies
Strength we fear and yet despise;
Savage,–whose relentless tusks
Are content with acorn husks;
Robber,–whose exploits ne’er soared
O’er the bee’s or squirrel’s hoard;
Whiskered chin and feeble nose,
Claws of steel on baby toes,–
Here, in solitude and shade,
Shambling, shuffling plantigrade,
Be thy courses undismayed!

Here, where Nature makes thy bed,
Let thy rude, half-human tread
Point to hidden Indian springs,
Lost in ferns and fragrant grasses,
Hovered o’er by timid wings,
Where the wood-duck lightly passes,
Where the wild bee holds her sweets,–
Epicurean retreats,
Fit for thee, and better than
Fearful spoils of dangerous man.
In thy fat-jowled deviltry
Friar Tuck shall live in thee;
Thou mayst levy tithe and dole;
Thou shalt spread the woodland cheer,
From the pilgrim taking toll;
Match thy cunning with his fear;
Eat, and drink, and have thy fill;
Yet remain an outlaw still!

Biography Francis Bret Harte was born in Albany New York on August 25, 1839. In 1854, his mother, a widow, moved him to California. In California Harte worked as a miner, school teacher, express messenger, printer, and journalist. While in San Francisco writing for The Californian he worked with Mark Twain, Charles Warren Stoddard, Prentice Mulford  and  the editor, Henry Webb. He contributed many poems and prose pieces to the paper. Bret Harte was appointed Secretary of the United States Branch Mint at San Francisco. He held that office until 1870.Harte became the first editor of the Overland Monthly. “The Luck of Roaring Camp” published in the Overland Monthly brought him instant and wide fame. He was thereafter requested to contribute poems and articles to a number of publications. His stories of the American West were much in demand in the eastern United States. In 1871 he moved to New York. He later moved to Boston. Harte continued to write poetry and prose, and enjoyed wide popularity. 

In 1878 Bret Harte was appointed United States Counsul at Crefeld, Germany.  Harte was transferred to Glasgow, Scotland in 1880. Thereafter he resided in London.

He died in Camberely, England on May 6, 1902.
A Brief Biography of Bret Harte [from the Central California Poetry Journal with selected poems]

Harte’s family settled in New York City and Brooklyn in 1845. His education was spotty and irregular, but he inherited a love of books and managed to get some verses published at age 11. In 1854 he left for California and went into mining country on a brief trip that legend has expanded into a lengthy participation in, and intimate knowledge of, camp life. … Harte, Bret at ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA

Note that most sources say he was born in 1936.

His writing …  

Brett Harte was locally in Humboldt for most famous for his writing about the Humboldt bay Indian islad Massacre, for which he was hastily chased out of town for documenting the facts:


Quoted from a February 28, 2004, San Francisco Chronicle Story by William S. Kowinski:

Just before dusk, several hundred people are expected to gather, as they have on the last Saturday of February for 13 years, at the edge of Humboldt Bay in Eureka, across from a small, tear- shaped island half a mile away….

…The forested land they can see across the bay, still called Indian Island, was the scene of one of the most notorious massacres in California history. At least 60 and perhaps more than 200 women, children and elders of the Wiyot tribe were slaughtered with axes and knives by six white men, known to be landowners and businessmen.

This was one of three simultaneous attacks at different locations that sent the small tribe spiraling toward extinction 144 years ago.

For a long time, it seemed they were extinct.

But the Wiyot tribe, denied federal recognition in 1953, regained it in 1990, and moved to a new reservation at Table Bluff, south of Eureka’s city center, where 450 tribal members now live.

“We are still here,” said Cheryl Seidner, the Wiyot tribal chairwoman since 1996 and a direct descendant of an infant survivor of the Indian Island massacre. “We are still a people. We still cast a shadow, we are not gone.”

Grim recapitulation

By a quirk of the California coastline, Eureka is the westernmost city in the 48 contiguous United States. Through the fate of history, it was one of the last places in America where Indians and European Americans confronted each other. In a sense, it recapitulated and condensed several hundred years of American history in a few decades.

