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When Native Americans Were Forcibly Removed From a Mendocino Indian Reservation

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In the course of our team's research for the "California Coastal Trail" episode that focuses on MacKerricher State Park in Mendocino County, we learned that the land that is now the park was once part of the Mendocino Indian Reservation, a swath of land ten miles long and three and a half miles wide. The Native Americans who lived on that reservation, which was established in 1856, included people of the Pomo, Salan Pomo, Southern Pomo, Yuki, Wappo and Whilkut tribes.

In an 1857 letter from newly-arrived Lieutenant H.B. Gibson to what is today Fort Bragg, published in "The Noyo" by Beth Stebbins, Gibson recounted the dire conditions at the Mendocino Indian Reservation. Gibson described the near-starvation of the Native Americans, the poor quality of the little food they were given — including flour adulterated with sawdust, the suspected misappropriation of supplies and other resources by reservation administration and the need for a competent doctor. It was a potential powder keg of discontent that could explode at any moment, if conditions didn’t improve. 

And yet, according to Dr. David G. Lewis, author or "The War of Extermination and Traditional Food Gathering by Tribes in California, 1856," the reservations “offered the only safety for the tribes. They knew that if they left, they would be subject to being murdered by gun-toting Americans bent on their destruction...The killing of Indians was reinforced by state laws that allowed repayment for costs of killing Indians by the state, the proof of such activity being to turn in the scalps of the redskins (hence the origin of the word). The policy was reinforced by forceful pro-extermination statements in regional newspapers and by the first American Governor of the state Peter H. Burnett... ”

In his January 6, 1851 State of the State Address, Burnett declared:

That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the two races until the Indian race becomes extinct.
Enlightened Christian warfare in the 19th century. Massacre of Indian women and children in Idaho by white scouts and their red allies. Engraving, 1868. | Getty Images
(Original Caption) "Enlightened Christian warfare in the 19th century. Massacre of Indian women and children in Idaho by white scouts and their red allies." Engraving, 1868. | Getty Images
mackerricher duncan
Duncan MacKerricher  |

Around 1862, a mill worker named Duncan MacKerricher (1836-1926) got a job assisting Indian Agent E.J. Whipple on the Mendocino Indian Reservation. Two years later, in 1864, the Native Americans who lived there were forcibly removed to the Round Valley Reservation, which was at that time called Nome Cult Farm.

According to an 1866 letter from the California Office of Indian Affairs, the Mendocino Indian Reservation was officially “discontinued” on March 31, 1865, “the employés discharged, and the government property removed to Round Valley.” The letter further stated: “It is thought advisable that the Indians should remain at their present location for the time being; they desire to remain until the lands of the reservation shall have been sold by the government. At this locality they obtain large quantities of fish and clams, and many of them find employment at the lumber mills in the vicinity at fair wages, with which they obtain clothing; their presence is not obnoxious to the few settlers adjoining the reservation, nor is their labor required on the reservation at Round valley at present; as soon, however, as the interests of the service require it, they will be removed.” 

Although this 1866 letter indicates that at this time some Native Americans were still living on what was once the Mendocino Indian Reservation, clearly they too were on borrowed time.

As for those Native Americans who had already been forced off the former reservation in 1864, their removal had been executed to make way for the sale and resettlement of that land. And although an 1868 Resolution of the Legislature of California codified that intention “to make the lands subject to settlement and pre-emption,” a full three years after the official “discontinuation” of the reservation, it appears that the sale and resettlement of lands in the former Mendocino Indian Reservation had already been taking place in the intervening years.

According to the "History of American Indians: Exploring Diverse Roots," the removal of Native Americans from the defunct Mendocino Indian Reservation was but one of a series of forced marches in which Native Americans were driven off temporary reservation lands and forced to live on another reservation, Nome Cult Farm, in Round Valley. These forced marches began in 1855 and continued to take place into the mid-1860s.

map of route of indian drive to round valley 1863
Nome Cult Trail | From Dorothy Hill’s "The Indians of Chico Rancheria"
yuki tribe
Yuki men at the Nome Cult Farm, CA 1858 | Public Domain

Perhaps the most infamous of these forced marches, known as the Nome Cult Trail or the Conkow Trail of Tears, began on August 28, 1863. On that day, the Conkow Maidu people were rounded up by armed soldiers and began a grueling march from Chico to Round Valley. Of the 461 Native Americans who began the journey, only 277 remained by the time they reached Round Valley. 150 who were too exhausted, sick or malnourished to continue the journey had been left behind five days into the journey with only enough food to last them for a month. Others died of sickness, exhaustion, starvation, or thirst, while two managed to escape en route. Dorothy Hill writes in "The Indians of Chico Rancheria:" "Indian versions of the cruel hardships that their ancestors encountered on the drive to Round Valley are more explicit than the government accounts.” 

