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The Fort Behind Fort Bragg

In this moment of shifting historical identities — the Fort Bragg City Council has taken up the question of whether to change the town's name on Monday — it might help to know what the original “Fort Bragg” actually was, leaving Braxton Bragg's career out of it for a moment. Braxton Bragg never visited the place and it is not much of a stretch to say that Fort Bragg was named after the man, but the town was named after the fort.

Fort Bragg was not some generic frontier outpost like you see in the movies. Though tiny and remote, Fort Bragg and the Mendocino Indian Reservation played large roles in the “settlement” of Northern California, if you understand “settlement” to mean ethnic cleansing.

From the late 1840s on, diverse, deeply-rooted peoples had to be cleared from every acre of Northern California before "Northern California" could exist.

The north part of the state had and still has the most diverse native peoples and languages on the North American continent, and some of the densest native populations in North America as well. Pomo, Yuki, Cato, Wailiaki, Mattolle, Wintun, Huichnom, Sinkyone and many others were the names of peoples that filtered into English — ancient peoples, each with their own language and culture while knowing several others, living side by side on territories of sometimes less than 100 square miles, for millennia. We truly cannot imagine what and who was lost.

Uprooting those peoples is why Fort Bragg and other reservation-based forts existed. The rancherias of Mendocino County and all over California — Sherwood Valley Rancheria has the closest ties to the land around Fort Bragg —- are home to those families who persisted and prevailed, and stayed on their home ground.

So let's take a look at old Fort Bragg, mostly through the able efforts of Beth Stebbins, author of "The Noyo,” a fine early history of the northern Mendocino Coast. Stebbins used the resources of the renowned Mendocino Historical Research, Inc., which evolved into the organization that runs Kelley House Museum in Mendocino today. Understanding better what the original Fort Bragg was, and what lessons it holds for us today — what's worth remembering, if not celebrating — might help decide if it's worth keeping the ol’ Bragg around after all.

On Sept. 15, 1857, Lt. Horatio Gates Gibson, who had just recently named Fort Bragg after his commanding officer in victorious Mexican campaigns (not just because Bragg was from North Carolina, like the namers of the eastern Fort Bragg did), had this to say about Mendocino Indian Reservation operations:

"Further observation has only confirmed the truth of all my former statements and the Indians are now in a worse condition even than they were at the date of my report to Capt. Keyes. Though not actually starving, articles of food are rarely issued to them, and only to those who labor, and such as are furnished to them are of the poorest quality, unwholesome, and insufficient for their subsistence. Complaints are made even by the employees on the Reserve in regard to this matter. That they are obliged to make the Indians work day after day, and yet have no food to give them; that the Indians complain to them and beg for food, but that they are unable to relieve their wants. I examined a few days ago some flour sent from San Francisco for issue to the Indians, and found it to be a mixture of bran, sawdust, coarse cornmeal and a little flour. It is so bad that even the Indians refuse to eat it. This flour purports to have been purchased, like all other supplies sent to the Agency, at the highest market rates. The supplies of grain etc. raised on the Reserve by Indian labor are totally inadequate for the support of the Indians. It is true they can procure shellfish and seaweed on the Reserve in abundance, and that they are permitted to leave the Reserve to gather grass seed, acorns, etc. for their subsistence. Fish are also abundant in all the streams which water the Reserve, especially the Noyau, and are there caught daily with the seine or deep sea lines outside the harbor. Except the refuse small fish, which are given to the Indian boatmen, I have never seen the Indians receive any. The large fish are dried and salted down, and I half suspect for other purposes than issue to the Indians."

That description captures much of the story of the Mendocino Indian Reservation — fraud, cruelty and exploitation, carried out largely by the civilian contract employees of the agency, who milked and bilked their ways through government contracts on an outpost which, in the 1850s, as far as outside oversight went, including law enforcement, might as well have been on another planet. The Mendocino Coast at that time was a three-day's journey by ship from San Francisco, a few weeks on horseback over millennia-old trails. There were no built roads.

Stuck out on a windy headland was the "fort,” really a cluster of whitewashed, plank buildings about a mile north of Noyo Station, which was the business and shipping hub of the reservation, and a farm, on the sunnier, southfacing slopes overlooking the Noyo River. There were stations on Bald Hill and on the Ten Mile River as well, and a large farming operation where MacKerricher State Park is today. 

Ft. Bragg, Indian Reservation, Mendocino Co (photo by Carleton Watkins circa 1860)

Fort Bragg proper housed two dozen or so soldiers who, at least by the reports of commanding officer Lt. Horatio Gates Gibson (who, as noted above, named the fort after his commanding officer on victorious campaigns in Mexico), spent their time building fort buildings and chasing around the woods after native people, who left the huge, unfenced reservation at will.