In 1860, California had been a state for only a decade, and the city of Eureka, growing from its docks to push against the redwood forests around it, had been the seat of the newly formed Humboldt County for just four years. The Humboldt Bay communities of Eureka and Arcata began by supplying the gold miners prowling the northeastern mountains, but by 1860 had opened nine timber mills and were busily engaged in agriculture and shipbuilding. In 1853 alone, 143 ships left the bay loaded with timber, bound for San Francisco and other ports.

But far northern California had many small tribal groups of Indians living in its forests and mountains and along its rivers and coast, some for 10,000 years.

The village of Tuluwat on Indian Island was the physical and spiritual center of the Wiyot world, which was made up of 20 villages spread over 40 square miles, with a population of perhaps 3,000. There is evidence of Wiyot presence on the island for at least 1,000 years. But for many white settlers, Indians were a not-quite-human barrier to progress. Local newspapers supported a policy of extermination.

On the last Saturday in February 1860, the Wiyot completed their weeklong world renewal ceremony at Tuluwat, to bring the world back into balance and mark the equivalent of their new year. The small boat arrived late that night, while the Wiyot men were away gathering supplies.

The massacre on Indian Island was not the first in the region, nor would it be the last. It was part of an accelerated pattern of destruction, beginning with random killings and rapes by miners and ranchers, and including kidnaping and legal slavery of mostly women and children under California’s 1850 Indian indenture law. Later, Indians were forced into forts and small reservations under concentration camp conditions, and finally, those still living on their lands were subject to organized warfare by local militia while federal troops fought the Civil War. Together with the ravages of disease, an estimated 15 local tribes were reduced to five.

But Indian Island became the most infamous massacre in Northern California probably because of Bret Harte, who before achieving literary fame reported for a newspaper in Arcata. His account of the massacre and his editorial condemning its cruelty made him a local outcast, but anonymous letters to a San Francisco newspaper rumored to be his work were largely responsible for the national knowledge of this event. Editorial writers in San Francisco and in New York began referring to Eureka as Murderville.

Though the names of those responsible for the Indian Island massacre were apparently widely known, no legal action was ever taken against them. As Eureka became a prosperous commercial center, and Humboldt Bay became the busiest port between Seattle and San Francisco, this part of the past seemed better left forgotten….

…”The past is not dead,” as William Faulkner wrote. “It’s not even past.” ….

…Community awareness of the Wiyot story increased dramatically in the late 1990s when Seidner began to raise money for the purchase of the 1.5 acres of Indian Island where the world renewal ceremonies had traditionally taken place. At the vigil in 2000, Seidner announced that as a result of many small contributions from the local community, together with donations from Indian organizations and individuals nationally, the tribe had reacquired this land. The Wiyot would return to Tuluwat…..

…An anonymous letter about the massacre thought to be from Bret Harte was sent in 1860 to the San Francisco Bulletin asserting: “The pulpit is silent, and the preachers say not a word.”

“They did nothing, they said nothing,” said Clay Ford, current pastor of the Arcata First Baptist Church. “We realized that we needed to take responsibility before God and before the Wiyots for what Christian people did not do, even if we weren’t there.” After making a formal proclamation of repentance, Ford handed Seidner the first of annual checks on behalf of the Humboldt Evangelical Alliance…

….All of this is also preparation for the future, when the vigil will be over and there is a ceremony at the end of February again.

“Cheryl recognizes that land is at the heart of the ceremony,” Lang says. “Ceremony needs a place, and there’s no more significant place than Tuluwat on Indian Island.”…

An annual Indian Island Candlelight Vigil is held every Febuary. For more information on the vigil and the Wiyot visit: “www.wiyot.com”



Albert B. Elsasser

This article originally appeared in Symposium: A New Look at some Old Sites, Papers from the Symposium Organized by Francis A. Riddell, Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for California Archaeology, March 23-26, 1983, San Diego, California. Coyote Press Archives of California Prehistory 6:49-54, 1986.

