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THE SITE ON GUNTHER ISLAND (CA-HUM-67) IN HUMBOLDT BAY

by

Albert B. Elsasser



This article originally appeared in Symposium: A New Look at some Old Sites, Papers from the Symposium Organized by Francis A. Riddell, Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Society for California Archaeology, March 23-26, 1983, San Diego, California. Coyote Press Archives of California Prehistory 6:49-54, 1986.


It seems fairly evident that A.L. Kroeber was aware at an early date that two sites, one in southern Washington, and one in northwestern California, were of key importance to the archaeology of the region called the southern Northwest Coast and its immediate environs. These sites were the Wakemap site on the Columbia River and the site on Gunther Island. The Gunther Island site, besides being a sort of landmark--the only high spot at the northern end of the island--was also considered a focal point of a massacre by local whites of the resident Wiyot tribe. This ghastly event took place in 1860, and was in some measure responsible for the subsequent near-extinction of the Wiyot. Many Wiyot from several other sites in the region of Gunther Island also suffered heavily in the same massacre.

In 1913, L.L. Loud spent four months in the Humboldt Bay region, and attempted to chart the Indian sites in a manner similar to that which N.C. Nelson had done earlier on San Francisco Bay. He stated that about one-half of this time was spent in excavating the site on Gunther Island. At the time he was there, Robert Gunther, who had acquired the island in 1860, was living, and was able to give Loud much information about the main site which referred to the time before Loud's visit. He spoke of a small Indian village at one end of the site, the house types, and estimated that only about 50 persons were living on the site before 1860. The village was also known as the seat of an annual dance ceremony, held in February, and lasting about a week. It was during one of these February weeks that the 1860 massacre took place.

Gunther Island was mostly tidal marsh, except for two shell-mounds, in prehistoric times, and has been diked by white settlers. One of the sites has disappeared, evidently, while the site we are discussing still remains in remnant form at the northeast end of the island. In 1971 a bridge from Eureka to Samoa was competed, with one of its foundations near but evidently not directly anchored on the site. I don't know the extent of the damage while the bridge was being built. This was before the time, effectively, of organized cultural resource management, and the bridge seems to have been thrown up without very wide, if any, notice being given to possible further destruction of the mound.

Loud's excavation report was published in 1918, and remained for more than 30 years practically the only published representation of northwestern California archaeology. Loud's work allowed distinguishing of two cultural layers; he found 22 burials, but in excavating to a depth of about 275 cm, he found comparatively few artifacts scattered in the midden. At the lowest depth, in "marsh material consisting of carbonized wood and vegetable detritus," he collected the sample used much later in the Carbon 14 dating of around A.D. 900 as the supposed time of first occupation of the site. In general he brought to light the salient artifacts, mostly burial accompaniments, which enabled later archaeologists to refer to part of a regional culture sequence as the Gunther Pattern or Phase.

Probably there had been numerous pot-hunting forays on the site even before Loud's day, and almost certainly at various times afterwards. Dating from the early 1920s, a local dentist named H. H. Stuart purchased a lease on the site and excavated in places where Loud had not dug. Stuart produced a chart showing that he had found about 382 burials during the course of the next 30 years. He claimed never to have found any evidence of burial of the Wiyot who were massacred at the site in 1860. Records of a sort were kept, unfortunately, on only 142 of the 382 burials he found. It is clear that Stuart was reasonably careful with the 142 burials, but measuring his standards against Loud's, he would probably have been classified as a slightly above-average private collector looking for spectacular items like the unusual animal-form carvings of slate or steatite which Loud called slave killers. Stuart claimed to have spent more time taking measurements and making records than in excavating.

From a Eureka newspaper article dated 1965, I have found that another private collector, a teacher from Eureka named T.J. Hannah, had spent the past two and one-half years excavating on the island. The report (Rinehart 1965) refers to Hannah in quotes as a "student," and to his activities, also in quotes, as "salvage." I do not know the present whereabouts of his collection, nor if he kept records of any kind.

During 1964, I was fairly heavily involved in the publication of Stuart's notes, copies of which Heizer had obtained before 1950 (Heizer and Elsasser 1964). Despite the care that went into preparing these sometimes sketchy data, Stuart was greatly incensed about the publication, and was threatening to sue the University of California for, in effect, not having treated his notes as he would have. I understood that before he could proceed with his suit, he was overtaken by serious illness, and the case was subsequently dropped. I gather from newspaper stories from 1970 (e.g., Hodgkinson 1970), however, that he seemingly relented, and was not unpleased that his work was now available to the public.

