Bret Harte’s big newspaper scoop

December 12, 2018 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: fiction, journalism, journalists, writers.

Before he became famous for his wild tales of the then New West, Bret Harte was a journalist and had broken one of the biggest stories of the era in pre-Civil War California.

Born in 1836 in Albany, New York, Harte moved to California with his family when he was a teenager. He worked at a variety of jobs, including being a guard for a Wells-Fargo stagecoach and a school teacher. In 1860, he found himself employed by a weekly newspaper, the Northern Californian, in Uniontown.

He had been left in charge of the paper during the owner’s absence when, on February 26, 1860,  white settlers attacked the nearby Wiyot Native American village of Tuluwat on Indian Island and killed most of the people, including women and children, they found there. No one knows exactly how many people were murdered because the incident was never adequately investigated. Estimate of the dead range from 60 to 250.

The following Sunday with Harte in charge of the paper (the owner was out of town), Harte published an article describing the massacre scene and an editorial condemning it.

We can conceive of no palliation for woman and child slaughter. We can conceive of no wrong that a babe’s blood can atone for. (p. 55)

These were strong words, and they were not well received by a vocal and violent minority in Uniontown. Harte followed up with another article the next which further ruffled the local feathers.

Within a month, Harte had left Uniontown for San Francisco with a good notice from his editor:

In addition to being a printer, Mr. Harte is a good writer. He has often contributed to the columns of this paper, and at different times when we have been absent, has performed the editorial labors. He is a warm-hearted genial companion, and a gentleman in every sense of the word. (p.56)

No one was ever prosecuted for the killings even though those responsible for them was commonly known. In San Francisco, Harte encountered a new set of difficulties and opportunities. Those would vault him to fame as a literary man.

Source: Axel Nissen, Bret Harte: Prince and Pauper.

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