It seems fairly evident that A.L. Kroeber was aware at an early date that two sites, one in southern Washington, and one in northwestern California, were of key importance to the archaeology of the region called the southern Northwest Coast and its immediate environs. These sites were the Wakemap site on the Columbia River and the site on Gunther Island. The Gunther Island site, besides being a sort of landmark–the only high spot at the northern end of the island–was also considered a focal point of a massacre by local whites of the resident Wiyot tribe. This ghastly event took place in 1860, and was in some measure responsible for the subsequent near-extinction of the Wiyot. Many Wiyot from several other sites in the region of Gunther Island also suffered heavily in the same massacre.In 1913, L.L. Loud spent four months in the Humboldt Bay region, and attempted to chart the Indian sites in a manner similar to that which N.C. Nelson had done earlier on San Francisco Bay. He stated that about one-half of this time was spent in excavating the site on Gunther Island. At the time he was there, Robert Gunther, who had acquired the island in 1860, was living, and was able to give Loud much information about the main site which referred to the time before Loud’s visit. He spoke of a small Indian village at one end of the site, the house types, and estimated that only about 50 persons were living on the site before 1860. The village was also known as the seat of an annual dance ceremony, held in February, and lasting about a week. It was during one of these February weeks that the 1860 massacre took place.

Gunther Island was mostly tidal marsh, except for two shell-mounds, in prehistoric times, and has been diked by white settlers. One of the sites has disappeared, evidently, while the site we are discussing still remains in remnant form at the northeast end of the island. In 1971 a bridge from Eureka to Samoa was competed, with one of its foundations near but evidently not directly anchored on the site. I don’t know the extent of the damage while the bridge was being built. This was before the time, effectively, of organized cultural resource management, and the bridge seems to have been thrown up without very wide, if any, notice being given to possible further destruction of the mound.

Loud’s excavation report was published in 1918, and remained for more than 30 years practically the only published representation of northwestern California archaeology. Loud’s work allowed distinguishing of two cultural layers; he found 22 burials, but in excavating to a depth of about 275 cm, he found comparatively few artifacts scattered in the midden. At the lowest depth, in “marsh material consisting of carbonized wood and vegetable detritus,” he collected the sample used much later in the Carbon 14 dating of around A.D. 900 as the supposed time of first occupation of the site. In general he brought to light the salient artifacts, mostly burial accompaniments, which enabled later archaeologists to refer to part of a regional culture sequence as the Gunther Pattern or Phase.

Probably there had been numerous pot-hunting forays on the site even before Loud’s day, and almost certainly at various times afterwards. Dating from the early 1920s, a local dentist named H. H. Stuart purchased a lease on the site and excavated in places where Loud had not dug. Stuart produced a chart showing that he had found about 382 burials during the course of the next 30 years. He claimed never to have found any evidence of burial of the Wiyot who were massacred at the site in 1860. Records of a sort were kept, unfortunately, on only 142 of the 382 burials he found. It is clear that Stuart was reasonably careful with the 142 burials, but measuring his standards against Loud’s, he would probably have been classified as a slightly above-average private collector looking for spectacular items like the unusual animal-form carvings of slate or steatite which Loud called slave killers. Stuart claimed to have spent more time taking measurements and making records than in excavating.

From a Eureka newspaper article dated 1965, I have found that another private collector, a teacher from Eureka named T.J. Hannah, had spent the past two and one-half years excavating on the island. The report (Rinehart 1965) refers to Hannah in quotes as a “student,” and to his activities, also in quotes, as “salvage.” I do not know the present whereabouts of his collection, nor if he kept records of any kind.

During 1964, I was fairly heavily involved in the publication of Stuart’s notes, copies of which Heizer had obtained before 1950 (Heizer and Elsasser 1964). Despite the care that went into preparing these sometimes sketchy data, Stuart was greatly incensed about the publication, and was threatening to sue the University of California for, in effect, not having treated his notes as he would have. I understood that before he could proceed with his suit, he was overtaken by serious illness, and the case was subsequently dropped. I gather from newspaper stories from 1970 (e.g., Hodgkinson 1970), however, that he seemingly relented, and was not unpleased that his work was now available to the public.

