The story began in 1911. It was a hot summer day in northern California, and a group of slaughterhouse workers was doing their jobs. They looked up and noticed a man trying to steal meat from the yard. They apprehended him, and he was extremely thin and sickly looking. It was obvious that he was starving. It wasn’t until he made his true identity known that his story shocked the world.
It turned out that the man was a Native American from the Yahi tribe. The slaughterhouse was near the city of Oroville, in Butte Country, which told the men that he had traveled pretty far. His tribe was an offshoot of the Yana people. Since nobody knew his name, he became known as Ishi. The word means “man” in Yana. He was believed to be about 50-years-old, and until that day, he lived his whole life in the wilderness of northern California, in the region of Lassen Peak.
When Ishi was a child, his people had been in a deadly conflict with white people. Three years before the slaughterhouse workers saw him, he was living with a very small group. All of them were Yahis, and the white men that approached forced them to scatter. During the struggle, Ishi lost contact with two of the people he was with. The third man was elderly, and he died due to his poor health shortly after the encounter. For three years, he was all alone.
To properly understand what happened that day, we need to go back to the Californian Gold Rush of 1849. This event was catastrophic for the Yai. Before the gold rush, the Yahi people were able to live in peace. There were about 400 Yahi people living together at the time. Ishi’s people got by hunting and gathering or food. They were very defensive of their territory, but when the Gold Rush started, they didn’t have enough manpower to protect their home.
It wasn’t just the prospectors who were a danger to the Yahi people. With the influx of people coming in also came serious diseases such as smallpox, measles, and tuberculosis. The prospectors didn’t just make the Yahi people sick; they polluted their only water supply and were killing off the deer. This caused serious problems regarding the tribe’s way of life. The Yahi people were the first Native American tribe to fall victim to the prospectors because their territory was closest to where the gold was. Soon, more Native American tribes were taken out and driven from their homes. When Ishi was a child, he witnessed a brutal attack on his people. It was a famous attack known as the Three Knolls Massare. He was part of the group who was viciously attacked, but he managed to survive.
About 33 of the Yahi people managed to escape the attack. Ishi was one of them, and he was just five-years-old at the time. He managed to get away from the massacre, and some of the people who escaped with him were his family. He left with his mother, his sister, and his uncle. The group was happy that they managed to survive the massacre, but they were now fugitives on their own land. It was difficult for the group to be happy that they lived knowing that the land that belonged to them for generations was taken over by the white man. With just 30 people left, the white man wasn’t done. Four cattlemen set out with dogs to track down the remaining Yahi people. They managed to find half the group and murder them as well. This left the rest of the people to retreat further into the mountains and try to start over again.
Four decades had passed, and the remaining Yahi people managed to boid attack. They were living in the wilderness of the Cascade Mountains, and they were 20 strong. To survive, the group harvested acorns and milled them to make flour. They used deer, rabbits, and wildcats fur and skin to make clothing and bedding. When they became desperate, they searched for food in settler’s shacks in the woods when they weren’t there. It wasn’t easy for the Yahi people, but they did what they could to survive.
There was one day that the group entered a shack. The owner came home to find Yahi there. Before the owner arrived, Yahi and a few others gathered clothing and some food. The owner of the cabin allowed them to leave with the things that they had gathered. Later, the man came home to find two woven baskets. The Yahi people made them and left them as a way to say thank you.
Losing His Mother
In 1908, a group of engineers found the camp. Ishi’s sister and uncle fled in one direction, and he fled in the other. He never saw them again. When he went back to get his mother, she had passed away. To keep up with the mourning tradition, he burned off his hair. He lived for three years in isolation and almost starved. This was when he was discovered at the slaughterhouse in 1911.
When the men found Ishi, they called the authorities. They didn’t know what to do with him, so they sent him to lockup. After a lifetime spent living in the wilderness, this Native American was finally forced to emerge. When word got out about the man and everything he had been through, he was released. It was shocking that this man lived for decades in the wilderness, hiding out to avoid death.