Changing Horses

Fort Bragg is only ten miles from Mendocino as the crow flies. But a lot further by feel. Caspar bridge is like a Mason-Dixon line between two realms. Just flip-flop the compass. You might think a fort was there once upon a time. But you’d be wrong.

According to Merriam Webster, a fort is either (a) surrounded by parapets, or (b) a permanent military installation. History shows that Fort Bragg was neither. From the get-go, it was a lowly camp. One of thirty such outposts in the Humboldt Military District. Named by a cowardly drunk after a bumbling slave owner. On Mendocino County’s one and only lumber plantation. In a place called Noyau. Where a thousand Pomo Indians vanished. California had a labor shortage back then. But plenty of Native Americans. So brown became the new black north of Mendocino.

Indian slavery was de regueur in early California. Three Southern brothers named Andrew, Benjamin and Samuel Kelsey availed themselves to the natives near Clear Lake around 1848. Taking fifty Pomo men off to the gold fields at the crack of a whip. Beating two of them to death. Sparing only Pomo women and children for sexual abuse. This went on until the fall of 1849. When Andy died at the hands of some very pissed-off Pomo warriors. Causing Ben and Sam to form a group of vigilantes called ‘The Sonoma Gang’. Dozens of innocent natives in Sonoma and Napa died at their hands. A hundred or so more Pomo women and children at the Bloody Island Massacre. With a little help from the U.S. Cavalry. Ben and Sam fled to Humboldt Bay to continue their murderous rampage. Triggering yet another bloodbath: the 1860 Wiyot Massacre. In 1861, Sam formed a group of Confederate sympathizers in San Bernardino County. But was never heard from again. Ben didn’t stick around Humboldt for long. Moving from place to place until finally dying in Los Angeles. In 1888. There’s an article about that in the North Coast Journal titled, The Sonoma Gang — Remembering the genocidal scum who built Arcata.

Mendocino was founded in 1850. One of the first pioneers here was a fellow named Nathaniel Smith. A free man affectionately known as ‘Nigger Nat.’ He homesteaded a place east of Highway One known as Fury Town. Then sold it to Northerner named Jerome Ford. Ford was followed by a stream of Northerners. All of them abolitionists. Smith remained in Mendocino for many years after that. Working first as a professional hunter. Then as a ferryman at the crossing on Big River. But always for a wage. And always as a free man. In 1859 there were about 200 Pomo here. All of them cared for by Captain David Lansing. Without charge. They were all paid too. Mendocino was originally named Meiggstown after financier Henry Meiggs. Who financed his fortune with forgery. When he skipped town in 1854, the townspeople renamed it Mendocino City. Purging Meiggs’ name from everything but the history books.

Things were different in Fort Bragg. Way different. People of color there were treated like animals. From Simpson Lane to Abalobadiah Creek. At the Mendocino Indian Reservation. Populated by 2,000 native souls. Run by a paid agent named Thomas J. Henley. Who — like many Indian agents — helped himself. Born in Indiana, Henley saw nothing wrong with slavery. It was reported that “soldiers and employees of the reservation would make incursions into the interior valleys and corral and drive the Indians into the reservation just as they would so many wild hogs or cattle.” The man in charge of the outpost was a U.S. Army officer named Horatio Gibson. A boozer with the unfortunate nickname ‘Agnes.’ And the unlikely task of protecting Indians from folks like Henley. Gibson named the place after a former commander of his named Braxton Bragg in 1857. The year Gibson turned thirty. Bragg was a military rock star. A Southern slave owner who became a hero killing brown people in the Mexican-American War. Then retired at thirty-eight.

Bragg’s early career was the stuff of dreams. By age forty, he owned a 1,600 acre sugar plantation in Louisiana. Along with 105 slaves. His legacy was something else. One of his biggest shortcomings was leadership. At one point, getting fragged with an artillery shell planted under his bunk by unhappy soldiers. Bragg had a reputation for being quarrelsome. Even with himself. Filing requisitions as his own quartermaster. Then refused them as the commanding officer. Bragg’s retirement was short-lived. Serving later in the Confederate Army. Pulitzer Prize winning historian James McPherson described Bragg as one of three bumbling Army officers who ‘lost the West.’ Bragg died at age 59 in Galveston, Texas.

Gibson arrived at Noyau a disgrace. In 1855, he’d fought natives in the Rogue River Wars. But got badly wounded in the Battle of Hungry Hill. Where 200 Indians with muskets, bows and arrows won a battle against 300 U.S. Army soldiers armed with rifles. Native casualties numbered fewer than twenty. Twice that amount on Gibson’s side. Including Gibson, who deserved it. Two officers had filled their canteens with chemical courage before the battle. One was a Southerner named Benjamin Alston. The other was Gibson. An officer named August Kautz reported that Alston and Gibson were drunk at the engagement. Gibson’s service record supports that. Gibson wasn’t promoted for six years. Kautz got a promotion right after the battle. Kautz went on to glory in the Puget Sound War in 1856. While Gibson wound up in exile at Noyau. His frustration apparent in a letter to headquarters dated September 15, 1857. “I forwarded some time ago a requisition for Mountain Howitzers and Ordnance stores, but not having received them, I presume the requisition was not approved.” Gibson continued his plea for artillery, citing “their incalculable importance in the event of a large number of Indians around me becoming disaffected and hostile”. There he was. An artillery officer without artillery. Surrounded by hostile Indians. Hung out to dry by the U.S. Army.

