“Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us.”
(Frederick Douglass’ “Fourth of July Speech,” July 4, 1852)
It’s sunny and mild at the coast today, July 4th. While fires and heat rage inland, some tourists are taking refuge in northwest California’s small coastal towns. I see them strolling the camera-ready sights when I drive in to Trinidad from Big Lagoon to get our three daily newspapers from Murphy’s and to download my e-mail from outside the globally-minded Beachcomber, surprisingly closed on this nationalist of all holidays.
It’s a lovely morning, I’m in no hurry, so I join the straggling tourists heading to Trinidad’s focal point: a lighthouse on a tiny promenade high on a cliff with panoramic views of a sweet harbor below, the craggy coastline unfolding left and right, and the Pacific stretched out to the horizon, fog willing.
No wonder when Spanish adventurers stopped here on Trinity Sunday in 1775 in search of supplies and a northern port, they stayed nineteen days. They planted a cross on the Indian settlement of Tsurai’s highest hill and claimed “all these lands, seas, and its landmarks” in the name of Charles III and their Catholic god. But the local Yuroks, who’d been here for centuries, were not intimidated: when another ship arrived a few years later, its crew found what remained of the “sign of possession” on the beach.
Today’s day-trippers are pointing and talking animatedly about what they’re seeing. There’s a lot to look at, with the sun in combat with the fog, and winning. Eventually, inevitably, they look around for the first time at the place from which they are looking out and realize that they are standing in the grounds of a cenotaph. A text case explains that the lighthouse – a replica of the one on Trinidad Head – “is a memorial to those lost and buried at sea.” It’s no longer just a lighthouse.
To emphasize its sorrowful context, the memorial is framed by a wall of names and years of births and deaths that remind me of the Vietnam monument in Washington, except here the aesthetics are local and vernacular. Plaques and engravings are added every few years to keep up with the short-lived lives. The sheer number of names – from the late 19th century to now – always makes me pause. There are dozens of entries. But I’m drawn also to their ages. I think of many men in their prime with families who, like my 40 year-old son, died before their parents did.
Visitors come to this spot for the spectacular views, but leave with serious matters on their minds. “So many,” I hear a woman say to her silent husband.
Slowed down after seeing the “Memorial Lighthouse,” newcomers look more closely at their surroundings. Now they might see a nearby plaque erected in 2006 as a “tribute to the Armed Forces of America.” It’s prominently displayed between two huge roadside ads for Katy’s Smokehouse and the Seascape restaurant.
In the same area, there’s also a historical marker of Trinidad, installed in 1981. It instructs us that the birth of this port town in April 1850 coincided with the gold rush. Trinidad, says the plaque, is “the oldest town on the northern California coast during the 1850s.” There’s nothing inscribed here about the people who made this their home from, say, the 12th to 19th centuries. But a sign behind the lighthouse hints of previous inhabitants when it points out the “Primary Trail to Indian Beach.”
Such everyday references to something Indian in the landscape are not unusual in northern California. On a recent journey inland for a vacation, I ran into them everywhere. While Cecilia fly-fished the Pit River – so named after a technique used by local tribes to trap large animals – I became one of the 200,000 annual visitors to scenic Burney Falls, named after one of the area’s pioneers who “was killed by local Indians.”
On a trip from Ashland to Klamath Falls to visit the Favell Museum of Western Art and Indian Artifacts, we drove along “Dead Indian Memorial Road.” A few days later, rafting on the Rogue, I was reminded that the river’s name derived from Karok and other long-time inhabitants who in the 1850s mounted such fierce resistance that they became known by white settlers for their “fierce and roguish behavior.”
Most people when they see “Primary Trail to Indian Beach” behind the lighthouse in Trinidad show no interest, unless they want to walk down to the bay. We’re used to seeing Indians frozen in the past, as Rebecca Solnit observes, like “insects in amber.” The public signage doesn’t make you pause because it doesn’t evoke flesh and blood human beings with dates of birth and deaths, like the fishermen who didn’t return to Trinidad.
But if you’re persistent, you can find some information about Trinidad’s Indian past. About a hundred yards south of the lighthouse, there’s a historical marker of Tsurai, erected by State Parks and Recreation in 1970. It describes the Yurok settlement as a “prehistoric permanent Indian community … first located and described” by Spanish explorers in June 1775. The plaque notes that Yuroks lived in houses made of “hand-split redwood planks” and that the village “was occupied until 1916.” Then, apparently, everybody vanished or moved to Stockton.
It might surprise many people to find out that there are more than 5,300 people currently on the Yurok tribal rolls. Or that just last weekend some five hundred descendants of local tribes encamped a few miles up the road at the Yurok village of Sumeg in Patrick’s Point state park in order to continue the ancient rituals of the Brush Dance.
Most visitors to Trinidad don’t ponder the mystery of erasure and resurrection because they don’t even see the Tsurai plaque. None of the tourists I hang out with in town on July 4th walk south to its location. Instead, after pausing at the lighthouse, they head in the opposite direction, beckoned by Katy’s and the Seascape down the hill.
And so they are not prompted to consider one of northern California’s most important coastal Indian settlements. And even if they did find the Tsurai plaque, they would learn nothing about the wave of terror that exterminated, infected, and drove out most of the area’s permanent residents in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Imagine a trip to Germany during which you visit memorials that commemorate pre-World War II Jewish culture but skip the holocaust.