The soldiers also chased, though apparently never caught, white criminals who made a trade out of attacking native camps and stealing children in the chaos. They then sold the children in legal markets in Sacramento and San Francisco.

Even into the 20th century, it was not uncommon for native children to be taken from their families at birth and placed in orphanages, later to be put with white families as indentured servants or farm labor. This slave trade was in addition to the official practice of taking native children from their families and putting them in special schools until they were 18, schools where "kill the Indian, save the child" was the watchword. Genocidal policies of the State reached into the spiritual realm: Native Californians' religion, kept alive despite decades of outright bans, was illegal in the State of California until 1934.

Old Fort Bragg's headquarters were about where the replica Fort Building on Franklin Street is now, next door to City Hall. The hospital, which was the unwalled fort's westernmost structure, was on the hill now occupied by the Guest House Museum.

Both Fort Bragg and Noyo Station (the station and its farm were approximately where the hospital, police station and health club are now) had housing — soldiers at the fort, native workers at the station — in the form of blockhouses arranged in a U-shape around a central square.

In the middle of the square at the fort was a parade ground for exercising the (artillery-less) artillery company stationed there. The square at Noyo Station centered on a sweat lodge built by the native people for meetings, religious ceremonies and general social purposes. (The government in 1857 apparently had not got around to outlawing native peoples' religion, or maybe the federal government's policy was more lenient than the state's.)

The life of the native people on the reservation — various tribes were driven there from all over the North Coast region — must have been one of misery and terror — also courage, resourcefulness and compassion, as families stayed together and sometimes even returned to their homes through horrendous struggle and privation.

The life of the soldiers at the remote, foggy outpost comes through as drab, frustrating, even infuriating sometimes. Gibson had to beg for basic supplies while frequently noting the corruption and waste going on around him, over which he had no authority. 

A later commander at Fort Bragg, Lt. Edward Dillon, cannot hide his anger at having to act as a kind of referee as the child-stealers plied their trade:

"There are several parties of citizens now engaged in stealing or taking by force Indian children from the district in which I have been ordered to operate against the Indians," Dillon reported to his superiors in 1861. "As many as forty or fifty Indian children have been taken. This brutal trade is calculated to produce retaliatory depredations on the part of the Indians. These men keep the Indians constantly on the alert, attacking and chasing them before us and following in our wake for the purpose of obtaining children to be sold in the cities and ranches to the south."

The chaos and unending grief no doubt played a part in closing the Mendocino Reservation after eight years, just as the Civil War ended, in 1865. Fort Bragg ceased being an operational fort, but retained the name of the rough, informal farming and logging community, including both settler and native people, who remained. Thus, the city kept the name already in use when it formed in 1885.

Genocide and ethnic cleansing was the State of California's explicit policy in the first 30 or so years of its existence, and essential to establishing uniform "legal ownership" of the state's lands. California Governor Peter Burnett declared in 1851 "That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the two races until the Indian race becomes extinct."

The Mendocino Reservation and surrounding forests and coastal meadows are good examples of how territory went from indigenous homeland to "free" public domain, to government controlled sections, to “private” property, often through transactions that were irregular to say the least.

Indigenous occupancy held no sway, unless no one else wanted the land. Squatter's rights often carried the day, as long as the squatter was white. Mexican, black or Asian people fared little better than Indians in those early days when land was parcelled out to the well-connected by the square mile and the rough shape of modern California was cut from the “wilderness.”

The area around Cleone no doubt was a favored spot before settlers came — even today it is rich in water and all kinds of wildlife, its meadows protected from ocean winds by a screen of pines.

In the years after the fort closed, a man named Duncan MacKerricher, who had been employed by reservation agent E.J. Whipple, just sort of inherited the rich farmland he was working for Uncle Sam a few miles north of the fort, along with a large native workforce.

“It is thought advisable," states a letter from the California Department of Indian Affairs in 1866, "that the Indians should remain at their present location for the time being; they desire to remain until the lands of the reservation shall have been sold by the government. At this locality they obtain large quantities of fish and clams, and many of them find employment at the lumber mills in the vicinity at fair wages, with which they obtain clothing; their presence is not obnoxious to the few settlers adjoining the reservation, nor is their labor required on the reservation at Round Valley at present; as soon, however, as the interests of the service require it, they will be removed.”

In 1949, the State of California honored the descendants of Duncan MacKerricher by naming Mendocino County's newest state park after him.

A little piece of Kadiu, the ancient Pomo town at the mouth of the Noyo, has never stopped existing, right through the fort days, the logging days, and now the tourism days. Much of Kadiu lies under the dredge spoils to the west of the North Cliff motel, and under the Noyo Beach parking lot and North Harbor Drive.

