It was January of 1862 and Arcata's last adult Native American resident, Lucy Romero, had been told her life was in danger but she and her children had nowhere to go. Indians in the mountains were being hunted like animals and those sent to the reservations risked starvation. Women faced the threat of rape and children became easy prey for traffickers.
Four months earlier — 153 years ago this month — the white settlers in Humboldt County had forced the Native Americans living along Humboldt Bay to relocate north to the Klamath Reservation. Many were made to leave young children behind to work as servants for the whites, and those who refused to leave or tried to escape could be treated like enemies and shot.
For unknown reasons, Lucy was allowed to remain, living in a small cabin in the Sunset area of Arcata owned by Humboldt County pioneers John and Sarah Preston. Lucy shared the modest home with her 3-year-old daughter, Annie, and 16-month-old son, Charles. The eldest of Lucy's three children, 7-year-old Carrie, lived with Sarah Preston's parents, Findley and Rebecca Lindsey, in a house that still stands on Arcata's Seventh Street above HealthSport.
Now, in January of 1862, Lucy was told that Arcata wasn't safe for her either. She heard the warnings and chose to stay, facing almost certain death in order to save her children.
Though there is conflicting information, most historical records indicate Lucy was living on Humboldt Bay in 1850. She would have watched the arrival of the white pioneers, witnessed the conflicts between the indigenous people and newcomers, and suffered the effects first hand.
After settlers discovered Humboldt Bay in December of 1849, stories of gold and the possibility of an inland route from the Pacific Coast to the mines along the Trinity River reached the San Francisco Bay area and beyond, prompting hundreds to pack their wagons and board ships bound for for the North Coast. Some came searching for gold and others, unsuccessful or unsuited for the hard life of a miner, settled in newly formed towns where traders were positioned to supply the mines where gold was said to be abundant, but provisions scarce. Speculators also came, envisioning expanding shipping lanes and a prosperous Humboldt Bay harbor that would make it easy to export north coast timber and other commodities to San Francisco markets and beyond.
Humboldt County also offered opportunity for young men lacking other prospects and families seeking a new life in the West. Pioneers could claim 160-acre plots of the area's rich agricultural land, free, as long as they made improvements and established homesteads. Still other settlers were drawn to Humboldt to escape their pasts. The isolated coastal area, surrounded by towering redwoods on three sides and a formidable ocean to the west, was the perfect haven for "renegades ... escaped convicts ... and outlaws," according to a March 23, 1861 military dispatch later published through an act of Congress.
Many of the settlers came from the east, where conflicts with natives had escalated and fears, often exaggerated, colored their perception of the California natives. The Indians on the North Coast were inclined to be peaceful and "exhibited more astonishment at the sudden influx of white men than any other feeling," according to a story in the Daily Alta California. Unfortunately the natives were also fascinated with new tools and supplies brought by settlers, and often wound up accused of stealing property, such as hatchets, axes and knives, which were crucial to the newcomers' survival. The white pioneers often marginalized the Indians, forcing them from their villages in order to build homes in prime areas and thoughtlessly taking their resources as well. Pioneer Isaac Cullberg wrote casually of taking material from an Indian house to build a campfire. Other settlers were more aggressive, with one Daily Alta California editor lamenting the conduct of "certain reckless men, who regard an Indian as they would a dog, and think they have a right to give him a kick whenever he crosses their path."
Despite Native American attempts (and pleas from some of the whites) to improve relations, conditions continued to deteriorate.
Conditions were even more dangerous for native women. In 1854 the local paper observed that almost from the time of their arrival in Humboldt County, white settlers often "ravaged" Native American women. Lucy's daughter Carrie was born in 1856, fathered by a white man who'd likely raped Lucy. Annie and Charles, Lucy's younger children, were fathered by Jose Romero, a veteran of the Apache Indian Wars. At that time, many Native women were taken as companions by white settlers known as "squawmen." Romero was considered a Squawman and, while many of these relationships were forced, Lucy's association with Romero may have helped keep her and the children safe. Though squawmen could be violent, women claimed by settlers were generally treated as property and less likely to be raped by other men. In fact, some native families actually encouraged their daughters to stay with white men as a means of protecting them.
