May 15, 1850 was a very bad day for the Pomo, a Native American people from northern California that you have probably never heard of. Because no one wants to talk about them, or what happened that gruesome day when Lt. Nathaniel Lyon led troopers of the U.S. First Dragoons Regiment, against a village on an island in Clear Lake. Sketchy and contradictory accounts claim that between 100 and 400 mostly women, children, and old men were killed and another 50 or more were run down and slaughtered as they tried to escape along the Russian River.
Of course, massacres of Native villages were not something new even then. They were, you should pardon the expression, as American as apple pie. And before the first protest, let me acknowledge that there were also massacres of white settlers committed by various tribes. What should probably be called the 400-year-long War of the Conquest of North America was brutal and terrible—a conquering people on one side and a desperate, doomed defense on the other, quarter not asked and seldom given.
The trouble is after all these years, even after school textbooks have taken a more sympathetic view of the native resistance, popular culture has kept the memories of hair-raising, bloody Red savages committing unspeakable atrocities on nice settler women in gingham and sunbonnets and their innocent, adorable blond children alive and well. Burning villages and troopers tossing papooses on their saber tips, not so much.
And it is also important to remember that the cycle of massacre and mayhem generally started with the invader/settlers. Way back in 1637 in the Pequot War, English colonists and Mohegan and Narragansett allies, launched a night attack on a large Pequot village on the Mystic River in present-day Connecticut, where they burned the inhabitants in their homes and killed all survivors, for total fatalities of about 600–700. And the village that was attacked had not even been involved in the minor depredations in Massachusetts Bay which started the war.
That also started a pattern. White militia and later regular troops could not tell “good Indians” from “Bad Indians.” They all looked alike to them, and frankly they did not give a damn. Time after time peaceful bands, even allies, were attacked and brutalized because they were easy to find and at hand. Notable instances include the massacre of the Praying Indians—a village of Lenape (a/k/a Delaware) who had been converted by pacifist Moravian missionaries—by Pennsylvania Militia in 1782 and the infamous Sand Creek Massacre by the Colorado Volunteer Cavalry who attacked and massacred Black Kettle’s peaceful Cheyenne who were flying an American flag in 1864. The Bloody River Massacre, as we shall see, fit into the same familiar pattern.
Since native warriors were notoriously hard for militias or Army troops to engage in the field—they tended to break up into small groups after raids and melt into whatever wilderness was available—settler troops early on began seeking out villages which, even if hostile were usually empty of warriors. That became pretty much standard U.S. Army operational tactics in the Indian warfare after General William Henry Harrison and his troops pushed deep into Shawnee territory to attack Prophetstown, seat of Tecumseh’s and the Shawnee Prophet Tenskwatawa’s confederacy. The idea was to disrupt the food supply of the tribes and to force them to come to the defense of their homes. After destroying several impotent villages, Harrison finally fell upon the main camp of hostiles defending Prophetstown and decisively whooped them at the Battle of Tippecanoe. After that searches and attacks on villages became standard operating procedure. Again, the hapless Pomo fell victim to the same strategy.
The Pomo had one of the most unfortunate of histories. At the dawn of the 19th Century, it is estimated about 10,000 of the loosely related peoples now lumped together as Pomo lived in a broad swath of northern California as hunter/gatherers and fishers who also traded with neighboring tribes for items using the magnesium rich red clay of the region which was used in making beads, dyes, and face paint. Not politically united, they lived in small bands or clans and spoke 7 related, but mutually unintelligible languages.
They had largely escaped the slavery and misery of the Mission Indian further south. But as Europeans pressed more deeply into the north, they came under pressure. They were attacked by Russian fur traders who wanted to force them to abandon their traditional hunting and fishing to trap for trade goods. Then the Dons of California began to arrive with pieces of paper from a far-off king giving them huge land grants.
