KERNVILLE, Calif. (KGET) – We Americans, many of us, like to think of ourselves as an enlightened people – civilized in every sense of the word, incapable of the sort of inhumanity that has plagued society since the sword became the oppressor’s tool of domination.
We Americans, many of us, are delusional on that count. Massacres – the mass execution of innocent, unarmed people by a superior, armed force – have taken place right here in the United States, many times. And, in fact, right here in Kern County.
One stands out: Kern County’s most chilling and indiscriminate mass murder, the Keyesville Massacre of 1863. A mounted detachment of U-S soldiers slaughtered nearly three dozen members of the Kern River Valley’s peaceful piñon people – victims – guilty, history now tells us, of nothing.
It was here 160 years ago that a Union cavalry detachment descended on a thatched-hut village of Tubatulabal – and murdered nearly every man there. Shot them down, then sabered them where they lie.
No charges, no trial, no apology.
In April 1863, the nation was consumed by the Civil War, raging in the East and South. But 2-thousand miles to the west, in the California Gold Country of the southern Sierra Nevada, another conflict was playing out — 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 starving. 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 – a branch of the Paiute – had lived in peace and plenty.
“This valley was abundant,” Anderson said. “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.”
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.
Members of the Owens Valley tribes came to the Kern River Valley to try to convince the Tubatulabal to help them respond with an uprising. The Tubatulabal refused, but the local White settlers didn’t realize it, and they feared violence. They petitioned the Army at Camp Babbitt, near Visalia, to pay a visit.
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 on April 12, 1863, McLaughlin’s detachment of 44 men – towing a battlefield cannon, and supported by four six-mule wagon teams – rode 120 miles south into the Sierras.
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 the mining town of Whiskey Flat, on Tillie Creek, called Pal-i-ka-mun-up, or Big Water, so named because the Kern River was wide and deep there.
Alarmed by the cavalry’s presence, 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.
When Capt. McLaughlin learned the Tubatulabal had entrusted their guns to Sumner, he was furious and demanded Sumner surrender the weapons to him. When Sumner refused, McLaughlin seized them.
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 explorers John C. Fremont and Edward Kern, and McLaughlin intended to use him for that purpose as well.
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 that point on what was then the north fork of the Kern River and came down to the place where Tillie Creek met the North Fork.
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.
Jose Chico was able to pull out four men, including his own brother, who all scurried away. That was all the cavalry captain would allow.
McLaughlin told the Indians to line up and then, turning to his soldiers, barked the ruthless command – fire! Some of the Tubatulabal tried to run, some tried to fight, but the soldiers mowed them down with cold-blooded efficiency, then pulled their 41-inch swords from their scabbards and, walking through among the fallen men, stabbed them in the chest where they lay. They mounted up and rode away, leaving the Tubatulabal women, helpless witnesses to the tragedy, to dig graves with their hands, wailing.
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.
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.
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, in effect, another Trail of Tears.
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.
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, according to Tubatulabal tribal chief Robert Gomez.
“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 19, 1863.