But native families have always lived on the millsite. First they were on the Noyo Bay bluffs and flats — the ancient site of Kadiu — then they moved to the north end, near Glass Beach, then moved back again to the bluffs overlooking Noyo Bay. Today that strip of land and houses is known as the Noyo Indian Community. Sherwood Valley Rancheria's tribal council is the governing authority. Their relationship with the Union Lumber Company, then Boise-Cascade, and now Georgia-Pacific/Koch Brothers, is private.

It wasn't that uncommon in early California for owners of large holdings to take on native communities, sometimes people living on their actual homelands, as resident workforces. A ranch in western Sonoma County included two Kashaya Pomo villages that were continuously occupied into the 1950s.

The old Fort Bragg is in some ways a miniature of California's beginnings: the uprooted and devastated native peoples; the varied groups of people, including indigenous, thrown together in unlikely new communities; the fantastical early land deals, the dishonored treaties.

But there is something inspiring too.

History is full of “lasts” when it comes to Indians: last chief, last stand, last “wild Indian.”… Tribes “vanish.” Whole peoples are suddenly just gone, or soon will be, the writer is usually sad to say.

The thing is, it's just not true. Not true in America or in California, and that is also the story of Fort Bragg.

The people living today as the Noyo Indian Community are the great-great-great or so grandchildren of people like Arthur Campbell, who grew up on the Noyo bluffs in a Pomo-speaking household in the first years the 20th century. Arthur Campbell stayed at Kadiu/Noyo all his life, and grew up to be a sought-after timber cruiser, known throughout the region for his ability to size up a grove of redwoods for its dollar value at a glance.

Arthur Campbell's great-grandmother was Lucy Cooper, who fled by night and hid by day all the way back from Round Valley, after she and her family and hundreds of others had been driven by the soldiers and their helpers, exactly like cattle, over to the inland reservation after the Mendocino Reservation closed.

Lucy Cooper made it back to Kadiu/Fort Bragg, raised her family here in the years between fort and town, and later became a renowned basket maker. (Fine Pomo feather baskets, Lucy Cooper's among them, are collected worldwide to this day.)

Harriet Campbell, who died in 2015, was Arthur Campbell's daughter, Lucy Cooper's great-grand daughter. Harriet went to the old one-room Noyo School on the north bluffs a little upriver, within the former bounds of the even older Noyo Station. But the families of her classmates in the 1940s were from all over the world — Finns, Swedes, Italians, Mexicans, Portuguese — whose parents and older relatives also worked at the mill and in the harbor and spoke the old languages at home, just like hers did.

Harriet remembered diving into schoolwork and softball, and mixing it up with the diverse, often first-generation immigrant Fort Braggers of the rough-and-tumble 1940s and 50s.

Later, Harriet was a longtime Fort Bragg High School secretary known for settling kids down. After she retired and was done raising her own kids, she served on many public boards and commissions and as an advisor to CalFire on how to handle native sites uncovered during logging and forest fires. Harriet, who lived on the north Noyo bluffs all but the last few months of her life, was instrumental in the content of the plaques concerning Pomo people at Pomo Bluffs Park. Her kids and grandkids (and great grandkids) and nieces and nephews, some of whom live at the Noyo Indian Community, nearly all of whom live locally, are teachers, business owners, organizers, artists, champion disc-golfers —in other words, at the heart of this area's most vibrant and neccesary communities.

The story of the first Fort Bragg is harrowing and dark in many ways, but there are stars against that darkness, like Harriet Campbell, Stanley Rhoades, and many others. One generalization about native people worth risking is, with some exceptions, they don't tend to toot their own horns. But they are here, most definitely. That is also the story of Fort Bragg, then and now.

That says nothing about how anyone, indigenous or not, feels about changing the name of Fort Bragg. But the names of places tell stories, true and false. At least the one Fort Bragg tells is true.


  1. Frank Casian June 25, 2020

    The City of Fort Bragg is failing the TRUE PEOPLE of our Coast….all to serve the continued WHITEWASHING of OUR HISTORY, to support the Supremacy Standard.
    The Council has a chance to right more than a few wrongs….sadly, they’re only shoring up the Bias and Hatred as has been all too common throughout the Bloody History of our coast
    And TRY AGAIN to show an understanding of the seriousness of this Travesty.
    Thanks Chris for an INFORMATIVE ARTICLE…?

  2. Jew June 30, 2020

    Just not true? Their great great great or so Grandparents were not in the habit of sizing up a grove of read words and understanding the dollar value. That was not their culture. What is this nonsense. You drive out of everybody and steal from them first. You were community of thieves, rapists, land rapists, slave drivers, And you still are. Just because you absorbed some of them into your evil ways doesn’t change anything.

  3. Carlin Otto August 12, 2020

    THANK YOU !!!! THANK YOU !!! for telling this wonderful story.
    May having it written down perpetrate it into the future, and disseminate it to
    a wider audience.

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