A Brief History of Humboldt County’s Native Tribes

A prior post on Fortuna’s history takes us from the late 19th century, when colonial settlers discovered their “fortune” in Fortuna, to the small but lively town it is today. However, what many people may not realize is that prior to colonial settlement, Fortuna and the greater Humboldt County were home to Native people for many centuries, people who valued the land and resources and treated them with great respect. Here is a brief history of the Native Tribes of Humboldt County, CA. 

Who were the Native people who first called Humboldt County home? The Wiyot, Yurok, Hupa, Karuk and Tolowa tribes were the most prominent Natives to live here prior to colonial settlement. Even though they were mostly hunter-gatherers, Humboldt County’s ideal moderate climate and abundant natural resources enabled them to make this place a permanent settlement. They lived on wild game, coastal shellfish, salmon and trout from the river, and even acorns, which they ground into meal. They also developed the art of fine basket making and canoe crafting. They lived together sharing a common bond – the environment and their culture. Here are some of their histories.

The Wiyot Tribe

Black and white photograph of Wiyot woman making baskets outsideThe Wiyot Tribe (pronounced WEE-yot) numbered about 2,000 when they first encountered non-Native settlers in the early 1800’s. During the California Gold Rush in 1849, settlers overran the Wiyot’s land and killed many during the Rogue River Indian War in 1853. Sadly, in February 1860, European-American settlers ambushed the Wiyot people, including elders, women and children, in what is known today as the Indian Island Massacre. The violence and genocide of the Humboldt County Natives was not uncommon. Today, the Wiyot Tribe is a federally recognized tribe of Wiyot people whose mission is to “exercise their tribal rights, promote common welfare, establish supreme law of the Tribe, provide for and protect their sovereign right to exercise self-government pursuant to their own laws, protect and develop their lands and resources, and promote and safeguard their aboriginal rights as Wiyot people.”

The Yurok Tribe

The indigenous Yurok tribe (pronounced YUR-aak), was made up of great fishermen, eelers, canoe makers, healers, strong medicine people. basket weavers, singers, dancers, and storytellers. This portion of Northern California along the Redwood Coast offered them abundant resources to not only live, but to thrive. The ocean and inland areas provided mussels, seaweed, acorns, deer, elk, berries, and teas. The giant redwood trees offered material for their homes and canoes (they respected these friendly giants as guardians over their sacred places). They never over-harvested the land, as we see happening so often today. The Yuroks have 5,000 enrolled members today, making up the largest Tribe in California. Their “major initiatives include: the Hoopa-Yurok Settlement Act, dam removal, natural resources protection, sustainable economic development enterprises and land acquisition.”

The Hupa Tribe

The name Hupa (pronounced hoo-pah) is the Tribe’s name in the neighboring Yurok language. The Yuroks were their closest traditional ally. Although they called themselves Natinixwe, they are most often referred to as Hupa. Historically, the Hupa people were made up of villages that were informally led by an elder from the wealthiest clan in town. They lived in rectangular cedar-plank houses with pitched roofs and chimneys. They likewise used hollowed-out redwood trees as canoes to travel up and down the Trinity River for fishing and trading. Today, the Hupa Tribe is governed by an elected tribal council who are “dedicated to protecting and promoting the interests of the Hoopa Valley Indians, and cooperating and collaborating with Federal, State, and local Governments.”

Karuk Tribe

Another one of the largest tribes in Northern California, the Karuk (pronounced KAR-uck), lived in villages along the Klamath River (as well as Yurok and Madoc), where they also continued cultural traditions such as hunting, fishing, gathering, basketmaking and ceremonial dances. Interestingly, the Karuk people were the only Tribe in California to grow tobacco plants. Today, their mission is to “promote the general welfare of all Karuk people, to establish equality and justice for our tribe, to restore and preserve Tribal traditions, customs, language and ancestral rights, and to secure to ourselves and our descendants the power to exercise the inherent rights of self governance.”

Whilkut Nation

The Whilkut people were an Athabaskan tribe along the Pacific coast that spoke a dialect similar to the Hupa and Chilula. In fact, the name Whilkut is an adaptation from the Hupa name for the Redwood Creek. Before contact with European settlers, the Whilkut Nation inhabited the area along the Upper Redwood Creek and Mad River, and some settlement in Grouse Creek. The Whilkut history is vague, but what we do know is that the Whilkuts were similar to Hupas, only viewed as poorer, less settled hill people. Following the California Gold Rush, the Whilkut population was greatly reduced due to the pack train routes between Humboldt Bay and Weaverville, which wove right through their territory, and the Bald Hills War of 1858-1864. Whilkut warriors were estimated to total 250-350 at the start of the war. In 1910, only 50 remained in the census and only 20-25 as of 1972. Whilkut descendants have since been incorporated into the Hupa Tribe. 

Unfortunate History

Black and white sketch of native american standing on horse talking to European explorer on horsebackUnfortunately, the prospect of gold and other valuable resources shattered the Native people’s homes, families, and dreams as opportunists came and sought their “fortune” in Fortuna and the greater area. Fortune seekers soon discovered that Humboldt County was not a major source of gold, however they found another kind of gold, “red gold,” from the abundant and giant redwood trees. Towering over 300’ tall, these giants were soon felled and milled by lumbermen to build rail links and ships to transport lumber and more settlers. As a result, fishing likewise grew to become a major industry along the Redwood Coast as well as the railroad. Rail connections and the invention of the automobile quickly led to tourism. After decades of ambushes and massacres, the Native Tribes were forced to relocate and combine efforts in order to survive.

Native Tribes Set a Fine Example Today

Today, many of the Tribes are growing in number and finding success as they strive to reclaim what was once stolen: their land, their rights, their culture and the preservation of Humboldt County’s natural resources. 

Fortunately for mankind, their fine example has led to many movements to preserve the famed redwoods and the sacred land on which they grow. Today, thousands of visitors and residents alike enjoy city, county, state and national parks where they can admire what mother nature so lovingly provides. Even so, it is our responsibility to share the history and plight of the indigenous people who once lived here without threat, and also to learn from their honorable example in how they treated this precious land.

We encourage you to come visit this historic stretch along the Pacific Coast for yourself. After booking a room at The Redwood Riverwalk Hotel, you can venture out into Humboldt County for scenic drives, invigorating hikes, and fascinating tours. Be sure to check out the Hupa Tribal Museum in Hupa, CA, where you’ll find the finest collections of Hupa, Yurok, and Karuk artifacts in northern California. There are several more museums and galleries where you can come and appreciate the many contributions of the Natives peoples of Humboldt County.

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