For almost half a century, California’s rugged Ishi Wilderness hid “the last wild Indian.” Even today, it is a place that can keep a secret.
It was early on the morning of August 29, 1911, when the dogs outside a slaughterhouse in Oroville, California, began to bark. An employee sent out to calm them down burst suddenly back inside. “Something,” he said, “is out there.”
Guns drawn and handcuffs ready, the sheriff and his deputies summoned by the slaughterhouse employee cornered “a wild man” in the cattle pens. Dressed in just a ragged, canvas, knee-length shirt, the strange man was barefoot, filthy, half-starved, exhausted, and speaking a language none of them had ever heard.
Over the next five years, the cowering figure found in the pen that morning would become known around the world as “Ishi, the last wild Indian in America.” Taken in by anthropologists at the University of California, Ishi would become a living exhibit at the San Francisco museum that would become his home. Tens of thousands of visitors would flock to the museum to watch “the last Wild Man” chip arrowheads or shoot his bow and arrow. He would dine with college presidents, attend a vaudeville play, learn to ride the trolley cars and, most importantly, provide researchers with a rare firsthand glimpse into native California culture, language, and life. But all of that was yet to come. For the men at the slaughterhouse, it seemed as if this frail and terrified visitor had fallen through a crack in time. Sitting before them was living proof that while the rest of the world marched confidently into the Industrial Age-phonographs in the den, airplanes in the sky, a Model T in the driveway-a forgotten race of people had still been living in the Stone Age just a day’s drive north of Sacramento. For 40 years they had been there. And no one knew it.
They couldn’t have. The land where Ishi had come from was, and still is, a place that can keep its secrets.
It is long after midnight. Backpacker Editor Tom Shealey and I are camped on the banks of Mill Creek at the edge of what in 1984 officially became known as the Ishi Wilderness, a land of deep canyons and rocky hills south of Mt. Lassen National Park. At the moment, however, those canyons and hills, even our two tents just yards apart, are all invisible in the rain and snow of the storm that seems snagged on the high peaks.
Mill Creek is running wild, coursing and tumbling through its canyon as if made restless by the late-spring storm. The wind sounds like voices in the trees.
We had it all planned out-linger a few days along Mill Creek, then cross the high country to the south and move deeper into the wilderness, searching for clues to Ishi’s story. For years, both of us had dreamed of exploring Ishi’s homeland. We had read the books, seen the videos. The names were like legends to us-Mill Creek, Deer Creek, Bear’s Hiding Place. It is a land so wild, so secretive, it could hide an entire culture for four decades, and we wanted to see it for ourselves.
But each drop of rain on the tent is another flake of snow on the peaks. By morning, the high country will be knee deep in spring snow, impassable, locking us tight in our tents, locking away the secrets.
The best we can do is lie back, hope the creek doesn’t rise, and with eyes wide open in the dark, listen to the stories being whispered on the wind.
For nearly 4,000 years, the creek flowing out there in the dark just beyond our tents was the heart of the Yahi homeland. The Yahi, numbering 300 or 400, were linked to the larger Yana culture surrounding them, but maintained their own distinct language, customs, and territory. They were hunters and gatherers who speared salmon in the creeks and climbed to the cooler slopes of Mt. Lassen (they called it Waganupa or “Little Shasta”) to hunt deer and escape the heat of summer. In fall, harvesting festivals were held to collect the bounty of acorns. Winters were spent in makeshift huts telling stories, chipping arrowheads, and staying warm beneath robes of wildcat and rabbit skins.
The Yahi were known to their neighbors as a fiercely loyal people, good hunters and fighters, and aggressive defenders of their land and their way of life. Those traits served them well as long as the most valuable thing in the creeks was salmon. But in 1849, everything would change.
Rolling over in my sleeping bag, I hear a low rumbling sound audible even over the pounding rain-the water is rising, stones are rolling like bones in the creek.
When gold was discovered in northern California in 1849, it unleashed a flash flood of people to a region that, up until that time, had been too rugged and too remote for the white man to bother with. With gold as the prize, however, nothing would stand in the way, not even the native people like the Yahi who had claimed this land as their own.
“I don’t think holocaust is too strong a word for what happened,” says Orin Starn, an associate professor of Cultural Anthropology at Duke University who is working on a book about the era. “The native population fell from about 300,000 to just 30,000 by the turn of the century.” Diseases like measles and chicken pox took many. Others were driven off their land and pushed onto reservations. Many were just killed outright. For a time, the state of California offered a bounty on native people: 50 cents for a scalp, $5 for a head. Over $1 million was paid out.
