Pt. 1 Vigilantism in Humboldt County California: A Brief “History”?
A timeless affinity coexists between conquest, slavery, empire, extractive industries, exploitation of labor, and economic collapse- between poverty, displacement, degradation, the inequity of property ownership, prejudice, vigilantism and access to Basic Human Rights.
Some scholars say that before the 1500s California was home to about 1/3 of North America’s most diverse population, with over 100 languages and 300 dialects. Native Californian’s lived so harmoniously with their ecosystem they negated the need for agriculture, livestock, slavery or private property. This went on for some centuries while settlers began to trickle in from around the world.
In fear of potential British claims on CA lands in 1769 Spain sent priests and few civilians to establish missions that stretched from San Diego to Sonoma. With the missions came monotheism, agriculture, livestock, invasive plant species and indentured servitude of those the Spanish claimed were “uncivilized.” Locals lost their food source to grazing Spanish cattle, causing their forced labor at the missions and various subsequent indigenous rebellions against being “missionized” took place.
In 1821 Mexico gained independence from Spain and granted full citizenship to all native peoples including the newcomers. “The Untold History: The survival of CA’s Indians,” they find, “In the 65 years between establishment of the missions in 1769 and their secularization by the Mexican government in 1834, more than 37,000 California Indians died,” 15,000 of which were due to “epidemics aided by the missions’ crowded conditions… starvation, overwork, or mistreatment.”
The Gold Rush ushered in thousands of immigrants to Northern CA, about half were from New England, Middle Atlantic States and Canadian Maritime provinces, with their eyes on gold. The other half of CA’s immigrants from the Midwest mostly sought farmland.
The Mexican-American War (1846-1848) forced Mexico to ceded California to the US. Tens of thousands of now “immigrants” continued to flock back to farm fields for the promise of work and better lives for their families (as is seen today).
Before and after the Civil War, from 1846-1873 in the name of “Democracy” and “civilizing the uncivilized,” new self-proclaimed citizens committed genocide of thousands of indigenous who were exterminated from the land the conquerors wanted to exploit. Only 20% native Californian’s escaped death, often to be enslaved or relegated to the reservations, where they are still threatened by the US to this day (NDAPL).
Between 1850 and 1860, California state government paid around 1.5 million dollars to hire vigilante “militias” whose purpose was to “protect settlers from the indigenous populations.” Following a three-decade campaign to eradicate indigenous people supported by CA’s first Governor Peter Burnett, many state sanctioned vigilante annihilations took place. One such genocide known as Frémont’s massacre in nearby Modoc county took place in 1873, “Many such massacres were conducted not by the U.S. military, but by groups of vigilantes spurred by a combination of race hatred and desire for the remaining land occupied by Indians.” (Untold History…)
A local survivor spoke about her families’ experience, which she said was “typical for indigenous Californians,”
“My G. Great Grandmother was Ellen Sutherland a Coastal Wailaki (Sinkyone). Her family was massacred at Needle Rock. She survived because she was stolen as a child and sold as a slave. Her sister Sally Bell was one of only a few survivors of the massacre. I am here because my G. Great Grandmother was stolen and sold as a slave. Sally Bells ancestors are here because she hid in a redwood stump.”
To Be Free or Not to Be: Was A Question
The 1840s saw the first trickling in of free African American settlers, miners mainly seeking the promise of fortune, then in the 1850s there was an influx in slave laborers in CA, bringing black population up to 1% by 1852 in CA. Before the Civil War (1865) northern and southern parts of soon-to-be CA debated extensively on whether to become a free or slave state, eventually decided, “free,” though most non-white property owning males did not authentically enjoy this luxury (as seen today). After Reconstruction we saw Jim Crow segregation narratives, “separate but equal”, while police regularly worked in concert with local militias, vigilantes, and the Ku Klux Klan on behalf of profit motivated plantation owners. By 1868 Blacks were regaining their Basic Right to Freedom, lost in a memory of being violently extracted from the fields of Africa for over 360 years during the horrendous slave trade. Sentiments of “get the fuck out” still lingered for many decades, which inspired over 700 to participate in a mass exodus of the state (mainly north-bound) to enjoy their 14thth and soon 15th Amendment rights (1870) in peace. All African Americans in California free or formerly enslaved lived under a constant threat of arrest.
Some manipulated by violence, fear of oppressive laws, and no alternative options, stayed on plantations to endure landowner’s creative tactics of rebranded slavery, using the guise of a “debt” owed, for their indentured servant “opportunity” sharecropping etc. Many scholars have expressed that the criminalization injustice institution, is but a modern variation of slavery. The use of farm laborers to amass wealth is also still seen today.
Classism; The New Racism
CA became the 31st state in 1850. According to the scholarly work by Daniel A. Cornfield, in his book “Workers and Dissent in the Redwood Empire” the 1850 and 1860 Humboldt census’ stated, “We had a very transient population in 1850s, but the counties population did not change much in the early years, 80% were born in the US (2100) and 470 of them were under 21.”By 1870 about 2k people were born in CA “locals”, where 1500 where from other countries. Californians found extensive opportunities in logging, dairy, agriculture and mining.
The land grab of the white immigrants by the monopolizing land barons who bent the 160 acre max rule, their use of slave labor and conquest to accrue fortunes, naturally caused vast inequity of property, resources, and power of which, adversely impacts us in our modern era. Cornfield states, “The distribution of wealth in Pioneer Humboldt was distinctly unequal. In 1860, the wealthiest 5 % of the population owned 26% of wealth, and the top 10% owned 40%, and at the other end of the spectrum the bottom 50% owned only 13% of the wealth.”
