This History Matters

It’s no secret I have become highly critical of the Shasta Historical Society’s board of directors and their recent decisions. Decisions that have resulted in the loss of highly trained and capable professional staff, waste of financial resources, ongoing neglect of their irreplaceable collection, and alienation of community members. Since last summer, I’ve come to expect little from the organization, but I must admit, even I was shocked by a recent Facebook post by the Shasta Historical Society.

The society runs a “Today in History” feature on Facebook, something that many historical societies do in one form or another. For the Shasta Historical Society, it’s usually just something found in an old newspaper, devoid of any context or interpretation. It’s easy to understand why they do it; it’s a pretty easy way to generate content. It’s not great history, but usually harmless enough.

But the historical society crossed a line with its post of January 25, 2019, seen in part here:

Part of Facebook post by the Shasta Historical Society from January 25, 2019.

The text is a weird hybrid—some of it is obviously lifted verbatim from an uncited source—note the outdated construction of “and etc.” The anonymous author of the post made a token attempt at political correctness by including the phrase “Native American,” which was not in common use at the time (if at all); however, the post author then uncritically repeated the source’s breathless declaration that all of the “non-Native Americans” were “murdered.”

The original source is probably the Shasta Republican, a newspaper published in Shasta, California from 18551 to 18612. The account was republished in the Daily Alta California the following month:

Presumably the original source for this report, as reprinted in the Daily Alta California in February 17, 1857.

The problem with omitting context and/or interpretation from “Today in History” content is, intentionally or not, you often end up misleading people. The “account” is actually a letter to the editor of the Shasta Republican by one A.M. [Alexander ] Rosborough. Who was Alexander Rosborough? We’ll circle back to that shortly. For now, let’s examine the claim itself.

The phrase “all the inhabitants in Pitt River Valley” sounds considerable and the attack devestating. How many people come to mind? Dozens? Hundreds? The actual number of victims? Five.

The victims of the attack, as listed in the letter, were: H.A. Lockhart, A. Boles, Z. Rogers, Daniel Bryant, and “a German.” Who were these men? Did this attack happen out of the blue or was it part of a larger story? The historical society doesn’t tell you, so I will.

Notice published in the December 23, 1854 Shasta Courier, indicating a business relationship between H.A. Lockhart and A.M. Rosborough.

Alexander M. Rosborough was an attorney and eventual Indian Agent residing in Yreka. Along with H.A. Lockhart and others, he was a founding member of a joint stock company to form a toll road between Red Bluff and Yreka via the Pit River Valley. As a resident of Yreka, he also no doubt knew H.A. [Harry] Lockhart’s brother, Samuel, a saloonkeeper there. One of the most important things historians should do is evaluate their sources. How biased is it? Is there an agenda? Who benefits? Is this a firsthand account? In this case, Rosborough could hardly be considered an impartial source, because he had a clear incentive to overstate the devastation of the event while understating mitigating circumstances.

In June of 1856, the road between Red Bluff and Yreka finally opened, and the Yreka Chronicle reported “at and near [Harry] Lockhart’s Ferry, on Pitt river, several farms are being opened, and a sawmill building, and things will soon present the appearance of a thriving settlement at that place.” 3 The developing settlement served as the only overnight stopping point on the 180-mile road, and Harry Lockhart no doubt turned a tidy profit from the arrangement, which could continue so long as travelers could safely pass along the route and stay at the new settlement.4

The Lockhart Brothers treated Native Americans as subhuman or condoned such treatment of Native Americans by their employees. According to one account, Harry sent two Indian youths in search of two lost horses. When the pair failed to find the steeds, Lockhart “‘shot them both.'” 5. Another account reported two of Lockhart’s workers killed two Indian men, who in the past had often helped the white settlers by giving them wild game. The workers then abducted the deceased men’s wives 6.

According to a report published by the Shasta Republican, one of the Lockharts bragged of poisoning Indians while living in the Pit River Valley. The Republican dryly opined, “Since hearing of the above conduct, we have lost our wonder at the untimely fate of the settlers of Pit River Valley” 7. Sources at the time applied greater scrutiny to accounts of the event than the Shasta Historical Society.

The historical society also neglects to discuss the toll of the “war” that broke out following the attack on Lockhart’s Ferry which Rorsborough’s letter no doubt help instigate. A more accurate term than war would be “massacres” or “ongoing genocide.” That spring, a group of approximately 25 or so volunteers rode out to mete their version of “justice” for the deaths at Lockhart’s Ferry.

An Achumawi woman, photographed circa the 1920s.

“Between about April 1 and April 18, they attacked the Achumawi three times, killing some twenty people including at least ‘two or three women and one child.'”8 By the time the expedition was finished, the company reported it had killed 59 Indians and abducted thirteen children. 9 They were later paid $5,000 by the State of California for their “services.” 10

A wise person once said, “History without interpretation is trivia.” Trivializing genocide is inexcusable. So is trivializing ethnic cleansing, and yet, as I was editing this post for publication, the Shasta Historical Society did just that.

The Shasta Historical Society’s “Today in History” post for February 5, 2019.

There is a term for this kind of writing—tergiversation.

Redding’s Chinatown was described as “vacated.” That’s an odd word choice considering the circumstances that lead to the mass exodus of its inhabitants. Why was Chinatown vacated? Was it by choice? If it was not by choice, why did it come to pass?

Excerpt of an article from the January 23, 1886 issue of the Redding Free Press.

Redding’s Chinese community was forced to leave town by Redding’s “‘best citizens,'” in the words of the Redding Free Press. At a meeting on the evening of Friday, January 22, 1886, the long-simmering anti-Chinese sentiment boiled over (again). The meeting was called to order by County Supervisor Frank C. Tiffin. Other prominent participants included Frank M. Swasey, James F. Scamman, Jerry Culverhouse, Samuel J.R. Gilbert, Chauncey C. Bush, and Franklin Primm.11 It was unanimously decided the Chinese must leave, and quickly, too. The Chinese were notified by the self-styled “Committee of Forty” Saturday afternoon that they if they left by 9:30 the next morning, “they would not be harmed or defrauded in any way.”12 Five men were allowed to settle “business affairs,” and Committee of Forty was even generous enough to allow the Chinese cooks and house servants “one week to stay to enable their employers to procure white help.”13

Less than two week after the expulsion of the Chinese, in the wee morning hours of Friday, February 5, 1886, a fire leveled the buildings of Redding’s Chinatown. The Redding Free Press, a strongly anti-Chinese paper, gamely reported the cause of the fire was “unknown; [but] it is thought by some that the Chinese returned and set them afire, while others believe it was done by tramps.”14 (Apparently blaming the homeless is a longstanding Redding tradition.)

Redding actively expelled anyone of Chinese descent for the next three decades. By 1915, Redding, Eureka, and Truckee were the “only places in the state now prohibiting them by an established rule.”15 The community finally relented in 1917.

As I noted above, when you omit context and/or interpretation, you frequently end up misleading people. When the practice becomes habitual, it becomes a problem. Again, historians are trained to evaluate their sources. So let’s evaluate the Shasta Historical Society as a source.

According to their website, the Shasta Historical Society’s Board of Directors currently numbers 13 individuals—a prodigious number for such a small organization by any standard. Who comprises this board? It is currently composed of 11 men and 2 women. (Women comprise 50.9% of Shasta County’s general population.) A conservative estimate would put the board’s median age in the 70s. The racial composition of the board is entirely white, in contrast to Shasta County’s population. (According to the latest U.S. Census Bureau estimates, 12% of our county identifies as other than white, non-Latino.) To the best of our recollection, there has never been a director of Chinese, African-American, or Native American descent on the board, despite all of these populations having been significant to our history.

What does this suggest as the reason for such lackadaisical posts? Museums are rated as more trustworthy than newspapers 16. What are the consequences of consistent misleading statements by the Shasta Historical Society on our community’s shameful past? You tell me.

The members of the Shasta Historical Society deserve better. The community deserves better.

  1. Sacrament0 Daily Union, October 15, 1855
  2. Marysville Daily Appeal, November 5, 1861
  3. Sacramento Daily Union, June 30, 1856
  4. “The Opening of the Yreka Road,” Sacramento Daily Union, July 9, 1856.
  5. Benjamin Madley, An American Genocide: The United Stated and the Californian Indian Catastrophe (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2016), 254.
  6. William B. Secrest, When the Great Spirit Died: The Destruction of the California Indians 1850–1860 (Fresno: Craven Street Books, 2003), 241-243.
  7. William B. Secrest, When the Great Spirit Died: The Destruction of the California Indians 1850–1860 (Fresno: Craven Street Books, 2003), 241-242.
  8. Benjamin Madley, An American Genocide: The United Stated and the Californian Indian Catastrophe (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2016), 255.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. “Departed!” Redding Independent, January 26, 1886.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Ibid.
  14. “Chinatown in Ashes,” Redding Free Press, February 6, 2019
  15. “Redding Residents Mad When Chinaman Visits Over Night,” Sacramento Union, January 18, 1915.
  16. “Museum Facts and Data,” About Museums, American Alliance of Museums, Accessed February 6, 2019, https://www.aam-us.org/programs/about-museums/museum-facts-data/