Thursday, March 28, 2019


Race Track Point, near Slate Range Bar/ North Yuba River

Originally “Kanaka” referred only to native Hawaiians, who called themselves Kanaka Maoli, but broadened to include all Pacific islanders employed primarily by the British.  For this post I’ve narrowed the focus of their history to include only the Feather and Yuba Rivers and the adjacent Sierra Nevada foothills.  For centuries before the appearance of Euro-Americans and Asians this was predominantly Konkow and Nisenan territory

There’s a lot of variation in the spelling of Hawaiian person and place names in the historic record.  I’ve tried to corroborate different spellings, but ultimately had to decide on one version.  Hopefully I haven’t inadvertently garbled translation.
Beginning in the early 19th century Hawaii became a center of activity for Pacific maritime trade because of its strategic location.  Even before Kamehameha’s unification of the Islands, chiefs were already involved in trading sandalwood to obtain Asian and western goods such as nails, cloth, tools and weapons and it was an essential stop to resupply water and fresh food.

While hides and tallow were being shipped from the Mexican ranchos of Alta California the Russian, English and American fur trade was flourishing on the Pacific Northwest coast of North America. Whaleships from New England entered Hawaiian waters in 1819 – they were the first of thousands to follow.  In 1846 Pacific whaling grew so rapidly that 736 whaling ships arrived in Lahaina Bay.  Whaling ended in 1859 when oil was discovered and developed in Pennsylvania; within a few years this new type of oil replaced whale oil for lamps.

A triangular trade network emerged linking the Pacific Northwest coast, China and the Hawaiian Islands to Britain and the United States (especially New England).  In the 1820s Hudson’s Bay Company already spanned an area of more than 700,000 square miles that stretched from Russian Alaska to Mexican California and from the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. The Company was attracted to Hawaii as a potential market for the products of the Company's posts in the Pacific Northwest. Their primary products were salmon and lumber.

Kanakas were highly valued as crew members on the ships that transported trade commodities because they were excellent seamen, strong workers and they were dependable.  Men from the islands were continuously offered employment on merchant vessels where they traveled far from home for long periods of time.  By 1844 between 300 and 400 Hawaiians worked for Hudson’s Bay Company in the Pacific Northwest, both in vessels and at posts.  Salt salmon became popular with Hawaiians, who would slice it up into small bits, and with the addition of tomatoes, green onions, water and ice would serve up a tasty dish called lomi-lomi salmon.  Today this is considered a traditional Hawaiian dish.  On the outgoing voyage from the islands, vessels carried Hawaiian salt, molasses, sugar and coffee.  At about the same time vaqueros from Mexican California were invited to Hawaii where they introduced cattle ranching.

The Hudson’s Bay Company typically offered Kanakas a three-year contract that paid $10 a month.  Hawaiian men were being offered employment on foreign vessels where they traveled far from home, for long periods of time.  To stem the flow of emigration from the Islands the Hawaiian legislature passed a law on May 4, 1841, requiring written consent and a $200 bond for employment at sea.  Under the terms of the agreement Hawaiian sailors were supposed to return to Hawaii within two years or the employer was subject to a $400 fine – in practice the law was unmanageable.

One of the unanticipated effects of foreign trade on the Hawaiian Islands was the devastation caused by infectious diseases.  Formerly isolated, the Hawaiian people were unusually susceptible to infectious diseases such as cholera, tuberculosis, smallpox, mumps, measles, whooping cough, venereal diseases and influenza.  Their population decreased from an estimated 200,000 in 1778 to 54,000 by 1876. Royalty was not spared either – when King Kamehameha II and Queen Kamamalu traveled to England in late 1823 they both contracted measles and died in July of the following year.

Trade involved more than the exchange of goods.  There were new foods, relationships and ideas to be exchanged when the Hudson’s Bay Company entered the Sacramento Valley of California.  They brought with them Kanakas and Aleuts while employing Miwoks and refugees from the recently abandoned Spanish missions.  There was also active horse trading going on between the Walla-Walla of the Columbia River basin and the Yokuts of San Joaquin Valley who used the Sacramento Valley as a corridor.  In this merging of mobile and rapidly changing ethnicities the lingua franca was Spanish and even before the gold rush the ethnogenesis of a new and supple Alta California culture was forming.

The Hudson’s Bay Company inadvertently introduced malaria to the Indians of the Sacramento and Feather Rivers, which reduced the native populations by 75% in 1833.  These were turbulent times for the indigenous people of the region.  Centuries old trade patterns as well as social, political and ceremonial practices were disrupted and obliterated calling for rapid reassessment and reorganization.  They could not have imagined that within a few years thousands more foreigners would invade and appropriate California in their lust for gold.