In 1965, I attempted to correlate Loud’s and Stuart’s data, and one part of this job was constructing a lengthy chart (Table 1) that combined their findings. This showed that though Loud’s sample was small, he had revealed most of the diagnostic classes of artifacts of the site, while at the same time missing a fair number of other kinds, which Stuart had recovered. It can easily be seen from this chart that, if nothing else, Stuart was zealous, although none of his excavations went below 152 cm, while Loud’s trench went down to 275 cm in one place at least. It seems that Loud’s suggestion of cultural stratigraphy in noting what he called cremations at lower levels (that is, below 91 cm) versus simple interments at upper levels in the midden was not confuted by Stuart’s finds, although Stuart’s “burns,” in a larger sample, far outnumbered his finds of simple interments. In addition, Stuart’s data strongly suggest not cremation proper, but pre-interment grave pit burning (a Central California trait); some of his graves evidently had no calcined bones, while others had bones which were scarcely burned. I might add here that the preferred method of burial by both ethnographic Wiyot and Yurok has been simple interment, not cremation or burning.

Some of the artifacts recovered after Loud’s excavation at Gunther Island are now in the Cecile Clarke Memorial Museum in Eureka. Probably Stuart gave some of these to the Museum, and some were collected by Cecile Clarke, who was a teacher in a Eureka high school at the time Stuart was working. All of this material is not very well documented, as far as I could determine from a visit I made there almost 30 years ago. I really do not know what has become of the bulk of the Stuart collection–perhaps it is at the Clarke Museum.

After Stuart’s time, there was, as I said, additional pot-hunting on the Island, and possibly even some controlled excavation of which I am not aware. In 1980, Suzanne Ramiller of Sonoma State produced an excellent, up-to-date overview of the prehistory of the northwest region (Ramiller 1980), and in this no mention is made of any but the sort of thing I have been talking about at Gunther Island–I assume from this that if any new reliable work has been done on the Island, it has not been reported, at least in any of the usual sources. Perhaps someone at this meeting can throw some light on this subject,

In recent times, that is since 1965 or so, several valuable surveys and excavations in the northwestern California region, for example by Fredrickson, Gould (1966); Milburn (1979); and Moratto (1973), have resulted in the presentation of a reasonably firm prehistoric culture sequence which includes the Gunther Island Phase in its middle range. In addition, we now seem to be in a fairly good position to estimate early population movements in the region by combining archaeological data with certain linguistic suppositions (cf. Whistler 1979). Unfortunately the Gunther Island site does not provide any definite archaeological evidence for these movements or changes, and even leaves us puzzled to some degree about the true identity of the late prehistoric occupants of the Island site. Although the site was so important in the historic period, both Loud’s and Stuart’s excavations seem not to have yielded any definite historic material beyond an iron harpoon part found in one of Stuart’s burial lots. Despite the facts of a village, known to be of small size, and of the site’s known use as a ceremonial place in the mid-19th Century, there were, then, virtually no signs of mixing of late prehistoric and historic artifacts in the burials. It has been observed that the simple interments usually contained much less artifact accompaniment than the graves that had evidence of burning. Moreover Stuart’s excavation disclosed several classes of artifacts, like ‘C’ shaped fishhooks, ‘offset’ pestles, and human figurines of clay, while both Loud and Stuart found small baked clay balls, and animal form ground slate figures. None of these kinds of artifacts was known either to ethnographic Wiyot or Yurok.

The graves with evidence of burning which Loud called cremations and Stuart “burns,” but which I am now referring to as pre-interment grave pit burnings, may well be suggestive of links with Central California. It has been assumed that the prehistoric Wiyot were more likely to have received such significant influences than the Yurok. Despite the physical contiguity and linguistic relationship (which is not notably close even though the two languages are in the same family), between the Yurok and Wiyot, Kroeber noted long ago (e.g., 1939) that they were more different in culture than one would at first suspect, with the Wiyot in effect pointing south and the Yurok pointing north. On the other hand, if we consider the data in Table 1, which was drawn up about 20 years ago but never published, it is obviously not very helpful in establishing long Wiyot residence at the site; if anything, it suggests Yurok predominance in prehistoric times.

