Ishi – An Article from 1911

Ishi in 1914

Ishi in 1914

This New Year, we’d like to go back over 100 years to 1911, when Sutro Forest was 15-25 years old, time enough for the trees to have grown large enough to establish it as a forest. This is the story of Ishi, whom we’ve written about earlier. He was the native American man who was brought to the Affiliated Colleges (which later became University of California San Francisco – UCSF) and was said to have found a sanctuary in Sutro Forest. This article, from the San Francisco Call newspaper (Volume 110, Number 98, 6 September 1911),  gives a contemporaneous account of how that came to be.

At the time this was written, he had not yet been dubbed “Ishi” — which was not actually his name, but a title meaning “man.” The photographs accompanying the article were not clear enough to reproduce here; we’ve used other public domain pictures of Ishi.

Though we’re re-publishing this public domain article, we ask our readers to  recognize it as a first impression from his contemporaries soon after he came into the urban world. It reflects both the attitudes and the information of its time, including the reference to “savage” even though the complex culture and sophistication is evident even in the biased descriptions.

Subsequent research indicated he wasn’t actually the last of his tribe but was related to the Yahi/ Yana tribes of Northern California. More research is available in Wikipedia’s article on Ishi.


Tribe’s Remnant Awed by White Mans Life

ishi in 1911Deciphering a human document, with the key to most of the hieroglyphics lost, is the baffling but absorbingly delightful task which Dr. A.L. Kroeber and T. T. Waterman of the University of California have set for themselves. The document is the Deer Creek Indian captured recently near Oroville, who should by every rule and reckoning be the loneliest man on earth.

He is the last of his tribe; when he dies his language becomes dead also; he has feared people, both whites and Indians to such an extent that he has wandered, alone, like a hunted animal, since the death of his tribal brothers and sisters. The man is as aboriginal in his mode of life as though he inhabited the heart of an African jungle, all of his methods are those of primitive peoples. Hunting has been his only means of living and that has been done with a bow and arrow of his own manufacture and with snares. Probably no more interesting individual could be found today than this nameless Indian.


ishi as he was first foundHe was captured at the slaughter house about three miles out of Oroville, where he was trying to steal some meat. The dogs barked so ferociously one night that the men employed there went out to discover the cause of the trouble. They found the Indian, wearing a single shirt like garment made of a piece of canvas, crouched in a corner, frightened half to death.

His discoverers were as badly frightened as he was and telephoned to the sheriff in Oroville to come and get what they had found. The lndian was taken to town and lodged in the jail and a search for an interpreter began. Hundreds of Indians from all the: surrounding country came and every Indian tongue was tried, but to no avail.

Finally Waterman, instructor in the anthropological department at the University of California, went to see him. He had a list of words of the North Yana speech and found that the unknown one recognized some of them with greatest delight. Sam Batwee, one of the oldest of the remaining score of Indians of the North Yana tribe was sent for from Redding. Batwee frightened the Indian more at first than did the white men, but now they have become very friendly.


The unknown is a South Yana, it is said, and Doctor Kroeber said the “two languages were related probably as closely as Spanish and Portuguese, so that communication, while possible, is by no means easy. It has been proved that the Indian is one of four who lived for some years in a patch, of thickest brush in the heart of Tehama county. Practically on the great Stanford ranch, within two miles of a ranch house, these Indians lived without being discovered. The wooded bit was between a high cliff and a stream, Deer Creek, and was about three miles long by one mile Wide. So dense was this jungle that not even cattle penetrated it, but in it was the Indians’ camp.

Two years ago a party, of surveyors ran a line which passed through the camp, and after the manner of surveyors they proceeded to chop their way through the brush primeval. This frightened the Indians away; they fled to the mountains and this man, the sole survivor, has probably lived by hunting, creeping up to ranch houses and stealing bits of food, finding deserted camps and foraging there and eating berries and roots.

When he was captured he had a few manzanita berries and on those he had lived for some time, he said. It is difficult to realize that he is absolutely aboriginal, yet seeing must be believing. He is without trace or taint of civilization, but he is, learning fast and seems to enjoy the process.


