Press "Enter" to skip to content

A Brief History of Early Mendocino County

Feliz Creek today, where it passes beneath Highway 101 at Hopland is, in the summer, a parched expanse of dry streambed that is barely discernible as a watercourse. Only when it comes alive in the winter as it runs off from its headwaters in the west hill and on into the Russian River can you get some idea of how crucial it once was to the pre-mission Indians traveling from Clearlake to the Pacific. They walked west up the seam of the Feliz into the hills separating Hopland from the Anderson Valley, pausing at the Feliz headwaters at the western tip of what is now the McNab Ranch before they walked over the ridge and into the Anderson Valley near Yorkville, and from Yorkville along what is now Fish Rock Road over the last hurdle of the Coast Range mountains to the Pacific. Indians made that annual trek for thousands of years.

There's a spirit rock at the Feliz Creek headwaters, a huge boulder covered with laboriously encrypted symbols carved into it over the millennia, thousands of years of directions, fertility prayers, perhaps statements of gratitude for the easy abundance enjoyed at the Edenic meadow the spirit rock sits in.

The Feliz Creek spirit rock stopped functioning as a pre-historic message board about the time of the Gold Rush when the Indians were suddenly ripped out of their ancient ways of life and began to die in large numbers. But on still nights, a mere five miles from interminable 101, it's easy to imagine this paradise as the Indians found it — thick with Feliz Creek's annual migrations of steelhead and salmon, and an unending amplitude of nourishing flora and fauna. These days, far below the spirit rock, at Hopland, a tourist interlude on Highway 101, there's an enterprise called Real Goods that sells unresourceful rich people the expensive technology they think they need to live like the Indians of the Spirit Rock time.

In two hundred years California has gone from Junipero Serra to California Cuisine and the computer. The ad-sals, as Mendocino County Indians called the white invaders, started slow but were soon everywhere, the first of them arriving in Mendocino County to stay in 1848.

The Indians predicted in their ghost dance prayers of the 1880's and 1920's that the ad sals would eventually be swallowed up in great cataclysms and they, the true people, the Indians, would resume living the old way they’d lived for millennia before the destructive invaders had descended upon them.

The Spanish missions were established in California late in the 18th century. They were the work of father Serra who'd walked on his martyrs bare feet from Mexico to Monterey. A garrulous fanatic, Serra committed himself to "slipping the gentle yoke of Christ” over the heads of "neophytes," as unyoked Indians were called by the Franciscans, all of whom had been born in Spain. The Indians resisted the yoke, and many died in a resistance so fierce and unyielding that they killed the babies born of rapes by the Spanish soldiers who accompanied the missionaries up and down Spanish California from San Diego to San Rafael and Sonoma.

The saving of Indian souls and the training of their bodies in the organized labor that would make the missions prosper was the earthly goal of the missionary effort. Dangling an irresistible amalgam of regular meals and eternal life, with Spanish soldiers standing by to make sure the Indians stayed with the padres when hospitality hour was over, the Franciscans had their first free labor. 

In a kind of cosmic irony, the religion of the pre-mission Indians, complete with one god and an after life whose rewards were based on one's earthly behavior, was very similar to the one imposed on them by the padres and their body guards.

Men separated from women, men and women separated from their tribes, many of the Indians of California south of what became the Sonoma-Mendocino county line were soon highly trained serfs whose skilled labor made the missions rich. The missionized Indians spoke Spanish, and had quickly become the fabled vaqueros essential to the success of the cattle-dependent land grant rancheros that had been established in the vastnesses surrounding the missions. Indian women were just as essential to the patrician comforts of the land grant estanzas as skilled household workers.

Heavy handed imperialists that they were, Spain, the monks, and the Mexicans who came after Spain and the monks, regarded Indians as human beings with souls worth saving; the ensuing Yankees saw the Indians as so many sub-human pests, and would wipe them out in the two murderous decades beginning with the Gold Rush.