John Sutter was the first European to inhabit what we now call the Sacramento Valley. Originally from Switzerland, he came to the Mexican province of Alta, California in 1839 after spending five months in Hawaii.  Mataio Kekuanoa, the Governor of Oahu, gave Sutter permission to take ten Kanakas, one of whom was an Ali’i, to California.  The Ali’i were a class of chiefs and it was unusual for one to travel and work with ordinary Kanakas.

Sutter arrived in Yerba Buena (San Francisco) in 1839 after a visit to the capital in Monterrey where the Mexican Governor of Alta California gave Sutter a land grant of eleven square leagues (about 48,000 acres) in the lower Sacramento Valley in the borderlands between the Nisenan and Miwok peoples.  Sutter’s Fort (1846), considered an outpost of civilization, was the first destination of those who came to California by way of Oregon or across the plains. Sutter planned to create a vast agricultural empire, using indigenous labor, and call it New Helvetia.  His enslavement and harsh treatment of the indigenous people is well documented.  Governor Alvarado had to persuade Sutter to stop “the kidnapping operations” in order to prevent “a general uprising of Indians” within the Northern District. Sutter’s plans failed in an era of lawlessness that began in 1848 when gold was discovered on his land on the American River.

Ka'i-ana, Great-Great-Grandfather of Mary Azbill. A portrait hangs in the State House, Honolulu. 
The Dorothy Hill Collection and California State University, Chico, Meriam Library, Special Collections.

The Ali’i who accompanied Sutter was sixteen-year-old Ioana Keaala o’Ka'i-ana, the grandson of Ka’i-ana, the High Chief of Maui.  Why would an Ali’i travel and work with ordinary people?  Some historians speculate that Ioana Keaala had enemies because his grandfather resisted Kamehameha’s efforts to unify the Hawaiian Islands under his rule.  Ka’i-ana, chief of Maui, and originally one of Kamehameha’s counselors, was unlike the others – he had traveled to foreign ports, including Alaska and China – his sophistication and ambition may have generated jealousy and suspicion.

Kamehameha’s plan to unify all the Islands included subduing Maui.  Despite Ka’i-ana’s plans to attack Hawaii first, Kamehameha, with the aid of 16,000 men, guns and a cannon, surprised Ka’i-ana in a fight that destroyed the entire western side of Maui.  Ka’i-ana and a number of his men then joined forces with the chiefs of Oahu who were also under threat.  When Kamehameha struck Oahu, in the Battle of Nu’uanu, he used English cannons that could destroy stone barricades.  He also had the technical advice of two British sailors which gave a tremendous advantage to Kamehameha’s army.  Many warriors from the combined armies from Maui and Oahu, including Ka’i-ana himself, died in battle that day.  This was the decisive victory for Kamehameha and his campaign to unify the islands.

Either Ka’i-ana was an independent and conservative ruler who resisted western influences, or from the perspective of those who were in favor of unification, Ka’i-ana was a subversive.  The Governor and Chief of Oahu (Mateo Kekuanoa, nephew of Ka’i-ana) may have sent Ioana Keaala o’Ka’i-ana with Sutter for his own safety. Then again, Keaala may have been an exile, or adventurer, by choice.

In Californian Ioana Keaala became known as John Kelly. When Sutter’s empire crumbled during the gold rush John Kelly and other Kanakas went to work on the riverboats. Henry Azbill, the grandson of John Kelly, tells a story about his grandfather docking a boat at Chico Landing when a limb hit John Bidwell, owner of Arroyo Chico Rancho, on the head and knocked him overboard.  John Kelly immediately dove overboard and saved Bidwell from drowning.  Bidwell later became a prominent political figure on the county, state and national levels and was beholding to Kelly.

Bidwell’s Rancho was in what is now known as Konkow territory, which includes a portion of the Sacramento Valley floor and the Sierra Nevada foothills east of Chico and Oroville.  Konkow is an anglicization of the native Koyo-mkawi, which means “meadowland.”  It was in the village near Oroville called Taiyum Koyo, that John Kelly met and married Sumyneh, the daughter of chief Kulmeh. 

Kanakas generally preferred the company of the indigenous people – they treated each other as equals.  Newspaper, magazine and journal accounts were consistently derogatory and patronizing. Euro-Americans showed no regard for traditional boundaries and land use practices of the indigenous peoples.  The Konkow and Nisenan, like the Kanakas, valued cooperation more than competition and both the California Indians and they lived in accordance with the rhythms of nature instead of the Euro-American notion that the “frontier” was an inexhaustible resource to be manipulated at a profit.

