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The Bloody Island Massacre Pomo Genocide on Badonnapati, Old Island

Content Warning

As part of our nation's history, Lake County's, and to inspire further progress, this is a story the Museums of Lake County needs to tell. We encourage parents to review the content here as it is "PG-13" in nature and encourage families to discuss this presentation together.

A company of the U.S First Dragoons regiment under Lt. Nathaniel Lyon shot and butchered as many as 400 Pomo people in a retaliatory rampage after a group of Native people rose up and killed their brutal enslavers, ranchers Charles Stone and Andrew Kelsey. It was an incident in which the victims at Bloody Island had no involvement. The vast majority of those whose lives the US Army destroyed were women and children.

Events Leading to the Massacre

In 1847, the Kelsey family ranched at Clear Lake with Charles Stone purchasing land and cattle once owned by Vallejo southwest of present-day Kelseyville. Both Andrew Kelsey and Charles Stone were in their mid-20s, having traveled over the plains just a few years prior. Laws at the time meant that any Native living on the land became the land-owners property. With this land acquisition, the Kelsey brothers and Stone also acquired enslaved Pomo people. Brutalized, and starved in chattel slavery under Captain Vallejo, these people faced much worse under the Kelsey's and Stone.

Benjamin Kelsey established "Kelsey's Diggings," a mining camp in the Sierra foothills near Sutter's Mill in 1849. Benjamin left Nancy and his children behind when he took 50-100 Pomo men from the ranch he partly owned with his brother Andrew, near modern day Kelseyville, to Rancho Lupyomi at the American River, in the Sierra foothills to mine for gold.

Once at the diggings, realizing more profit was to be made in selling supplies and facing an illness sweeping the camp Benjamin Kelsey sold all the company's supplies to other miners and returned home to Sonoma with $16,000 profit. Only one or two of their abandoned Pomo workers survived, all the others perishing from starvation and illness in the freezing Sierra foothills.

Showcasing their disregard for the lives of Native Americans, Nancy Kelsey wrote that once, when Ben was sick, she rode into Sonoma for medicine, where she was "accosted" (her word) by a Native American.

"I returned home with the medicine for my sick husband, but instead of taking it, he rode into town and shot the Indian dead." -Nancy Kelsey

Andrew Kelsey and Charles Stone ruled over their slaves through sadism and murderous force. Treating the Pomo people as a disposable workforce, any resistance was met with brutal force.

Rape and sexual abuse of young Pomo girls and women also occurred at the hands of the Kelsey brothers and Stone. Parents were separated from their daughters and husbands from their wives by the men through acts of violence or death. George C. Yount of Napa noted that they sought "freedom for their unbridled lusts."

When a father or mother of a young girl. was asked to bring the girl to his house by Stone or Kelsey. if this order was not obeyed. him or her would be whipped or hung" - Pomo William Benson's written account

Torture and beatings were routine by the white men on the ranch, with the lashes even resulting in death.

In the fall of 1849, the Kelsey's and Stone made motions to relocate all the Pomo people out of the area, sending the women and children to a ranch outside of Sacramento, and to take the remaining men to the gold fields.

Photo: Carleton E. Watkins, 1829 – 1916 - Humboldt Room, Humboldt State University Benjamin Kelsey (1813 Kentucky – February 19, 1889) Photographed by Carleton E. Watkins.

Charles Stone's and Andrew Kelsey's death

The catalysts of years of physical and sexual abuse, the potential to be forcibly moved, the death of so many at the gold fields and the routine starvation was set ablaze by one missing horse in December of 1849.

In an act of desperation, those on the ranch hired a man named Shuk, who later would be known as Chief Augustine, and another man, Xasis to kill an ox. Stealing a horse from the ranch, the two men attempted to slaughter an ox, and unfortunately the horse bolted. Knowing the value of the animal to Stone and Kelsey was greater than the lives of the Pomo. They planned a deadly uprising.

After a night of preparation, Shuk and Xasis along with 14 others laid a trap. In the morning, Stone, caught by surprise was shot with an arrow, before retreating to an attic to die, and Kelsey attempting flee, was caught and killed.

There are several conflicting accounts of this event, and historical record shows some variants of this event. Some suggest that Chief Augustine's wife, after being sexually assaulted sabotaged Stone and Kelsey's weapons', and others suggest that it was Kelsey that was shot first. Regardless, that morning both of the men were dead.

Following the murder of Stone and Kelsey, the enslaved Pomo's stripped the ranch of valuables and fled the area dispersing towards Scott's Valley, Upper Lake, and the mountains.

