Fort Humboldt State Park
Backstory and Context
With the discovery of gold in the Trinity River in May 1849, the stage was set for conflict between the American Indians who lived in northwestern California and the settlers and gold seekers that flooded into the region. After repeated depredations by white settlers, Northern California tribes such as the Yurok, Karuk, Wiyot, and Hupa retaliated and the Army was sent to attempt to restore order.
Fort Humboldt was established on January 30, 1853, by the Army as a buffer between Native Americans, gold-seekers and settlers under the command of Brevet Lieutenant Colonel Ronert C. Buchanan of the US 4th Infantry Regiment. Like Buchanan, many of the soldiers of this unit were veterans of the Mexican War. Fort Humboldt was sited on a strategic location on the bluff overlooking Humboldt Bay and Bucksport, a town named after David Buck, a member of the Josiah Gregg exploration party.
In addition to serving to protect the local inhabitants, it was also a supply depot for posts around the California and Oregon borders such as Fort Gaston in Hoopa and Fort Bragg in northern Mendocino County.
At its peak, the fort had 14 buildings all of crude plank construction. The fort was laid out in a typical military design with a quad at the center of the post which served as its parade grounds. Along with the two buildings that served as barracks for the enlisted men, there were quarters for the officers, an office, a hospital, a bakery, a storehouse/commissary, a guardhouse, a blacksmith's shop, and a stable.
The period between the fort's establishment and the beginning of the Civil War was marked by many skirmishes between the settlers and the local tribes. One of the first major conflicts was the so-called Red Cap War, fought in the area around present-day Weitchpec and Orleans. Soldiers from Fort Humboldt were called into action to bring calm back to the area during this conflict. The leaders and soldiers of the fort were often criticized by settlers who sought a more violent response to Indian attacks.The infamous Indian Island Massacre of the Wiyot people occurred at the end of this period on 25 February 1860. The fort's commander at this time, Major Gabriel J. Rains, reported to his commanding officer that "Captain Wright's Company (really vigilantes) held a meeting at El River and resolved to kill every peaceable Indian - man, woman, and child." The vigilantes were also known as the "Humboldt Volunteers, Second Brigade," reported to have organized at Hydesville and the town called "Eel River" in 1860 is now named Rohnerville
Among its residents in 1860 were Major Rains, his wife Mary, and their six children (including 2 daughters age 19 and 16). Also living at the fort were Captain Charles Lovell, his wife Margeret, and their four children; Lieutenant Alex Johnson, his wife Elizabeth, and their four children; Lieutenant James Dodwell, his wife Johanna, and their two children; and Lieutenant Edward Johnson, his wife Christiana, and their two children. The fort's physician Lafayette Guild and his wife Martha occupied the Surgeon's Quarters. In the barracks were 47 soldiers, all apparently living without their spouses.
Among the many well-known soldiers who served at the fort was a young captain, Ulysses S. Grant, who was there for five months in 1854 and grew so bored he began drinking to cope. Charles S. Lovell was promoted to major and commanded a brigade during Second Bull Run, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. Robert Buchanan became a general during the Civil War. Other famous Civil War generals, George Crook and Lewis C. Hunt, served here during this period. Gabriel J. Rains would become a brigadier general in the Confederate Army. Dr. Lafayette Guild would go on to serve directly under General Robert E. Lee as the Medical Director for the Army of Northern Virginia for all its major campaigns.
By the summer of 1861 the Civil was underway, and the resulting national conflict would bring major changes to Fort Humboldt. Federal soldiers were recalled to eastern battlefields and were replaced by units of the California Volunteers. These volunteers were drawn from local settlers who inaugurated a hard-line and violent policy toward the Native peoples.
During the Civil War, Fort Humboldt was the headquarters of the District of Humboldt/Humboldt Military District, which was part of the Department of the Pacific. The District's posts included Fort Bragg and Fort Wright in northern Mendocino County, and extending north through Humboldt County to Fort Gaston in and Fort Ter-Waw near Klamath (after the Great Flood in 1862, moved to Camp Lincoln near present day Crescent City). Other posts included Camp Curtis in Arcata, Camp Iaqua, Fort Seward in southern Humboldt County, and Camps Baker, Lyon, and Anderson.
