KERNVILLE, Calif. (KGET) – April 19 marks the 160th anniversary of a tragic and brutal scar on Kern County history: The Keyesville Massacre.
In the midst of the bloody American Civil War a continent away, an atrocity of stunning cruelty occurred right here in the mountains east of what would one day become Bakersfield.
The history of man’s inhumanity to man – as manifested by that most barbaric of crimes, the massacre – spans millennia.
The mass slaughter of one group of people – the weaker and more defenseless party, by another, the stronger and better prepared – has taken place since humans first conceived of weapons as a means of oppression.
Massacres can be motivated by greed but more often they are rooted in nationalism, tribalism, racism, or provoked by competition for limited resources.
Sometimes it is a combination of the five – as was the case with Kern County’s most chilling and indiscriminate mass murder, the Keyesville Massacre of 1863.
It happened 160 years ago, a Union cavalry detachment descended on a thatched-hut village of Tubatulabal – the peaceful Piñon people of the Kern River Valley – and murdered nearly three dozen men.
It was not a battle, not a showdown between opposing armies. It was a cold-blooded execution. No charges, no trial, no apology.
Why? What did it solve? That is the question that lingers more than a century and a half later.
In April 1863, the nation was consumed by catastrophic events elsewhere.
In the Civil War, Union and Confederate armies were mobilizing their forces near Fredericksburg, where Union General Joseph Hooker was preparing a flanking maneuver against Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
A thousand miles to the southwest of that, Union forces were preparing to lay siege to Vicksburg, the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River.
About 1,800 miles west of that battlefield, in the California Gold Country of the southern Sierra Nevada, another Civil War engagement was set to play out – a bloody confrontation with very different players and very different stakes.
It would be the final chapter of what came to be known as the Owens Valley War of 1862-63, pitting the U.S. Army’s California Volunteers, aided by local settlers, against the Paiutes and Shoshone.
In the mountains and valleys east of Keyesville – now in Kern County, 50 miles east of Bakersfield – the native tribes were desperate. The influx of White settlers, drawn by the southern Sierra Gold Rush of 1853, had strained the region’s fragile resources. For centuries prior, according to Dianna Anderson, curator of the Kern Valley Museum, the Tubatulabal – connected by ancestry to the Paiute – had lived in peace and plenty.
“This valley was abundant,” said Dianna Anderson, curator of the Kern Valley Museum. “There were plenty of acorns, there were pine nuts at the south fork end of the valley. They had fish, they had game, they had elderberries. They would actually trade to other tribes. This was kind of a little trading center for the area.”
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Among their most frequent trading partners, according to Tubatulabal tribal chief Robert Gomez, were the Paiute of the Owens Valley, lineal descendants who lived just over the range to the east.
“As the crow flies, maybe 20 miles from the Bartolas, and you’ll find yourself in the Owens Valley,” Gomez said.
Life’s delicate balance began to change in the middle of the 19th century, when White men started driving cattle into the Owens Valley to feed the gold and silver miners. Their cattle were eating the tribes’ irrigated crops and the wild, native plants upon which the region’s tribes relied.
The Great Flood of 1862 had driven away the game that sustained the native tribes – and unusually heavy snow that lingered long into spring hindered the growth of new vegetation. The Owens Valley Paiute were starving – and in despair had taken to stealing the White man’s livestock to survive.
The desert Paiutes were becoming increasingly more restless than their generally peaceful cousins, the Tubatulabal.
“The native tribes from the desert side were threatening to have an uprising, and they had actually come here and talked to the Tubatalabals,” Anderson said. “And (the Tubatalabals) said, ‘No, we’re not having any part of that, we’re not having any problems. We get along with the White men.’ But the miners got wind and I think they thought that the Tubatulabals were going to take part.”
The White settlers petitioned the Army at Camp Babbitt, near the secessionist hotbed of Visalia, to pay a visit.
The Army camp had enough on its hands already. Even here in California the United States government was dealing with dueling Civil War loyalties among its own people.
Northern California supported the Union, but Tulare County and points south, all the way to Mexico, were full of Southern sympathizers – some of whom, like con man Asbury Harpending – the self-professed father of Kern County – had dedicated themselves to enriching the Confederacy with California gold.
What they couldn’t mine themselves they tried to steal – raiding Union steamships and plundering their cargos of gold, sometimes in excess of a million dollars’ worth. So, the Union troops’ tasks included safeguarding California trade routes from both starving natives and traitorous Confederate agents.
When he received the Kern Valley settlers’ petition, the commander at Fort Babbitt ordered Moses A. McLaughlin, an ambitious, 29-year-old, Irish-born captain in the California Volunteer Cavalry’s 2nd Regiment, to address the situation.
So April 12, 1863, McLaughlin’s detachment of 44 men – towing a battlefield cannon, and supported by four six-mule wagon teams – rode their mounts 120 miles south into the Sierras. They’d been given these instructions:
“The captain will halt a few days in the upper end of the valley, where the difficulties are said to exist, and investigate the matter, and if the position of the Indians should be found as favorable as represented, if deemed advisable, will give them battle. The captain will have … a force sufficient to handle any number of Indians that he will be likely to meet at that place.”