In 1950, due to looting and vandalism, a decision was made to exhume Stone and Kelsey’s remains and rebury them beneath a newly planned historical marker, which stands today.

Aftermath

"Protecting The Settlers" Illustration by JR Browne for his work "The Indians Of California" 1864. Portraying a massacre by militia men of an Indian camp.

Much like Nat Turner's 1834 rebellion of enslaved African Americans, the retribution for this uprising was made with violence and bloodshed, targeting all Native Americans in the region. From December 1849-May 1850 over 1,000 indigenous people were killed regardless of tribal affiliation in the region.

Hearing of his brother’s death Benjamin Kelsey organized vigilantes and began indiscriminately killing Native Americans. Their attacks on Natives in Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino County, killing tribal members of the Wappo, Coast Miwok, and Inland Pomo, creating an atmosphere of terror. Calling themselves "The Sonoma Gang," they slaughtered dozens of innocent Native Americans in Napa and Sonoma counties. These vigilantes lead by Benjamin Kelsey burnt down villages, and killed Native Americans without care for age, sex or tribal affiliation. Stopping only when seven of the gang were caught, charged and held on the USS Savannah moored in San Francisco Bay. They were released on $10,000 bail following the first-ever decision by the California Supreme Court. Five of the seven immediately jumped bail, joining Benjamin Kelsey (who for some reason wasn't charged) to become part of the 33-strong Union Company which founded present-day Arcata.

Collected a strong force and on pretense of going to the lake and punishing the murderers but instead of which they commenced an indiscriminate slaughter of the Indians who reside on farms working for Americans and in one night slew twenty. They were prevented by the citizens from utterly annihilating them..." “Letter from Peter Campbell” in Heizer, Collected Documents on the Bloody Island Massacre

Meanwhile, the 1st Dragoon's, an elite mounted Infantry unit stationed in Sonoma, founded with the intent to police the American frontier were alerted to the events in Lake County on December 25th 1849 and began to make their move in response.

Massacre on Bloody Island

First Lieutenant John W. Davidson and 23 Dragoon's led by Kit Carson's brother, began their journey to the Clear Lake Basin that morning. Near Calistoga, they opened fire and killed 35 people of the Central Wappo tribe. From there Davidson led the troops to Cyrus ranch in Calistoga, where after ordering the owner, Enoch Cyrus to "go away or he would be shot", called forth the Natives working at the ranch and opened fire, killing and wounding many.

Reaching Clear Lake, Davidson began his investigation, and despite their being multiple tribal groups around the Lake, Davidson concluded that a group of Pomo's on an island about 300 ft from the shore were the killers of Stone and Kelsey. Due to his unit's exhausted animals, and lack of artillery and boats, he proposed bringing an additional 60 men, boats, and weapons to target "all Indian tribes around the lake". With his request granted, they waited for reinforcements to arrive and the spring weather to make conditions more favorable.

Vigilantes continued their violent attacks on Natives throughout the winter and into spring of 1850. This served to instill terror into the survivors, quell any possible rebellion from other enslaved Natives and to enforce white supremacy.

Painting of Unknown Origin of Bloody Island Massacre

In May, addition members of the 1st Dragoons, a detachment of the 3rd Artillery and detachments of the 2nd Infantry arrived "with orders to proceed against the Clear Lake Indians and exterminate if possible the tribe" according to the Daily Alta California newspaper. Although many of the tribes around the lake had fled to the mountains, those on the island were unable to due to Davidson's position surrounding them. Containing many women, children and elderly, these people although Pomo were not the same tribal group as those who had killed Stone and Kelsey.

Led by Captain Nathaniel Lyon, these additional forces were instructed to negotiate and find the killers of Stone and Kelsey, however after reaching the basin, Lyon ordered his Pomo guides and interpreters to be killed, shooting one and hanging the other, preventing any chance of negotiation.

On the morning of May 15th, 1850 they began their assault on the island. Shooting, and stabbing the troops set fire to the island, and by boat and by shore killed any possible survivors. Although the number is disputed, most figures suggest the slaughter of about 150 people with only 2 of Lyon's men's injured.

The island became a perfect slaughtering pen" - Captain Nathaniel Lyon, who led the attack

Following the attack on the Island, the soldiers started for Mendocino county where they continued their assault. Both Davidson and Lyon's gained promotions in the Army. Lyon is noted as the first Union general officer killed in the Civil War.

