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Clayton Duncan, a Pomo elder from the Robinson Rancheria in Upper Lake, at the site of the Bloody Island Massacre near Upper Lake, March 9, 2022, where it's believed that from 60 to 400 Native Americans were killed in 1850. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

Lake County group working to change the name of Kelseyville to redress violence against tribes

Standing outside Oak, the boutique she owns on Main Street in Kelseyville, Caitlin Andrus pointed up at a weathered mural just east of the store.

It depicts a group of Native Americans, looking across the words “Pioneer Plaza,” cordially hailing white settlers.

“It’s like, ‘Hey, friend!,’” said Andrus. “But that’s not really how it went.”

Buried in the history of this “friendly country town,” as Kelseyville has long referred to itself, is an ugly, bloody, inconvenient truth.

This picturesque Lake County community of some 3,500, renowned for its annual Pear Festival, is named for Andrew Kelsey, a pioneer who committed numerous atrocities against indigenous Pomo and Wappo people in the mid-1800s.

Kelseyville's main street, March 9, 2022, with a backdrop of Mount Konocti. There is a push by some to rename the towns's name to Konocti, due to the violence against Native Americans from town founders Andrew Kelsey and his brothers, Ben and Sam.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Kelseyville's main street, March 9, 2022, with a backdrop of Mount Konocti. There is a push by some to rename the towns's name to Konocti, due to the violence against Native Americans from town founders Andrew Kelsey and his brothers, Ben and Sam. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

Even by the harsh standards of the pioneers, notes Lake County-based historian Kevin Engle, Andrew Kelsey and his brothers, Ben and Sam, stood out for their sadism and rapacity.

A reckoning may be at hand.

Attempts have been made through the years to change Kelseyville’s name. None has succeeded. But the death of George Floyd, killed in police custody two years ago, had the effect of holding a mirror to America’s face, forcing uncomfortable conversations about systemic injustice, and driving change across the nation.

In the year after Floyd’s death, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, more than 160 Confederate symbols were removed from public spaces or renamed -- more than in the previous four years combined. The U.S. Army is in the process of renaming 9 of its bases.

Hoping to ride that wave is Lake County’s Citizens For Healing, a loose band of 20 or so volunteer activists. Formed about a year and a half ago, the group has devoted countless hours to drafting an initiative to appear on the ballot in an upcoming election, probably in 2023. That ballot measure will ask voters in Lake County if they’re in favor of changing the name of Kelseyville.

To that end, the group is hosting a “Change the Name” bash on Sunday, April 24, at the Big Valley Hall in Lakeport. The party will feature potluck fare, presenters at “info tables,” and the music of Lake County’s own Konocti Blues Band.

Mount Konocti is the dormant volcano lording 4,300 feet over the south shore of Clear Lake. It is crowned with two peaks, and its name comes from the Southeastern Pomo, one of 7 distinct tribes around the lake. Konocti translates to “old mountain women,” according to Robert Geary, a tribal historic preservation officer for the Habematolel Pomo of Upper Lake.

Sisters Sabrina, left, and Caitlin Andrus of Kelseyville, own businesses in the small Lake County town, March 9, 2022.  (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Sisters Sabrina, left, and Caitlin Andrus of Kelseyville, own businesses in the small Lake County town, March 9, 2022. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

Konocti is also the name Citizens for Healing is putting forward to replace Kelseyville – despite a slight problem pointed out by Geary. Kelseyville sits on land that belonged to the Big Valley band of Pomo: “Konocti” was not a word in their language. But when it comes to Konocti as the replacement name, say the Citizens for Healing, they’ve got buy-in from all the tribes around the lake.

Before its measure can appear on the ballot, the group will need to collect around 2,100 signatures from county residents. Last October, with a deadline approaching to qualify their initiative for the 2022 elections, the citizens decided to take a strategic pause.

“We didn’t feel ready,” said group member Lorna Sides. Instead, they plan to submit the measure to Lake County’s registrar of voters in early 2023, to get it on the ballot for that year’s elections.

In the meantime, said Citizens for Healing member Dallas Cook, “We need to reach out, grow our numbers, to find people interested in what we’re doing, and grow our coalition within the community.”

That’s where the party comes in. That April 24 shindig is not a fundraiser, Cook said, so much as it is a “friend-raiser – for awareness-building. The message is, C’mon, let’s talk about this issue. Are we in agreement? If you’re not, come tell us why.”

Plenty of people are happy to do just that.

“When does it end?”

Have the Citizens for Healing “even thought about the costs associated with such a huge undertaking?”

That question comes from Cassie Pivniska, owner of Kelseyville-based Pivniska Real Estate Group.

“What about street names with Kelsey in them? When does it end?” Cassie Pivniska

“Who would cover the costs of changing an entire school system’s names, logos, and uniforms for sports teams?” she continued. “Who would cover the costs to rebrand our town and the businesses who have been here for 30-plus years, with Kelseyville in the name?”

“What about street names with Kelsey in them? When does it end?”

Citizens for Healing is quick to note that any proposed redesignation would apply only to the town of Kelseyville and its post office. Businesses with the Kelseyville in their name need not make any change.