The first Americanos to arrive in California in force, the gold seekers of '49, considered Indians as vermin, Mexicans as greasers, blacks as slaves, Chinese as yellow peril, and each other as snakes, but only Indians were killed recreationally. As a government report put the casual extermination of California's native peoples, “Never before in history has a people been swept away with such terrible swiftness.”

The missions absorbed Indians, Christianized them, Spanish soldiers and Mexican settlers married them, trained them as ranch hands and domestics, and preferred not to murder them so long as they remained docile and productive. Which they didn't. Early California history is replete with large-scale Indian uprisings and attacks on the missions and the Mexican rancheros and then the Yankee settlers.

Early on, European, Mexican and Yankee visitors would make the inevitable naked savage observation and then, in the same paragraph, marvel at how well the Indians seemed to do in all sorts of weather, how finely made and attractive Indian basketry was, how beautifully functional their cold weather clothing was. But the civilized men never took the next logical step in recognizing and being instructed by the genius of a people so perfectly at home in the abundance of the world as they found it.

One of the more thoughtful European observers did, however, came close to perceiving the root of Indian resistance. “You often hear of civilized men going native and never wanting to return to their former lives, but the desire among primitive people for civilization is non-existent.”

Once the Indians south of Mendocino County were thoroughly missionized — or dead — and the padres were confident that these “neophytes” believed that the mission life was superior to life back home with the tribe, the Christianized Indians would be sent out into the outback to bring in their wild brothers and sisters as replacement labor for the Indian labor lost to white man disease. By the time Mexico realized that the mission formula — armed proselytization — had created a string of highly prosperous outposts from San Diego to San Rafael and Sonoma, Mexico was inspired to declare independence from Spain and the missions privatized and parceled out to the well-connected.

That was it for the missions, a mere fifty years. California would belong to independent Mexico until the Gold Rush, less than thirty years after the last mission was privatized.

History was picking up speed.

The first mission at San Diego was established in 1769.

Spain and the Franciscan monks ruled California from their headquarters in Mexico City until Mexico declared independence from Spain in 1821.

Mexico loosely presided over distant California from 1821 until 1850.

In 1834, some eight million more acres of California had become the vast ranches of roughly 800 grantees, their domains reaching as far north as Hopland, hence the prevalence of the surname Feliz today after that first grandee. 

A typical land grant was ten square miles. These economically independent, self-sustaining ranchos were empires unto themselves. They grazed thousands of cattle, sheep and horses, and employed hundreds of missionized, Spanish-speaking Indians who made these sprawling fiefdoms as prosperous as fairy tale kingdoms.

The Gold Rush began in 1848, and California was a state by 1850 with uncharted Mendocino among its founding counties, but governed for nearly ten more years from the Sonoma County seat at Santa Rosa.

By the time of the Gold Rush, with Mexico exerting what government it could over the Yankee-dominated, restive new population of California, Mexican land grants had been established everywhere in the state as far north as what is now the Mendocino County line. There were two undeveloped land grants in the Ukiah Valley, but only the one based in Hopland was a working ranchero. Two Mexican aristocrats were given land in the Ukiah valley but they never established ranches on it. Hopland was as close as the outside world got to Mendocino County before 1850, apart from slave-taking expeditions into the Ukiah and Anderson valleys by Spaniards, then Mexicans, then Yankees as early as the first years of the 19th century.

The Gold Rush finished the Indians. The world rushed in so fast that the Indians of Northern California were engulfed, the Mendocino County Indians with them. By 1850, a 150-ton steamer, the Jack Hays, was hauling gold prospectors from San Francisco up the Sacramento River to Red Bluff, and Red Bluff was just over the Mayacama Mountains from what was inland Mendocino County in the new state of California.

