Hastings Law grapples with its founder’s involvement in Native massacres
I am fortunate to have a job that takes me beyond the natural splendor of California, up and down the Pacific Coast, through dense stands of redwood, in the pastels of the high desert and around the hairpin bends of the Sierra. But reporting this story was a personal account. I couldn’t separate the carnage I was studying from the places I had left in the past: Russian river banks, clear lakes, islands off Eureka, each place with its own dark and terrifying past.
In 1850 a US Army captain, Nathaniel Lyon, wrote to his superiors about the “most gratifying outcome” of an expedition that trapped and killed Native Americans along the Russian River. Captain Lyon, a West Point graduate, wrote that the Native Americans could not escape an island in the river that “soon became a perfect slaughterhouse”. He estimated the number of casualties to be “no less than 75” and probably twice that number.
Some of the documents I found in the California State Archives were written in beautiful calligraphy that seemed to be inaccurate in their discovery material.
Walter Jarbo, a militia leader working for Hastings, wrote to Governor John Weller in 1859 about the discovery of Yuki tribesmen through Mendocino County.
“The fight lasted two hours,” he wrote factually. “Killed 23 Indians.”
I thought I was reporting from some haunted land. It reminded me of walking through pre-war Jewish cemeteries in parts of Eastern Europe where Jews were driven out. Or reporting from Cambodian villages and realizing that anyone who received an education above a certain age had been purged by the Khmer Rouge.
The knowledge of the massacre came with heaviness.
“People want and like positive history,” said William Bauer, a historian who grew up in Round Valley, California, and is a member of the Wellacky and Conco tribes. “It is easier and more pleasant to think about the past than when this kind of rigid individualism came to California, to participate in the Gold Rush, and to ignore the violence that took part in that event.”
Bauer told me that he had seen the Sacramento Gold Rush landmark Sutter’s Fort when he was in high school. He said that Indians were barely mentioned during the tour. He and many other historians believe that the way California history is taught needs to be changed to include the deeper realities of what happened to the Native peoples.
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