The native people of the Sacramento, Feather, American, Yuba and Bear Rivers were excellent fishermen and so were the Kanakas.  Stephen Powers (Tribes of California, 1877), one of California’s first ethnographers, observed that the indigenous people of northern California, “were almost amphibious and rival the Kanakas in their capacity to endure prolonged submergence.”  The native Californians and the Kanakas had a strong genealogical relationship with the land which the Hawaiians called Aina. Kanakas, Nisenan, Miwok and others inter-married and their children had to make their home in the gold mining region but Kanakas writing home to the Islands usually referred to California as aina malihinior a strange land.  Poi, a Hawaiian staple made from the kalo, or taro plant, was unavailable in California but acorn mush or poi agore was in some ways similar.  Elements of the hula are still part of the traditional practices of the Shingle Springs Rancheria where Miwok, Nisenan and the “Sacramento-Verona Band of Homeless Indians” were granted a Rancheria in 1916.

Eighteen treaties were made with the Indians of California in 1851 and 1852 for reservations that would have comprised approximately 8.5 million acres. None of those treaties were ever ratified.  Instead, the government chose a policy of Indian Removal to regional reservations.  In the summer of 1863, hundreds of Indians from Yuba and Butte Counties were gathered together for relocation by the U. S. government.  Captain Augustus W. Starr and twenty-three cavalrymen of Company F, Second Infantry, California Volunteers, marched the Indians from Camp Bidwell to Nome Cult farm in Round Valley, Mendocino County.  Among the refugees were John Kelly, his wife and their two children, despite his insistence that he was a not an Indian, but a Hawaiian citizen.  Upon arrival at Round Valley, he wrote to King Kamehameha V explaining his situation. At the request of the Hawaiian King, John Kelly and his family were eventually released, and they returned to their Konkow village.

Mele' Keaala aka Mary Azbil, n.d..
The Dorothy Hill Collection and California State University, Chico, Meriam Library, Special Collections.

John Kelly and Sumyneh had five children, Hiram, Sarah, Mele’, Hoku and Keaukuilani.  In the late 1860s Kelly was losing his sight and his youngest daughter Keaukuilani died. Then inexplicably, about 1870, he killed his wife and committed suicide.  The boys, Hiram and Hoku were sent to Vernon, where the Feather River enters the Sacramento River, to live with the Mahuka family, while Sarah and Mele’ remained in Chico.  Sarah eventually married Sam Frank of the Mechoopda village near Chico.  

Mele’ Keaala was born on December 24, 1864 in the Konkow village of Ta’yimk’oyo located near Yankee Hill-Cherokee Flat, between the North and Middle Forks of the Feather River.  She was christened Maria Guadalupe, but she was also known as Mele’, or Mary Kelly.  When Mele’ was 17 years old Hawaiian King David Kalakaua came to California.  While visiting Sacramento in 1881 he gave an audience to some Californians of Hawaiian descent and Mele’ was among that group.  When she recited her genealogy the King discovered that they were related and to formally recognize that relationship he appointed Mele’, Kai-Nuha Keaala, or Guardian of the King’s Kahili. A Kahili is a cylinder of feathers, a standard, mounted on a staff, that served as a symbol of royalty.  She was also invited to return to Hawaii with the royal family to serve as Lady-in-waiting to Queen Kapiolani.  Mele’ Kai-Nuha Keaala stayed in Hawaii for five years.  When she returned to San Francisco in 1887 as Lady-in waiting to Princess Lili’uokalani (King Kalakaua’s sister) the Royal entourage was on its’ way to Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in England.  Mele’, who was now 23 years old, asked for and received permission to visit her people. She married George Clements in 1887 and stayed in California to help Annie Bidwell at her Indian School, in Chico. While visiting San Francisco in 1891, King Kalakaua was taken sick and died.  Mele’ Kai-Nuha Keaala was called to stand watch over his casket with his personal Kahili and to accompany his body back to Hawaii.  Again, she stayed in Hawaii but returned to San Francisco in 1894 to work at the World’s Fair Hawaiian Exhibit.  It was here that she met and married John Azbill, who was of Wailaki and English descent.

Mary and John Azbill stayed in California where they worked on farms near Wheatland and Sheridan, at the mouth of the Bear River.  Eventually the Azbill family returned to Chico where they lived in a house that the Bidwell’s built for them.  They had six children, but only Henry and John lived to adulthood.  Mary and John Azbill both died in 1932 – she and her husband are buried in the same grave at Mechoopda’m wononkodo (the Chico Rancheria cemetery).  Mary Azbill was a cosmopolitan woman who, in addition to her involvement with the Hawaiian Royal family, spoke several languages, was a gourmet cook and was also a skillful basketweaver. 

Headstone in the Mechoopda Cemetary  in Chico, CA.
The Dorothy Hill Collection and California State University, Chico, Meriam Library, Special Collections.