According to Beth Stebbins’ book, "The Noyo:" “The problems that had beset the coastal reservation were carried over to the Round Valley reservation.” A number of first-person accounts of conditions on the Nome Cult reservation describe hard-working Native Americans who labored on the farm and yet had not the means to obtain clothing, nor had they received clothing allotments in two years. There were no schools for the children, a dire scarcity of supplies, and “no substantial buildings erected for the Indians to live in,” according to Condition of the Indian Tribes: Report of the Joint Special Committee.

Life on Nome Cult Farm was difficult in other respects as well. Not only did the original inhabitants of Round Valley, the Yuki, now have to confine their lives to only a small portion of their own ancestral land — Nome Cult Farm — they also had to live side by side with strangers from a number of other Native American tribes. Some of the tribes were enemies of the Yuki, and none had a common language. 

mendocino indian reservation
1869 map of the former Mendocino Indian Reservation, in which “MacKerricher’s Enclosure” can be seen (east of 19, on the coast)

Duncan MacKerricher, the former assistant to the Mendocino Indian Reservation’s Indian agent, and his wife Jessie, bought an area of the former Mendocino Indian Reservation known as El Rancho de la Laguna for $1.25 an acre. There they established a successful working ranch that produced butter, grew potatoes and was known for its draught horses. “MacKerricher’s Enclosure” can be seen on an 1869 map of the former Mendocino Indian Reservation.

MacKerricher is also said to have employed many Native Americans on his ranch, as many as half the Pomo who had been living on that reservation, according to a description of a historical presentation given by MacKerricher’s great-granddaughter, Faith Graham.

The land that MacKerricher’s heirs gifted or sold to the State of California became what is now the beautiful MacKerricher State Park, which opened its first set of campsites to the public in 1952. Today, MacKerricher State Park’s attractions also include whale watching from the headland, harbor seal watching at the seal rookery, beachcombing on Glass Beach, fishing, hiking, bicycling and more.

Today, the group of tribes that were first forced to live together on Nome Cult Farm in the 1850s and 1860s are collectively known as the federally recognized Round Valley Indian Tribes, which is “a confederation of small tribes: the Yuki, Wailacki, Concow, Little Lake Pomo, Nomlacki, and Pit River.”  

“From years of intermarriage, a common lifestyle, and a shared land base,” says the Round Valley Indian Tribes website, “a unified community has emerged. In 1936, the descendants of Yuki, Wailacki, Concow, Little Lake Pomo, Nomlacki, and Pit River peoples formed a new tribe on the reservation through the adoption of a Constitution and created the Covelo Indian Community, later to be called the Round Valley Indian Tribes. Our heritage is a rich combination of different cultures with a common reservation experience and history.” 

Today, the Round Valley Indian Tribes own the Hidden Oaks Casino and the Golden Oaks Motel in Mendocino County. And every year, The Round Valley Indian Tribes, along with the Paskenta Band of Nomlaki Indians and the Mechoopda Tribe of Maidu Indians, honor and remember those who were forced to march to the Round Valley Reservation in 1863. The Mendocino National Forest also participates in the Nome Cult Walk, "work[ing] together as a partner with the tribes to complete a brochure to document the history of the trail, and to install interpretive signs along the entire route through the forest.”

In 2013, which was the 150th anniversary of the Nome Cult Walk, Kenneth Wright, who at the time was President of the Round Valley Indian Tribes, pronounced, “It is important that our youngest members take part in this annual event." The theme of the Nome Cult Walk that year was, "Honor Their Memory – A Path Not Forgotten."

Members of the Round Valley Indian Tribe retrace the 1863 route of the Nome Cult walk, a forced relocation of Indians from Chico, Calif., to Covelo, CA. U.S. Forest Service photo.
Members of the Round Valley Indian Tribe retrace the 1863 route of the Nome Cult Walk, a forced relocation of Indians from Chico, Calif., to Covelo, CA. U.S. Forest Service photo. |  U.S. Department of Agriculture/Flickr/CreativeCommons

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