California’s Bloody Island Massacre

In an episode nearly forgotten in American history, government troops killed a large number of Northern California’s Pomo Indians in retaliation for the murder of two white settlers who were known to have been exceptionally exploitative and abusive in their treatment of Indians working on their ranch.

Summary of Event

Accounts of the Bloody Island Massacre—which is sometimes called the Clear Lake Massacre—its causes, and aftermath are few, brief, and inconsistent. On May 6, 1850, as many as several hundred Pomo Indians may have been killed by U.S. Army troops sent to retaliate for the murder of two white men, Charles Stone and Andrew Kelsey, in December, 1849. (Although many different names apply to the indigenous inhabitants of the area, the name “Pomo” is used throughout extant accounts.) Bloody Island Massacre
California;Bloody Island Massacre
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[kw]California’s Bloody Island Massacre (May 6, 1850)
[kw]Bloody Island Massacre, California’s (May 6, 1850)
[kw]Massacre, California’s Bloody Island (May 6, 1850)
[kw]Massacre, California’s Bloody Island (May 6, 1850)
Bloody Island Massacre
California;Bloody Island Massacre
California;Native Americans
[g]United States;May 6, 1850: California’s Bloody Island Massacre[2750]
[c]Atrocities and war crimes;May 6, 1850: California’s Bloody Island Massacre[2750]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;May 6, 1850: California’s Bloody Island Massacre[2750]
Kelsey, Andrew
Kelsey, Ben
Lyon, Nathaniel
Stone, Charles

In the fall of 1847, the brothers Andrew and Ben Kelsey, Charles Stone Stone, Charles , and a man named Shirland bought Salvador Vallejo Vallejo, Salvador ’s land claim, Sixteen Leagues, located west of Clear Lake in Northern California. Stone and Andrew Kelsey Kelsey, Andrew then moved onto the claim and built an adobe house close to the site of the modern town of Kelseyville. According to a man named Augustine, Augustine a Pomo foreman employed by Kelsey and Stone, about five hundred local Pomos spent two months building the adobe house. For their labor, they received the insufficient ration of one steer per day. In the summer of 1848, Stone and Kelsey mustered all the Pomos of the area, selected twenty-six strong, young men, including Augustine, and took them to the Feather River Mines. Mining;in California[California] According to Augustine, the Pomos gathered a large bag of gold, for which each of them was paid with a pair of overalls, a hickory shirt, and a red bandanna. In turn, Kelsey and Stone used the gold to buy Vallejo’s cattle, thus establishing themselves as ranchers.

Many reports describe Kelsey and Stone’s Stone, Charles abuse of the Pomos and resultant conflicts. The ranch apparently was a gathering point for rough miners, who, during their visits, often tortured, shot, and assaulted Indians for “sport.” In addition, Pomos working on the ranch were so poorly fed that they occasionally slaughtered ranch animals for food. Punishment for such infractions included lashing, hanging men up by their hands without food, and death.

Kelsey and Stone also “requisitioned” Pomo women for sexual purposes. Newspaper accounts and “eyewitness” reports are nearly unanimous in condemning their conduct, and many agree that they richly deserved being murdered. In contrast, Salvador Vallejo’s agents, though by no means softhearted, apparently had no comparable conflicts with the Clear Lake Pomos, who were generally considered inoffensive and cooperative.

In the spring of 1848, Pomos on the Kelsey-Stone ranch rose up and besieged the two white men in their house. However, they could not force their way inside because Kelsey Kelsey, Andrew and Stone Stone, Charles had earlier persuaded them to store their weapons in the loft of the building. After a Pomo man carried word of the siege to Sonoma, Ben Kelsey and several other men rode to the ranchers’ rescue. Arriving after dark, they found the house darkened and surrounded by what they described as a “horde of dancing, shrieking and yelling fiends.” After assessing the situation, they charged the mob, making as much noise as possible, but without firing on the Pomos. The tactic scattered the Indians, and the rescuers reached the house. Shortly afterward, the Pomos returned to talk. The outcome was a joint expedition of Kelsey, Stone, the rescue party, and the Clear Lake Pomos to the Russian River Valley. There they raided several ranches, from which they carried away other Pomos, whom they took to Sonoma for distribution as laborers among the settlers of that area.

In the spring of 1849, Ben Kelsey Kelsey, Ben organized a second mining expedition comprising between fifty and one hundred Clear Lake Pomos. That expedition found no gold and ended in disaster. After Kelsey sold the expedition’s supplies to other prospecting groups for his own profit, members of the group were stricken with malaria Malaria;in California[California] . Kelsey was himself incapacitated, and the other white people then abandoned the sick, destitute Pomos far from home and in hostile territory. Only three of them managed to return to Clear Lake. The fate of this group further inflamed the Pomos against Stone and Andrew Kelsey.

