You had to be really gullible to believe in 1906 you could still get nearly-free homestead land in California -- yet crowds jammed the tiny Mendocino County town of Covelo, waiting for the land rush to begin.

"Round Valley Reservation Will be Open to Settlement" read the headline in the Press Democrat (the article was actually from AP), but had the would-be homesteaders done some research, they would have known that yes, this technically was part of an Indian reservation, but ranchers had grabbed all the good grazing land in Round Valley decades before, and any leftover parcels had to be absolutely worthless.

My first thought was that the 1906 land rush story might be a hoax; it wasn't mentioned in any books on Round Valley I knew, including the classic history "Genocide and Vendetta" (although that book is skimpy on developments after the 1890s) and only a few old newspapers picked up this wire service story. But sure enough, here was an almost-forgotten chapter in the disgraceful history of Round Valley.

For those not familiar, Round Valley was the main Northern California Indian reservation in the 19th century, and there is no deeper stain on the history of Sonoma County than its connections to that place. As I wrote in a 1995 history essay, The Dark Legacy of Nome Cult, local militia or vigilantes forced residents of entire Pomo villages to walk to the Mendocino reservation, a torturous passage remembered as "The Death March." After three Indians were lynched near Fort Ross in 1857, about twenty Natives from somewhere in West County passed through town on their way north, the Sonoma Democrat (predecessor to the PD) noting approvingly that "it is much better for them, inasmuch as they are totally incapable of sustaining themselves when left to combat with the more sagacious white men...the hardship [of leaving their homeland] exists only in the imagination." Many thousands of Indians died in these early years; without hyperbole, it was genocide.

The Round Valley reservation was nothing less than an American gulag. Although the U.S. government had designated the entire valley as reservation land in 1870, Native people were confined to an undesirable corner of the valley because the White ranchers refused to leave, even though they held no legal rights to be there. Entirely dependent upon the government, the Indians once went two years without being given any clothing; a congressman who visited Round Valley in the mid-1870s found they were treated no better than slaves. Indians were forced to work for the ranchers, who in turn sold cattle to government agents to feed the Indians. The Methodist missionary in charge of the place did little to protect them from raiders who stole their children to sell them into servitude, or cowboys who raped their women.

Adding to the injury and insult, an 1890 act of Congress declared that more than half of the reservation land should be sold off, thus legitimizing the rancher's land grab. But only about a thousand of the 66,000+ acres that were "relinquished" from the reservation were sold at the time. It wasn't until 1905 that another Congressional act sweetened the deal enough for the ranchers to actually buy the stolen land.

Author of the 1905 bill was the Press Democrat's favorite perennial political candidate in that era, one-term Rep. Theodore Bell, who did little else in Congress other than add his name to bills authored by others. Bell positioned his resolution as "An act to open to homestead settlement" any unused lands in Round Valley -- although he was more honest in his House speech, admitting that this really was for the benefit of the existing ranchers: "A few men have gone in and settled upon the lands...This bill is for the purpose of giving these men the right to perfect title by paying whatever the land shall be appraised for." (Good background on both the 1890 and 1905 laws, by the way, can be found in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals discussions of a case in 1980.)

Once that was passed, the only question that remained was assessing the price for the land that was to be sold to these "homesteaders," and articles appeared in other California papers quoting the Surveyor General as saying a new survey would take at least two years. But miracles of miracles, the U.S. Indian Inspector declared in August, 1905, that he had appraised every inch of the 66,111 acres and declared that it all should be sold at "a substantial reduction" from prices estimated way back in 1893. It is a mystery why the "Indian Inspector" was considered an expert in appraising land value, or allowed to have any say whatsoever about land that was "relinquished" from the reservation fifteen years earlier.

Round Valley Reservation Will be Open to Settlement

Special Dispatch to Press Democrat Covelo, Jan. 10 -- The lands of the relinquished Round Valley Indian Reservation will be thrown open to settlement Monday, January 15. Already the rush of prospective settlers has assumed the proportions of a stampede and the town is full to overflow. The regular stage facilities do not begin to accomodate those who are rushing in here and many are coming in their own conveyances while others are coming afoot. Many of the would-be settlers are city bred and unaccustomed to roughing it, and it would be ludicrous if it as not so serious a matter. The land is all mountainous and only fit for grazing stock.

- Press Democrat, January 11, 1906


Newer Post Older Post Home