While all the Spanish missionizing and Mexican land granting had gone on in the greater Bay Area, Mendocino County slept on, ancient ways unmodified by the missions, and only occasionally affected by missionized Indians. The only reason Spaniards and then Mexicans came north to Mendocino was to capture Indians for slave labor either on the missions or the rancheros spread around the great San Francisco Bay. But when Redick McKee made his long, post-Gold Rush slog from Sonoma to Humboldt Bay in 1851 — nine days from Laytonville to Fortuna alone — to convince the inland Indians to assemble themselves in area reservations, the Indians listened to “the little white father's” pitch then rejected it. As McKee himself put it, “They had seen a few white men from time to time, and the encounters had impressed them with a strong desire to see no more, except with the advantage of manifest superiority on their own part.”

McKee was the first Indian agent appointed for Northwestern California. (In an irony of local history it was a man named McKee who played a huge role in the back-to-the-land movement of the 1960s and 70s. The latter-day McKee sold thousands of acres of logged-over Mendocino and Humboldt county land to “hippies” on very easy terms.)

The first McKee’s instructions were to protect Indians by establishing reservations for them from Lake County north to the Klamath and Trinity rivers because Indians, wherever white miners and homesteaders had appeared, were being murdered in very large numbers. McKee's mission failed, and the Indians were finished as coherent tribal entities in another decade.

Little White Father McKee, incidentally, on his endless slog north from Clearlake, stopped by the cabin of the Ukiah Valley's first settler, George Parker Armstrong. A member of the McKee expedition, George Gibbs, would write, “We found a small building of logs, or rather poles filled in with clay, and thatched with tule. Its furniture was somewhat incongruous; for upon the earthen floor and beside a bull's hide partition, stood huge china jars, camphor trunks, and lacquered ware in abundance, the relics of some vessel that had been wrecked on the coast during last spring.”

George Parker Armstrong! Mendoland's first aesthete!

North of the Feliz land grant estate based at Sanel, as Hopland was then known, the Indians lived as they had for ages, mostly untouched but fully aware, and already wary, of the white civilization metastasizing south and east of them. The Northcoast Indians weren't “living naked in a state of innocence and ignorance,” as an early visitor to Northern California put it; they were merely unaware of the murderous imperialism about to overwhelm them, a people without guile, defenseless against people who were all guile.

No one among the early ad-sals admired the Indians as they found them — perfectly, ingeniously adapted to their world. The newcomers simply wanted what they saw as virgin land for their cattle, horses, hogs, and homesteads; the Indians were in the way. Literally. With their traditional food sources immediately disrupted by the settlers' cattle and horses, the Indians tried to live as best they could, begging or stealing from the homesteaders. But there was barely enough food for the settlers let alone whole colonies of disoriented brown people, and the homesteaders, struggling for survival themselves, murdered their desperate neighbors as simply one more obstacle to their success in the new land.

The Yorkville Indians tattooed their young women's chins because the Indians said the tattoos repulsed Catholic slave traders. Descendants of pioneer Anderson Valley families nevertheless wrote that the Spaniards were benign explorers who only wanted to extend European civilization into southern Mendocino, hence dewy-eyed statements like this one: “The visits of these Bueno Hombres with their religion, not greatly unlike that of the Indians, had a lasting impression on the Ma-cum-maks as they lived side by side with their kindly Spanish settlers.”

Also in the first quarter of the 19th century, parties of trappers, Russians with their Aleut-Pomo body guards, along with French, English and American trappers and mountain men, passed through even the remotest areas of inland Mendocino, some of them with their Indian wives and children in contingents of a hundred or so, the children suspended from horses and mules in the woven willow traveling cages that were the car seats of the time. And long before these ghostly parties passed through Sonoma and Mendocino counties, Sir Francis Drake had put in at Marin County where he marveled that a single Indian could easily carry burdens it took two or three of his sailors to lift, let alone move.

By 1840 the Russians had exhausted the sea otters that their outpost at Fort Ross depended on for cash flow and had sold Fort Ross and much of Bodega to John Sutter, the freebooting Swiss who, you might say, was California's first credit card entrepreneur, parlaying his mere signature with Honolulu merchants into an astounding 48,000-acre agricultural community just north of today's Sacramento that Sutter called New Helvetia. Sutter also bought and sold Indians, as did most of the early, pre-Gold Rush settlers the Mexican government had given land and citizenship to.