If he may be considered as a sample, man has not been invariably improved by the march of time. The Indian is wonderfully, quick and intelligent, he has a delightful sense of humor, he is docile, cheerful, and amiable, friendly, courageous, self controlled and reserved, and a great many other: things that make him very likable sort of a person. Waterman says he has learned to sincerely admire and like the old fellow during their intercourse. Although he is probably about 60 or 65 years old, he doesn’t look it by 15 or 20 years.

Ishi in 1914

Ishi in 1914

In appearance he is far superior to the average California Indian. He is nearly six feet tall, well muscled and not thin. His face is rather the pointed type, with a long chin and upper lip and a straight nose. His eyes are large, very black, of course, and exceedingly bright and wide-awake. His eyelashes are the variety that bring to mind the idea that he bought them by the yard and was rather extravagant about it. His thick hair is jet black and short, he having burned it off after the death of his family. His hands are long and narrow, with very long fingers. The palms show that he has never done manual labor of any kind, as they are as soft as a woman’s.

His ears and the inner cartilage of his nose are pierced and this, Sam Batwee explains, is “what he b’lieve.” It is “medicine” or religious faith that by this means he is saved from going to “bad place” and will certainly go to “good” place” after death. Little knotted strings, apparently sinews of animals, are in the holes which are of considerable size. Coming down on the train from Oroville was a great ordeal for the Indian, but he showed his fear only in the tenseness of attitude maintained and by his closely clenched hands.


Crossing the bay was a wonderful experience and yesterday morning as he stood in front of the Affiliated colleges he asked Batwee as to the direction of where he crossed the big water. Batwee said: “First, yesterday, he frightened very much, now today he think all very funny. He like it. tickle him. He like this place here. Much to see, big water off there” and he waved his hand toward the ocean, “plenty houses, many things to see.”

The first time that the unknown refused to obey orders was yesterday. He was to be photographed in a garment of skins, and when the dressing for the aboriginal part began he refused to remove his overalls. “He say he not see any other people go without them,” said Batwee, “and he say he never take them off no more.” Nor would he, so the overalls had to be rolled to the knees: and the skins draped over them as best they might be.

He was taken to the west end of the museum building and on edge of the Sutro forest he was posed. The battery of half a dozen cameras focused upon him was a new /experience and evidently a somewhat terrifying one. He stood with his head back and a half smile on his face, but his compressed lips and dilated nostrils showed that he was far from happy. “Tell him, Batwee, white man just play,” said Waterman, and the explanation seemed to reassure him.

After the camera men left he squatted in the sand and seemed happier than when in a chair under a roof. He was given a couple of sticks used by some tribe for fire making, taken from the museum, and he was delighted, showing at once that he knew what they were for. After a few seconds of twirling the sticks and making them smoke, he gave it up and told Batwee that it was the wrong kind of wood.

ishi-with-bowThen he did some most delightful pantomime-bits. Folding a leaf between his lips he sucked on it so strongly that a wailing sounds closely resembling the bleating of a fawn resulted. This was an illustration, of his mode of deer hunting. When he hid himself and bleated the deer were sure to come. He was like a child “showing off” yesterday. Smiling delightedly, he showed how, after he had called the deer, be drew back his bow to the farthest limit and let the arrow fly. Then he galloped away with his hands, indicating that the deer had escaped, making tracks in the sand with his two fingers.

Then he bleated again and showed another deer approaching from the other side. Again he drew his bow and that time the deer was his. Rabbits he hunted with a queer sound, resembling more the popping of gigantic corks than anything else. Queer tracks were made in the sand, and strange gestures — all of which indicated rabbits. Bear he described by growls, more tracks in the sand, and finally by raising his arms high and lowering his head, bringing to mind by his mimicry the terrible “Truce of the Bear.” He did not shoot the bear, but ran away and climbed a tree. Salmon fishing he illustrates; too, with prayers and the tossing of roots into the stream.


He talked to Batwee freely, but would tell little that was personal. His name, if he knows it, he keeps to himself. It is considered bad form among aboriginal tribes, I am told, to ask anyone’s name, and it is, seldom divulged until a firm basis of friendship is established. The unknown, however, declares he has no name. In reply to Batwee’s questions, he shows by a wandering forefinger that he has been all alone. There was no one, he says, to tell him his name and he has none.