The end of the Civil War brought more changes to Fort Humboldt. The California Volunteer units were disbanded in 1865, and U.S. regular troops returned to the fort from battlefields in the east. Six months after Appomattox, the first Regular Army unit to return to Fort Humboldt was Company E, 9th Infantry Regiment, on November 8, 1865 Company E was one officer and 49 enlisted men.
By 1866, all forces, except one company of artillery, were withdrawn from Fort Humboldt. This unit was Company E, 2nd Artillery Regiment, led by Major Andrew W. Bowman, the first Regular Army commander at Fort Humboldt since Captain Lovell in 1861. The fort becomes a sub-depot maintained primarily to provide supplies to Fort Gaston. Property belonging to the Quartermaster was auctioned on April 25, 1867. Items sold included 120 cords of wood, 2 boats with oars and sails, a heavy wagon, and an ambulance wagon.
On September 14, 1867, the last unit was withdrawn from Fort Humboldt and the post was abandoned.
The Humboldt Times reported the sale of other government property on August 10, 1870, including 32 buildings ($655) and 13 mules ($602).
After abandonment by the military, the lands were transferred to the Department of the Interior on April 6, 1870, and the fort fell into ruin. However, units of the California National Guard used the area one final time in August 1893. One hundred and thirty-five soldiers from the Second Artillery Regiment, California National Guard, arrived in the Steamer Pomona on August 17, and marched through Eureka to Fort Humboldt.
In 1893, the land and its one remaining building were sold to W. S. Cooper. Cooper reportedly subdivided the property as soon as he acquired it, naming the new subdivision Fort Humboldt Heights. Cooper's daughter reported that on two occasions her father partially restored the remaining building as he realized its future importance.
In 1894 a sentry box from Fort Humboldt was exhibited at a fair in San Francisco. The old cavalry barn was destroyed by fire on October 21, 1895.
On February 7, 1925, the Daughters of the American Revolution placed a bronze plaque which reads - "Fort Humboldt. Occupied by U.S. troops from 1853 to 1865. General U. S. Grant was stationed here in 1853." The plaque is still at the park, though hidden by trees. The original plaque was stolen and was later replaced by the Daughters of the American Revolution.
In 1929, the "Fort Humboldt Post" of the American Legion spent several days restoring fort buildings. Also during this era the hospital building received some restoration. Upon Cooper's death in 1928, his wife gave the land to the city of Eureka.
Fort Humboldt stands out as one of the first sites in Eureka recognized and preserved for its historic value. Fort Humboldt was registered as a California Historic Landmark on January 11, 1935. By the 1940s the fort had become a Eureka city museum devoted to General Grant and local memorabilia. At some point, statues of General Grant and General Robert E. Lee (which were apparently made of wood) were placed in the park and were still there in 1947 as can be seen in the Shuster aerial photographs from that year.
In 1955 the area was deeded to the State of California with the understanding that the state would reconstruct the historic buildings and interpret the settlement of the northern California coast. An archaeological survey was conducted during the late 1950s by Donald Jewell and John Clemmer.
Fort Humboldt was designated a State Historic Park in 1963. The park seems to have been nominated to the National Register of Historic Places in September 1970. Some restoration ensued, with the hospital the sole remaining building of the original construction. The General Plan, created in 1978, developed by California State Parks, calls for a re-creation of the entire fort complex. Although the Surgeon's Quarters was re-created in 1985, this General Plan has been slow to be implemented. Several archaeological digs were also conducted during this period. In 1986 exhibits were installed in the hospital to tell the story of the fort and the intercultural conflicts.
Fort Humboldt was the setting for Alistair MacLean's 1974 novel, Breakfast Pass and the 1975 film of the same title starring Charles Bronson