City of Arcata intern research on George Zehndner, commissioner of the McKinley statue

George Zehndner and Local Genocide in Humboldt County  

By Steven Munoz and Paul Hilton
Humboldt State University research interns with The City of Arcata

George Zehndner, an early settler of Arcata, commissioned the statue of the late President McKinley for the City of Arcata.  What do we know about Zehndner?

 George Zehndner was born in Bavaria on June 22, 1824, and came to America in 1849. Arriving with little money, he took up farm work for two years in Indiana, where he learned English. Walking from Indiana to Cincinnati, Zehndner boarded a steamboat heading for New Orleans.  Mr. Zehndner then gained passage through the Panama isthmus, onto a whaling ship, eventually landing in California.  The spring of 1853 saw Zehndner in Weaverville, Trinity County, where he invested his earnings in mules.  The following year he traded 20 mules for 20 cattle and guided the herd north into Humboldt County, where he established himself in the cattle industry at Angel’s Ranch, 12 miles from Arcata.

California became a state in 1850, and promptly passed the 1850 Act for the Government and the Protection of Indians that facilitated removing California Indians from their traditional lands, separating at least a generation of children from their families, languages, and cultures. It encouraged indenturing Indian people to Whites. In 1860, an amendment to the act reaffirmed control over Indians to the point that any person who obtained one could authorize them “to have the care, custody and control of such Indian or Indians.”[1]  During this period, indigenous women and children were kidnapped and shipped to towns and cities such as Sacramento, Weaverville, Eureka or San Francisco for sale as slaves.

The 1860 Federal Census of Humboldt County, Union Township (Arcata), pg. 71 shows George Zehenduer, age 36; born in Bavaria – had an indentured Indian girl, Lucy, age 7, in his home, along with Jacob Zehenduer, age 27, farm laborer and Hannah Bresner, age 43, a housekeeper. How this indenture came about is unknown. 

 “Humboldt Home Guard," “Hydesville Dragoons,” and the “Eel River Minutemen” were groups that developed in the 1850s-60s and were openly violent toward Indigenous people. These civilian militias led hunts for Indigenous people with the intent of land, resource, and slave acquisition, as well as ethnic cleansing of the new frontier. During this time, the United States was reimbursing the State of California hundreds of thousands of dollars for the “semipro Indian killing between 1850 and 1859, exclusive of the expenses of the United States Army activities in policing California Indian Country and suppressing uprisings.” (Norton, 1979:76).

Polly, a young girl estimated to be 10 years old by her descendant, Julian Lang (Wiyot/Karuk), was one of the hundreds of young women trafficked through the county. Originally born and raised among her Wiyot people on Wigi (Humboldt Bay), Polly was a young child during the Indian Island Massacre on February 26, 1860. She was not on the island at the time of the massacre, but near the current location of the Carson Mansion overlooking the bay in Eureka. Polly and her sister (name unknown) woke to see smoke and a strange lack of activity across the water. They later found their family and community massacred. Following the massacre, Wiyot people who had escaped the island took refuge at Fort Humboldt, where nearly half of them died from disease, starvation, and exposure (Wiyot, 2016). The Wiyot people who survived their time at the fort were later forcibly relocated to the Klamath reservation to the north, Hoopa (Fort Gaston), and Round Valley.

Shortly after the massacre, Polly and her sister were sold by an unknown party to a German gold miner, Karl Conrad. Commenting on the massacre, newspaperman Bret Harte wrote, “a more shocking and revolting spectacle never was exhibited to the eyes of a Christian and civilized people.” 

On March 22, 1862, local Native Americans attacked and burned down Zehndner’s Angel Ranch, shooting Zehndner in the back and hand. His injuries caused him years of illness, but he was able to return in 1866. In 1870, he sold Angel Ranch to claim a home in Arcata, where he resided thereafter. Zehndner owned two other ranches in the region, which he leased in retirement, as well as business property in town. 

Zehndner idolized President McKinley, and in 1905 commissioned sculpturist Haig Patigian to produce a large statue of the late President McKinley. Zehndner’s history reflects him to be an opportunist who took advantage of the Indian indenture system in California.   

Written by unpaid interns with the City of Arcata, Steven Munoz, a Senior and History major and Paul Hilton, a Senior and Political Science major at HSU. A big thanks to Walter Paniak, a local citizen, for his contributions to our understanding of the topic at hand. 

[1]Taken from Gayle Olsen Raymer’s lesson plan of History 383. 




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