Clear Lake Massacre
or the Bloody Island Massacre
One of the first heroes of the Union cause during the Civil War, was General Nathaniel Lyon. On August 10th, 1861, in a daring attack on superior forces, Lyon would fall achieving his goal of securing Missouri for the Union. Today, one can visit the location of this battle and the spot where Lyon fell on the nationally protected Wilson’s Creek National Battlefield in southwest Missouri. While the exact spot where he fell is not known, a marker stands today on a hilltop ridge to mark the area generally accepted. It is also unknown if this particular hill bore any name before the battle, but afterwards , it would be called Bloody Hill. Sadly, this would not be the only geographic location that would be changed by actions taken by Nathaniel Lyon. Far to the west, in Northern California, another historical marker tells of the name change attributed to his visit there – Bloody Island.
Bloody Island is today a small hill. But in 1850, it was completely surrounded by the waters of Clear Lake. Times were very different then. Indians did not enjoy the rights of the white man, or the black man, and were enslaved and/or killed at random. This same year, California passed the “Act for the Government and Protection of the Indians”. While sounding good, this act allowed white men to enslave any Indian they found without means of support. Since the Indian held no rights and could not testify in court, nearly every Indian in California suddenly became a candidate for slavery. For those who could afford it an editorial in the Marysville Advocate put the price tag of a young Indian fit for cooking and cleaning at $50-$60.
The public attitude of the time could best be summarized in this editorial from the Yreka Herald. “Now that general hostilities against the Indians have commenced we hope that the government will render such aid as will enable the citizens of the north to carry on a war of extermination until the last redskin of these tribes has been killed. Extermination is no longer a question of time – the time has arrived, the work has commenced, and let the first man that says treaty or peace be regarded as a traitor”. In 1851, California would pass a law compensating groups for expenses incurred on Indian hunting trips.
Among the early pioneers to enter Northern California were two ranchers, Andrew Kelsey and Charles Stone. Kelsey and Stone purchased a cattle operation from a Mexican, near what is today Kelseyville. While the former Mexican owner had hired Indians as ranch hands, Kelsey and Stone adopted the policy of enslavement. The treatment of these Indian slaves would go from bad to worse. In 1849, Kelsey took 50 Indian slaves with him to see if he could strike it rich in the gold rush. Unsuccessful, it is said Kelsey sold all the supplies meant to feed the Indians to other miners, and only two Indians made it back to the ranch alive, the others having starved to death. Starvation was a common problem among Kelsey and Stone’s slaves. Each Indian herder was paid 4 cups of wheat a day for their labor, which was inadequate to feed the families. The story is told of one Indian that sent her nephew to beg for a cup of wheat, and was killed by Stone. Whippings were a common punishment, and at least four Indian’s were beaten so bad they later died. Another way of punishing Indian’s was too tie their hands together and hang them from a tree for hours.
Among the numerous crimes committed against the Indians, rape of the Indian women and girls was common. A father who refused to bring his daughter to the house for sex with Kelsey or Stone when instructed to, would be whipped. In 1850, when Kelsey and Stone took the Chief’s wife, the Indians decided to react. During the night, the chieftain’s wife poured water into their muskets and the next morning, five braves attacked the house. Both were killed. The tribe, knowing there was no such thing as ‘justifiable homicide’ by an Indian, fled into the hills.
Word of the murder of these two men spread and word was sent to the Army of a Pomo Indian uprising. Captain Nathaniel Lyon was dispatched with a detachment to find and eliminate the Indians. From the National Park Service website – “Captain Lyon arrived at the lake (Clear Lake) in the spring of 1850 with a detachment of soldiers. Since he could not reach the Indians’ hiding place, he secured two whale boats and two small brass field cannons from the U.S. Army arsenal at Benicia. While waiting for the boats and field artillery, a party of local volunteers joined the expedition. Soldiers took the cannons aboard the whale boats, while the remaining body of mounted soldiers and volunteers proceeded to the west side of the lake. The two groups rendezvoused at Robinson Point, a little south of the island. The artillery was taken to the head of the lake in order to be as close as possible to the Indians. In the morning, soldiers fired shots from the front to attract the Indians’ attention while the remaining force lined up on the opposite side of the island. The soldiers then fired the cannon, which sent the Indians across the island where they met the rest of the detachment.”
Bloody Island – courtesy NPS
In a time when chivalry, mutual respect and fair play was common on the battlefield, what happened next can only be described as an atrocity. The number of Indian’s killed on the island that day vary from 75 to near 200, but few survived. The fact that only two of Lyon’s force were wounded reflects the lack of resistance the Indians offered. The fact that no prisoners were taken, even among the women and children reflects the actions of the men under Lyon’s command. Many were killed as they attempted to swim off the island. Others were shot. Many of the women met their deaths by bayonet. But most horrific of all were the stories of the deaths of children. One Pomo historian later wrote “One lady told me she saw two white men coming, their guns up in the air and on their guns hung a little girl. They brought it to the creek and threw it in the water. And a little while later two more men came in the same manner. This time they had a little boy on the end of their guns and also threw it in the water….She said when they gathered the dead they found all the little ones were killed by being stabed<sic>”
After the destruction of the village, Lyon’s forces continued throughout the area, killing Indians they came into contact with. In coming months, hundreds of Indians of all tribes would be hunted down and killed. Nine years later, after the Gunther’s Island massacre near the Pacific coast, one young editor by the name of Bret Harte was so appalled he wrote in the Northern California “Indiscriminate Massacre of Indians: Women and Children Butchered”. Harte was then run out of town for daring to tell the truth.
For those who have studied the life of Nathaniel Lyon, what happened that day at Clear Lake is not unexpected. Lyon was a fanatical disciplinarian, who felt every situation was black or white, right or wrong. In this case the Indians were wrong and had to pay for their indiscretion. 11 years later, he would take a similar attitude into the Civil War. On May 10, 1861, forces under his command would take part in what would be called the St Louis Massacre (also called the Camp Jackson Massacre), where 28 civilians were killed. On August 10th of that same year, his actions would forever change the name of yet another landmark – Bloody Hill.
(Even in death, Nathaniel Lyon could not escape the stigma of massacre’s. On 11/29/64, Colonel John Covington left Fort Lyon in Colorado, named for the fallen Union General, and attacked and killed nearly 200 peaceful Indian’s encamped nearby. It would become known as the Sand Creek Massacre. )
Today, all there is to tell of this massacre is this marker: