The Lockhart Ferry Massacre: Northern California’s Bloody War of the 1850’s

Peering into the lives of the first non-Native people in Northern California, dreams, imaginings and real history clash in a bloody battlefield swirling in shadow.

Things in the eighteenth century were much different than they are now – Mount Shasta was exactly where it is today, and so was Lassen. If we could be magically whisked back to Fall River Mills the 1850s, untold numbers of settlers were pouring into the area with almost no regard for the People already here. It’s a shameful truth of history. Yet both the European settlers and the Native peoples still speak to us in presenting their lives and their world. They also warn us about ours.

GOLD! GOLD! GOLD! was discovered at Sutter’s Mill on the American River in 1848 signaling the mass human migration known as the Gold Rush. Tens of thousands of would-be millionaires poured into the area transforming it into the human equivalent of a thriving anthill.

You’re not as likely to hear how the gold rush and accompanying population explosion impacted the people who were already here. In eastern Shasta County the Native Achumawi people had been living a fairly prosperous existence, even though the Shasta Courier described them in 1853 as “the most warlike Indians in California.” History says otherwise.

Fall River Mills today is known as a quaint little town along Hwy. 299 east of Burney. You wouldn’t necessarily know without looking at a map that it’s located at the confluence of Fall River and the Pit River. Water, of course, is a basic necessary for life and the Achumawi found this and abundant food sources nearby.

Conflict between the Native peoples and the immigrants was inevitable as the pioneers often threatened the Indians’ livelihood and ancestral homes. In parts of Shasta County, it wasn’t unusual for mining camps to toss sticks of dynamite into the rivers, and whatever floated up was dinner.

The Lockharts Ferry Massacre

The winter of 1856 was one of the snowiest on record, and the first snow-shoed wayfarer of the new year to make it into Fall River encountered a grizzly sight. Samuel Lockhart’s Ferry and the tiny settlement that grew up around it (now Fall River Mills) had been attacked, obviously by Indians. Ferries were nothing more than boats guided across rivers by ropes to assist people in getting to the other side, and this one was just below the confluence of the Fall and Pit Rivers. Buildings had been torched; provisions plundered and some white settlers had been slaughtered. It became known as the Lockharts Ferry Massacre.

Upon hearing news of the raid a group of vigilantes arrived on the scene seeking vengeance, but the whereabouts of the perpetrators went undiscovered. Nevertheless, it was decided the Indians’ “depredation” could not go unanswered.

In May of 1857, U.S. Army Company D under the command of Lieutenant George Crook marched from Fort Jones to the Fall River Valley with orders to subdue the hostile Natives. It took a mere four bloody months for the soldiers to rout the Natives paving the way for safe occupation of the area by immigrants. All acknowledged the Indians fought bravely, but spears and arrows were no match for rifles and the superior firepower of the United States Army.

The Aftermath

Lieutenant George Crook

During the hostilities at Lockhart’s Ferry the 1850s, the Pit River Canyon became a stronghold for the Indians greatly feared by travelers of the day. Lieutenant Crook even took an arrow to the leg, and the arrowhead stayed with him for the remainder of his life. The following account, paraphrased from Crook’s autobiography, is a poignant reminder of how bravery and sacrifice turns a blind eye to race, color or creed:

One of Crook’s scouting missions brought he and two of his men to a place where the Pit Canyon opens up, roughly where the Pit 1 Powerhouse and Clearwater Lodge sits today. From their vantage point they discovered an Indian encampment of about 100 men, plus women and children. The language he used to describe the scene reflects racial attitudes of the time:

“The squaws commenced gathering grass seed while the bucks stood sentinel.” Nearby Crook found a discarded wash boiler and photographs he considered plunder from the Lockhart Ferry Massacre, and that was all the evidence he needed.

Hiking back to where the soldiers had tied their horses, the men came face-to-face with an Indian woman carrying a basket of grass seed, her baby in a sling on her back. “She was very much frightened,” wrote Crook, “but not confused. She seemed to realize the situation.” Not wanting her to warn the others, they brought the woman and child back to their encampment while the soldiers prepared. The plan was for a surprise attack under cover of darkness.

“The night came on very dark,” continued Crook, “a severe thunderstorm overtook us on the mountain. The clouds were inky black, and the darkness was so intense that we could not see our hands before us except when the flashes of lightning lit up the country.” Well armed and on horseback, the soldiers forced the woman to walk in front of them along the trail. “Her child would cry occasionally,” he noted, “when she would stop, nurse, and sing to it.”

When the soldiers arrived at the spot where they’d seen the Indian camp, the soldiers were surprised to discover their fires were now burning on the other side of the river. Evidently they had moved across while it was still light. “The river here was nearly one hundred yards wide,” wrote Crook, “and we could tell nothing about its depth.” The men found a damaged canoe along the bank and proceeded to discuss how this might be employed to help get them across the river. Said Crook:

The squaw laid down her papoose and, taking up her basket hat, commenced bailing out the canoe, gradually working her way toward the end farthest from shore. All of a sudden she dove under the water and disappeared. It did not seem a minute before all the fires were put out in their camp on the other side. We returned to the opposite bank where the papoose was, which by this time was squalling at the top of its lungs.

The soldiers tried luring the Natives back by hanging the baby from a rope and letting it cry while they hid in the bushes, but the Indians didn’t fall for it. George Crook went on to an auspicious military career eventually achieving the rank of Major General.

No one really knows how many Achumawi were murdered during the brief military campaign. Those who weren’t killed outright left the area, were directed to nearby reservations or died of white man’s diseases.

Sometime after Crook moved on to his next assignment a quiet rumor took root in the community suggesting the so-called Lockhart Ferry Massacre was not exactly what it was billed in the first place. It claimed the attack was revenge for “depredations” against Indian women at the hands of local white men. Sam Lockhart was not present when the ferry was attacked, but he lost several family members in the encounter. From then on he dedicated his life to killing Indians, and died in a knife fight with one in the Idaho country.

Crook’s autobiography doesn’t mention whatever became of the baby or the Indian woman along the Pit River who made the only sacrifice greater than her own life, but he did acknowledge her courage. After a career of killing untold numbers of Natives, he was criticized later in life for going “soft” on Indians. If that really happened, I wonder if a certain courageous woman on the Pit River had anything to do with it.

I wonder.

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.


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