Cornfield illustrates how disproportionate property access went hand in hand with a general unrest in town and complaints of “beggars” and “ruffians,” During the depression of the 1870s. Cornfield quotes Humboldt County Pioneer J.C. Blake who said, “It was common practice for large landholders to circumvent the 160 acre homestead limit,” Cornfield adds, “Letters to the county press by the 1870s on the land question, were frequent enough to suggest that the sentiment on the issue contributed significantly to the discontent in Humboldt County…The findings from a study undertaken by the Sacramento Daily Record in 1873, based on data from the SBOE, revealed that the pattern of land distribution had become skewed in many of CA counties, including Humboldt where 40 individuals’ or businesses own over 1000 acres in the county and 5 owned more than 5000 acres… one lumber entrepreneur was on record owning 23,169 acres.” In 1877 the Humboldt Times complained about “insufferable nuances,” caused by the “professional beggar,” and “There seems to be a regular organized band of ruffians in this city.” Scarcely a day passes when we hear of an assault being made upon some of our citizens.”
The depression of the 1870s, caused many to have to sell off their 160 plus acre parcels. While the agricultural industries felt insignificant effects, the depression hit Humboldt’s over 20 year old thriving Lumber Industry especially hard, and didn’t bounce back the until over ten years later. The subsequent unemployment and economic collapse greatly added to the tensions in Humboldt, and a new minority group was sought to blame.
“They Took Er’ Jobs!”
From 1870-1880 Chinese population in Humboldt grew from 38 to 242, where according to Cornfield, vigilantism was commonplace and against many groups in Southern Humboldt, he said, “In 1880, relationships between the county’s white and Chinese residents began to deteriorate. The small township of Garberville expelled all Chinese people in March of that year. A brief newspaper account gave no reason for their expulsion.”
The National Farm Workers Registry states that by 1886 “7 in 8 farm workers were Chinese,” most prominent in CA consequential to their exploitable labor in the less desirable agricultural, mining and transcontinental railroad industries. As the gold dwindled and railroad work became non-existent, animosity against the Chinese laborers grew and hate crimes ensued. Cornfield writes, “In the fall of 1877, complaints in the press reoccurred in the local press, The Times reported “the diabolical attempt to burn the city,” and called for a special police force to combat the incendiaries.”
Often Politicians would recruit local vigilantes to ignite violence against the Chinese and other minority groups, scapegoating them as “addicts” and “criminals,” (as we see locally and globally today (Ex. Trump, Sessions, Detarte, drug wars). Cornfield accounts the consequences of politicians and the skewed media of the day that coddled vigilante violence, stating “The local press commented occasionally on alleged existence of opium dens and brothels in Eureka’s China town, and several attacks on Chinese people, usually by Eureka youths, took place.”
The early 1880s marked the beginning of a long national political campaign to prohibit Chinese immigration to the young county of immigrants. The Chinese Exclusion Act first passed in 1882; reinstated ten years later because “racism was so awesome?” eventually made law in 1902. The Exclusion Act was the first law implemented to prevent a specific ethnic group from immigrating to the States, and was not repealed until December 1943 by the Magnuson Act. Since, many minority groups have endured comparable prohibiting immigration laws, mostly based on the prevalence of work opportunity, economics, war and the like.
Before the mid 1800s Humboldt was also home to 500,000 acres of old growth forest. Industry annihilated the voluptuous redwoods, leaving us only 5% to enjoy today, 77% of which is now privately owned. According Cornfield, “By the 1890s logging accounted for 80% of Humboldt’s exports, agriculture at 20%, which had less value in the market but employed more people.” The Logging industry thrived in Humboldt for 100 years before feeling it’s first major lasting downturn in the 1990s. The entire lumber and processing industry employs over 70k Californians today. Humboldt Co. has contributed to CA agriculture significantly throughout time, and today CA is by huge margins the largest producer of wine, cannabis, dairy, almonds, strawberries and other agricultural products than any other state.
In the early 1900s farming evolved from mostly back-to-the-landers, to a large-scale industry in CA and around the country. Humboldt was notorious for our OG wheat, barley, oats, potatoes, in addition to a booming cattle and dairy industry. As previous slave laborers moved to work other industries and the other minority groups were just excluded, a new group of desperate labors where sought to exploit. So, Japanese and Filipino workers were imported to work plantations in the late 18, early 1900s.
During World War I (1914-1918) Humboldt finally connected to the State and National railroad network (running in CA since 1869), which signified a new open door policy for migrant workers, and growers lobbied to create the first “guest worker program” allowing more than 70,000 Mexican workers into the U.S. The inclusive program ended in 1921, not too long after WWI soldiers returned to resume their positions.
The Great Depression of the 1930s, made more depressing by the Dust Bowl drought, lead to overnight economic and agriculture failure for the cash croppers, more exclusion of minority groups, and deportation laws, which systematically pressured and pushed out more than 500,000 Mexican Americans.
Genocide, racism, slavery, expulsion, disproportionate property access, extractive industries, vigilantism and violence play a huge role in Humboldt Counties’ inception. Modern sentiments around the “ruffians” of our day, may have evolved from one ism, to the next, however the tactics, ignorance, culture of exclusion, hate and violence of the 18th 19thth and 20tth Centuries still exists today. If we have not learned from destructive behaviors “past,” how can we call this “history”?