Gibson first arrived here in June of 1857 with a small group of soldiers. Pitching their tents smack in the middle of the Mendocino Indian Reservation. Naming it Camp Bragg. In September, he started calling it Fort Bragg. Giving his superiors a good chuckle. Gibson’s choice of names is interesting. Bragg was famous for insulting subordinates. Also for his habit of blaming others for defeat. Certainly Gibson felt insulted and blamed with his new assignment. The only way to voice that resentment was picking a name that embodied it. Bragg’s was perfect for that. Gibson and Henley got right down to business. Selling a prime chunk of Indian land to Alexander McPherson. Who promptly built a sawmill there. Using Pomo workers to cut and haul timber to the mill. And more Pomo workers to sort and transport green lumber to his private yard. Splitting the proceeds with Henley. Until 1858, when a clerk named G. Canning Smith ratted Henley out. Not for enslaving Indians. But for cheating the U.S. Government. Henley got fired. In 1857, Gibson claimed there’d never been a head count on the Mendocino Reservation. Which is hard to imagine for a man in his predicament. He reported the number of natives at the Mendocino Indian Reservation at maybe 1,000. Leaving a thousand or so Pomo unaccounted for. The following year Gibson got reassigned, never to see Fort Bragg again. He later served in the Union Army during the Civil War. In 1924, Gibson died in Washington, DC. At the ripe old age of 96.

Californians may consider themselves abolitionists today. But that wasn’t the case in the 1850s. As Andrew Kelsey became an overnight martyr, Golden State politicians embraced Native American slavery. In legislation called An Act for the Government and Protection of Indians. Stating that “Any person could apply to the Justice of Peace to obtain Indian children for indenture.” Yeah, baby. At market rates of $50 a head, why not? The law also stripped Native Americans of any legal rights. Putting them in the same boat as black people. Who couldn’t testify against white folks. By 1851, State leaders advocated outright genocide. Governor Peter Burnett announced, “That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races until the Indian race becomes extinct, must be expected.” For decades afterward, California paid a $25 bounty for Indian scalps. That law stayed on the books until 1937.

Like the Kelsey brothers and Braxton Bragg, Governor Burnett was a Southerner. Born in Tennessee, and raised in Missouri. Burnett was a white supremacist. His role in the Provisional Legislature of Oregon forced blacks to leave Oregon. Those who remained were subject to whipping. That law lasted until 1926. He also lobbied for the Chinese Exclusion Act decades after leaving office. A law that wasn’t repealed until 1943. Burnett died in 1895. Two places were named after him. The Burnett Child Development Center in San Francisco. And the Peter H. Burnett Elementary School in Long Beach. But when Burnett’s racist attitude hit the Internet, both places were renamed after prominent African Americans. Leaving California’s first governor spinning in his grave.

In 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation put the kibosh on slavery. But the treaty for the Mendocino Reservation somehow got misplaced and was never ratified. So in early 1864, most of the Pomo in Fort Bragg were rounded up and driven to Round Valley. On foot. Spelling the end of McPherson’s lumber plantation. By September, Union forces were burning Atlanta. In October, the entire garrison boarded the steamer Panama and sailed quietly into the night. The U.S. Government opened Fort Bragg up for settlement in 1869. Leaving the remaining Pomo with nothing. McPherson went broke in 1879 and died a year later. Leaving only an attitude behind.

Next it was the Chinese’s turn. In 1892, an angry Fort Bragg mob demanded that Chinese workers be fired for digging a railroad tunnel. For being — uh — Chinese. It took a visit from the Sheriff in Ukiah to fix that. “Okay,” he said. “Why don’t all you white folks dig the tunnel instead?” Hard labor was beneath Fort Bragg’s hoi polloi. So the Chinese went back to work. That story is trumpeted today on the Skunk Train website. By its all-white railroad workers.

Around 1920, the Ku Klux Klan showed up in Fort Bragg. For a friendly little cross burning on Bald Hill. I remember reading about that in the local paper a few years back. In that newspaper’s backward glance section. Featuring uplifting stories from the good ole days. Uh-huh. Then there was the Court Report. Where many of the defendants were Chinese. The Court Report is gone. But the backward glance is still there. In the Fort Bragg Advocate. Courtesy of its all-white reporters.

After Redwood Summer in 1990, Fort Bragg started rebranding itself. By adding Mendocino’s name to its Chamber of Commerce. To promote Fort Bragg businesses. Now there’s the MendocinoFun website. With ‘A spoonful of Fort Bragg history’ video. And lots of Fort Bragg businesses. Including the railroad. Which is now closed. Because it needs cheap labor again. The webmaster there is all-white too. What a shock. The Mendocino Beacon is now published in downtown Fort Bragg. By an all-white publisher. With an attitude. Another big surprise.

Don’t get me wrong. There are good things in Fort Bragg too. Like the North Coast Brewing Company, Piaci and the Harbor. But they’re all run by white people. Who don’t seem to mind working in a make believe fort. Named by a drunken coward. After a bumbling slave owner. For a lumber plantation. Look what’s happened in South Carolina and Mississippi. They’ve come to their senses. So maybe it’s time for a change in Fort Bragg as well. I remember a Chamber of Commerce advertising campaign from around 2000. Titled ‘Something to Bragg About.’ Really? Look at the facts. Fort Bragg’s name is positively shameful. Its people should think about honoring the 1,000 Pomo who went bye-bye there. And rename the place Noyau. That’s something to be proud of.

Like the old saying goes. There’s no shame in changing horses. Especially when the one you’re riding is lame.

One Response to "Changing Horses"

  1. Bob Mendosa   July 23, 2015 at 11:23 pm

    Fort Bragg caught in debate over slave-owning namesake

    Interesting. AVA scoops SF Chronicle.



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