Finally, in the fall of 1849, Andrew Kelsey and Charles Stone Stone, Charles were murdered by the Pomos on their ranch. Details regarding their murders and the aftermath differ wildly. In some accounts, Augustine’s Augustine wife, who had been forced to live with the white men in the absence of her husband, poured water into Kelsey’s and Stone’s loaded guns the night before the murders, thus spoiling ranchers’ weapons and opening the way for an assault.

In other accounts, Kelsey and Stone were shot from ambush through the windows of the house. In yet another story, Stone was “called out” and shot with arrows, after which Kelsey jumped out of the window and ran into the woods, where he was killed by an old man with a rock. In yet another version, Stone broke out of the house, took refuge in an outbuilding, was dragged out, and had his throat cut. The murders of the white men in response to their abuses of the Pomos is the only element common to these stories, which derived mostly from hearsay accounts, many of which were recorded decades after the event.

On Christmas Day in 1849, Ben Kelsey Kelsey, Ben informed Lieutenant J. W. Davidson at Sonoma, California, of the killings and departed for his brother’s ranch with fifteen men. Davidson followed the next day with Lieutenant Wilson of the First Dragoons and twenty-two men. At the ranch, they found Stone’s Stone, Charles body, which was “shockingly mutilated, in a vat and covered with hides.” Davidson and Wilson then trailed the Pomos to an island in Clear Lake, which could not be assaulted without boats. The Pomos refused to surrender those responsible for the killings or to come ashore. Davidson’s party then returned to the ranch, found Andrew Kelsey’s body in the woods, and buried the two ranchers. Afterward, they conducted Ben Kelsey and his group out of the valley with Andrew Kelsey’s Kelsey, Andrew cattle. In his report, Davidson stated that all of the Pomos on the lake were “more or less concerned in this atrocious murder,” thus setting the stage for punishing the whole tribe.

On May 6, 1850, a military detachment set out from the town of Benecia, under the command of Captain Nathaniel Lyon Lyon, Nathaniel , to “punish” the Pomos. On the advice of Lieutenant Davidson, boats and wagons to carry them were taken to the lake; they were the first wheeled vehicles ever to enter the region. Part of the force proceeded up the western shore with a howitzer, driving the Pomos ahead of them. The Pomos took refuge at an island at the head of the lake. Meanwhile, the remainder of the force traveled up the lake by boat, taking position on the lake side of the island. Then, the shore party fired the howitzer into the massed Pomos on the tiny island. The panicked Indians ran to the opposite shore only to be greeted by musket fire from the amphibious party.


According to Lyon’s Lyon, Nathaniel report, at least sixty and possibly more than one hundred of the four hundred Indians believed to be on the island were killed. Details in other accounts differ substantially, but all agree that many Pomos, including women and children, were killed. Furthermore, there is no agreement as to whether any individual Pomos involved in the killing were actually with this group. Thereafter, Lyon, believing that some of those involved in the murders had fled to the Russian River Valley, crossed the divide into that valley and caught a group of Pomos on an island in the Russian River. He reported killing an estimated seventy-five. Peace apparently was arranged by a local, informal treaty in 1850, but in 1851 Colonel R. McKee entered into a treaty with the Pomo. This treaty, however, was not ratified by the U.S. Senate.

Further Reading

  • Brown, Vinson, and Douglas Andrews. The Pomo Indians of California and Their Neighbors. Edited by Albert B. Elsasser. Healdsburg, Calif.: Naturegraph, 1969. Brief but attractively illustrated book on Pomo culture, with some notes on their history.
  • Garner, Van H. The Broken Ring: The Destruction of the California Indians. Tucson, Ariz.: Westernlore Press, 1982. Thorough and well-researched history of the systematic exploitation and mistreatment of California’s Indian peoples.
  • Heizer, Robert F., ed. Collected Documents on the Causes and Events in the Bloody Island Massacre of 1850. Berkeley: University of California Archaeological Research Facility, 1973. Comprehensive reprints of government reports, newspaper accounts, eyewitness accounts, and early reminiscences. Includes Native American accounts.
  • ________. The Destruction of the California Indians. Salt Lake City: Peregrine Press, 1973. Large collection of original documents relating to the exterminations of California Indian tribes.
  • Jackson, Helen Hunt. A Century of Dishonor. Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1885. Often reprinted classic indictment of the mistreatment of American Indians, particularly in California, during the nineteenth century.
  • Josephy, Alvin M. Five Hundred Nations: An Illustrated History of North American Indians. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994. Includes a short account of the Clear Lake Massacre based on narrowly selected sources.
  • Nabokov, Peter, ed. Native American Testimony. Foreword by Vine Deloria, Jr. New York: Viking, 1991. Includes the account of William Benson, chief of the Pomos, born twelve years after the event to a Pomo woman and a settler and raised in the tribe after his father’s death.
  • Secrest, William B. When the Great Spirit Died: The Destruction of the California Indians, 1850-1860. Sanger, Calif.: Word Dancer Press, 2003. Brief book by an amateur historian surveying the terrible decade of the 1850’s, when white settlers ravaged and exploited many of California’s small and traditionally peaceful Indian communities.

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