Yuki of Northern California

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Yuki of Northern California

In the first half of the nineteenth century, the Yuki flourished in the rugged Coast Range Mountains of Mendocino County, Northern California. They lived along the middle fork of the Eel River in settlements of approximately 150 people and subsisted by hunting deer, fishing salmon, and gathering acorns and other wild plants. Their population was extremely dense and may have numbered more than 10,000 Indians. The Yuki enjoyed a rich annual round of religious celebrations, social dances, trade expeditions and war raids. Although they were regarded as a fierce and warlike group by their neighbors, their weapons were bows and arrows and mortality in any battle was very low. Life was eventful and satisfying.

The Yukis earliest encounter with whites may have occurred in 1833, when a Hudson's Bay Company fur trading party led by Michael Laframboise passed peacefully through the mountain valley that forms the heart of Yuki territory. They remained only a few days before departing, leaving just memories and a few trade beads. Not until 1854 did whites again venture into the valley, when an American exploration party consisting of the brothers Pierce and Frank Asbill, with their friend Jim Nephus, discovered this isolated, lush, almost perfectly round valley. While riding through the valley on horseback, they encountered a great congregation of Yuki and, in the confusion that followed, the whites killed a number of Indians and escaped unharmed. The following year, this party returned to spend the summer in the beautiful valley, hunting deer and tanning skins. During their stay, the whites befriended young Yuki, but when they departed at the end of the summer, they kidnapped thirty-five girls and young women to sell as wives to Mexican vaqueros in the Sacramento Valley.

Other explorers soon followed the Asbill party and word spread in Northern California of the remote mountain valley named "Round Valley" by Europeans. Settlers were attracted to the area for its cattle ranching potential, whereas the U.S. government identified it as a desirable place to gather Indians from a number of Northern California tribes displaced by settlers, gold miners, and ranchers. The government declared the entire valley an Indian Reservation in June, 1856, but this proclamation came too late as settlers were already entrenched. They continued to arrive and stake large land claims in the southern half of the valley, leaving the government only the northern end for the reservation.

Simmon P. Storms, Indian agent for Round Valley Reservation, erected reservation buildings, surrounding them with a stockade; he also relocated here a group of Maidu from the Sacramento Valley. A farm was begun, but few Yuki were attracted to farming; most continued to pursue their traditional hunting and gathering existence in the valley and surrounding mountains. Some Yuki tried to drive out the reservation personnel shortly after their arrival by killing stock animals and threatening the personnel with bows and arrows. In response, Storms claimed that reservation staff "were forced to kill many of. . .[the Indians]. . . , which stopped their proceedings" (Miller, 1979, p. 49). When settlers tried to prohibit the Yuki from their traditional hunting and gathering activities in the valley, the Indians killed a few cattle, horses, and pigs for food.

The settlers were quick to retaliate and formed expeditions to punish the Yuki. These expeditions were best described in the testimony of a responsible settler under oath to a California State Investigating Committee in 1860:

. . . in one thousand eight hundred and fifty six the first expedition by the whites against the Indians was made, and [the expeditions] have continued ever since; these expeditions were formed by gathering together a few white men whenever the Indians committed depredations on their stock; there were so many of these expeditions that I cannot recollect the number; the result was that we would kill, on an average, fifty or sixty Indians on a trip, and take some prisoners, which we always took to the reserve; frequently we would have to turn out two or three times a week (Miller, 1979, p. 49).

This statement, substantiated by other settlers, implies that at least five thousand Yuki were murdered in and around Round Valley each year, although presumably the numbers decreased as the Yuki population declined.

Hostilities between the Indians and the settlers were not entirely one-sided, but the Yuki killed did not kill any white men until 1857, when, in desperation, they killed two whites, one of whose "favorite amusement[s] is said to have been shooting at the Indians at long range, and he usually brought down his game" (Miller, 1979, p. 50). Citing this killing as an example of the constant danger they were exposed to, the settlers sent word to California Indian Superintendent Thomas J. Henley for troops to protect them. The troops marched through the mountains in the summer of 1858 and caused over two thousand Indians to descend on the reservation for their own protection. When the troops departed, so did the Indians.

The settlers continued to send raiding parties to pursue and kill Yuki and other Natives living in the nearby mountains. The U.S. Department of the Interior dispatched Special Agent J. Ross Browne in 1858 to investigate the Indian Wars in and around Round Valley. Browne reported at the end of September that the situation was a "war of extermination" being waged against the Indians (Miller, 1979, p. 55). Even settlers who were missing no stock launched parties to go into the mountains and hunt Indians; some settlers boldly invaded Round Valley Reservation in broad daylight shooting adult Indians and kidnapping younger ones to sell into virtual slavery outside the valley. Such massacres continued with shocking intensity and frequency so U.S. troops were again transported to Round Valley in January, 1859, with instructions to protect the Indians and whites from each other and generally to maintain the peace. When it became apparent that Lieutenant Edward Dillon, the officer in charge, intended to be fair to both Indians and whites alike, the settlers concluded that the soldiers would not punish the Indians so they continued their own murderous raids. At the same time, they began petitioning California Governor John B. Weller to commission a company of volunteers to hunt down the Yuki more effectively. The settlers did not bother to wait for the commission, but raised a complement of volunteers who selected Walter S. Jarboe as their leader. His company of Eel River Rangers commenced their raids in July, murdering indiscriminately all Indians they could find, regardless of age or sex. This intense pace of raids and killings went on for six months until Jarboe's commission expired in January, 1860. In subsequent testimony one volunteer in Jarboe's unit claimed that "Captain Jarboe told me his company had killed more Indians than any other expedition . . . ever . . . ordered out in this State" (Miller 1979, p. 72).

After Jarboe's company was decommissioned, the settlers continued for several years to raid Yuki and other Indian camps in the area. But by 1860, there were only three hundred Yuki on Round Valley reservation, with perhaps another few hundred in the surrounding mountains. Through an extremely intense campaign of genocide, the flourishing Aboriginal Yuki population had been drastically reduced by more than ten thousand Indians in only five years. The effects on neighboring mountain tribes were equally devastating.

What became of the survivors on Round Valley Reservation? Under the tutelage of Indian agents and missionaries, they became victims of cultural genocide as they were encouraged to exchange their Indian languages, worldview, knowledge, and cultural values for the English language and European values and culture. As tribal elders died, the rich Yuki culture and language disappeared with them. By 1900 there were only about one hundred Yuki. In 2003, fewer than one hundred mixed-blood individuals claim Yuki ancestry.

SEE ALSO Developmental Genocide; Indigenous Peoples; Native Americans


Miller, Virginia P. (1978). "Yuki, Huchnom, and Coast Yuki." In Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 8, California, ed. Robert F. Heizer. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Miller, Virginia P. (1979). Ukomno'm: The Yuki Indians of Northern California. Socorro, N.M.: Ballena Press.

Miller, Virginia P. (1994). "Yuki." In Native America in the Twentieth Century, ed. Mary B. Davis. New York: Garland Publishing.

Patterson, Victoria, DeAnna Barney, Les Lincoln, and Skip Willits, eds. (1990). The Singing Feather. Ukiah, Calif.: Mendocino County Library.

Susman, Amelia, and Robert F. Heizer, eds. (1976). "The Round Valley Indians of California." In Contributions ofthe University of California Archaeological Research Facility 31. Berkeley, Calif.: Archaeological Research Facility.

Virginia P. Miller