In the increasing wind, the tree limbs above our tents are creaking and moaning. I sit up in the tent and light my candle lantern, watching the restless flame flicker, and flicker, and finally go out.
In Yahi country, gold mining was silting the streams and ruining the salmon runs. Livestock like pigs and cattle were destroying the acorn crop. The Yahi, fighters that they were, did the only thing they could: They fought back. But their weapons were made for hunting deer and spearing salmon, not warfare. Against guns and ruthless men, the Yahi had no chance. The “battles”-more like massacres-were quick, decisive, and gruesome.
In the predawn light of August 15, 1865, 17 armed men silhouetted against the morning sky made their way slowly through the brush and boulders lining Mill Creek, the roar of the water masking every footfall, every snapping twig. They took up positions along the cliffs, waiting for the slow rise of the sun to give them just enough light to take aim by. When it came, a signal was given, and the peaceful California summer morning exploded in gunfire.
It was over almost before it began. To the small band of 50 or so Yahi camped below, it must have seemed as though the world was crashing in. The attackers “poured a hot fire,” as one of the shooters later recalled, into the camp. Men, women, even children were shot dead while still tucked beneath their robes. Others leapt up, only to be gunned down in midstep like birds shot on the wing. Still others made a break for the only place that seemed to offer any possibility of escape, Mill Creek, and threw themselves into the current, hot bullets slicing the icy waters around them. “[F]ew got out alive,” one eyewitness would later write. “Instead, many dead bodies floated down the rapid current.”
Unnoticed among the bodies, a few Yahi, including a 4-year-old boy and his mother, drifted downstream and vanished into the brush.
In the dark, the roar of the creek sounds like a death song. Hours before the first light of day, I crawl outside to see if we will have to move camp before sunrise. Something is moving down by the water-Tom, checking the water too, I think, but then I notice that he is looking up, searching the cliffs barely visible in the dark, as if looking for something. Without a word, he crawls back into his tent, shaking off the water that has gathered in the hood of his rainjacket.
A few years later, 1868, another band of Yahi were surprised in a cave in the cliffs above Mill Creek and gunned down at such close range that one shooter refused to use his .56-caliber Spencer rifle on the victims, mostly women and children, because “it tore them up so bad.” He used a pistol instead.
By 1868, most people believed the Yahi had been wiped out, just like 50 other native California cultures. They were wrong. But in this wild land, it would be 40 years before anyone would know it.
Morning comes with the sun just a light smudge on the gray cloak of the sky. It is still raining, though the creek has stopped rising short of our tents. Beneath the skeleton branches of an ancient cottonwood tree we cook breakfast over the wet, sputtering stove. Tom shivers once, and not just with the chill of the water dripping down his neck. “It was pretty eerie in here last night, thinking about everything that happened along this creek. I don’t think I slept at all.”
When the fog clears, we notice the hillsides are draped in white, shrouded in snow that has almost reached the valley floor and grows deeper and deeper as our eyes move up the mountains. We had hoped to move further into the wilderness, into Deer Creek Canyon, but the trails, even the road to the Deer Creek trailhead, will be buried.
“You know what the Yahi name for April was?” I ask Tom who shakes his head as he sips his coffee. “Moon of the Last Snows,” I smile.
Neither of wants to say it out loud, but it’s clear that we won’t be breaking camp today. Instead, we break brush. With just daypacks, we take off hiking, sticking to the low elevations, and follow a faint trail on the far side of Mill Creek until we lose it in a tangle of brush and rocks up a wild side draw. We backtrack until we pick up the trail and try again. Nothing. An hour later, we’ve given up any hope of a trail and just push our way deeper and deeper into the brush.
It is rugged and broken country-sharp-edged rocks, poison oak everywhere, brush clawing at your eyes like talons. Every twisted stick takes on the shape of a rattlesnake. “The entire ground is one mass of disintegrated rock,” one writer said of the Yahi homeland, “the fragments ranging from the size of a head to that of a house. Every foot of ground and every cranny between the stones is covered with an impenetrable growth of oak and other scrub.” It is, the author wrote, “a heaving waste of boulders and treetops, between and below which a thousand people could have kept securely out of sight.” Exactly.