When the Russians sold out to Sutter and sailed out of Fort Ross just before the Gold Rush, Sutter dismantled the settlement, hauling everything he could use over to his Sacramento estates, first by sea down the coast to San Francisco Bay then up the Sacramento River to New Helvetia and Sutter's experimental farm and retreat at his Hock Farm on the Feather River not far from the Sutter Buttes you see to the east off 1-5. General Vallejo gave Sutter permission to drive the Russians’ surplus cattle and sheep through Sonoma and east on into the Sacramento Valley. Sutter outfitted his small army of the biggest Indians he could find in the uniforms of Czarist Russia left over from Fort Ross. They must have been an impressive sight galloping through the Sacramento Valley, and as a fighting force, Sutter's Indian army greatly intimidated the under-manned Mexican garrisons of the Bay Area in between their primary job of policing the always restive Indians of the Sacramento Valley.

Sutter had fully absorbed the successful formulas for prosperous colonization he'd seen at frontier forts east of the Rockies, which also ran on Indian serfs, and he'd seen the Russians’ thriving militarized outposts at Sitka, Bodega and Fort Ross, all of which were also dependent on Indian labor recompensed by free room and board, chits for purchases at the company store, and the coarse cotton Mexican manta shirts the Indians prized. Some Indians liked these arrangements, most didn't.

There were constant Indian rebellions throughout the mission and Mexican occupations, all of them foiled by the political genius of General Vallejo who'd made the 6'7” Solano, chief of all the tribes of the North Bay, his enforcer. The giant Solano was also giantly gifted. He learned to speak a perfect Spanish and an English superior to that of many English-speakers. Vallejo and Solano negotiated with dissident tribes when they could, ruthlessly suppressed those tribes with whom there was no negotiating.

By the time of the Gold Rush, enormous and enormously prosperous land grant cattle and sheep ranches checkered the state all the way north to Rancho Feliz at Hopland. The politically nimble General Vallejo served as regional administrator of the vast missionized land grant areas between San Francisco and Mendocino and Lake counties. He called his domain the Northern Frontier.

Indian women married into Spanish and Mexican families, and missionized Indian-Mexican men married unmissionized Indian women, and the new European-American ways of living thus radiated outward into southern Mendocino, mostly from the land grant Rancho Feliz in the present-day Hopland valley.

Rancho Feliz Indians had, since the founding of the vast rancho at Hopland, been related to Mendocino County Indian families in the coastal areas of the county. Ad-sal surnames like Azbill and Lincoln became prevalent in eastern Mendocino County, while Indians descended from the Spanish, then the Mexican periods of California, were named Cruz and Feliz and Lopez and Oropeza and Ortiz; descendants of those first mixed families still thrive in contemporary Mendocino County.

Steve Knight was one of the founders of the California Indian Brotherhood whose first meeting was convened in Ukiah in the winter of 1926. Knight is certainly among the most talented sons of Mendocino County. He steadfastly represented and defended the interests of the Indians of Mendocino County to white authority at all levels of government, up to the federal government. His was among the most articulate voices in summarizing the transition from Mexican to American rule as it affected Mendocino County Indians:

"Mexican people built no missions up here, so the Indians were allowed to live pretty much as they had been before and after the Mexicans came, and the Indians were given certain areas of land to use to grow things for themselves. They built brush fences around them, had their homes there, planted gardens, had corn and everything they needed to eat on these places. When the Americans superseded the Mexicans the Indians were aware of the change — they seem to have known there was a change — they didn't resent the Americans coming in where there was just a few came in, but finally then the miners came in by the hundreds and by the thousands, then trouble arose between the Indians and the whites. Then the American government sent agents among the Indians to make treaties with them in order to get the Indians on reservations where they might be protected, but mostly to forestall Indian uprisings. These agents came out, made treaties with the Indians, promising them certain reservations. The Indians signed these treaties in good faith. They thought these treaties were final when they signed their name to them — they did not know it had to have the approval of the Senate of the United States, so the Indians were expecting to be moved onto the new reservations, but these new promised reservations were being filled up by white settlers. Then those Indians realized that they had been fooled. But the old people up to very recent times (the 1920s) believed that the government would make some other settlement with them. These treaties were pigeon-holed in the archives of the United States Senate for 50 years. No one ever saw them until after the 50 year term had expired. Someone then dug them up and made a few copies of some of the treaties. When these old Indians were told about the treaties having been recovered from the archives they became very much interested and told the younger Indians about how these treaties were made, by whom signed.”

