The year is 1911 and it’s a summer’s day in northern California. Here, some slaughterhouse workers spot a man apparently trying to make off with some meat from their yard. They apprehend the stranger, who is emaciated and apparently starving. But once his true identity emerges, the man’s story hits the front pages and astonishes the world.
The man that those slaughterhouse workers had stumbled across near the city of Oroville in Butte County was actually a Native American. He was a member of the Yahi tribe, a northern Californian offshoot of the wider Yana people. Later, he came to be known by the name of Ishi. That word simply means “man” in the Yana tongue.
When Ishi was spotted in Oroville, he was thought to be in and around 50 years of age. And up until that day in August 2011 he had spent his entire life living in the wilderness of northern California, in the region of the Lassen Peak. But the contact he had with white men at the slaughterhouse was not his first.
As a child, Ishi had been present when his people, the Yahi, had been in deadly conflict with white people. And three years before that summer’s day near Oroville, white men had come across him and the tiny group he was living with at that point. There were just four of them then, all of them Yahis. But when the white men appeared, the group was forced to scatter.
Ishi then lost contact with two of his Yahi companions. The third, an elderly woman in poor health, died not long after the encounter. Subsequently, Ishi spent three years entirely on his own in the wild. And then he walked into that slaughterhouse yard. We’ll come back to what happened to Ishi after he was found. But first let’s take a look at the background to this extraordinary story.
To properly understand Ishi’s tale, we actually need to go back to the time before the 1849 Californian Gold Rush. That event, as we’ll see, was a catastrophe for the Yahi. But before the Gold Rush, there may have been up to 3,000 Yana Indians based in the Sacramento River Valley. Ishi’s tribe, the Yahi, was one of the four main branches of the Yana people.
There were probably about 400 of the Yahi people, and they lived in the southernmost part of the Yana territory. Ishi’s people lived as hunter-gatherers and were said to have been defensive of the territory they regarded as their own. They lived in small groups and recognized no central authority.
The Yahi lived to the south of Mount Lassen around two water courses, Deer Creek and Mill Creek. The area lies around 100 miles to the north of the modern city of Sacramento. In fact, the Gold Rush was not the first time the Native Americans of northern California encountered white settlers.
Prior to the influx of prospectors, there had been isolated instances of conflict between incoming settlers and the existing inhabitants. The Yahi people had earned a reputation as stubborn fighters in the small-scale skirmishes that had taken place before 1849. But the latest wave of migrants, the gold prospectors, were determined that no Native Americans should stand in their way.
So it was the onslaught of the gold hunters that brought desperate times to the Yahi and, indeed, the wider Yana peoples. They were struck down by diseases to which they had no resistance, such as tuberculosis, measles and smallpox. And the miners polluted water supplies, altered the lands and killed deer that had provided food for the Yahi.
The Yahi were among the first of the Native Americans to suffer at the hands of gold prospectors. This was because their territory lay closest to where the gold was. And as well as the disease and environmental degradation that devastated the Yahi, murderous bands of the new Californians exterminated them in a series of massacres.
As a child, Ishi himself witnessed an especially brutal attack on his Yahi group. This grim episode came to be known as the Three Knolls Massacre, and Ishi was part of the group that were viciously attacked by men bent on killing off the Native Americans of northern California. In his 2001 book Ishi Rediscovered, Richard Burrill described the incident.
“In 1865, near the Yahi’s special place, Black Rock, the waters of Mill Creek turned red at the Three Knolls Massacre. 16 or 17 Indian fighters killed about 40 Yahi, as part of a retaliatory attack for two white women and a man killed at the Workman’s household on Lower Concow Creek near Oroville,” Burrill wrote.
Robert A. Anderson, who participated in the murderous attack, wrote a graphic description of the appalling carnage. “Into the stream they leaped, but few got out alive. Instead many dead bodies floated down the rapid current,” Anderson recalled. It seems that some 40 of the Yahi were ruthlessly slaughtered on that day.
However, around 33 of the Yahi managed to escape. Ishi, who would have been around five years old at the time, managed to get clear of the massacre with the remnants of his people and at least some of his family – his mother, an uncle and a sister. But the terror was not yet over for the escapees, now fugitives in their own land.
The young Ishi and the other survivors escaped into the hills, where they hid in the remote wilderness. But not long after Three Knolls Massacre, four cattlemen tracked down the remaining Yahi with dogs. The men murdered around half of the last remnants of the Yahi people. The rest escaped, retreating further into the backwoods and mountains.
Ishi and the other Yahis now spent some four decades hiding from the new Californians. Yet it seems Ishi’s father was killed in the attack in 1865. Another raiding party found the surviving Yahi in 1880. By now just a band some 20 strong, the last of the Yahi fled further into the wilderness of the Cascade Mountains.
The Yahi continued to live in their traditional way. They harvested acorns and milled them to make flour. For clothing and bedding they hunted deer, rabbits and wildcats for their skins. As best they could, they maintained their culture with age-old ceremonies and ritual cremation of their dead. Occasionally, they pilfered food from a settler’s shack in the woods.
Ishi was present during one raid of a cabin in 1885. The shack was in Dry Creek and its owner appeared on the scene while the Yahi were there. They had gathered some old clothing and a few other things. The cabin’s owner allowed them to go on their way. A few months later, the white man found a couple of woven baskets at the cabin. This was perhaps a form of payment for his leniency.
It seems that only five Yahi remained by 1894. The campaign of extermination had been almost entirely successful. This last remnant of the Yahi formed a settlement on a mountain ledge some 500 feet over Deer Creek. A bear had been a previous occupant of the spot the Yahi had chosen. So naturally enough they called their new living quarters Grizzly Bear’s Hiding Place.
