In California, genocide is never too far from home
Albert Speer, architect of the Third Reich, perhaps said it best. “Let me remind you only of the witch-hunts of the middle ages, the horrors of the French revolution, or the genocide of the American Indians,” he wrote from prison in 1953. “In such periods there are always only a very few who do not succumb. But when it is all over, everyone, horrified, asks ‘for heaven’s sake, how could I?’”
Our ability to put atrocities out of mind knows no bounds. Such is the case with a gruesome yet relatively forgotten episode from California’s past, the Bloody Island Massacre. What follows is based on accounts from survivors and both Indian and white historians.
It is 1850, near what today is the town of Kelseyville, on the southern shore of Clear Lake. Two white cattlemen, Andrew Kelsey, the town’s namesake, and Charles Stone own and operate a ranch purchased from Salvador Vallejo, brother of Gen. Mariano Vallejo. Pomo Indians on horseback ride herd for Stone and Kelsey, for which they earn four cups of boiled wheat daily.
Kelsey and Stone brutalize their subjects, raping the women and girls, beating and whipping the men and boys, shooting the occasional person at random. They periodically confiscate bows and arrows, knives and other weapons. Hunting and gathering are forbidden. The two encampments subsist on the four cups of boiled wheat each vaquero brings back to the camp at the end of the day, and the infrequent side of beef thrown to them by the whites.
It is winter, and the Pomos are starving. Two Pomo cowboys concoct a plan: Under the cover of night, steal Kelsey and Stone’s horses and rustle a couple of steers, then return the horses to the barn, no one the wiser. The scheme goes awry when the herd stampedes and the two braves lose the stolen horses. Faced with certain homicidal retribution once the crime was detected, the tribal leaders deliberate the rest of the night before deciding to kill Kelsey and Stone first.
Five braves armed with bows and arrows stage a surprise attack on the ranchers. Stone gets an arrow in the gut, locks himself in an upstairs room and bleeds to death. Kelsey is shot with several arrows in the back while trying to flee. As he begs for his life, a woman whose son had been murdered by Kelsey spears him through the heart. The Pomos leave the bodies for the coyotes.
News of the murders quickly spreads among all the Pomos that live around the lake. Eventually, it also reaches the Army garrison in Benicia. A brigade under the command of Capt. Nathaniel Lyon is sent to quell the uprising. They discover several hundred Indians huddled on Bo-no-po-ti, an island on the west end of the lake. Lyon has come prepared, with two whale boats fitted with small cannons in tow.
They attack the island with a pincers movement, using cannon fire directed at one shore to force the Pomos toward the infantry waiting on the far side. The soldiers do not discriminate, murdering men, women and children. Dozens fall under rifle fire. Women are raped, then beaten to death. Babies are speared with bayonets and pitched into the tules. The island runs red with blood.
As many as 200 Pomos were killed that day, a lesson that wasn’t lost on the U.S. Army, which later employed Lyon’s methods in the Plains Indian wars, which completed, for all intents and purposes, the extermination of this continent’s indigenous people.
Albert Speer was no stranger to the history of the American West, and neither was his boss. As Hitler biographer John Toland has noted, “Hitler’s concept of concentration camps as well as the practicality of genocide owed much, so he claimed, to his studies of English and United States history. He admired the camps for Boer prisoners in South Africa and for the Indians in the wild West; and often praised to his inner circle the efficiency of America’s extermination—by starvation and uneven combat—of the red savages who could not be tamed by captivity.”
Today, Bloody Island is a brush-covered mound of reclaimed land near Upper Lake. A solemn plaque placed by the state Department of Parks and Recreation and the Lucy Moore Foundation, named for a Pomo girl who survived the massacre by breathing through a tule reed as she hid beneath the water, commemorates the catastrophe.
Several miles away, what’s left of the Pomo tribe owns and operates the Robinson Rancheria Resort and Casino, the salve we’ve offered the state’s American Indians that will soon see California eclipse Nevada as the nation’s gambling destination. Who says we don’t get what we deserve? Let freedom ring.