by Hank Sims, March 3, 2010
It's still hard for some locals to accept that 150 years ago — five generations, a historical blip — Humboldt County was controlled by genocidaires. Our illustrious forefathers, the settlers of this county, were, in large part, twisted, scheming, evil men. They murdered the original people of this place for their own private gain, ruthlessly and sometimes whimsically, and they terrorized those among their own number who showed signs of conscience or dissent. They ruled through fear.
Despite overwhelming historical evidence, some of us nitpick this characterization or deny it outright. Some of us are still in the habit of seeking loopholes and half-excuses for the figures whose names sully our maps. We know this from experience; the last time the Journal published a history that told a piece of this story, many angry telephone conversations ensued.
This is a strange and unhealthy state of affairs. Our theory is that it results from a warped understanding of community. There is still, with some people, a sense of the word “we” that takes in folks who left this Earth many years ago. Some of us claim kinship — familial, racial or spiritual — with the most murderous of the Humboldt County pioneers, and for that reason rush to their defense when the old stories are told honestly.
A civilization that can't confront its history is not a civilization. Therefore, the Journal proposes the following general principle, and places it up for discussion: No one gets take credit for their ancestors' accomplishments, and no one has to accept blame for their sins. But if you want the credit, then you have to take the blame. That seems fair enough, and it allows enough space for honest accounts of how we — the living — came to inherit our world.
This week marks the 150th anniversary of the Indian Island Massacre, the most notorious of the many Rwanda-style bloodbaths that the early rulers of Humboldt County undertook against native people. And so the Journal is honored, as it has been in the past, to publish the research of historian Jerry Rohde, who for the first time names some of the pioneers involved in planning and carrying out the slaughter. More than that, he uncovers their motive, which is even more ignoble than had been previously imagined, and he unearths the surprising stories of the massacre's survivors.
This is Rohde's third story for the North Coast Journal. He is doing some of the most important work in Humboldt County today. If you missed his previous two stories when they came out, you should rectify that error now. http://www.northcoastjournal.com/041306/cover0413.html “Ricks to the Rescue” (April 13, 2006) is about the early battle between Eureka and Arcata for dominance over Humboldt Bay, replete with backstabbing and dirty politics. http://www.northcoastjournal.com/issues/2008/09/11/sonoma-gang/ “The Sonoma Gang” (Sept. 11, 2008) tells the tale of another set of Indian-killers who founded the city of Arcata, and of the civilized people who tried to resist them. In addition to their eye-opening insight into life as it was lived back then, both are excellent reads.
Hank Sims is editor of the North Coast Journal.