Many American Indians with cultural roots in the Kern River Valley mark April 19 as a day of solemn remembrance -- and a day of infamy.
Ron Wermuth, a descendant of the Tubatulabal, an aboriginal people who for 6,000 years hunted, fished and raised families along the Kern River, lost his great-great-grandfather 144 years ago today in a massacre by U.S. Army troops.
"They were bayonetted and sabered," he says of the 35 or more rounded up and killed.
"We need to remember it," Wermuth adds. "I'm getting up there in age and I want to make sure we pass it on."
It's not a happy memory, and there are conflicting versions. But no one disputes that on the morning of April 19, 1863, soldiers from the Second California Cavalry, commanded by Capt. Moses A. McLaughlin, lined up at least 35 California Indians on a hillside near present-day Isabella Lake and violently ended their lives.
They didn't have a chance, as Capt. McLaughlin makes clear in his own report:
"I had the bucks collected together, and informed Jose Chico (an Indian guide) and the citizens who had arrived that they might choose out those whom they knew to have been friendly. This was soon done.
"The boys and old men I sent back to their camps, and the others, to the number of 35, for whom no one could vouch, were either shot or sabered. Their only chance for life being their fleetness, but none escaped, though many of them fought well with knives, sticks, stones, and clubs."
Historian and book publisher Chris Brewer, the great-great-grandson of Bakersfield founder Col. Thomas Baker, says the details of how indigenous tribes were pushed off their ancestral lands has not been a prominent part of the history of Kern County's pioneers.
"Killing Indians was a sport," he says. "It wasn't talked about much.
"In those days, to kill an Indian was no big deal -- because they were not thought of as people; they were savages."
The context of the killings, which would come to be known as the Keyesville Massacre, was complex and set in a time when lawlessness and frontier justice simply didn't conform to our modern "Little House on the Prairie" notions of pioneer life.
"These soldiers were a rag-tag bunch," Brewer says of the California volunteers. "The government did virtually nothing to support them and sustain them."
The dominant undercurrent of the times was gold, Brewer says. The Civil War was raging in the east and the Union desperately needed gold from Kern County to help finance the war.
To make things more complicated, there were significant numbers of Southern sympathizers in California, and President Abraham Lincoln could not afford to lose the Golden State to the Confederacy, Brewer notes.
As a result, anyone who stood in the way of mining efforts in California was expendable. Especially those who had lived on the land long before white miners and settlers arrived.
McLaughlin had received orders from his superior officer to respond to reports coming from settlers that a band of some 37 Indians were stealing livestock and causing other problems in the area.
So he, along with 24 men of Company E, two additional officers and a 12-pound Howitzer, made the long ride from Camp Babbitt near Visalia to the Kern River Valley in present-day Kern County.
McLaughlin wanted nothing more than to be reassigned to a more prestigious post, Brewer says. So he was eager to place the massacre in the best light.
"This extreme punishment," he wrote of the mass killing, "though I regret it, was necessary, and I feel certain that a few such examples will soon crush the Indians and finish the war in this and adjacent valleys."
The massacre was not only unnecessary, it was an act of savagery and an abuse of military power, Wermuth says.
His great-great-grandmother, Betty Buckskin, lost her husband in the massacre, Wermuth says. And he believes women and children also were killed in the massacre.
This week, Wermuth joined about a dozen other Indians to fast and pray in the desert. And on Saturday, he and others will gather at what is thought to be the site of the massacre near Wofford Heights to commemorate and remember those who died.
"This had a great effect on the survivability of the entire tribe," he says. "We cannot forget."