He is so desirous of “doing as the Romans do” since he arrived in civilization that it was thought he might be induced to tell his name when he knew that all white men had them. Batwee told him it was customary in the best circles, or words to that effect, and in response he declared his entire willingness to have a name. He had none, he reiterated, but if any one had one to give him he would gladly receive it.

Batwee calls him John, but Doctor Kroeber declared that lacking in individuality. “We must have a name for him, though,” said Waterman. “We can’t go on calling him ‘Hay, there.'” For the present his christening will be deferred, in the hope that some name may develop later.


600px-Ishi_portraitAll questions as to his wife he evades. He has a word, “maeela,” which was at first mistaken for “mahala,” which the Indians use for “‘wife,” but that is not the meaning. Waterman says. When he is asked anything about his wife, he begins to tell Indian myths (or, legends: how the coyotes stole the fire; bits of stories of women’s work; imitations of a woman cooking mush, with bubbling sounds of boiling. This is perhaps because aboriginal tribes will never speak of the dead. Waterman said yesterday: “lt’s as though you asked a man when he got his divorce and he began to tell you the story of  ‘Cinderella.’ ”

He will eat anything that is given him without much apparent preference. Sweets, however, he seems fond of, and doughnuts delight him. He knew nothing, of course, of eating with knives or forks, but he was taught in the Oroville jail to eat with a spoon. This habit he has adopted, and when given a peach proceeded to eat it with his spoon.

He has likewise learned to smoke cigarettes, and already his fingers are badly stained. When he was given chewing, tobacco he ate it. Batwee remonstrated with him and asked if it did not make him sick. This the unknown denied, and said that it made him strong, did him good. When he was wandering he used some sort of Indian wild tobacco, but his first taste of plug cut or its equivalent he received from the jailer at Oroville. He told Batwee that this man, ‘big man, all the same as chief,’ had given him tobacco and also the blue shirt and overalls which he was wearing.

Charles L. Davis of Washington, D. C. who is an Indian inspector, happened to be in San Francisco, and went out to see the Indian yesterday. ln parting, he presented the unknown with his knife, saying that he wanted him to remember him in case they ever met again. The Indian accepted it and seemed to know its use, opening the and finally putting it in his pocket. His newly acquired pockets, by the way, are as keen a delight to him as are those of a small boy, and he has a great collection of odds and ends in them already.


I thought would give him a present, too, but found I had nothing either amusing or instructive with me save a white bone police whistle. This I blew for him which seemed to please him greatly; then I gave it to him. He tried to blow it, but was afraid to put it between his lips at first. When he understood the method of manipulating it and found he must blow it hard, he blew a mighty blast. Nothing that he has had since he left the wilds has pleased him more, Waterman said. He would blow with all his might, and then laugh heartily. Finally he fairly got the giggles, laughing out loud.

Doctor Kroeber was away when he first whistled, and when the former returned the Indian became suddenly shy and wouldn’t blow. At the noon hour a siren whistle, some place off across the city, sounded. He looked at me and smiled, and I nodded at the whistle in his hand. He laughed again and with a sly look at Doctor Kroeber, blew with all his might and main.

ishi smiling - 1914All of this sounds as though the absolutely primitive state of the man’s mind and life might be exaggerated. No one who sees him can doubt the statement of the anthropologists that he is the find of a lifetime on account of his lack of up-to-dateness. What he can tell will be of the greatest value to them. He will be kept at the museum of the Affiliated Colleges as long as the faintest scrap of information as to cave man manners and customs can be gleaned from him. With the aid of Sam Batwee, Waterman is compiling a sort of dictionary of his words and he will be induced to talk into a phonograph as well.

He has one Spanish word, “chiquita,” but Dr. Kroeber thinks it probable that he got that from his parents rather than by any intercourse with Spanish people. It was a sort of an heirloom in the tribe, he believes. The Indian used a word yesterday which Batwee says is a Chico Indian word. What will become of him eventually is still a question. If he wants to, he will be permitted to return to the mountains, of course, but it seems probable that a course of travel by trains, electric cars and ferry boats, making phonograph records, distinguished attentions from scientists and the newspapers—not to mention all the well cooked food he wants — will take the keen edge off of his enjoyment of thoroughly primitive conditions.

[In the end, the question of where he would go next did not have to be resolved. Ishi died of tuberculosis five years after this article appeared, still resident at the Affiliated Colleges.]

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