The Last Stone Age American


Ishi grew up during this period. As far as could be deduced, he must have been born around 1862. It may be that he never saw a white man close up, for his group was constantly in flight. And fear of the white man was burned into him from earliest childhood, when he heard stories of the latest massacres in which the remnants of his tribe had fallen. For the Yahis struck back. Robbed of the land that had nourished them, driven by hunger from the parched wilderness to which they had retreated, they had attacked a ranch in August, 1865, killing three white men. One moonless night, under the leadership of two legendary Indian killers, Robert A. Anderson and Hiram Good, both already proud possessors of many scalps, seventeen white men surrounded the small Yahi village on Mill Creek and slaughtered men, women, and children. Dead bodies were carried down the stream by the current. More such butchery was repeated in 1867 and 1868 and climaxed north of Mill Creek, where in a cave near Camp Seco thirty-three Indians were surrounded, killed, and scalped by only four white men, all heavily armed. During the massacre they shifted from their heavy rifles to revolvers, because the rifles, as the white participant Norman Kingsley later remarked, “tore them up so bad”—especially the infants.

After this slaughter the white settlers thought they had exterminated the Yahis once and for all. But then something mysterious happened. When several cowboys visited the cave a few days later, they found that the thirty-three corpses had vanished. This meant that there must be a few survivors, who had given their dead the last rites (these Indians practiced cremation). But these survivors did not reappear. They vanished without a trace into the wilderness for twelve years.


Theodora Kroeber, the great anthropologist’s wife, has displayed such empathy in her description of this period of concealment under threat of death that it would be a pity not to quote her: The twelve years from 1872 to 1884 were without incident or rumor. The concealment for those twelve years was complete. No horses or stock were hunted, no cabins were rifled, no grain stolen; not a footprint, not a telltale bit of ash, or wisp of smoke from a fire was seen; not a single broken arrowshaft or a lost spear point or a remnant of a milkweed rope snare was found on a forest or meadow floor as a sign that Indians were about. …

The years of Ishi’s total disconnection from history were most of the years of his life: a long interlude of stillness. The senses strain to understand what must have been the waking and sleeping of that time; and if Ishi could not light up for us its traumas and tragedies, he could and did describe and reenact for us, something of its day-to-day living.

The hidden ones fished with the harpoon and the net, and hunted with the bow and arrow, and by setting snares—silent weapons all. They gathered acorns in the autumn, enough if possible to see them through the winter. They ate green clover in April, and brodiaea bulbs in early summer. In midsummer they went to Waganupa, four nights’ journey, to its cooler air and deeper shade and more abundant game. For the rest, they lived on upper Mill Creek in small houses camouflaged so that from above, the only direction from which they could have been seen, the bent branches which covered them looked like nature’s work. Nearby were storage shelters disguised in the same way, and containing drying frames, baskets of dried meat and fish and acorns, and utensil baskets, tools, and hides. They traveled sometimes for long distances by leaping from boulder to boulder, their bare feet leaving no print; or they walked up or down stream, making of their creeks a highroad. Each footprint on the ground was covered over with dead leaves, obliterated. Their trails went under the heavy chaparral, not through it, and they traveled them on all fours. A cow could not find such trails; even deer sought more open ones. If a branch was in the way it was gradually bent back farther and farther, and if need be severed by charring and wearing through with a crude tool made from splitting a boulder, a slow but silent process. They never chopped, the sound of chopping being the unmistakable announcement of human presence. They kept their fires small so that the smoke dissipated harmlessly through the brush without rising beaconwise above the bay tree canopy, and they covered the site of a camp-fire with broken rock as soon as the fire was out. They went up and down the perpendicular cliffs of Mill Creek canon on ropes of milkweed fiber—a quick and safe way down, since the canon was well screened by trees that overhung its rim. They could bring up a catch of fish or a basket of water, or let themselves down for a swim with far less trouble and time than it took to scramble up and down the little branching trails which led to the water’s edge. Also, they preferred to use these trails sparingly so that they would not become too plainly marked but continue to appear to be no more than the runways of rabbits or weasels. … They wore capes of deerskin and wildcat, occasionally of bearskin. And they slept under blankets of rabbitskins. Ethnologists are agreed that they pursued a way of life the most totally aboriginal and primitive of any on the continent, at least after the coming of the white man to America.∗

∗From Ishi in Two Worlds , by Theodora Kroeber. Originally published by the University of California Press; reprinted by permission of The Regents of the University of California.