The Legend of Old Shavehead – The Lassen Native American Known for Murdering Samuel Burney

As written in the book California’s Best Fly Fishing

Old Shavehead. Photo: California State University, Chico

While geologists estimate that Manzanita Lake in Lassen Volcanic National Park was formed about 300 years ago, the notorious Atsugewi Indian called Old Shavehead claimed to be the first man to ever see it in the 1800’s.

The same year as the Lockhart’s Ferry Massacre, conflicts between Indians and the growing contingency of immigrants seemed to peak. The first white homesteader to the area, a Scotsman named Sam Burney, was brutally murdered that year and witnesses arrived on the scene as three Indians were caught carting away some of his possesions. Two of the three were shot on the spot; but the third, the man who came to be known as Shavehead, managed to escape.

Samuel Burney’s grave in Burney, California

While many of the incoming settlers were sworn to shoot Shavehead on sight, they could never catch him. Finally when he was apprehended, possibly by missionaries who were determined to turn Shavehead into a “good Indian,” they sent him off to a reservation. Shavehead was first taken to Sacramento to show him just how many whites were moving into the area.

Then he was taken to San Francisco were his head was shaved to take away some of his “magic.” From there he was put on a boat and transported to one of the islands off of Northern California coast where Indians at the time were being detained. On day, Shavehead and a few others climbed to the highest point on the island and, when looking east, recognized Mount Shasta off in the distance. Suddenly, the Indians knew where they were and somehow managed to escape the island in short order. After his escape from captivity, Shavehead became the most wanted and feared Indian in California.

Perhaps he mellowed with age. Perhaps he gave up his violent ways in the seemingly endless supply of whites moving into his domain and shrinking the numbers of his people, who had no immunity to white man’s diseases. In any case, Shavehead was eventually forgotten.

Manzanita Lake

By the late 1890’s, he found himself alone, the last surviving member of the once-great Atsugewi Tribe. As an old man, he lived on the south shore of Manzanita Lake, claiming it was fishless before he threw some rainbow trout from Hat Creek into it. He eventually made his living by capturing trout from Manzanita Lake and selling them to ranchers’ wives around the town of Viola. He had somehow procured a wagon and mule and was known to alternate layers of trout and snow in his wagon to keep his catch fresh while making regular rounds.

One day he arrived at a ranch in Viola obviously very ill. The rancher tried to bring him inside, but he refused to into a white man’s house. The rancher then built him a lean-to against a fence, and the Indian took shelter there and accepted some food. That is where Shavehead died in the year 1900, the last of the Atsugewi.

To learn more about Manzanita Lake and Old Shavehead, watch the video below (Old Shavehead story begins at 1:42):

Chip O'Brien

Chip O'Brien is a regular contributor to California Fly Fisher and Northwest Fly Fishing magazines, and author of River Journal, Sacramento River and California's Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra. He lived in Redding, California, for eighteen years, where he was a guide, teacher, and regional manager for CalTrout.


  1. Shave head was not the last of his tribe. There are large numbers of descendants of the Atsugewi tribe. It’s sad that this false narrative is being promoted in this magazine. 😡

  2. Agree with Susan Campbell, there are many of the tribe still living in the area. Shavehead himself had at least four sons, three of whom outlived him. Shavehead was accused of many things he may not have done, including the murder of Samuel Burney. Also suspected of Burney’s killing were Old Gunsmith of Burney Valley, Shavehead’s brother George, Goose Valley Tuck, and Muchache of Fall River Valley. Also, the Indian reservation near California’s west coast was Round Valley Reservation, near Covelo. Not on islands off the California coast.

  3. Wrong this story is false and we are not gone we are still here I’m a Atsuge Representative. I’m a hat Creek Shavehead

  4. This piece seems to have taken a lot of leeway with the order of the events in Chief Shavehead’s life, as well as erasing the continued culture of the Atsugewi people and Pit River Tribe, to make him sound worse in a really demeaning and unjust way. The forcible displacement of the Atsugewi and Achomawi peoples was before 1861, and Samuel Burney didn’t even arrive in the valley until 1878. The story about Manzanita Lake also predates many of the events here and is intentionally framed in this writing as though he said he alone “threw” some fish in, making him sound naive, when rather he reported that he and his tribe transported fish there to stock the water for future fishing. The language like “somehow procured” a mule and wagon implies that he wasn’t equally capable of engaging in trade like any other residents of the area. This is a really disappointing piece that does a serious disservice to the native people of Northern California as well as anyone who lives here or reads this and believes it.

  5. Apologies, my dates are wrong and Samuel Burney did die in spring of 1859. But the context of the blame being placed on Shavehead and the forced displacement of the native people was in a much broader issue of norcal settler militias attempting genocide. Recommended reading: Also, I note that at least some of this seems likely to be based on the columns of Dottie Smith for the Record Searchlight, who should be credited.

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