BY JAMES A. WADDELL
In the summer of 1850 the “Klamath River Indian Tribes” witnessed first-hand the ferocity of early American “Gold Fever.” White men soon came into the mountain forests of this winding river. At least three groups of prospectors ventured through Yurok and Hupa Indian lands into the territory of the Karuk people. Stories of hundreds of gold diggers coming into other valleys of California had come to the Klamath River Indians from Indian tribes like the Pomo, Wintun, and the Wiyot. Gold hungry men were coming into their territories. “White men like the rivers! White men dig up rocks,” said these peaceful Indians, bewildered by such behavior.
One group of early miners, approximately eighteen men, traveled the millennia-old foot-trails of the Karuk people, up to a place of broad gravel bars and exposed bedrock two miles upstream from Clear Creek. For thousands of years the Karuk Indians lived along the river on similar “flat” campgrounds, ancient gold-bearing deposits of river gravel!
The Karuk were a peaceful people. They believed that a great and peaceful race of white people lived here before the Karuk Tribe came to the Klamath River. They were uncertain of what they should do with regard to these white men. Were they the peaceful white people returning? Unfortunately, they would soon learn otherwise.
Some white prospectors took advantage of the Karuks. They used them for trail guides and as teachers of survival skills. Prospectors had a rough time living on only the meat that they hunted or the food they’d packed with them. The Karuk Indians utilized salmon, deer, and elk as their primary meat sources. They also gathered and used more than two hundred species of plants. Nutritious acorns of the tan oak and other oak species formed a large part of their diet. The Karuks used nearly as many plants and herbs for medicinal and spiritual purposes.
At times of peace and acquaintance, the two cultures learned many new things from each other. During times of conflict, powerful guns of the white men won most battles. Arrows and flint-knives had little chance against the power of guns. Revolvers like the .44 caliber Walker Colt and the .36 caliber Texas Colt gave the miners firepower. “Long-rifles,” like the .50 caliber Hawken, gave the owner the capability of killing a human, or a deer, at a range of 200 yards. The original 49′ers carried rifles, 5 and 6 shot revolvers, Derringers, pepperboxes, knives; or some such assortment. Outlaw miners in boomtowns were actually more of a danger than the so-called “wretched” Indians.
Good amounts of gold were first found at a campsite now known as Wingate bar. Digging produced much gold! Trouble came quickly. Two miners were killed by the Karuks at Wingate Bar, just north of the large Karuk village of Inaam, (Clear Creek). To avenge the killings, the white men formed a battle group. In a raid at first morning light, they killed all the Karuks present. Only a few got away. All the Karuk wood-plank homes were burned. Sporadic fighting went on for perhaps several weeks, with repeated attacks on the white men. These attacks finally caused the prospectors to pack their animals and head back down-river. They forded the river and climbed out of the river canyon, crossed the rugged terrain of the south Marble Mountains. It is believed that they took this route to avoid the large Karuk villages at the mouths of Ti Creek, Salmon River, and Camp Creek. There were seven villages at the mouth of the Salmon River. It was the “Center of the World” for the Karuk Tribe. They ended up in the Salmon River canyon, making winters’ camp at Brazill Flat (named after the great-great grandparents of the author.) This was at Forks of Salmon; land of the Konimihu Shasta Indians.
The second party of prospectors braving the wild country and tough Indians kept to the west and north sides of the Klamath River. Their travels took them along steep ridges and into scores of forested tributary watersheds of the Klamath River. (It must be understood that the forest was much more open then than now. White people began the suppressing of wildfires in the early decades of this century. The Karuk people allowed forest fires to burn, even setting fire to areas that were getting too brushy. This burning allowed new sprouts of grasses and shrubs to grow, made travel better, made hunting easier, and made spotting an enemy before he got too close more probable.)
This second party was headed for the Scott River. However, they must have traveled either through Seiad Low Gap into Horse Creek, or went up Johnny O’Neil Ridge and down Hamburg Gulch. They missed the mouth of the Scott River. They traveled up the Klamath River as far as the mouth of the Shasta River, in Shasta Indian territory. It’s believed that they wintered in the area soon to be called Thompson’s Dry Diggin’s; now known as Yreka. Gold was found there, but the land was dry; a high desert land. Gold was found in the ancient mixed soils of the valley bottom, including the roots of the bunch grass.
The third party searching for gold in these mountains in 1850 included the man now known to have made the biggest gold discovery in the Klamath Mountain Province, John Scott. It is still uncertain exactly what route they took before finally ending up at Scott’s discovery site of nuggets at Scott Bar. (The largest nugget found in later years, found by Wade & Lindsey, was “five inches long, three inches wide, and weighed 16 pounds!) It has been reported that this band of miners came inland from the port town of Trinidad in California. In the next several years, we know that supplies were brought to Scott’s Bar by way of Trinidad, Blackburn’s Ferry (Cappell Creek,) and the wind-swept summits of the Marble Mountains. Later supplies were brought by pack trail (named the Kelsey Trail after one of the mule packers) from Crescent City over the mountains of the South Fork of the Smith River, Bear Peak, and the northern Marble Mountains.
In 1851, the prospectors who had wintered near the Forks of Salmon, at Brazill Flat, lived through the winter pretty well. However, in the early months of spring they were surprised to see other eager and gold-hungry miners scurry into the Salmon River country. The new group crossed the Salmon Mountains before winter was really over. Spring snowstorms made life miserable for these hasty prospectors! As they waited for warm weather, they ended up eating all the stores of the miners already there. This was called “Starvation Times” in the Salmon River!
By July of 1851, the group of prospectors that retreated from Wingate Bar, led by Captains McDermitt and Thompkins, (owners of Blackburn’s Ferry), moved from the Salmon River back up the Klamath River. They found very large amounts of gold in the gravel at the mouth of Indian Creek. They’d survived the mountainous trails, the river fording, battles with the Karuk Indians, and “Starvation Times.” Now they had good food, warm weather, and lots of gold nuggets! This gold-rich location, and easy living circumstance, was named a “Happy Camp!”