In conclusion, I’d like to make the observation that we are really not much farther along than we were in 1918, when Loud published his report on the site, based upon a quite small sample, as it turned out, taken from a trench about 35 meters long. It is somehow appropriate that Loud himself collected the sample of organic material that was dated in 1964, pointing to around A.D. 900 for the earliest use of the site. It appears that Stuart’s largest contribution was in offering evidence that the site was more important as a burial and mollusc-collecting place rather than an intensively occupied village site. Given the extent of the only semi-valuable data of Stuart, plus the numerous unrecorded pillagings of the site for perhaps 100 years, it seems unlikely that we shall ever be able to obtain any definitive answers to lingering questions concerning the upper levels, at least.

Whatever the case, the site also continues to be of some public interest. I have read (Hayden 1982) that in 1973, two years after the Samoa bridge was built, an Indian organization was attempting to sue the City of Eureka for reparations in the matter of the bloody massacre of 1860, which probably will always be chiefly identified with the Gunther Island site. I mention this because, despite the public interest, the site may have been further damaged by the bridge building operation. If it has not, and the local Indians indeed would permit further excavation there, we may conjecture that the lower levels of the site, still presumably undisturbed except by Loud’s limited excavation, contain something of archaeological significance in them, including the possibilities of obtaining additional samples of material for radiocarbon dating.

It is said that the Far Western Indian Historical Association proposes to build a museum and cultural center on the 270 acre island, which is currently a National Wildlife Refuge. It appears that the days of predatory pot-hunters on Gunther Island are, or should be, over.

Table 1. Some Culture Elements Found at CA-HUM-67 Known Also by Yurok and Wiyot.

Element (No. from Driver 1939) Hum-67 Wiyot Yurok Remarks
Bone fish spear (233) X X
Vertical pole or plank as grave marker (2065) ? X Suggested at Hum-67 by relative lack of overlapping burials
Cemetery away from village (2072)1 X
Mammal bone hair pin (1138) ? X Inferred at Hum-67
Cemetery away from village (2071) X X
Manufactured stone club (912) X X
Buried property broken (2082) ? X Many specimens at Hum-67, not broken, although burned
All stone tubular pipes (1288) X X
Spatula-paddle shaped stone clubs (see remarks) X ? Found in Yurok territory by Indians (Driver 1939:391)
Orientation of burials2 N W N
1 The items titled “Cemetery away from or close to village” may not be applicable here, insofar as it is not clear whether the Gunther Island site was a bona-fide village site in prehistoric times.2 “Orientation of burials” at Hum-67 also is probably weak–it is statistical only, and does not indicate any rigid adherence to the northerly direction by whatever group was conducting the burial ceremony.

REFERENCESDriver, H.E. 1939. Culture Element Distributions: X. Northwest California. University of California Anthropological Records 1(6):297-435. Berkeley.

Gould, R.A. 1966. Archaeology of the Point St. George Site and Tolowa Prehistory. University of California Publications in Anthropology 4. Berkeley.

Hayden, M. 1982. Exploring the North Coast: A Guide to the California Coast from the Golden Gate to the Oregon Border. Chronicle Books, San Francisco.

Heizer, R.F., and A.B. Elsasser. 1964. The Archaeology of Hum-67: The Gunther Island Site in Humboldt Bay, California. Reports of the University of California Archaeological Survey 62:5-122). Berkeley.

Hodgkinson, E. 1970. Dr. Stuart Rediscovered a Lost People. Times-Standard, Sunday March 8, 1970. Eureka.

Kroeber, A.L. 1939. Local Ethnographic and Methodological Inferences. In H.E. Driver, Culture Element Distributions: X. Northwest California. University of California Anthropological Records 1(6):425-429. Berkeley.

Milburn, J., D.A. Fredrickson, M. Dreiss, L. de Michael, and W. Van Dusen. 1979. A Preliminary Report on the Archaeology of CA-Hum-129 /Tsahpek/. Submitted to California Department of Parks and Recreation, Sacramento.

Moratto, M.J. 1973. A Survey of Cultural Resources in and near Redwood National Park, California. Submitted to National Park Service, Tucson.