It was nowhere near a thousand, but a handful of Yahi-perhaps 5 or 6-had somehow survived the bloodshed. They fled Mill Creek and sank deep into another canyon, Deer Creek, at whose heart lay a thick tangle of rock and brush they called Bear’s Hiding Place. It was small, barely a few square miles. But there, the rocks were so sharp and the brush so thick that even livestock avoided it. It was the one place where the white man’s bullets couldn’t follow them. The land that once nourished them would now have to hide them.
In the early 1880s, that handful of surviving Yahi vanished into Bear’s Hiding Place. No one would see them again for half a generation.
Deep in a thicket of brush, both of us crawling on our hands and knees, Tom discovers a fire pit near the base of an immense ponderosa pine. It is very old, hardly more than a depression in the ground, filled with leaves and rocks and dirt. It’s just the kind of place the Yahi would have sought-screened from view in all directions by brush with a branch-hidden view of the draw below. Without a word, our eyes meet.
For 40 years, within earshot of Pullman trains and just a day’s walk from city streets, the last remaining Yahi people clung to life. They strung deer hides to mask the light of their cooking fires, hopped from boulder to boulder to avoid leaving tracks in the sand, bent rather than broke branches while moving silently through the brush. “It is a real tribute to the resilience of the native California peoples that the Yahi were able to survive for so long under such difficult conditions, and keep alive this tremendous reservoir of traditional knowledge,” says Professor Starn.
But it couldn’t last. Fear of being discovered by the white men kept the Yahi tethered to their hideout. They could no longer hunt openly for deer or fish the streams in daylight. Even something as simple as gathering acorns meant risking their lives.
One by one, they began to die. By 1908, Ishi was alone. Three years later, driven by hunger, haunted by a loneliness perhaps no one on earth can imagine, the last Yahi began his walk south, the walk that would take him to the slaughterhouse outside of Oroville, and through that crack in time.
Ishi likely assumed that he would be killed by the first white person he encountered. But the world had changed. Although he was at first locked in a jail cell reserved for the insane, Ishi was eventually turned over to the care of anthropologist Alfred Kroeber at the University of California at Berkeley and its newly completed Phoebe Hearst Musuem of Anthropology.
With grace, intelligence, and endless patience, Ishi adapted to his new world with its many surprises-safety pins, penny whistles, ice cream-and conveniences, such as electric lights, running water, and comfortable chairs. For nearly five years, Ishi worked with scientists, linguists, anthropologists, and the public to bridge the yawning canyon that separated his Yahi culture from modern life. His years at the museum, and especially a 1914 expedition back to Deer Creek, left anthropologists with mountains of information-hundreds of stories and songs recorded on wax cylinders, 200 Yahi place names listed on maps, the medical uses of more than 100 plants.
But much about Ishi went unanswered.
“To a degree, Ishi will always remain something of a mystery to us,” says Dr. Starn. “He learned only a few
hundred words of English, and the people he worked with were never able to become fluent in Yahi. Even today, many of his stories, the reams of material he provided, remain untranslated, or at least not fully translated. Much about him remains unanswered.”
We never even knew his real name. “Ishi,” a Yahi word meaning “Man,” was simply a name given him by Kroeber to satisfy the media. We never knew the exact fate of those few members of his tribe who hid for so long with Ishi in Bear’s Hiding Place. We never knew the true depths of the loneliness he must have felt those last three years in the wilderness, knowing he was the last of his people.
These secrets Ishi took to his grave when he died of tuberculosis on March 25, 1916. The last wild Indian in America was cremated, his ashes buried along with a bow, five arrows, a basket of acorn meal, flakes of obsidian, and some tobacco. The Yahi were gone.
As Tom and I hike back toward camp, the sun suddenly breaks out, its glare stunningly bright off the now-melting snow. If we wait a few days, we think, we may yet get a chance to hike into Deer Creek Canyon, to search for Bear’s Hiding Place.
While we are breaking camp three hikers wander in and tell us another storm front is expected to drop 6 to 8 more inches of snow in the high country. If we don’t get out now, the road, already dangerous, will become impassable.
We have no choice.
As we reach the trailhead to load up the car, the first wisps of clouds from the approaching storm are already gathering around the peaks. It is difficult to leave without doing what we came for, without clawing our way through Deer Creek Canyon, searching out Bear’s Hiding Place, following in the last footsteps of Ishi and the Yahi people. But perhaps it makes sense after all. This land is still as wild as it ever was, and still knows well how to keep its secrets.