And sufficient that force proved to be.
But the Kern River Valley Tubatalabal apparently failed to fully appreciate the situation.
On April 17, 1863, McLaughlin’s detachment arrived near Keyesville, a helter-skelter, insubstantial gathering of wooden, dirt-floored houses, streetless and schooless, founded after gold was discovered in the southern Sierra.
Keyesville was 10 miles west of a Tubatulabal village near Whiskey Flat, on Tillie Creek, called Palikamunup, or Big Water, so named because the Kern River was wide and deep there.
Accounts vary on precisely what happened next, but historians generally agree on these details:
The soldiers’ presence became known throughout the Kern River Valley almost immediately. McLaughlin issued a decree ordering the tribesmen to give up their arms.
Alarmed, a group of Tubatulabal men went to Joseph Sumner, their friend who operated the Big Blue Mine. He advised them to entrust their guns to him, saying he would hold them until the threat passed. The Tubatulabal agreed to surrender their 18 guns, which in many cases were rusted from lack of maintenance. Some of the native tribesmen, including visiting Paiute from the Owens Valley, decided also to hide; but most Tubatalabal did not sense sufficient danger, so they remained in their camp.
When Capt. McLaughlin learned the Tubatulabal had entrusted their guns to Sumner, he was furious and demanded Sumner surrender the weapons to him.
“Sumner tried to dissuade him and tried to keep the guns that the Tubalalabels had given him,” Anderson said. “He was threatened with insurrection and gave them up.”
After meeting with local residents at Keyesville, McLaughlin summoned Jose Chico, a friendly Owens Valley tribesman who cultivated a farm on the Kern River and spoke enough Spanish to be understood. Chico had served as a guide and interpreter for the explorer John C. Fremont, and McLaughlin intended to use him for that purpose as well.
McLaughlin told the White settlers they were invited to accompany the soldiers to the natives’ encampment to vouch for any tribesmen they might know as peaceful.
Nothing of great significance actually happened within the strict confines of Keyesville, much of which is now four and a half acres of gated private property at the end of a Bureau of Land Management road – so the name attached to the massacre is a misnomer. Nothing happened in Keyesville, that is, except this: It was here that Capt. McLaughlin, encamped with his soldiers, settled on the details of his brutal plan.
Early the next morning, a Sunday, April 19th, 1863, accompanied by 20 of his men, Capt. McLaughlin left Keyesville. He rode at the head of a mounted column, moving his company single file along a crude road.
It was just before dawn that the Union cavalry came around a point of land on what was then the north fork of the Kern River and came down to the place where Tillie Creek met the North Fork.
“That was called Yauhawapal, which is Place Where the Rivers Meet,” Gomez said.
That’s where the village was. That’s where the massacre took place. According to McLaughlin’s report:
At dawn (we) surrounded the camp of the Indians, which was situated about ten miles from Keysville, upon the right bank of Kern River. I had the bucks collected together.
McClaughlin told Jose Chico and the local citizens who had assembled at the village that they might point out the tribesmen they knew to be friendly, but after Chico had pulled out only about four men, including his own brother, McClaughlin stopped him. The clemency period was over.
The boys and old men I sent back to their camps. As for others, to the number of thirty-five, for whom no one could vouch …”
McLaughlin told the Indians to line up, and then, the two sides assembled, ordered his men to fire on the Tubatulabal. Some tribesmen ran; some tried to fight back.
Their only chance for life being their fleetness, but none escaped, though many of them fought well with knives, sticks, stones, and clubs.
The soldiers passed through among the fallen, wounded men and sabered them where they lay, then mounted up and rode away. The Tubatulabal women, helpless witnesses to the tragedy, dug graves with their hands and buried the bodies, wailing.
One of the fallen tribesmen – a Yokuts called Hee-A-suh – was wounded but not killed, shot in the eye and stabbed in the heart, somehow not fatally. Decades later, one witness, a 13-year-old boy, still vividly remembered the sight of Hee-A-suh’s injuries.
“Esteban Miranda (the young witness) … could see his heart beating,” Anderson said. “But the women scurried him off and the soldiers thought he was dead.”
The Tubatulabal women helped the half-blinded man crawl to Sumner’s adobe house above the mine, and Sumner hid him in the rocks nearby until the soldiers had left the area. As the Tubatulabal story goes, Hee-A-suh’s totem, a rattlesnake, came to the wounded man’s side, laid on him and protected him.
Sumner and his family fed and consoled 15 of the Tubatulabal women, who were in full mourning with pine gum and dirt daubed on their faces. Sumner butchered a steer and gave them fresh meat and other food to take with them.
But the women were not the only witnesses. Nine tribesmen – most likely Owens Valley Paiute – had been justifiably alarmed by Sumner’s warning and had stayed away from the village. That morning they had been hiding on a rocky ridge above the creek, where they watched the methodical slaughter.