Considering the “larger issues in the world right now,” added Pivniska, she finds this push to change the town’s name “ridiculous.”

“I think it’s a pointless effort,” agreed Rob Brown, a former five-term Lake County Supervisor whose district included Kelseyville, where his bail bonds business is located.

These attempts to change the town’s name “come up every once in a while, when people don’t have anything else to do in their lives,” added Brown, who retired from public service in 2021, after 20 years as a Supervisor. Such efforts are “politically correct” exercises that “give people the chance to feel relevant,” he said. The campaigns inevitably “die away” when “something really important comes along.”

There is optimism, on the side of those favoring a name change, that this time will be different.

In the shadow of Lake County's most visible landmark, Mount Konocti, former Lake County Supervisor Rob Brown gets back to work moving boulders on his property, Wednesday, March 23, 2022, near Kelseyville. Brown is against the renaming of Kelseyville.   (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
In the shadow of Lake County's most visible landmark, Mount Konocti, former Lake County Supervisor Rob Brown gets back to work moving boulders on his property, Wednesday, March 23, 2022, near Kelseyville. Brown is against the renaming of Kelseyville. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

Conditions are ripe

One such effort was spearheaded by Nils Palsson, a community organizer and former teacher at Kelseyville High School who in 2016 and ’18 unsuccessfully challenged Democratic Congressman Mike Thompson, who represents California’s 5th District.

Before losing his home in the 2015 Valley fire, Palsson lived in Kelseyville. This was in his mid-20s, he recalled, “when I was kind of finding my way as a conscious human being and peaceful revolutionary.”

He met Clayton Duncan, a Pomo elder from the Robinson Rancheria in Upper Lake, who shared accounts how Andrew Kelsey enslaved and brutalized native peoples, “and a bunch of other horrible things that made me get the sense that Kelsey was not a good dude.”

They started an online group called We Are Konocti, hoping to create momentum for a name change. But Palsson at the time was “not super clued-in to the political processes,” he allows, and the campaign fizzled. “It never had real will behind it,” said Palsson, who believes the conditions for a name change are far more ripe today than they were a decade ago.

We Are Konocti was formed “before George Floyd” was killed, “before Black Lives Matter really got traction.”

Now, Palsson points out, “you’ve got monuments coming down left and right. There’s “a national conversation” about place names and history.

“Obviously we want to remember everything. But the names we select – that’s who we choose to celebrate.”

Clayton Duncan, a Pomo elder from the Robinson Rancheria in Upper Lake, at the site of the Bloody Island Massacre near Upper Lake, March 9, 2022, where it's believed that from 60 to 400 Native Americans were killed in 1850. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Clayton Duncan, a Pomo elder from the Robinson Rancheria in Upper Lake, at the site of the Bloody Island Massacre near Upper Lake, March 9, 2022, where it's believed that from 60 to 400 Native Americans were killed in 1850. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

“It will never be the same”

Today’s Kelseyville residents had no say in naming the town, points out Mark Borghesani, president and general manager of Kelseyville Lumber & Supply Co., which was founded by his grandfather, Lou, in 1956.

“My generation was given the name of the town, and we made it our own,” he said.

“If the name changes, so will our town. In my opinion it will never be the same.” Mark Borghesani

The community, Borghesani believes, is inextricably tied to its name. “Kelseyville is our brand, and many of us have spent a lifetime building that brand” – which has nothing to do, he adds, “with how this town was originally named, or why, or whom after.”

Mark Borghesani, president and general manager of Kelseyville Lumber & Supply Co., Wednesday, March 23, 2022, which was founded by his grandfather, Lou, in 1956. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Mark Borghesani, president and general manager of Kelseyville Lumber & Supply Co., Wednesday, March 23, 2022, which was founded by his grandfather, Lou, in 1956. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

He describes Kelseyville, once dubbed the Pear Capital of the World by USA Today, as “a friendly, country town. That’s what we have built, worked for, marketed and promote every year.

“If the name changes, so will our town. In my opinion it will never be the same.”

Bloody Island Massacre

Just off Main Street, a few hundred yards south of Kelseyville Lumber, a monument has been erected to mark the site of “the first Adobe home [in] Lake County.”

That house, the plaque proclaims, was “Built by Charles Stone and Andy Kelsey on land purchased from Salvador Vallejo.”

In fact that house was constructed by indigenous Pomo and Wappo natives whom Stone and Kelsey enslaved and subjected to starvation, torture, rape and murder. In the winter of 1849, their condition increasingly desperate, the Indians executed the two white men. Stone was dispatched with an arrow to the stomach. Kelsey, too, absorbed an arrow, but was also shot, stabbed and speared. Their bones repose beneath that monument.

To avenge those executions, U.S. Cavalry soldiers and vigilantes -- including Kelsey’s brothers, Ben and Sam -- embarked over the next five months on an indiscriminate spree of mayhem, killing “as many as 1,000 Indians, or more, across four Northern California counties,” wrote Benjamin Madley, UCLA associate professor and Native American historian in his 2016 book, An American Genocide.