Moratto, M.J. 1980. Some Archaeological Research Prospects in Northwestern California. Appendix 3:116-123 in Resource Evaluations at Nine Archaeological Sites, Redwood Creek Basin, Redwood National Park, California, A. King and P. McW. Bickel, eds. Submitted to National Park Service, Redwood Park, Arcata.

Ramiller, S. 1982. Humboldt and Del Norte Counties. In Prehistoric Overview–Northwest Region: California Archaeological Inventory, Vol. 1, D.A. Fredrickson, general editor. Anthropological Research Center, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park.

Rinehart, F. 1965. Gunther Artifacts Tell Tale of Lost Tribe: Ancient Indians Far Surpass Moderns in Craftsmanship. Times Standard, November 7, 1965. Eureka.

Whistler, K.W. 1979. Linguistic Prehistory of the Northwestern California Coastal Area. In A Study of Cultural Resources in Redwood National Park, California, P. McW. Bickel, ed.

RR 70 – knife, Gunther Island, Humboldt Co. CA.

Indian/Gunther Island Site 67 (Tolowot) Marker Photo, Click for full size
By Karen Key, May 29, 2010
1. Indian/Gunther Island Site 67 (Tolowot) Marker

Indian Island

Indian Island egret and heron rookery.  Below; remains of the shipyard that occupied the island from the 1870s until 1980.  (photos by Charlotte Cerny)  Indian Island egret and heron rookery. Below; remains of the shipyard that occupied the island from the 1870s until 1980. (photos by Charlotte Cerny) 

Indian Island sits out in Humboldt Bay between Woodley Island and the Samoa Peninsula.

As you cross the Samoa Bridge heading west, shortly after the Woodley exit you will notice one of its prominent features,  the tall standing trees on the south side of the bridge.  These trees provide the nesting grounds for heron and egrets.    Protected  for the past 30 years by the Redwood Region Audubon Society, it is a part of the Humboldt Bay Wildlife Sanctuary and is considered the largest  known multi-species heron rookery in northwestern California.  Although it is not open to the public, it can be easily viewed from Woodley Island or the Eureka Boardwalk.

The Wiyot Tribe considers the rookery to be tied to their people.  The Wiyot people inhabited the Humboldt Bay region in a number of villages including Tuluwat on present-day Indian Island.   This site has always been sacred to the Wiyot people, given to them by the Creator as the center of our world. It is the resting place of centuries of Wiyot ancestors and where other Native Americans of the area were invited for the World Renewal Dance.

The brutal 1860 massacre of Indian Island’s inhabitants and visitors abruptly ended Wiyot occupation and centuries of ceremonial dancing and celebration. Most of the men among the Wiyot celebrants had traveled to the mainland during the night in order to replenish supplies when, during the early morning hours, a group of settlers paddled their boats over to the island and massacred as many as 100 women, children and elders. Only one newborn child survived.

Robert Gunther acquired the island in 1860, the same year of the massacre.  Gunther diked the island and ran dairy cattle there for nearly 40 years.  In the 1870s a shipyard repair facility was constructed.  The shipyard operated until the 1980s.

Indian Island, with its ancient shell mounds and rich history, remains an important symbol for many Northern California Native Americans. The Wiyot Tribe returned to the Island in 2000 with the purchase of a 1.5-acre parcel. In May of 2004, The Eureka City Council made history when they unanimously approved a resolution to return 40 acres, comprising the northeastern tip of Indian Island to the Wiyot Tribe.

After 140 years, the tribe has begun clean up and restoration of the land, and are seeking to reestablish its cultural connection to the island by once again hosting the World Renewal Ceremony on original locations with plans to build a place where traditional ceremonies can be restored to the island.

Today the 500 enrolled Wiyot tribal members hold an annual Candlelight Vigil in February of remembrance and healing, at which the entire community is welcome.

Directions: Located in Humboldt Bay between Eureka and Samoa. To reach the view point and historic marker, take the Samoa Bridge (Hwy. 255) from Eureka and exit at Woodley Island. Drive all the way and park at the west end, then walk a few yards north of the Fisherman�s Memorial Statue. Indian Island can also be viewed by canoe or kayak, but is not open to the public.


~ by NorCalNews on December 26, 2010.

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