Afterward, Capt. McLaughlin could not quite bring himself to remorse. From his report:
This extreme punishment, though I regret it, was necessary, and I feel certain that a few such examples will soon crush the Indians and finish the war in this and adjacent valleys. It is now a well-established fact that no treaty can be entered into with these Indians. They care nothing for pledges given, and have imagined that they could live better by war than peace. They will soon learn that they have been mistaken, as with the forces here they will soon either be killed off, or pushed so far in the surrounding deserts that they will perish by famine.
In the days and weeks following the massacre, Capt. Moses McLaughlin’s soldiers methodically flushed out tribesmen hiding in Kern Valley mountain thickets, climbing high up the mountains at night, then at daylight sweeping down toward the valley where fellow soldiers waited below. No day passed without soldiers finding and killing two or three.
Eventually McLaughlin’s superior, Capt. Herman Noble, ordered the soldiers to start taking prisoners, hoping to eventually offer peace from a position of total domination. By July 1863 McLaughlin had captured nearby 1,000 tribal folk from the Kern and Owens valleys.
A Pauite chieftain known as Captain George accepted the Army’s terms of surrender, such as they were, and McLaughlin’s men – cavalry and foot soldiers, with 20 wagons pulled by mule teams – escorted their prisoners on a merciless 12-day march of more than 200 miles to Fort Tejon. It was a trek so excruciating at least two of the women begged, and persuaded, settlers they encountered along the way to take their babies, lest they die. Two decades after members of the Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, Chickasaw and Choctaw nations were forcibly removed from their ancestral homelands in the Southeastern United States to designated land west of the Mississippi in what became known as the Trail of Tears, the Shoshone, Pauites and Tubatulabal were forced to embark on their own Trail of Tears.
“Out of those thousand they say that 200, maybe 300, survived,” Gomez said. “A lot of them were killed, a lot of them ran away and hid until the soldiers left and either moved back or stayed in the area.”
For all intents and purposes, however, the Owens Valley War was over.
Jose Chico – the scout and interpreter – had no choice but to comply with Capt. McLaughlin’s orders, but his role in the masacre embittered many of the Tubatulabal. And though his fate is lost to history, it is said that the tribesmen eventually killed Chico’s brother above the Whiskey Flat graveyard. Said Esteban Miranda, the 13-year-old massacre witness also known as Se-Wah: “They had it in for him.”
Joseph Sumner, the miner who had befriended the natives, petitioned the government for reparations for the Tubatulabal, describing the atrocity and McLaughlin‘s role. The outcome of Sumner’s petition demands are not known, but McLaughlin suffered repercussions the following January.
He was tried at a Court Martial at Camp Babbitt – not for his actions near Keyesville but for conduct Unbecoming an Officer and Gentleman, specifically, embezzling money from the Army by overcharging accounts under his control. He was dismissed from the service and moved to San Francisco.
Two years, almost to the day, after McLaughlin’s detachment first set out from Visalia, Union General Ulysses S. Grant accepted Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse in Virginia.
McLaughlin divorced his wife, remarried, earned a medical degree and practiced medicine in San Francisco until his death in 1899 at age 65. Joseph Sumner’s daughter Alice wrote years later that McLaughlin had died by suicide in San Luis Obispo but there is no reliable record of it, and most of San Francisco’s vital records were destroyed in the earthquake and fires of 1906. McLaughlin is buried in San Mateo.
The Tubatulabal’s ancestors tell compelling stories of the Keyesville Massacre, but McLaughlin’s ancestors do not because they cannot. McLaughlin’s great-great-great granddaughter, who still lives in Northern California, says family history that far back is lost to time.
One of McLaughlin’s soldiers, Louis Beardsley, went on to establish a farm near what today is Oildale. He dug Beardsley Canal, which is still in use, and donated the land for Beardsley School – which, yes, students still attend, in a modern building.
Joseph Sumner went on to serve as justice of the peace in Kernville for 40 years. He served until 1910 and died the following year at age 92. East Bakersfield’s Sumner Street, and the town of Sumner – today known as Old Town Kern – is named for him.
The people of the Kern River Valley never forgot the Keyesville Massacre, and 20 years ago, they began to commemorate the tragedy every year, on April 19th. The tragedy represented more than just loss of life.
“It was a loss, tremendous loss, to our culture,” Gomez said. “Think of all that information, all that expertise, all that knowledge that … family took with them when they died. We could never recover that. We lost so much of our culture, and through the attempts at assimilation, we lost more.”
The actual site of the massacre is now beneath the water of manmade Isabella Lake, so the Tubatulabal hold their observance at a spot near the town of Wofford Heights – marked by three crosses – that looks down on the lake. The Tubatulabal have promised that their children and their children’s children will remember the significance of April 19th, 1863.
They believe the Keyesville Massacre is a difficult chapter in Kern County history that, hard as it may be to accept, demands our acknowledgement.