The Bloody Island Massacre of Clear Lake

Photograph by Noehill

The Bloody Island Massacre also known as the Clear Lake Massacre occurred on an Island at the north end of Clear Lake, California on May 15, 1850. Bloody Island also known to the locals as Rattlesnake Island is 1/4 mile west of Highway 20 and about 1.5 miles south of the town of Upper Lake, California. This is California Landmark #427

Bloody Island

The massacre all began with the Killings of Andrew Kelsey (namesake of Kelseyville, Calif.) and Charles Stone.

A number of Pomo Indians had been enslaved, interned, and severely abused by Andrew Kelsey and Charles Stone. Both Kelsey and Stone purchased from Salvador Vallejo free running cattle in 1847. The men captured and forced the Indians to work as cowboys and also forced them to build them a permanent shelter and were promised food which they broke their promise. Their treatment of the Indians was very brutal.

In another incident in the fall of 1849, Andrew Kelsey forced about 50 Pomo men to work as laborers on a second gold seeking expedition to the Placer gold fields. When Kelsey become ill with malaria he sold the food to the miners and the Indians starved with the exception of one or two men who returned alive.

Also both Stone and Kelsey regularly forced the Pomo parents to bring their daughters to them to be sexually abused. The parents could not refuse because they would be whipped mercilessly. Both men indentured and abused the Pomo women.

The Indians were eventually confined to a village surrounded by tall walls made of logs placed side by side vertically with the tops sharpened. The Indians were not allowed weapons for hunting or fishing implements. Families starved on the meager rations that was provided, which was reported only 4 cups of wheat a day per family. When one young man asked for more wheat for his sick mother, Stone reportedly killed him.

Two Indians named Shuk and Xasis decided to borrow horses for a hunting trip to bring back meat to the starving village. Their hunting trip failed with the horses running away and both Indians feared that Stone and Kelsey would kill them if they discovered that they took the horses. So at dawn Chief Augustine lead an attack with other Pomo warriors to Kelsey and Stone’s house. Andrew Kelsey was killed with an arrow, but Charles Stone jumped out of a window and was hiding in a stand of willow trees where Chief Augustine found Stone and reportedly killed him with a rock. The warriors then took food back to their families and everyone left to join other relatives around the lake.

The massacre was carried out by the 1st Dragoons Regiment of the United States Calvary, under the command of Captain Nathaniel Lyon and Lieutenant J. W. Davison. There regiment arrived in the Spring of 1850 and secured two whale boats and two field cannons from the U.S. Army arsenal at Benicia, California. A party of local volunteers joined the Regiment. In the morning the remaining body of soldiers proceeded to the west side of the lake. The two groups met at Robinson Point, just a little south of the Island where the Indians were at. The artillery was taken to the head of the lake in order to be as close as possible to the Indians.

Nathaniel Lyon would go on to become a Brigadier General for the Union Army and die at the Battle of Wilson Creek in 1861.

The following morning, the soldiers were ordered to fire shots from the front of the Island to get the Indians attention while the remaining soldiers lined up on the opposite side of the Island. The soldiers fired the cannon, which the Indians fled to the other side of the Island where they met their fate with the rest of the detachment. Many Indian women, children and old men were massacred. Some of the Indians tried to hide on the Island, while others jumped into the water to flee, but the soldiers hunted them down and massacred them.

The National Park Service has estimated the army killed 60 of 400 Pomo Indians with other accounts saying as much as 200 were killed. Most of the murders were of old men, women and children. Most of the younger men were off hunting in the nearby mountains. One Pomo survivor of the massacre was a 6 year old girl named Ni’ka or Lucy Moore. She hid underwater and breathed through a tule reed to successfully hide from the soldiers. Her descendants formed the Lucy Moore foundation to work for better relations between the Pomo and other residents of California. In addition another 75 Indians were killed on the Russian River nearby.

Colonel Reddick McKee, later in that same year traveled to Lake County. He came to negotiate treaties and establish the boundaries of the area’s Indian country. During the time of the Bloody Island Massacre, California did not recognize any tribal rights and therefore most tribes were unrepresented by the state’s political and judicial systems. The Bloody Island massacre represented the lack of due process under the law and was the perfect example of how the military administrated justice when dealing with Indians.

Few textbooks on California history mentions the Bloody Island incident or other abuse of the native Californians.

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