Another crisis point for the handful of remaining Yahi came in 1908. Two engineers employed by the Oro Light & Power Company were surveying the land around the last Yahi settlement. The survey was in preparation for the construction of a dam. The men stumbled across Ishi as he was fishing in Deer Creek. Ishi spotted the pair and made a run for it.
The two surveyors told their colleagues about their strange encounter. But most were skeptical that there could possibly still be any Native Americans living in the wild in northern California. Nevertheless, the men’s guide decided to investigate further and went to see what he could find at Deer Creek.
As the guide explored the area, an arrow from an unseen source supposedly whistled past him. It missed – but not by all that much. The guide went back to the surveyor’s base and summoned the other company men. And searching together, it wasn’t long before they came across a camp.
The site was abandoned – apart from one elderly lady apparently trying to conceal herself in a nest of blankets. This woman, who was in poor health, was Ishi’s mother. And as well as Ishi and his mom, there was also a woman living there that Ishi later identified as his sister. Plus, an older man who may have been his uncle was also based there.
The surveyors collected some things from the camp, but opted to leave the elderly lady where she was. But the next day, the guide returned to the camp. His morality had been disturbed by the fact that the old woman had been left to her fate. Yet when he got back to the site to look for her, she had vanished.
Later, Ishi gave his own description of the events of 1908. He said that as the engineers approached their camp he and his sister and uncle all fled. Ishi went off in one direction while the other two headed in another. He never saw either of them again, assuming that they had fallen victim to some accident. Ishi went back to the camp to fetch his mother, but she passed away not long after.
Once his mother died, Ishi was left entirely on his own. In keeping with Yahi mourning tradition, he burnt his own hair off. After three years of isolation – and by now near to starvation – Ishi had reached rock bottom. He then decided it was time to seek help. And that was how he ended up at that slaughterhouse near Oroville in August 1911.
The slaughterhouse men called on the Butte County sheriff. At a loss as to what to do with this mysterious man, the lawman put him in the Oroville lock-up. One writer, the wife of a man who was later to become closely involved with Ishi, described the Native American’s appearance when he first emerged from seclusion.
This writer was called Theodora Kroeber, and she recorded her thoughts in her 1961 book Ishi in Two Worlds. She wrote, “The wild man was emaciated to starvation, his hair burned off close to his head, he was naked except for a ragged scrap of ancient covered-wagon canvas which he wore around his shoulders like a poncho.”
“The black eyes were wary and guarded now, but were set wide in a broad face, the mouth was generous and agreeably molded,” Kroeber continued. Yet it was her husband-to-be Arthur Kroeber – along with his colleague Thomas T. Waterman – that rescued Ishi. They retrieved him from the Oroville jail and took him into their care.
Professors at the University of California had been alerted to the appearance of Ishi by press reports. The New York Times published a piece in September 1911. “Scientists,” the paper proclaimed, “have found ‘the most uncontaminated aborigine in the known world.’” Describing his bowmanship the report continued, “A hat was put on a post 100 feet away, and Ishi sped his first arrow through the center of its crown.”
When Waterman, a linguistics professor, first went to meet Ishi in Oroville, he took with him a list of Yana words. Ishi recognized some of them. Ishi also met a northern Yana Native American with whom he could exchange a few words. Based on this evidence, Waterman reached the conclusion that Ishi was the final survivor of the Yahi people.
Although Ishi gradually began to open up in his new surroundings at the San Francisco campus of the University of California, there was one thing that he would not do. Because of Yahi customs he would not reveal his name. And so he was given the name of Ishi, the Yahi word for man.
Waterman and Professor Kroeber, a cultural anthropologist, now set to studying this living example of history. Kroeber succeeded in teaching Ishi some English until his vocabulary numbered some several hundred words. And along with Waterman, he worked with Ishi to try and piece together as much of the lost Yahi culture as possible.
Ishi was able to tell the professors about family structures and some of the Yahi traditions and rituals. Sadly, much of the Yahi culture had already been lost forever while Ishi was still only a child. As we’ve seen, the California gold rush had devastated the Yahi people from the middle of the 19th century. Nevertheless, Ishi was able to tell the academics much about his culture.
Ishi seemed to adapt well to modern life. He quickly began to wear standard American clothing, including pants and shirts. Shoes, however, proved to be more of a challenge, although he eventually took to them too after a few months. And he apparently piled on the pounds eating the unfamiliar food served at the university refectory.
And Ishi’s relationship with Kroeber and Waterman appears to have been a genuinely warm one. In fact, it’s been said that Ishi himself made a favorable impression on those he met. However, he was more aloof with women, likely due to the social codes of the Yahi. Certainly, he provided the professors with invaluable information about Native American culture and customs.
But there was a definite downside to Ishi’s new life. He had little resistance to the illnesses of his hosts. He was victim to frequent colds and after five years, he developed a much more serious illness – tuberculosis. Sadly, this disease killed him on March 25, 1916. According to Kevin Starr’s 2002 book The Dream Endures: California Enters the 1940s, Ishi’s poignant last words were, “You stay. I go.”
In later years, Ishi’s treatment at the hands of the academics at the University of California came under scrutiny. After all, he had given public exhibitions of his arrow-making skills at the university. And when he died, an autopsy was performed against his wishes. Although his body was cremated, his brain was preserved and ended up at the Smithsonian.
Also in later years, some doubt was cast on the idea that Ishi really had been the last of the Yahi. Some scientists believed that he might have had a mix of heritages from other northern Californian Native Americans. Whatever the truth, campaigners eventually succeeded in securing possession of Ishi’s ashes and his brain. His remains were buried in a secret ceremony near Deer Creek by Native Americans from the Pit River and Redding Rancheria peoples in 2000. Ishi was back home at last.