In January of 1848, before his Indian, Hawaiian and Mormon workers deserted him for the gold fields, and before the mobs of gold seekers overran Sutter's thriving estates, California was estimated to be home to 7,500 Spanish Californians; 6,500 foreigners; 3-4,000 former mission Indians living near towns or on ranchos. "Wild" Indians were not counted in this rough census; no one had any idea how many of them there were in the great unknown between Sonoma and the Oregon territory.

By 1850, the criminal drifters who had not struck it rich in the gold fields began wandering through Mendocino County's untouched magnitudes, much of it perfect country for the raising of sheep and cattle. Mendocino County's empty solitude surprised these first ad-sals; the rest of the state was already mostly claimed. The Mendocino County ad-sals couldn't believe their good fortune, and they weren't about to share it with the people who'd lived harmoniously in it for 12,000 years.

The first permanent white residents of the remote mountains and canyons of the Northcoast were killers and outlaws, many of them on the run from the settled areas of the country. The law was a late arrival to Northern California and, I would say from my contemporary experience, never has fully prevailed.

As the relentless Confederate sons of Missouri staked out Mendocino County's myriad, well-watered little valleys, they shot Indian men where they found them, helped themselves to Indian women, sold Indian children into slavery, rez-ed the Indians they hadn't managed to kill, indentured them, and segregated them for the next one hundred years.

Ukiah's schools were only integrated in 1924. Aggressively opposed by a majority of white residents, the Ukiah schools were finally pried open by court order in 1923, with Steve Knight leading the charge. The rest of the town remained segregated up through the 1950s with a nastiness as mean and low-down as the segregated American South. Indian women could not get their hair done in the town's beauty parlors, Indians were not allowed to try on clothes, let alone purchase them in the shops of the county seat, Indians could eat only in one Chinese-owned restaurant, and Indians were allowed in one Indian-only section of the Ukiah Theater. Two decorated Indian veterans of World War Two were denied breakfast at the Blue Bird Cafe when they got off a northbound Greyhound. Ukiah wouldn’t get all the way color blind until deep into the 1960s. 


  1. Norm Thurston August 28, 2019

    My g-g-grandfather brought his wife and children to Ukiah in 1856. He must not of thought he was placing his family in mortal danger. In my 66 years, I have never heard that my family fought any natives. In fact, we were taught to respect natives as children. My point is that, though atrocities occurred, many were able to coexist peacefully. That is the part of the story that is not addressed by Bruce. That is the part of the story that should be included.

  2. Cass Taaning August 29, 2019

    Fascinating history Mendocino County before California was a state. Spanish missionaries, Mexicans, Indians and white settlers. It’s a brutal story. Bruce Anderson focuses soley on the negative. Surprise? Not! My family came over on the Oregon Trail the 1850s and settled in Bell Springs and Covelo. They respected and befriended Indians and passed those values down to generations. We weren’t all pigs, Bruce. That aside, it’s still a good read.

  3. David Wolf August 29, 2019

    This thorough essay is reminiscent of the late Gaye LeBarron’s column in Santa Rosa’s Press Democrat newspaper where periodically, between timely opinion pieces concerning local political and social interests, she graced us with well researched reminders of Sonoma County’s past.
    Local history was a hobby of hers and her readers and friends would often record elders memories or do the tedious research for the joy she showed in receiving it and the potential reward of its future inclusion in one of her columns.
    I encourage you, Mr. Anderson, to pick up the mantle of populist local historian.

