The Nod and a Wink Slaughter: What California’s Native Genocide Looked Like
The Holocaust in Eastern Europe did its dirty work through centrally orchestrated paramilitary death squads, mass deportations and industrialized extermination camps. Yet this is hardly the only way to organize a genocide. In the 1850s, California’s Natives were decimated by some 200 local militia campaigns that all followed a similar pattern of pretext, attack and destruction.
Consider the Pit River expedition of 1859, named for a tributary of the Sacramento River that flows through the volcanic uplands east of modern Redding and Red Bluff, California. Two years earlier, anti-Native assaults by the U.S. Army and local militias had driven the Achomawi, Atsegui, Maidu, and Yana peoples of the region to refuge in the area’s deep and rugged canyons. Lacking food, Indians sometimes raided settler cabins and took livestock. By 1859, whites decided they had had enough of this inconvenience. They sent petition after petition to Governor John Weller to demand action.
Had he known about it, this supposed Native threat would have come as a surprise to George Lount, who in June 1859 had driven his cattle into the Pit River valley. Finding the local Achomawi and Atsegui peoples friendly and cooperative, he planned to pasture his herd in the valley until fall. Lount held to this opinion even after four whites were killed in two incidents not far away. The murderers had used guns and, Lount knew, had to be bandits, not tribal people. Joseph Rolf, another white ranching in the valley, shared Lount’s peaceful opinion of the locals.
But down in Sacramento, Weller was setting the table to launch a state-funded assault on the Indians Lount and Rolf failed to fear. The governor asked William C. Kibbe, quartermaster general and adjutant general of California, to assess the situation. It was dire, Kibbe reported back: hostile, revenge-seeking, gun-toting Natives numbering as many as 250 fighters were engaged in rustling, livestock killing, crop burning, and murder. Since the army was failing to address the threat, Kibbe advised Weller to order up a militia—whose members would, of course, be paid for their horses, ammo, food, time, and trouble.
Weller gave Kibbe the go-ahead, being careful to make his order seem restrained: “The women and children must be spared.” With a nod and a wink, Kibbe swung into action. He and his 90 men worked from south to north, starting at Butte Creek and heading toward the Pit River valley. They attacked every Native village they discovered, captured as many as possible of those they did not kill outright, and offered the survivors removal to a reservation in return for surrendering.
Wanting to get in on the action by hooking up with Kibbe, a vigilante force of 22 men arrived in the Pit River valley. On a dawn soon after, Lount and Rolf awoke to the sound of gunfire from the nearby Achumawi camp. The vigilantes were firing into the brush tents then falling upon the inhabitants with tomahawks. When they finished, the dead numbered 70, only 10 of them men. The village, with its litter of corpses, was burned.
Once Kibbe and his militiamen arrived on the scene, they hunted down the survivors of the vigilante assault then headed toward Hat Creek and the last Native holdouts. There, Kibbe wrapped his operation. He reported that 200 Indian fighting men had been killed overall and 1,200 men, women, and children taken prisoner. Not a single white died, clear evidence of the campaign’s lopsidedness. The captives were transported first to San Francisco, where their beachside encampment created quite a sensation, and then by ship to the Mendocino Reservation.
Kibbe characterized his military accomplishment as surgically precise: “No children were killed, and but one woman, during the whole campaign.” That was, he knew, a flat lie and a violation of his orders. Even though Lount’s account of the Pit River butchery made the front page of San Francisco’s Daily Alta California, Kibbe was never called out for his militia’s wholesale murder. And he felt no compunction at billing the state for precisely $69,469.43, approximately $1.9 million in today’s dollars. New governor John Downey gulped at the number yet considered it appropriate, given “the eminent services rendered by the officers and men composing the command.”
Indeed, the 1859 campaign had killed or captured most of the Native peoples in the eastern part of what now comprises Tehama, Shasta, and Butte counties. A few, among them the small band into which would be born the famous Ishi, escaped killing or capture and hid out, barely surviving.
As for Kibbe, he earned a reputation for playing fast and loose with military funds and property, yet kept his leadership of California’s militias until 1864. Then he returned to his native Brooklyn, New York, where he took a civil service job and lived peacefully until his death in 1904 at age 82. All the while, many of his expedition’s Native captives succumbed to poor nutrition, abysmal public health conditions, and recurrent epidemics. As happened again and again, the reservation completed the cycle of genocide Kibbe, his vigilantes, and the state of California had begun.
For Further Reading
“Arrival of Four Hundred Pitt River Indians,” December 16, 1859, and “The Pitt River War,” January 26, 1860, Daily Alta California, online at California Digital Newspapers.
Kibbe, William C. Report of the Expedition Against the Indians in the Northern Part of This State. Sacramento: Chas. T. Botts, State Printer, 1860.
Madley, Benjamin. An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2016.
Robert Aquinas McNally is a writer and poet whose book “The Modoc War: A Story of Genocide at the Dawn of America’s Gilded Age” will be published by the Bison Books/University of Nebraska Press in October 2017. Find out more about his work at RAMcnally.com.