Ishi Wilderness Area: Expedition Planner:
In the southern Cascade foothills, approximately twenty miles east of Red Bluff, California, lies the Ishi Wilderness, a unique 41,000 acre, low-elevation wilderness. This is a landincised by wind and water, dotted with basaltic outcroppings, caves, and bizarre pillar lava formations. This is up and down country, a series of east-west running ridges framed by rugged river canyons.
The sunburnt south slopes carry brush (a mixture of species called chaparral). Pines and oaks live on the moister north-facing slopes, and lusher riparian forests line the river banks. Unique to this area are the pineries, dense islands of ponderosa pine growing on terraces left after rivers cut the canyons.
The Ishi is named for a Yahi Yana Indian who was the last survivor of a tribe which lived in the area for over three thousand years. Shortly after 1850, the white settlers killed all but a handful of the Yahi. Ishi (the Yahi word for man) and a few others that escaped, hid for decades in this harsh wild country. Today, only what the Yahi left in the earth behind them remains to tell their story. When in the Wilderness, please respect that record. Remember that all archaeological and historical sites and artifacts are protected by federal law and should not be disturbed.
The Tehama deer herd, the largest migratory herd in California, winters in the area. Other wildlife include wild hog, mountain lion, black bear, coyote, bobcat and rabbit. Most of the Ishi Wilderness is also a State Game Refuge where hunting is not permitted.
Deer and Mill Creeks are home to many types of fish. However, special fishing regulations are in effect for these streams. Please check the State of California’s Fishing Regulations before fishing. A valid California fishing license is required.
Rock cliffs provide nesting sites for a variety of raptors including hawks, eagles, falcons, and owls. Other common sightings include wild turkey, quail, morning doves, canyon wrens, band-tailed pigeons, and myriad songbirds.
PLANNING & PACKING:
- Things you might want to take along include waterproof matches, extra food, extra clothing, first aid kit, flashlight, space blanket (blanket made of light, heat reflective material), pocket knife, sunburn protection, insect repellent, toilet tissue, candle, compass and maps.
- Water: Be prepared for bad weather. Even though Ishi’s climate is mild with little snow, there are a few winter days when the temperature drops below freezing. Hypothermia can be a concern in cold rains. Summers are blazing hot (often over 100 degrees) and inhospitable. Be sure to carry plenty of water.
- Maps are the “street signs” of the wilderness. A topographical map is an essential backcountry “orienteering tool.” The elevation lines tell the story of the land and can give you a mental picture of the area. If you become lost or disoriented, the best way to familiarize yourself with the lay of the land is to climb to the nearest ridge. Start by orienting your map to the north, by compass, and pinpointing your exact location. Identifying creek drainage’s and their corresponding ridges will also help to keep your bearings.
- Safety: Be aware! The low elevation and high temperatures of the wilderness make it the perfect environment for rattlesnakes, ticks and poison oak. Rattlesnakes are common during the late spring and summer months, and when temperatures soar, the snakes head toward the drainage’s. Keep a watchful eye while hiking. Ticks are most active from April through October. Use insect repellents specifically labeled effective against ticks, check pets and brush off your clothing frequently. Ticks usually crawl around for several hours before “biting”. Poison Oak is quite common in lower elevation woodlands and is most abundant in the spring. The best prevention is to avoid touching the plant and wearing a preventive lotion such as Tecnu®.
- Campstove: Wood can be scarce in the Ishi, so camp stoves are recommended.
- Water Filter: The crystal waters can be deceiving. They look clear, cold, and inviting but should never be taken for safe drinking water. Giardia is the hidden hazard. The best way to protect yourself from the microscopic organism is to carry a water filter with you. Boiling for three to five minutes will also destroy Giardia and other water organisms.
- Shovel: Carry a small shovel for burying human waste, no deeper than six to eight inches. Here, nature provides a biological “disposal layer” where organic material decomposes rapidly. A shovel is also required if you plan to have campfire.
LEAVE NO TRACE:
Lassen National Forest recommends the use of “NO TRACE” camping techniques. “NO TRACE” camping is an attitude that leads to enjoyment of the wilderness without changing or damaging it. Remember, “in the wilderness, you are the visitor.”
