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An Informal 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 water course. Only when it comes alive in the winter as it runs off from its headwaters in the west hills into the Russian River can you get some idea of how crucial it once was to the Indians traveling from Clearlake to the Pacific as 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 westem tip of what is now the McNab Ranch before they walked over the ridge and into the Anderson Valley near Yorkville, and from Yorkville 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 the Indians 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 at the very end of the very western-most road of the McNab Ranch sub-division.

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 homes 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. And now, below the spirit rock at Hopland, a garish tourist interlude on Highway 101, an enterprise called Real Goods sells unresourceful rich people the expensive technology they think they need to live like the Indians of the Spirit Rock.

In two hundred years California went 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 1880s and 1920s 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 grasping, destructive invaders. The cataclysms are upon us, and are unlikely to spare anyone including, unfortunately, our first peoples.

The Spanish missions established in California late in the 18th century were the work of father Serra, a garrulous fanatic who talked constantly about 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 killed 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 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, The religion the Indians already had, complete with one god and an afterlife whose rewards were based on one’s earthly behavior, was very similar to the one imposed on them by the padres and their bodyguards.

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 land grant estanzas as skilled household workers.

Heavy handed imperialists that they were, Spain, the monks the Mexicans who came after Spain and the monks, at least regarded Indians as human beings with souls worth saving; the 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 it, “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 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 counter-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 the genius of a people so perfectly at home in the abundance of the world as they found it that they didn’t need anything the new world brought with it. One of the more thoughtful European observers did, however, come close to perceiving the root of Indian resistance. “You often hear of civilized men going native and never wanting to retum 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 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 and the missions were privatized.

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 California from 1821 until 1850.

In 1834, some eight million more acres of California had become the vast ranches of roughly 800 grantees, reaching as far north as Hopland. 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 them 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.

By the time of the Gold Rush, with Mexico exerting what government it could over a Yankee-dominated, restive 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 grandees 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, which the Spanish soldiers, acting for the missions, had well underway by the late 1700s.

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 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.”


  1. Laura Cooskey February 7, 2023

    Thank you, Bruce. Satisfying summary.
    “… the genius of a people so perfectly at home in the abundance of the world as they found it that they didn’t need anything the new world brought with it.” That’s my favorite phrase here.
    I have read a couple of books about whites taken prisoner by Native Americans and coming to love it. Mainly they are about Back East situations, set a century or two earlier than the conflicts here. Still, pertinent reading.

  2. John Hoe February 11, 2023

    Uh Real Goods has been closed for ages now. This reporter is oblivious.

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