  4. Joan Burroughs August 29, 2019

    In response to those who believe Bruce is not addressing all Indian history: I suggest you read The California State Military Museum’s records regarding the Mendocino War. A copy of the issue appeared in Paul Bunyon News, Fort Bragg in 1952. Mendocino War article is located at the California State Archives, Sacramento. Bruce tread very lightly on the atrocities; we non-natives regardless of how well our ancestors treated the Indians should be mindful and acutely aware of what actually happened to these gentle people during the turbulent times of 1859-1860 in Mendocino County; we need to respect and honor their heritage not ours.

  5. Gordon Beasley August 29, 2019

    My g-g-grandfather was the third white settler in the Sanel Valley. Old Hopland out 175 was the Dooley Ranch. Never heard my g-grandfather mention anything about his father “fighting” Indians except the occasional fight on the weekends after ball games and such. I, like Mr Thurston, haven’t heard a lot of negatives in my 65 years although we know they existed.

  6. Ron August 29, 2019

    Take anything Bruce says with a grain of salt

  7. petrip August 29, 2019

    Gee…why would anyone want to not include any facts about their or their relative’s life,-
    especially regarding quite negative events- when telling descendants facts about their family history????

  8. Joan Burroughs August 29, 2019

    The Brief History of Early Mendocino County is a story about Native Americans, how they lived and died, and what happened to them during this tragic time. It is not a story about us. We are not part of the history Bruce is sharing with us.

    Those personal stories can, and should be told under another title and timeframe where it has relevance. Perhaps that will be Bruce’s next history project.

  9. Shitbird September 1, 2019

    The treaty document by Redick McKee with some text is included at the bottom of the Administration panel for the mural on Church Street.

  10. Lucina Vidauri September 3, 2019

    heartbreaking… My family is buried in Hopland. They were Native Americans from Marin displaced.

  11. Pastor Frank March 18, 2020

    My uncle was the late Richard Oakes, Alcatraz Island 1970’s, these stories are common place for Natives but strange to anyone else. 1850’s to 1890’s there were almost no natives here in California. A state bounty was placed on Natives, you can read this in the article I posted and our current Governor has apologized recently in 2019 for this very same thing. If your family records go back to this time in Ca. and they didn’t experience this, well that’s easy to explain, Natives were already dead or scared off, people are not proud of murder or harm, given the climate we live in today of perpetrator and victim, the law can seize property in a court case, why would anyone that acquired land like that shoot of there mouth by bragging or story telling? Natives will never get any land back, those are just facts, society tells Natives to get over it and get a job and work hard to get what everyone else has opportunity of. The first higher education institution for blacks, was founded in Cheyney, Pennsylvania, in 1837. It was followed by two other black institutions–Lincoln University, in Pennsylvania (1854), and Wilberforce University, in Ohio (1856). In California at the same time Natives are suffering a genocide, and reduced to ashes and then forced to reservations, no education, no political strength, no finances, and not even U.S. citizenship until WWI with an honorable discharge Natives received citizenship 24 years later in 1914-1918 and forward. An entire underclass held back from American freedoms and opportunities are all of a sudden supposed go from this to that? Beggars and thieves is what we were thought of, not a proud American moment but it’s real history that is not in school History curriculum today. In 1965 Natives were allowed to vote, so there voices started to count, now imagine a whole group of people like this expected to pull it all together and assimilate into White mainstream America, 1965 was at fever pitch with racism, the the 1970’s with Caesar Chavez (UFWA). When Richard Oakes stepped up it was our long awaited opportunity to get some of the American pie, then Richard was shot and killed on September 20, 1972 by Michael Morgan. So you see, we are still trying to rise as Americans.

  12. Gunnar March 30, 2020

    How do you get to the actual site. I would love to see it with my family.
    Thank you

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *