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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 hills 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 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. 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.

In two hundred years California have 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 on them.

The Spanish missions were established in California late in the 18th century. They were the work of father Serra who'd walked a martyred bare foot 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. 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 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 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, 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 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 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 and the missions 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.

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 mestastazing south 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 gave 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 east on into the Sacramento Valley. Sutter outfitted his small army of the biggest Indians he could find in the uniforms of Czarist Russia. They must have been an impressive sight galloping through the Sacramento Valley; as a fighting force, Sutter's Indian army greatly intimidated the under-manned Mexican garrisons of the Bay Area.

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 genius of General Vallejo who'd made the 6'7” Solano, chief of all the tribes of the North Bay, his enforcer. The giant, and giantly gifted, Solano 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; those 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 experience, never has fully prevailed.

As the relentless 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. Jonah Raskin November 11, 2015

    Great chronicles. I loved reading this. If you have more keep it coming.

  2. BB Grace November 11, 2015

    If you are interested in petrogliphs you might find this website very interesting. Thunderbolt Project: Electric Universe. On the right are videos (Youtubes), “Symbols of an Alien Sky” will amaze you

    Mars moon Phobos is in the news about how Phobos orbits around Mars will tear it apart. Yet, you might get other ideas watching “Symbols of an Alien Sky” and seeing the explaination for Mars scar, Phobos, and related features on Earth.

    I often wonder, If it wasn’t for the Frolic, would Mendocino County have been named Meig County? Because it’s pretty apparent the Union and it’s industrialists made land, river, creek claims protected by establishing forts on ports. Henry Meigs pier is now known as Fisherman’s Wharf, but to have an Early Hisotry of Mendocino without Meigs.. well..

    Jerome B. Ford should be part of it, but look.. there’s no connection on the web.. yet, Jerome Ford came to Mendocino under the orders of Meigs to take the trees to try to pay for what was lost on the frolic.,_California

    Also, or maybe especially, with The Frolic connection. What was The Frolic? An opium trader. When it sank Meigs split.. but wiki’s not sayin’. The evidense is scattered all over mendocino but you have to go to ALL the museums to connect the dots, and read books long out of print on acidic paper.

    State Parks handles the Meigs Ford story..not the County. Hmmm.

  3. George Hollister November 15, 2015

    The overriding theme of the decimation of Indian populations, at the time of the Age of Discovery moving forward, was the introduction of disease from Europe and Africa. Everything else that contributed to Indian extermination was either secondary, or could not have happened if mass death by epidemic had not occurred first.

    We don’t know, but have to assume that by 1800, the Indian population of Mendocino County had already been devastated. What Europeans saw in Mendocino County in the 1840s and 1850s, was a shadow of what was here when Columbus discovered America 350 years earlier. A good book that touches on this subject is “1491”, by Charles Mann.

  4. Jim Updegraff November 19, 2015

    Just a sad chapter in the story of the extermination of much of the Native American population and culture by the rapacious European invasion of their homeland.

  5. debrakeipp January 18, 2016

    Finally had time to read this. Beautifully written. Thanks.

  6. Noel Manners August 29, 2019

    Bob McKee of Whitethorn Construction, the man that sold land to hippie New Settlers in the 1960’s and ‘70’s told me that he is a direct descendant of the first Indian agent, Reddick McKee. No coincidence.

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