Writing westerns takes a little research, especially for a writer like me who writes mostly contemporary fiction and non-fiction. But when, in The Rainmaker, the sequel to Ridgeline, I let my imagination carry Adeline to the western most point in the lower forty-eight, I gave myself an edge. My family has lived on Humboldt Bay, at the very edge of the continent, since the 1860s.
Judging by the descendants, my best guess is that the Foster clan was less adventurous than quarrelsome, more prone to fistfights than entrepreneurial skills. Though, to be fair, I do have a famous ancestor who succeeded rather well in the local business world. Aunt Mandy ran Eureka’s best brothel in the 1920s and ‘30s. Then again, Uncle Jerome died after fighting a bear in a traveling show. In the family, we skip over the fact that Mandy was a whore and we ignore the poor judgment of bear wrestling and stress the triumph of Jerome winning a $20 gold piece by whipping a bear’s ass.
Now, before I go any further I need to confess one more thing about my kinfolk. I proudly come from a family of gifted liars. Therefore, much of the history of Humboldt County I have absorbed over the years needs a little double-check before I’m comfortable putting it out there on paper. Nonetheless, one of the historical facts about Union (now Arcata) and Eureka that I wanted to include in the sequel to Ridgeline was the Massacre at Indian Island.
In 1871 my character Adeline steps off the boat in Union Town California, pregnant and clutching the hand of the Osage son she’s rescued from the arms of his dead mother. Eleven years earlier, a massacre of the local, peaceful Wiyot Indians occurred. The first attack, and the most famous, came in dead of night on February 26, 1860. A group of white militia waited for the tribe’s men to cross the bay in the search of supplies before rowing across the bay and killing mostly old men, women, and children gathered on Tulawat or what has come to be called Indian Island. The Wiyot were in the process of celebrating their ten day World Renewal Ceremony.
Union Town’s newspaper described the event like this:
“Blood stood in pools on all sides; the walls of the huts were stained and the grass colored red. Lying around were dead bodies of both sexes and all ages from the old man to the infant at the breast. Some had their heads split in twain by axes, others beaten into jelly with clubs, others pierced or cut to pieces with bowie knives. Some struck down as they mired; others had almost reached the water when overtaken and butchered.”
At the bottom of this post I’ve listed a couple of links to more information about this massacre. The one maintained by the Wiyot tribe is especially interesting reading. I first heard about this atrocity from Grandpa Foster. Now, I need to clarify a bit here.
For four generations the first sons in the family were named Merritt Curtis Foster. In more high-falutin families, the confusion of this same name deal is often remedied by the use of the 1st, the 2nd, etc. In our family we have Grandpa Foster, Merritt Foster, and Young Merritt. As the years progress and each Merritt finds his way to whatever reward they have earned in the afterlife, the oldest remaining Merritt becomes Grandpa, etc, etc, leaving one giant name- maze for anyone interested in genealogy to sort through.
My Grandpa Foster told me that his Grandpa Foster was drinking in a bar on Eureka’s First Street on the night of the massacre and heard the shots. But there was always something more about this story that was withheld from me. For one thing my family is not known for its acceptance of people of all colors and cultures as part of God’s family, and yet there was genuine horror in Grandpa’s telling of this story. Besides, I learned early on to read an uncomfortable shift in a chair, the quick darting away of a gaze, the revealing of too much detail that spotlight an exaggeration or outright lie. As a child I was left with the suspicion that my family was, in some way that went far beyond hearing a few shots, touched by this atrocity.
And, after pawing through family photos and paging through newspapers and books at the Humboldt County Historical Society, I think they were indeed involved. But, like most family secrets, the truth was not what I imagined and it can never be proven.
In a rusty tin about the size of a shoe box hidden in the back of Dad’s closet, I found two sepia photos of one of the Grandpa Merritts sitting on the steps of an unpainted wooden house. Beside him is an Indian woman holding a boy of about four. On Grandpa’s lap is an Indian baby with a firm grip on his chest-length beard.
That’s all the inspiration my writer’s mind needed to imagine that Grandpa had two children by an Indian wife and that they were among the women and children massacred at Indian Island.
Is this true? I have no idea. Certainly I have no proof. And I did mention that, like everyone else in my family, I am a gifted liar. . .er. . .storyteller, right? What is absolutely true is that when I wrote Adeline’s story, I had historical proof that not everyone in Humboldt County would have been happy with the arrival into their community of a single woman with a half-Indian child. And when I wrote my heroine into a tight spot, her back flat against the wall, and I needed to find an escape for her, well, family history merged with fact to provide that solution.
Am I going to reveal that escape route to you? Heck no. Not until The Rainmaker is released in a few months. In the meantime, you might want to read the first book in the series – Ridgeline. You know, just to prepare yourself for the sequel.