“It was no battle. It was murder. Women, children, old people – they got killed for nothing. They did nothing to nobody.” Clayton Duncan

The most infamous of those mass killings occurred on May 15, 1850, at the north end of Clear Lake. Soldiers under the command of U.S. Army Captain Nathaniel Lyon opened fire on natives – mostly women, children and elderly – who’d sought refuge on the mile-long island called Bonopoti. It’s unclear how many natives were slaughtered in what is now known as the Bloody Island Massacre. Estimates range from 60 to 400.

Bloody Island is now a hill, surrounded by land that’s been drained and reclaimed. At the eastern base of that hill, visible from Reclamation Road, is a plaque installed in 1942, commemorating “a battle between U.S. soldiers” and “Indians under Chief Augustine.”

“It was no battle,” corrects Clayton Duncan. “It was murder. Women, children, old people – they got killed for nothing. They did nothing to nobody.”

Lesson in forgiveness

On a blustery afternoon in early March, Duncan stood on a flat patch of ground just south of that plaque. He recounted how a group of Pomo men, who’d been away hunting when the soldiers came, spent five days gathering the dead, many of whom were in the water, shot down or bayoneted as they tried to escape.

The bodies were cremated on the island’s east peak, which was later leveled by the Army Corps of Engineers, a desecration that still angers him, Duncan said.

He is the great-grandson of Lucy Moore, a survivor of the Bloody Island Massacre. Six years old at the time, she hid underwater, breathing for hours through a tule reed. Lucy Moore lived to be 110, and helped babysit Duncan when he was a small boy, he said.

He was instrumental in the creation and installation of a second, more historically accurate plaque that commemorates the massacre at Bloody Island. In 2006, Duncan led the campaign to get rid of Kelseyville High School’s “Indian” nickname.

“We are your brothers and sisters, not your mascots,” he reminded the school board, which was unanimous in its decision to drop the nickname.

The former angry young man has mellowed since his adolescence, part of which was spent in Oakland, where he ended up, he recalled, in more than his share of fistfights.

“My Mom said, ‘How come you’re always fighting these white guys?’

“I said, Mom, look what they’ve done!”

She shared with him that as an adult, his great grandmother – one of the survivors of that 1850 slaughter – “got up every morning, put her palms to the air, and asked the creator for his energy of forgiveness.”

That lesson eventually inspired Duncan to organize an annual Sunrise Ceremony of Forgiveness. Every May for the last 23 years, he and his brother, Douglas Duncan, have marked the anniversary of that massacre with prayer, speeches and traditional dancing.

Native Pomo dancer Douglas Duncan performs a healing dance above a marker at the Bloody Island Massacre site near Upper Lake, March 9, 2022, where it's believed that from 60 to 400 Native Americans were killed in 1850. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)
Native Pomo dancer Douglas Duncan performs a healing dance above a marker at the Bloody Island Massacre site near Upper Lake, March 9, 2022, where it's believed that from 60 to 400 Native Americans were killed in 1850. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)

Kevin Engle, a local historian who works with Citizens For Healing, has attended the ceremony numerous times. Two years ago, he distributed copies of an article he’d written on Andrew Kelsey. After Clayton Duncan thanked him for that research, Engle stood and spoke of the importance of changing the name of Kelseyville.

“Clayton tried to do it, and it was basically a one-man show,” Engle recalled saying. “It’s not right. It’s time the community got together and helped this man.”

That torch has been picked up by Citizens For Healing, who will eventually need to gather 2,000-plus signatures to get their initiative on the ballot.

Several members have floated the possibility of a less onerous alternative.

Should there be a groundswell of sentiment in favor of changing the name, noted Dallas Cook, “the five County Supervisors could say: ‘The time is now – let’s do it.’”

That seems unlikely, considering the charged, divisive nature of the issue. None of the five Supervisors contacted by the Press Democrat agreed to be interviewed. Jessica Pyska, a Democrat who replaced the Republican Rob Brown, and whose district includes Kelseyville, responded to a reporter’s request with a tepid statement acknowledging the sins of the Kelseys, then mentioning Citizens For Healing’s intention to bring forward a ballot initiative.

“If or when that occurs, a decision will be made by the people,” Pyska said in an email. “As a County Supervisor, my responsibility will be to support the community and the process.”

Step back and listen”

Back at Pioneer Plaza in downtown Kelseyville, Caitlin Andrus said she can “see both sides” of the issue. Would she be upset if the town’s name was changed?

“Personally, no,” she replied.

“There comes a time where we, as the people who weren’t here first, need to step back and listen to other peoples’ experience. And hear them.”

Her sister, Sabrina, a self-described “recovering lawyer” who owns several businesses in town, picked up on that.

“There are a lot folks” in Lake County, she said, “myself included, who want to take our cue from those who have been hurt by the decision to exalt this family by naming our town after them.”

That requires humility, she added. “It requires checking our egos, and taking a hard look at what we really think we’re losing.

“I have zero problem with it. I’m looking forward to the day we change the name.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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