Staying with Romero in a settled area would have also allowed Lucy to better protect her children from a booming state-sanctioned human trafficking trade. In 1850, California passed a law allowing for the legal indenture of natives that granted their "master ... care, custody, control, and earnings of such minor, until he or she obtain the age of majority." At that time, the age of majority was 18 for males and 15 for females. Initially native children could only be indentured if the justice of the peace was convinced that no compulsory means was used to obtain the child. But in 1860, the law was expanded to allow for the indenture of any child considered a prisoner of war. The law also extended the terms of indenture to 30 years old for men and 25 for women. While men and women were indentured under this law, native children were especially coveted, likely because adults were harder to control and could more easily escape their masters. Indian children, on the other hand, "when tamed" were described by the Humboldt Times as quite docile and could learn to speak English quickly. Children as young as 4 or 5 were used to help with childcare and other household chores, and children as young as 7 or 8 worked in the fields.
The practice of domesticating Native American children would have been more widespread, a story in the March 1, 1860 Humboldt Times lamented, "but the Indians have been hitherto loath to part with their offspring at such ages as would make them most susceptible of training."
Despite parental protests, the demand for child servants grew and, by 1860, the kidnapping of Native American children was rampant. Humboldt County became an infamous base for those "in the nefarious trade of stealing Indians ..." with traffickers literally hunting and killing native parents in the mountains in order to obtain their children. The incentive was high when buyers would willingly pay $50 or $60 for a young Indian to cook and wait upon them, up to $80 for a hog-driving boy or $100 (an amount equal to more than $2,700 today) for a "likely young girl," according to a Dec. 6, 1861 story in the Marysville Appeal. Some of these children were kept by local families, but many were sold as far off as Colusa County, more than 200 miles away.
Lucy's union to Romero made her children less vulnerable to traffickers and provided her some protection, at least until 1860, when Romero was murdered by Native Americans.
Adding to the hardships brought on by thoughtless or hostile whites, pioneers over-harvested fish, elk and other wildlife and allowed livestock to graze native clover grasses, a significant food source for local tribes. These factors combined to lead to starvation among native tribes in the mountains. When a steer or hog could not be found (they were often taken by mountain lions or suffered natural deaths) settlers accused natives of "depredations." These alleged offenses prompted militia groups or vigilantes to "chastise" the Indians by raiding villages and killing inhabitants, which often included women and children. Squawmen and human traffickers also likely participated in offensive strikes designed to discourage the natives from retrieving kidnapped women and children. Other hunts were lead by unsuccessful miners and speculators looking for the steady income paid by the government to local militia volunteers recruited to quell perceived Native American hostilities. Still others were ranchers fearing future losses of valuable livestock. The most extreme also went on "Indian hunts" for sport, scouring the mountains to shoot at unsuspecting victims.
While the mountain tribes developed a reputation for aggression in response to frequent attacks, many of the natives living around Humboldt Bay adapted to the new arrivals, learning to speak English and work for the settlers. Women like Lucy were employed as domestic servants while men worked as laborers and farm hands.
This assimilation was not enough, however, as fear, prejudice and a desire to have full reign of the abundant resources in the county prevailed. In the early morning hours of Feb 25, 1860, following a ceremonial dance on Indian Island in Humboldt Bay, a small number of white men attacked the sleeping revelers and killed all they could find.
Out of some 60 to 70 killed on the island, at least 50 to 60 were women and children. "Neither age or sex had been spared," one witness described in the Feb. 29, 1860 edition of The Northern Californian. "Little children and old women were mercilessly stabbed and their skulls crushed with axes." Similar attacks were reported at other villages. Lucy was on the island at the time of the massacre with Carrie and Annie. Just a few weeks pregnant with Charles, she had slept with her children away from the main camp and remained hidden during the massacre. At daybreak, she and her two girls made their back to Arcata. In the weeks that followed, Romero (father of Annie and Charles) was accused of helping the massacre's perpetrators by spying on the Native Americans and he was killed for his alleged complicity, leaving Lucy pregnant and alone with the two young girls and few options. There was no obvious instigating incident for the massacre as the natives on the bay were known as the most peaceful of the local tribes. One justification offered for the murderous rampage was that the natives on the bay and in the mountains were leagued together and constantly killing cattle, but there was no proof. Following the massacre, journalist Bret Harte predicted it would spark the "beginning of the end," suggesting local tribes would finally band together against the white settlers in revenge for their slain families.
In response, local citizens petitioned the Superintendent of Indian Affairs to remove the massacre survivors and other natives still living along Humboldt Bay. The Indian agent in charge of the Klamath Reservation, Col. D.E. Buel, arrived within days to secure them. After threatening to treat any who resisted as enemies, local citizens helped Buel force more than 130 natives from their homes to be "herded like cattle" more than 60 miles through mountainous terrain to the Klamath Reservation, according to a May 11, 1860 story in San Francisco's Daily Evening Bulletin.
