EXPLORATION AND SETTLEMENT
Yurok did not experience non-Indian exploration until much later than other tribal groups in California and the United States.
One of the first documented visits in the local area was by the Spanish in the 1500s. When Spanish explorers Don Bruno de Heceta and Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Cuadra arrived in the early 1700s, they intruded upon the people of Chue-rey village. This visit resulted in Bodega laying claim by mounting a cross at Trinidad Head.
In the early 1800s, the first American ship visited the area of Trinidad and Big Lagoon. Initially, the Americans traded furs with the coastal people. However, for unknown reasons tensions grew and the American expedition was cut short. The expeditions increased over the next few years and resulted in a dramatic decrease of furs in the area.
By 1828, the area was gaining attention because of the reports back from the American expeditions, despite the news that the local terrain was rough. The most well-known trapping expedition of this era was led by Jedediah Smith. Smith guided a team of trappers through the local area, coming down through the Yurok village of Kep’-el, crossing over Bald Hills and eventually making their way to the villages of O men and O men hee-puer on the coast.
Smith’s expedition, though brief, was influential to all other trappers and explorers. The reports from Smith’s expedition resulted in more trappers exploring the area and eventually leading to an increase in non-Indian settlement.
GOLD RUSH IN YUROK COUNTRY
By 1849 settlers were quickly moving into Northern California because of the discovery of gold at Gold Bluffs and Orleans. Yurok and settlers traded goods and Yurok assisted with transporting items via dugout canoe. However, this relationship quickly changed as more settlers moved into the area and demonstrated hostility toward Indian people. With the surge of settlers moving in the government was pressured to change laws to better protect the Yurok from loss of land and assault.
The rough terrain of the local area did not deter settlers in their pursuit of gold. They moved through the area and encountered camps of Indian people. Hostility from both sides caused much bloodshed and loss of life.
The gold mining expeditions resulted in the destruction of villages, loss of life and a culture severely fragmented. By the end of the gold rush era at least 75% of the Yurok people died due to massacres and disease, while other tribes in California saw a 95% loss of life.
While miners established camps along the Klamath and Trinity Rivers, the federal government worked toward finding a solution to the conflicts, which dramatically increased as each new settlement was established.
The government sent Indian agent Redick McKee to initiate treaty negotiations. Initially, local tribes were resistant to come together, some outright opposed meeting with the agent. The treaties negotiated by McKee were sent to Congress, which was inundated with complaints from settlers claiming the Indians were receiving an excess of valuable land and resources.
The Congress rejected the treaties and failed to notify the tribes of this decision.
REVOLTS AGAINST SETTLERS
In 1855, a group of “vigilante” Indians (who were known as Red Cap Indians) initiated a revolt against settlers.
The Red Cap Indians were believed to be a mix of tribal groups who were fighting settlers.
The Red Cap War nearly brought a halt to the non-Indians settlement effort.
The government was able to suppress the Red Cap Indians and regained control over the upper Yurok Reservation.
FORMATION OF RESERVATIONS
The Federal Government established the Yurok Reservation in 1855 and immediately Yurok people were confined to the area. The Reservation was considerably smaller than the Yurok original ancestral territory. This presented a hardship for Yurok families who traditionally lived in villages along the Klamath River and northern Pacific coastline.
When Fort Terwer was established many Yurok families were relocated and forced to learn farming and the English language. In January 1862, the Fort was washed away by flood waters, along with the Indian agency at Wau-kell flat. Several Yurok people were relocated to the newly established Reservation in Smith River that same year.
However, the Smith River Reservation was closed in July 1867. Once the Hoopa Valley Reservation was established many Yurok people were sent to live there, as were the Mad River, Eel River and Tolowa Indians.
In the years following the opening of the Hoopa Valley Reservation, several squatters on the Yurok Reservation continued to farm and fish in the Klamath River. The government’s response was to evict squatters and use military force. Many squatters did not vacate and waited for military intervention, which was slow to come. In the interim, the squatters pursued other avenues to acquire land.