- The Campsite: As you search for a comfortable site, look for one that won’t be damaged. Fragile areas such as lakeshores and damp meadows should be avoided. In order to perpetuate a high quality wilderness, PLEASE camp at least 100 feet away from water and trails.
- Campfires: Wood can be scarce in the Ishi, so camp stoves are recommended. If you do use a campfire in a previously unused site, you can minimize the impact by not building a rock ring and by using a small pit dug in sandy soil. Carefully check the ashes by feeling them with your hands to be sure the fire is completely out. Bury the ashes and replace the soil, plants and rocks that you removed from the hole.
Fire patrols cannot fully prevent human-caused fires without the help of Forest visitors, please be careful with the use of fire. Campfire permits are required for campfires, cookstoves and lanterns that require fuel. Please check for campfire restrictions that may ban the use of campfires during very hot, dry conditions
- Cleaning up/Sanitation: There’s one general rule to remember: IF YOU CAN PACK IT IN FULL, YOU CAN PACK IT OUT EMPTY. Anything left behind creates an eyesore and a hazard to the local wildlife. Materials made of aluminum, plastic or glass will not break down in the soil and animals will dig them up, so please don’t bury them.
Wilderness travel means some special sanitation considerations. Carry a small shovel for burying human waste, no deeper than six to eight inches. Here, nature provides a biological “disposal layer” where organic material decomposes rapidly. Take care of sanitation needs at least 150 feet from open water. Nature will take care of the rest.
- Horses and Pack Stock: Pack and saddle stock should be picketed at least 100 feet away from water, trails, campsites and meadows. Only tether horses to trees for short periods as hooves can cause damage to tree roots and plants.
- On the Trail: With the increase in popularity of back country travel, it is more important than ever for everyone to follow the rules of common courtesy and good trail manners. To protect plants and prevent soil erosion, stay on the trail in single file. If you come across a fallen tree or other obstacle please notify the Ranger Station as soon as possible. Do not cut blazes on trees, it leaves permanent scars. Respect the solitude of others by keeping noise to a minimum.
With your help, our children’s children will have the opportunity to know this wild country as Ishi and the Yahi Yana did.
Wilderness makes up 8% of the Lassen National Forest’s 1.2 million acres and Wilderness management is only part of the Forest’s multiple use story. The Forest helps meet timber and range needs, is a major supplier of recreation in Northeastern California, and actively protects and enhances wildlife habitat, watershed, and cultural resources.
Major airlines service Sacramento about 200 miles to the south. Trailheads on the eastern edge of the wilderness are accessed by a long series of unmaintained gravel and logging roads that are best traveled in a high clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle-especially when snow or rain are forecast. There is no public access to the wilderness from the west.
No camping permits are needed, although during fire season (May to November) campfire permits are required and available at the Forest Service office.
The low elevation of the wilderness means Ishi is hikeable most of the year. But reaching trailheads can be difficult on the access roads that wind through the rugged, high-elevation areas. Expect snow as late as April and as early as September. Call ahead for road conditions.
The footpaths easily can be confused with game or cattle trails, making them difficult to follow. Always carry a good map and compass. Rattlesnakes are abundant and active in the warmer months. Stream crossings are cold and can be dangerous during high runoff in spring or following rainstorms. Filter, boil, or treat all drinking water.
Ishi the Last Yahi: A Documentary History, edited by Robert F. Heizer and Theodora Kroeber (1979; University of California
Ishi In Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America, by Theodora Kroeber (1961; University of California Press
The Yahi lived a simple life and left few artifacts. There are no shards of broken pottery or tall cliff dwellings like you find in the Southwest. Still, many of the hiking trails were once Yahi paths, and some of the best stream-side campsites were likely used by the Yahi. As one Forest Service official told me, “When it comes to artifacts, there is little to see but much to imagine.” If you do run across an artifact, remember that all archeological and historical sites are federally protected and must not be disturbed.
A Guide To The Ishi, Thousand Lakes, & Caribou Wilderness, Lassen National Forest; available at the Forest Service office.
Four topographical maps cover the Ishi Wilderness in 7.5-minute series: Panther Springs, Ishi Caves, Butte Meadows SW, and Butte Meadows NW. Contact: USGS Information Services, Box 25286, Denver Federal Center, Denver, CO www.usgs.gov.
Ishi: The Last Yahi, The American Experience; Lassen National Forest Visitor Center
Ishi: Last of His Kind, The History Channel