Though squawmen were urged to give up their native wives, at least one man saved his mate from expulsion by legally marrying her. Many Indian children between the ages of 5 and 14 were kept in white households while their parents were sent away. Some children characterized as "half breeds" (those with white fathers and native mothers) as young as 1 year old also remained in white homes while their mothers were forced to the reservation. Only a handful of young men were able to stay as laborers and none were over the age of 18.
It is unclear if Lucy and the girls were forced to go to the reservation at this time but government mismanagement, poor conditions and a lack of food plagued the operation and most of those sent away soon returned to Humboldt County. Unfortunately, continuing conflicts and white fears of Indian hostilities lead to the second expulsion of the natives in the fall of 1861. The only exception, according to an Oct. 12, 1861 Humboldt Times report, was made for "tame or pet Indians ... who have homes with white men, under the age of ten years, and who have lived as apprentices with the whites for one year ..." While the expulsion was racially motivated for many, at least some residents believed it was the only way to protect the local Native Americans from further massacres.
For unknown reasons, this time Lucy was able to stay in Arcata, living in the cabin with Annie and Charles on the Preston property. John Preston had helped bury the victims of the 1860 massacre and it is possible that Lucy, by that time nearly blind and a single mother of three, elicited his sympathy.
By the end of 1861, Union had changed its name to Arcata, become a thriving community of more 600 people, and served as a trading post for those in the surrounding hills. Residents enjoyed the convenience of stores, churches, a school and more than one saloon. They also talked a lot about the "Indian wars." There were some in the county that sympathized with the plight of the area's original inhabitants, but by 1862, many in the county no longer framed aggression against the natives as defense or revenge. The editor of the local Humboldt Times openly advocated for extermination of the local natives. When contingents of volunteer militia headed into the mountains on "Indian hunts," as they often did, the Times regularly reported the number of "bucks" (Native American men) killed as well as the frequent numbers of women and children murdered on these forays.
On a Saturday afternoon in late December of 1861, neighbors gathered at Findley and Rebecca Lindsey's house. The Lindseys were Sarah Preston's parents and lived at the foot of Fickle Hill — likely a popular gathering spot for those coming off the mountain and seeking the latest community news. Those present that day included John and Sarah Preston, Findley Lindsey and others, and the conversation turned to Indian affairs.
Conflicts had escalated, and most gathered agreed that it was best that all natives be sent to the reservation. James Brown, a neighbor of the Lindseys who made no secrets about his hatred of local Native Americans, was also there that day and predicted there would be another massacre in town to eliminate any who remained, including children. Already known as a violent man, Brown was one of the few known perpetrators of the Indian Island massacre. He openly advocated for extermination of the local natives and even shot one in Arcata, telling James Barnes that he had done so because the man "was a saucy and impudent digger and he did not think it would be a loss to anyone to shoot him."
After a time, the conversation turned to Lucy, the only remaining adult Native American in Arcata. Rumors had been circulating recently that Indian footprints had been seen near her cabin and she was suspected of helping the more hostile mountain tribes, sheltering them or supplying them with arms and ammunition. Despite the fact that the Prestons saw no such footprints on their property, the rumors had continued and, by that Saturday at the Findleys, most present thought Lucy's life was in danger. More than one believed Lucy would be killed within weeks.
The rumors alarmed Sarah Preston and her father, both of whom warned Lucy, urging her to flee to the reservation to save her life. But Lucy refused, saying that she hoped that if she was killed in Arcata, the whites would take care of her children. It is possible that Lucy feared that Annie and Charles, fathered by someone alleged to have helped the Indian Island massacre's perpetrators, would face retribution on the reservation. She may have also been familiar with conditions there and known that, as her eyesight failed, she would be unable to protect and care for her children.
Whatever the reason, Lucy remained.
In the early morning hours of Jan. 12, 1862, Annie Romero made her way to the home of John and Sarah Preston, and told them her mother was ill. The Prestons sent her home. Hours later, Annie tried again, this time towing little Charles behind her. The toddler's head was covered in blood, but neither John nor Sarah checked the boy for injuries. Later, John would explain that he assumed the boy had a bloody nose, while Sarah would say she thought Lucy had been "whipping" him again. A visiting neighbor, 20-year-old Alan Hill, did examine the tiny boy for injuries but found none and the children were sent home. Later, as Hill walked through the Prestons' orchard, he looked through Lucy's cabin door and saw blood on the floor. He entered to discover Lucy's body and saw her head was cut in several places. He reported it to the Prestons, and he and Sarah returned to the cabin to find the children in bed with their mother's corpse. Hill and John Preston then searched the property, but the perpetrators were gone. When questioned, little Annie said only that two white men had killed her mother.