In 1965, I attempted to correlate Loud's and Stuart's data, and one part of this job was constructing a lengthy chart (Table 1) that combined their findings. This showed that though Loud's sample was small, he had revealed most of the diagnostic classes of artifacts of the site, while at the same time missing a fair number of other kinds, which Stuart had recovered. It can easily be seen from this chart that, if nothing else, Stuart was zealous, although none of his excavations went below 152 cm, while Loud's trench went down to 275 cm in one place at least. It seems that Loud's suggestion of cultural stratigraphy in noting what he called cremations at lower levels (that is, below 91 cm) versus simple interments at upper levels in the midden was not confuted by Stuart's finds, although Stuart's "burns," in a larger sample, far outnumbered his finds of simple interments. In addition, Stuart's data strongly suggest not cremation proper, but pre-interment grave pit burning (a Central California trait); some of his graves evidently had no calcined bones, while others had bones which were scarcely burned. I might add here that the preferred method of burial by both ethnographic Wiyot and Yurok has been simple interment, not cremation or burning.

Some of the artifacts recovered after Loud's excavation at Gunther Island are now in the Cecile Clarke Memorial Museum in Eureka. Probably Stuart gave some of these to the Museum, and some were collected by Cecile Clarke, who was a teacher in a Eureka high school at the time Stuart was working. All of this material is not very well documented, as far as I could determine from a visit I made there almost 30 years ago. I really do not know what has become of the bulk of the Stuart collection--perhaps it is at the Clarke Museum.

After Stuart's time, there was, as I said, additional pot-hunting on the Island, and possibly even some controlled excavation of which I am not aware. In 1980, Suzanne Ramiller of Sonoma State produced an excellent, up-to-date overview of the prehistory of the northwest region (Ramiller 1980), and in this no mention is made of any but the sort of thing I have been talking about at Gunther Island--I assume from this that if any new reliable work has been done on the Island, it has not been reported, at least in any of the usual sources. Perhaps someone at this meeting can throw some light on this subject,

In recent times, that is since 1965 or so, several valuable surveys and excavations in the northwestern California region, for example by Fredrickson, Gould (1966); Milburn (1979); and Moratto (1973), have resulted in the presentation of a reasonably firm prehistoric culture sequence which includes the Gunther Island Phase in its middle range. In addition, we now seem to be in a fairly good position to estimate early population movements in the region by combining archaeological data with certain linguistic suppositions (cf. Whistler 1979). Unfortunately the Gunther Island site does not provide any definite archaeological evidence for these movements or changes, and even leaves us puzzled to some degree about the true identity of the late prehistoric occupants of the Island site. Although the site was so important in the historic period, both Loud's and Stuart's excavations seem not to have yielded any definite historic material beyond an iron harpoon part found in one of Stuart's burial lots. Despite the facts of a village, known to be of small size, and of the site's known use as a ceremonial place in the mid-19th Century, there were, then, virtually no signs of mixing of late prehistoric and historic artifacts in the burials. It has been observed that the simple interments usually contained much less artifact accompaniment than the graves that had evidence of burning. Moreover Stuart's excavation disclosed several classes of artifacts, like 'C' shaped fishhooks, 'offset' pestles, and human figurines of clay, while both Loud and Stuart found small baked clay balls, and animal form ground slate figures. None of these kinds of artifacts was known either to ethnographic Wiyot or Yurok.

The graves with evidence of burning which Loud called cremations and Stuart "burns," but which I am now referring to as pre-interment grave pit burnings, may well be suggestive of links with Central California. It has been assumed that the prehistoric Wiyot were more likely to have received such significant influences than the Yurok. Despite the physical contiguity and linguistic relationship (which is not notably close even though the two languages are in the same family), between the Yurok and Wiyot, Kroeber noted long ago (e.g., 1939) that they were more different in culture than one would at first suspect, with the Wiyot in effect pointing south and the Yurok pointing north. On the other hand, if we consider the data in Table 1, which was drawn up about 20 years ago but never published, it is obviously not very helpful in establishing long Wiyot residence at the site; if anything, it suggests Yurok predominance in prehistoric times.

In conclusion, I'd like to make the observation that we are really not much farther along than we were in 1918, when Loud published his report on the site, based upon a quite small sample, as it turned out, taken from a trench about 35 meters long. It is somehow appropriate that Loud himself collected the sample of organic material that was dated in 1964, pointing to around A.D. 900 for the earliest use of the site. It appears that Stuart's largest contribution was in offering evidence that the site was more important as a burial and mollusc-collecting place rather than an intensively occupied village site. Given the extent of the only semi-valuable data of Stuart, plus the numerous unrecorded pillagings of the site for perhaps 100 years, it seems unlikely that we shall ever be able to obtain any definitive answers to lingering questions concerning the upper levels, at least.