Without central leadership and lacking a well-developed warrior culture the Pomo around the Big Valley Region and Clear Lake, were easily turned into semi-enslaved peons on Rancho Lupyomi, Salvador Vallejo’s vast 1844 grant from Mexico. The men were turned into vaqueros as Vallejo and his brother introduced beef cattle to the range. Women were discouraged from traditional fishing and foraging, and some were turned into house servants. Life was hard, and punishments cruel, but it was about to get worse. Much worse.
When engaging in seasonal fishing in Norther California lakes, Pomo bands built tule reed structures like this. Elsewhere they built a variety of crude huts out of whatever materials were available.
That same year American settlers aided by explorer and U.S. Army Captain John C. Frémont acting on his own authority established the Bear Flag Republic. Meanwhile the United States and Mexico went to war. Commodore David Stockton and the Pacific Squadron arrived to claim California and General Stephen Kearny led 150 Dragoons overland from Kansas via Santa Fe, New Mexico. After several battles with the Californios, California was secured and later ceded by Mexico to the U.S. in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
Under the circumstances American settlers Andrew Kelsey and Charles Stone were able to force a purchase of a large number of Vallejo’s cattle and established a ranchero of their own in 1847. With a handful of hired men, they raided Pomo villages, rounded up men women and children, and made them build a stockade in which to imprison themselves. All arms, down to simple knives and hatchets, as well as fishing gear were confiscated. With their wives and children held hostage, the men were once again used as vaqueros—and in back breaking labor building the grand hacienda and outbuildings, digging wells, erecting fencing, and other work. Women and girls were called to the house as sex slaves for the masters and beaten, sometimes to death if they resisted.
Rations for the enslaved Pomo were four cups of crudely milled flour a day—no meat or protein. It was hardly enough to survive on and soon many were dying of starvation and disease. Then, things got even worse.
In 1849 Kelsey took 50 of the Pomo men as laborers on expedition to the new gold fields to try placer mining. Kelsey got sick. His claim did not produce and in desperation he sold all of his slave’s rations to other miners. Most of the Pomo starved to death and only two made it back with Kelsey.
The remaining Pomo at the hacienda were becoming desperate. Under the leadership of Chief Augustine two of the men stole Stone’s horse in an attempt to kill a cow and smuggle the meat back to the stockade. But in a thunderstorm, Stone’s horse ran off. Knowing that the enraged Stone would wreck vengeance, horrible vengeance, Augustine had his wife, a maid in the hacienda, pour water on all of Kelsey and Stone’s gunpowder rendering it useless. At dawn the men armed only with a handful of hastily made and crude bows, cudgels, farm tools, and stones attacked the house in force. Kelsey quickly fell with an arrow and died. Stone tried to escape through a window and to run for cover. It is said that Augustine personally found him and crushed his head with a rock.
The Pomo knew there would be trouble. They hastily gathered all of the provisions they could carry, rounded up the families, and fled north hoping to join up with other Pomo bands.
Nathaniel Lyon as a Brigadier General and Commander of the Department of the West during the Civil War.
Word of the killing quickly reached a U.S. garrison and Lt. Lyons set out in pursuit. He got word of a large Pomo fishing camp on an island known to the Indians as Badon-napo-ti (Island Village), at the north end of Clear Lake. Lyons assumed the fugitive Pomo had headed there. He was wrong, those Pomo steered clear of the lake as they made a dash north towards Oregon Territory. The Pomo on the island did not even speak the same language and were, as far as they knew, at peace with the United States. Most were Habematolel Pomo of Upper Lake and from a band from the Robinson Rancheria. Most able bodied men were off hunting in the north leaving the fishing and drying of the catch to their women and children.
When Lyon arrived on the scene he recognized that the Island afforded the Indians some natural protection. He quickly sent to the Arsenal at Benicia where he obtained two small brass field guns and two whale boats which were hauled overland. Outfitting each boat with the cannon in the prow, he launched them in secret from the southern shore of the lake. Meanwhile highly undisciplined mounted militia joined his Dragoons.