Marshall’s gold discovery at Sutter’s mill first appeared in the Honolulu newspaper, the Polynesian, on June 24, 1848.  At that time Kanakas were employed in all of the maritime shipping and whaling operations and Hawaiian ports were among the first to hear about the gold in California. The Sandwich Island News of August 17, 1848 reported that over 1000 pickaxes had been shipped from Honolulu.  It would be another five months before President James Polk would officially confirm the discovery of California gold and in doing so initiate the gold rush of 1849.  By the end of 1848 twenty-two merchant vessels had left Honolulu for San Francisco.

Sailors, most of whom deserted their ships in San Francisco, formed a sizeable part of the mining population.  The fact that nearly every watershed in the northern Sierra has a Sailor Flat, Bar, Diggings or Creek affirms their presence. In 1849 a writer for The Friend, a Honolulu newspaper, wrote: “I have met scores of seamen with whom I had become acquainted with while at Honolulu. There are vast numbers of seamen now digging in different parts of the mines” (December 1, 1849).

Racial prejudice was also a factor that isolated Indians and Kanakas, particularly during the gold rush and the years that followed. Indians, Chinese, Kanakas, Hispanics, Blacks and others were considered exotic and therefore treated differently by Whites who saw themselves as superior.  In response to the large Hispanic population in the mines of the San Joaquin River watershed (the Southern Mines) the California legislature approved a Foreign Miners Tax in April of 1850 of $20 a month.  In 1856 the tax was readjusted to $4 a month where it remained until 1870 when it was determined to be unconstitutional.  Between 1854 and 1870 “foreigners” paid $4,919,536 in Foreign Miners Tax – the Chinese paid an estimated 98% of that amount.  

The Foreign Miners Tax was collected by, sometimes corrupt, local lawmen working on a commission basis.  On August 30, 1850 a letter was sent to The Sacramento Transcript from the South Fork of North Fork of Yuba, Kanaka Dam signed by “A Yuba Miner and an American Citizen.”  It was a published as The Foreign License Law on September 21, 1850. According to the letter, tax collector W.B.F. Royer paid a visit to Kanaka Dam on the North Yuba, “ostensibly to grant licenses to the Kanakas here, but in reality, to jump their claims.” When Capt. Coxe and the other Kanakas tried to pay the $20 for the license, Royer denied the money saying that it was too late.  “If this was all, bad as it is, it might be borne without a murmur, but it is not; the claims taken from these Kanakas were given to these other foreigners, part of his posse.  “Now, as I understand the law, it was intended to protect the interests of American citizens mining in California; but the way this officer acted, which does he protect, American or foreign interests?  And can he refuse legally the revenue of the State when tendered him?  Is this not a misdemeanor in office?  Again, although I do not charge him with receiving anything from the men he put into the claims taken from the Kanakas, yet it does look, from the way he acted, as if he had received, or was to receive, a large bonus for so doing.”  “Capt. Coxe, the head chief of the Kanakas, says that his three months license he had paid for on Bear river was still good and in full force.  He tells me also, that Mr. Royer wanted to compromise with him, but he refused, as he had driven off his men, and they had gone nobody knew where.”

Major William Downie, in his reminiscences, talks about putting together a “company” at Bullards Bar on the North Yuba River in 1850, when he was approached by “about forty Kanakas” who wanted to travel upstream with him.  One of those he selected was John Wilson who claimed to be “a prince in his own country.”

An Unnamed Tributary of Kanaka Creek/ Middle Yuba River

Places in the North Yuba River watershed that reflect a Hawaiian presence include Kanaka Bar, below Bullards Bar, a Kanaka Flat on the South Fork of the North Yuba six miles east of Downieville, a Kanaka Creek and a Hawaiian mining camp named Oahu, later named Craigs Flat.  Three miles east of Downieville is Jim Crow Ravine – Jim Crow was a Kanaka who joined Downie’s company at Slate Range in the fall of 1849.  In April of 1850 Jim Crow and a group of Kanakas were mining at the head of Jim Crow Ravine and their camp was known as Crow City.  In 1852 Jim Crow moved to the Kanaka community in Vernon.  There is also an important tributary of the Middle Yuba named Kanaka Creek.  There was a mining camp called Kanaka City at the head of the north branch of Kanaka Creek and a Kanaka Flat downstream near Chips Flat, across the creek from the town of Alleghany.  And, on Oregon Creek, below Forest City, there was a Kanaka Drift Mine and a Kanaka Ravine – I’m sure there are other names that have faded into obscurity or have been replaced but not the memory of Hawaiians working in the hills and on the rivers.

This is part of the unwritten history of California that cannot be substantiated by primary documentation and even evades archaeological techniques. Yet somehow, their presence is here, in these steep tributary canyons, when you dare to say KANAKA out loud.
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