Three days later, Byron Deming, a 35-year-old, part-time coroner and wheelwright, held an inquest. He called prominent members of the community to serve as jurors, including merchants Augustus Jacoby, Henry Stern and Isaac Cullberg, barkeep Edwin Wallace, hotel owner J.C. Bull and four others.
The men met at the Preston's property, viewed Lucy's body and called witnesses that included John and Sarah Preston, Findley Lindsey, Sarah's brother, William Lindsey, Allan Hill, James Bishop and James Barnes. From their testimony emerged a picture of Lucy's last day.
The Prestons last saw Lucy alive at about 6 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 11. Annie couldn't say when her mother was killed but witness James Barnes recalled seeing two men walking down the middle of the road past Leon's hotel (around 10th and H streets) and across the plaza toward the brewery around dawn on Sunday. Barnes said the smaller of the two men had a stooped shoulder and he recalled that one wore a blanket and the other a coat.
When Sarah's brother, William Lindsey, later testified, he said he knew of no one else with a stooped shoulder like himself. But when questioned further, William insisted he was home all of Saturday night and didn't sleepwalk. He also denied spending time with James Brown that night.
Findley Lindsey explained that he and his wife went to visit their neighbors, the Phillips (original owners of the Phillips House museum), on Saturday night. Lindsey recalled seeing Brown head into Arcata about sunset that evening and remembered hearing Brown's gate open when they returned from the Phillips' house around midnight, believing he'd heard Brown returning home. Findley Lindsey also testified that he believed Brown owned a rifle, a butcher knife and Tommy Hawk (hatchet) with a 3-inch blade.
When asked to testify, Sarah Preston recalled a conversation in which Brown asked her if she wanted Lucy killed so she could have an unhindered claim to little Annie. Sarah said she told Brown she would send Lucy to the reservation herself rather than have the child under those circumstances.
For reasons that aren't clear, the inquest concluded without Brown being called to testify.
During the inquest, John Preston was asked if he'd seen evidence of Indians on his property. Preston was sure he hadn't, but did recall seeing barefoot tracks, though he believed they were made by boys cutting through the property to go duck hunting.
The question of tracks was pertinent. The local papers regularly carried accounts of families attacked in the hills and residents lived in fear of an attack in town. In fact, the (then) one-story brick Jacoby Storehouse had been identified as a place of refuge for women and children should an assault take place, but it was never needed.
Annie had said that two white men killed her mother and the inquest showed no evidence of native incursions into Arcata — which meant residents had nothing to fear. This seemed to satisfy the motives of the inquest, which never really focused on finding Lucy's killers.
After three days of interviews and an examination of Lucy's body, the jurors determined Lucy died due to "the effect of four wounds inflicted upon her head ... with some sharp instrument ... by some person or persons unknown." The local newspaper called the investigation "thorough" and the coroner expressed regret that the perpetrators were not identified.
Lucy Romero's murder remains unsolved today.
The "Indian Wars" continued and thousands of Native Americans were killed, kidnapped or forced to live on reservations under deplorable conditions. Cabrillo College estimates that in the first two decades of white occupation, California tribal populations were reduced by up to 90 percent.
Lucy's decision to stay in Arcata and bravely face death helped ensure her children didn't become lost to those statistics. Annie was raised by the Prestons, Charles was taken in by a childless German couple and Carrie was given to a widow, Sarah Bowles, though she was indentured as a servant. Unlike many children who did not survive the "Indian Wars", enslavement or conditions of the reservations, Lucy's sacrifice allowed her children to survive. Carrie, Annie and Charles all lived to adulthood and Lucy's descendants can be found throughout California today.
When not tracking down local history, Lynette Mullen operates Projects Delivered as an independent project manager. She also has Lynette's NorCal History Blog (www.lynette707.wordpress.com). She wishes to thank local historian Susie Van Kirk and countless others for sharing their research, and Kathy Srabian for her shared commitment to tell Lucy's story.
Excerpts from the Humboldt Times:
Lynette Mullen's 2013 TEDx talk on slavery in Humboldt County. Telling a Mother’s Tale