On the morning of the attack Lyon opened fire on the village from the boats attacking the south end of the island. That naturally sent the inhabitants of the camp stampeding in a panic to the north of the island where they were cut down by musket fire from the wooded shore. The cavalry then splashed across the shallow water and began cutting down everyone they encountered with saber slashes. Babies and small children were bayonetted by dismounted troops and their bodies thrown into the water.
The Army encountered virtually no resistance. Lyon reported three light injuries. Almost every living person on the island was killed. Many of those who tried to escape in the water were shot as they swam or drowned. A few made it to shore and a desperate run for safety.
One six year old girl, Ni’ka managed to escape the slaughter by hiding under the water and breathing through tulle reed. Later known as Lucy More she became a folk hero to her people and her descendants continue to work to memorialize the massacre.
Lyon ordered his men to pursue the escapees and as noted over the next few days they hunted down and killed about 50 survivors. A general war against all native people in the north continued for month with members of any and all tribes ruthlessly killed whenever they were encountered. Large numbers of usually drunken Militia did most of this dirty work, but the Dragoons also participated.
Lyon, already cited for bravery in the Mexican War for capturing enemy cannon in the Battle for Mexico City, was proclaimed a hero all over again and his advancement in the Army was assured. He was soon sent to Bloody Kansas where conflicts with Missouri Border Ruffians made him an ardent anti-slavery man and loyal Republican. In 1861 as commander of the St. Louis Armory, he kept the powder and weapons there out of the hands of the pro-Confederate state government, secretly armed Republican Wide Awake militia, and attacked Governor’s Jackson’s camp, marching his prisoners through St. Louis. He also ordered his troops to fire on rioting Southern sympathizers killing 75.
For his ruthless efficiency, Lyon was promoted to Brigadier General and made Commander of the Department of the West, relieving the incompetent but politically well-connected John C. Frémont. Lyon at the head of Federal regulars and four quickly mustered and armed regiments of loyal Unionist Missouri Volunteers pursued Jackson and his troops across the state. After forcing the Rebels out of the capital of Jefferson City, he beat them at the Battle of Booneville, forcing them to retreat to the southwest.
On August 10, 1861 he caught up to the force of the Missouri Militia and Confederate troops under the command of Ben McCulloch near Springfield at the Battle of Wilson’s Creek. Lyon was killed during the battle while trying to rally his outnumbered soldiers. Although the battle was a technical Confederate victory, it broke the power of the south to operate conventional forces in the state and kept Missouri in the Union. That made Lyon one of the first great martyr heroes of the Union.
Keeping the noble hero’s reputation untarnished only partly explains how the Massacre at Bloody Island was quickly stripped from California’s collective memory.
As for the scattered Pomo survivors of the nasty little war, they lived on in small bands, many of them back in virtual slavery to local rancheros. Later, despite pleas for a unified reservation with enough land to hunt and fish, the local bands were assigned small Rancherias on marginal land. They were among the poorest of California Indians, and that is saying a lot. They survived on the tiny plots through much of the 20th Century, but current policy aims to move them to urban areas.
As brief as it is, the original Bloody Island historical maker was riddled with errors and glorified the massacre as a battle. Protesters have smeared the marker with red paint in protest. A more historically correct marker was erected near the passing highway in 2005 by the state of California and the decedents of a Pomo girl who survived the massacre by hiding in the lake and breathing through a tule reed.
As for the battle ground, Clear Lake was drained and “reclaimed” for agriculture in the 1930’s. The island is now a mound rising from the dusty lakebed. It is a California State Park. In 1942 an outfit called the Native Sons of the Golden West erected a historical marker a third of a mile off of U.S. Highway 20 noting that it was the site of a Battle between Cavalry under “Captain” Lyon and Indians under Chief Augustine. It attracted few visitors as the entire episode goes unmentioned in California history texts.
A more historically correct marker was erected near the passing highway in 2005 by the state of California and the decedents of a Pomo girl who survived the massacre by hiding in the lake and breathing through a tule reed.
Just to set matters straight, however, a second plaque was erected in 2005 by the Department of Parks and Recreation and the Lucy Moore Foundation, telling the story in greater, and more accurate detail.