Whatever the case, the site also continues to be of some public interest. I have read (Hayden 1982) that in 1973, two years after the Samoa bridge was built, an Indian organization was attempting to sue the City of Eureka for reparations in the matter of the bloody massacre of 1860, which probably will always be chiefly identified with the Gunther Island site. I mention this because, despite the public interest, the site may have been further damaged by the bridge building operation. If it has not, and the local Indians indeed would permit further excavation there, we may conjecture that the lower levels of the site, still presumably undisturbed except by Loud's limited excavation, contain something of archaeological significance in them, including the possibilities of obtaining additional samples of material for radiocarbon dating.

It is said that the Far Western Indian Historical Association proposes to build a museum and cultural center on the 270 acre island, which is currently a National Wildlife Refuge. It appears that the days of predatory pot-hunters on Gunther Island are, or should be, over.

Table 1. Some Culture Elements Found at CA-HUM-67 Known Also by Yurok and Wiyot.

Element (No. from Driver 1939)
Hum-67
Wiyot
Yurok
Remarks
Bone fish spear (233)
X
X
--
--
Vertical pole or plank as grave marker (2065)
?
X
--
Suggested at Hum-67 by relative lack of overlapping burials
Cemetery away from village (2072)1
--
X
--
--
Mammal bone hair pin (1138)
?
--
X
Inferred at Hum-67
Cemetery away from village (2071)
X
--
X
--
Manufactured stone club (912)
X
--
X
--
Buried property broken (2082)
?
--
X
Many specimens at Hum-67, not broken, although burned
All stone tubular pipes (1288)
X
--
X
--
Spatula-paddle shaped stone clubs (see remarks)
X
--
?
Found in Yurok territory by Indians (Driver 1939:391)
Orientation of burials2
N
W
N
--

1 The items titled "Cemetery away from or close to village" may not be applicable here, insofar as it is not clear whether the Gunther Island site was a bona-fide village site in prehistoric times.

2 "Orientation of burials" at Hum-67 also is probably weak--it is statistical only, and does not indicate any rigid adherence to the northerly direction by whatever group was conducting the burial ceremony.



REFERENCES

Driver, H.E. 1939. Culture Element Distributions: X. Northwest California. University of California Anthropological Records 1(6):297-435. Berkeley.

Gould, R.A. 1966. Archaeology of the Point St. George Site and Tolowa Prehistory. University of California Publications in Anthropology 4. Berkeley.

Hayden, M. 1982. Exploring the North Coast: A Guide to the California Coast from the Golden Gate to the Oregon Border. Chronicle Books, San Francisco.

Heizer, R.F., and A.B. Elsasser. 1964. The Archaeology of Hum-67: The Gunther Island Site in Humboldt Bay, California. Reports of the University of California Archaeological Survey 62:5-122). Berkeley.

Hodgkinson, E. 1970. Dr. Stuart Rediscovered a Lost People. Times-Standard, Sunday March 8, 1970. Eureka.

Kroeber, A.L. 1939. Local Ethnographic and Methodological Inferences. In H.E. Driver, Culture Element Distributions: X. Northwest California. University of California Anthropological Records 1(6):425-429. Berkeley.

Milburn, J., D.A. Fredrickson, M. Dreiss, L. de Michael, and W. Van Dusen. 1979. A Preliminary Report on the Archaeology of CA-Hum-129 /Tsahpek/. Submitted to California Department of Parks and Recreation, Sacramento.

Moratto, M.J. 1973. A Survey of Cultural Resources in and near Redwood National Park, California. Submitted to National Park Service, Tucson.

Moratto, M.J. 1980. Some Archaeological Research Prospects in Northwestern California. Appendix 3:116-123 in Resource Evaluations at Nine Archaeological Sites, Redwood Creek Basin, Redwood National Park, California, A. King and P. McW. Bickel, eds. Submitted to National Park Service, Redwood Park, Arcata.

Ramiller, S. 1982. Humboldt and Del Norte Counties. In Prehistoric Overview--Northwest Region: California Archaeological Inventory, Vol. 1, D.A. Fredrickson, general editor. Anthropological Research Center, Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park.

Rinehart, F. 1965. Gunther Artifacts Tell Tale of Lost Tribe: Ancient Indians Far Surpass Moderns in Craftsmanship. Times Standard, November 7, 1965. Eureka.

Whistler, K.W. 1979. Linguistic Prehistory of the Northwestern California Coastal Area. In A Study of Cultural Resources in Redwood National Park, California, P. McW. Bickel, ed.



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