By: Douglas Love, Grand Trustee, Napa Parlor #62
Sitting on a windswept bluff above Eureka sit the remains of one of the most important military outposts on the west coast. There isn’t much there today, a couple of buildings, one of which is a reconstruction, some informational signs and an outdoor exhibit of logging equipment; but in it’s heyday, Fort Humboldt played an important part in the military history of the west coast and of the United States.
The end of the Mexican War and the discovery of gold brought sweeping changes to California. Before the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill, emigration to California had all but come to a standstill, partially due to the press reports of the ill-fated Donner-Reed Party and the start of the Mexican War. Yet, the situation changed with President Polk’s announcement in his December 5th State of the Union address that:
It was known that mines of the precious metals existed to a considerable extent in California at the time of its acquisition. Recent discoveries render it probable that these mines are more extensive and valuable than was anticipated. The accounts of the abundance of gold in that territory are of such an extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by the authentic reports of officers in the public service who have visited the mineral district and derived the facts which they detail from personal observation.
Argonauts from around the world began making their way to California. These individuals fanned out across the state, looking for gold in every stream and river. Before long, the prospectors, miners, gold seekers, traders, and con-men who rushed into California came into conflict with the Californios and Indigenous People who already lived here. More importantly, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo guaranteed that the United States would respect the “property, language, and culture” of Mexicans now living in the United States. As a result, many of the United States army troops who had fought in Mexico now found themselves being sent to California to perform garrison duty and to shore up United States control of the land at the edge of the continent.
The discovery of gold on the Trinity River by Major Pierson B. Reading, for whom the City of Redding is named, in July of 1848 opened what had once been a remote area of California to non-indigenous settlement and in 1849 and 1850 thousands of gold seekers entered the area. With the influx of new people came inevitable conflict. The Europeans and others who flooded the area soon had a multitude of gold claims almost entirely without Indigenous permission or consideration for the traditional boundaries of tribal settlement. There were violent clashes between the Indigenous peoples and the interlopers. The devastation wreaked upon the Indigenous people of the area is well documented and is deserving of a more detailed telling than I have room for here; suffice to say that depending on the tribe and the estimate, 75 to 95% of the Indigenous population died through a combination of disease, competition for resources, starvation, and outright murder.
In January 1853, Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Robert C. Buchanan and the 4th US Infantry arrived to establish Fort Humboldt and mediate between the native and settlers in the region. By 1857 there were 14 buildings situated on the bluff overlooking Humboldt Bay. The Army’s mission to bring peace between the European settlers and Indigenous tribes was hampered from the beginning. The settlers in the area wanted the Native Peoples removed to reservations and did not support the idea of the military authorities negotiating with the tribes. Seven treaties were negotiated and signed with the tribes who lived between Clear Lake and the Klamath River. None of those treaties were ever ratified and the Natives never received any of the land nor any other considerations which were contained in the treaties.
While unsuccessfully trying to maintain a sustainable peace between the settlers, gold seekers and the native peoples, Fort Humboldt also served as a supply depot for many other forts and outposts in Northern California and Southern Oregon. On January 5, 1854, Captain Ulysses S Grant arrived at Fort Humboldt to serve as the Quartermaster and take command of Company F, 4th Infantry. Grant and Buchanan did not get along and the tedium of garrison duty did not sit well with Grant. He was a newly wed and missed his wife and he felt very isolated and depressed. He often rode to a nearby tavern and found solace in drink. After being reprimanded, Grant resigned his commission effective July 31, 1854 and went home. Grant was not the only soon to be famous officer to be stationed at Fort Humboldt, Gabriel Rains, who became a Confederate Brigadier General, George R. Crook who rose to fame during the Civil and Indian Wars, and Dr. Lafayette Guild, who became Medical Director of the Army of Northern Virginia, all served at Fort Humboldt.
On February 26, 1860, one of the darkest incidents in the History of California occurred, one that the garrison of Fort Humboldt was supposed to prevent. On that day, a goup of “vigilantes”, calling themselves the “Humboldt Volunteers, Second Brigade” attacked and massacred 80-250 Wiyot people who lived on Tuluwat Island in Humboldt Bay. Called the “Indian Island Massacre”, this event showed just how ineffective the US Army was at protecting the native people. The many of the survivors of the massacre were put in “protective custody” at Fort Humboldt and eventually transferred Klamath River Reservation. The island was then owned and ranched by European settlers. It was also the site of a shipyard. In 2019, the City of Eureka deeded the island back to the Wiyot people.
With the coming of the Civil War, the regular US Army troops were withdrawn from Fort Humboldt. The fort was garrisoned by units of the California Volunteers. In 1866, the US Army re-garrisoned the fort and it was abandoned in 1867. As surplus land it was sold to WS Cooper in 1893, the Cooper family owned the site of the fort and it’s one remaining building until 1923, when Mrs. Laura Cooper donated the land to the City of Eureka as a public park. In 1955, Eureka deeded the site to the state and Fort Humboldt became a state historic park in 1963. The park is open from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM daily.
GETTING THERE: The park’s address is: 3431 Fort Avenue, Eureka, CA 95503
Phone number: (707) 488-2041 From San Francisco take US 101 North to Highland Avenue in Eureka, a total of 266 miles. Turn right onto Highland Avenue and then left onto Fort Avenue. The park is on your left.