Stories, Legends and Other Things: George Gibbs 1815-1873

George Gibbs./Photo courtesy of Wiki Commons

George Gibbs./Photo courtesy of Wiki Commons


One hundred and sixty four years in the past is not that long ago. For people in my generation, two short steps in our genealogical pool from one grandparent to the next, places us right at 1850. It was during that time period that the great change in lifestyle came to our ancestors.

Along with the swarms of gold seeking outsiders came the worst example of urban planning and community development. Nothing had prepared our forefathers for the onslaught of humanity that descended upon them so quickly.

Community expansion and development by the Gold Rush had never proven to be the best approach anywhere and it is a well-known fact that most of the 49ers were not model citizens from other communities. They came here to get rich and they were not going to let anything stand in their way, especially the Natives.

Accurate accounts of the very early days of contact between Native people and miners are scarce, at best. Since newspapers and military sources offering some accountability would not arrive in the area until 1853, most accounts prior to that time were derived from the non-Indian participants, which were subject to distortion and inaccuracy. Oral history accounts from the Natives are for the most part discounted by historians who wrote Humboldt County history due in part to the exaggerated information gathered from the white participants years later.

One source however, that does give a somewhat impartial view of that era are the journals written for the Redick McKee Expedition of 1851, which cut right through this part of the country. One journal, in particular, written by George Gibbs is of some value in its description of the land and its people.

Although the journal contains the usual bigotry and prejudice aimed at the Native population—common during that time—the reader can still pick between the lines for good information.

George Gibbs was born in 1815 in New York. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1838. During the gold rush he moved to Oregon with a U.S. mounted Rifle Regiment where he became deputy customs collector at Astoria and later became attached to the Indian Commission in Oregon. It was there that he learned the Chinook Jargon which was a trade language used to communicate with most tribes in the Northwest.

In July of 1851, he showed up in the Sonoma area in California and became employed by Redick McKee to serve as interpreter for the U.S. sponsored expedition, which was going north to negotiate treaties with the areas Indian population.

On August 11, Colonel McKee and party, escorted by a detachment of thirty-five mounted riflemen, left Sonoma. The general route to be followed by the expedition was up the Russian River to its sources, down the Eel River to Humboldt Bay, and over to the Klamath ascending to the Shasta Valley.

The influx of the miners, ranchers and storekeepers had an immediate effect on the Native population in Northwestern California, as it did so many other places. Within a year disease became rampant, particularly in and around Humboldt Bay.

When they entered Humboldt Bay on September 9, it soon became apparent to the expedition that the Native population was already suffering immensely.

Gibbs wrote, “I went down the river in a canoe…visiting the different Rancherias on our way. These were very numerous, but consisting generally of only two or three families. Their appearance, as well as that of their inhabitants, was wretched, and we found sickness to prevail everywhere, the disease being consumption.” (Tuberculosis)

With so many strangers living so near to the villages around Humboldt Bay, it also seemed to greatly disrupt the natural interaction between the different Rancherias.

Gibbs wrote, “No inducement that we could offer would bring the Indians together, their dislike of one another amounting almost to hostility, each village assuring us that the next one was very bad, and dissuading us from going on. Indeed, our own crew could hardly be forced to land at some places.”

Before moving on, Colonel McKee did lay out a reservation for the Humboldt Bay Indians which encompassed present day Ferndale and all land to the Eel River.

By September 29, the expedition had reached the confluence of the Klamath and Trinity Rivers at Weitchpec. Gibbs description of the Indians there was in sharp contrast to the ones described at Humboldt Bay suffering so greatly from diseases contracted from the outsiders. One can only imagine how those poor sick Indians on the coast must have appeared to the expedition compared to the healthy and wealthy ones who came in for the treaty at Weitchpec.

He wrote, “In person these people are far superior to any that we met below; the men being larger, more muscular, and with countenances denoting greater force and energy of character, as well as intelligence. Indeed, they approach rather to the races of the plains, than to the wretched ‘diggers’ of the greater part of California. Two young men in particular, a young chief and his brother, from a neighboring village on the Trinity, were taller than the majority of whites, superbly formed, and noble in feature. The superiority, however, was especially manifested in the women. Many of whom were exceedingly pretty; having large almond-shaped eyes, sometimes of a hazel color, and with the red showing through the cheeks…”

After negotiating a treaty with the Karuk, Yurok and Hupa and laying out a reservation taking in the whole area at the confluence of the Klamath and Trinity Rivers and the Hoopa Valley, the expedition moved on up the Klamath through present day Orleans and Happy Camp, which was called Murders Bar at the time, coming out at Scott’s Valley. From there they reversed themselves arriving back in the town of Union (Arcata) on November20, in a driving rain storm. Boarding an ocean steamer at Humboldt Bay, they left on December the 9, for San Francisco by way of Portland, Oregon arriving in San Francisco on December 28, 1851.

In all, McKee’s expedition put in five months and had signed four treaties and set up four reservations for Indians in the Northern part of the state. The Southern part of the state was assigned to O.M. Wozencraft whose expedition accomplished 14 treaties with Indians in his territory, which had a much easier terrain to traverse. These 18 treaties were all accomplished in vain however, for all were denied ratification in secret session by the U.S. Congress due to objection from the State of California. Their objection was based on the assumption that too much land was being given to the Indians, thus leaving less land for the citizens of California. George Gibbs on the other hand, went on to greater things. He became an ethnologist, naturalist and geologist in the Northwest area and his professional contribution helped preserve Indian languages in the states of Washington and Oregon.

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December 2nd, 2014

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