Lucy Moore was present at Bloody Island on that day and survived by hiding underwater, breathing for many hours through a Tule reed while tucked against the breast of her mother's bullet-riddled corpse. She was six years old at the time.

California's Government Legalized the Slaughter

Peter Hardeman Burnett, the first elected governor of California (1849-1851) and one of the founders of Sacramento, was a former slaveholder from Tennessee, who wanted to create a white-only west.

His tenure as Governor saw the population of San Francisco increase from just 200 residents to more than 36,000 in a four-year period. 80% of Native peoples living in the newly christened state of California had been killed or died from diseases. Historical accounts document that between 9,000 and 16,000 were murdered shortly after the State's inception.

That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races until the Indian race becomes extinct must be expected. While we cannot anticipate this result but with painful regret, the inevitable destiny of the race is beyond the power or wisdom of man to avert. -1851 State of the State Address, P.H Burnett, Governor

On April 22, 1850, legislation known as “An Act for the Government and Protection of Indians” was used as a way to stop the livelihood of California Native people. The act allowed anyone to declare a Native person as a vagrant or take Native children to be servants.

“The name of the law sounds benign, but the effect was malign in the extreme degree. Any white person under this law could declare Indians who were simply strolling about, who were not gainfully employed, to be vagrants, and take that charge before a justice of the peace, and a justice of the peace would then have those Indians seized and sold at public auction. And the person who bought them would have their labor for four months without compensation.” - Historian James Rawls

Burnett set aside what would equate to nearly two-million dollars today to local militias to raid tribal outposts — which included the scalping of Native people. Aside from Bloody Island, there were a plethora of historically accounted massacres of Native people in the state, there were 150 Wintu killed in 1852, and an approximate 450 Tolowa people were killed in Yontocket in the year of 1853.

On February 26, 1860, about one hundred Wiyot people, mainly women and children, were massacred during a World Renewal Ceremony in Humboldt Bay. Sparked by a cattle being slaughtered after years of increased hostility by the settlers towards the Wiyot. In the spring, 1853, 450 Tolowa were killed by vigilantes at Battery Point in far northern California in what is today Crescent City due to a Native American being seen carrying a pistol.

The reign of terror and genocide that fell upon the Native people's of California was not only legitimized, but legally codified as the State continued to provide funding for extermination campaigns until the 1900s.

Official Governor Portrait of Peter Hardeman Burnett Credit: Peter H. Burnett, California's First Governor - Pacific Bank

Kurt Friede: A Modern Artist's Perspective

Kurt Friede was a classically trained artist, and illustrator. Retiring to Lake County after a successful career in Hollywood, he was commissioned to do at least two paintings of Bloody Island, and were donated to the Museums in 1999. The painting of the army in the whale boats bombarding Bo-No-Po-Ti, survives. Unfortunately the painting produced from the sketches, was sold by the museums in the 2004 deaccession auction.

A culture still a part of Lake County

The legacy of this event survives in the cultural memories of the Pomo people and the settlers who benefited from that action. The Museums of Lake County staff are frequently asked by guests out of the area if there are still Pomo people in the area. However, the tribes are still very much a living, breathing part of Lake County, whose roots extend beyond the formation of the county, to the land and the lake for thousands of years.

Following the events of Bloody Island, continued violence against California Indian's occurred to tribal groups. Land was taken, and generations were taken from their parents, and sent to be westernized at Indian Schools. Between 1906 and 1934, 54 rancherias were established in California, separate from the reservation system, and these they are small areas of land set aside around an Indian settlement included areas of the Clear Lake basin. In 1883, the town of Uncle Sam, changed its name to Kelseyville in honor of the Kelsey brothers and the ranch.

This plaque erected by the Native Sons of the Golden West in 1942. In 2002, an unknown person poured red paint over the face of the plaque and around the rock on which it stands, resembling spilled blood covering the monument.

Despite the massacre's legacy, Pomo people and culture continue in Lake County.

In memorial of the event, an annual sunrise ceremony is held to remember and honor the ancestors who perished on Bloody Island, led by Clayton Duncan, Pomo from Robinson Rancheria. Held for over 20 years, Clayton is the great-grandson of Lucy Moore, who at six years old, survived the massacre by hiding in the bloodied waters by breathing air through a reed.

This video, filmed in 2010 shows a mix of local and regional tribal members and others coming together for the ceremony hosted by Clayton Duncan.

The 2021 ceremony commemorates the 171st anniversary of the 1850 massacre.