I have been fortunate enough to work with various family histories as a way of identifying the significance of specific resources. I have made it a point to aim that curiosity inward to my own history. My own family research is completely done at random, sometimes I focus it based questions from my family and other times I focus on it because I am stuck on other research with the hopes it will knock something loose. Chasing research questions can take days of research with a lot of dead ends. One day I recieved a very big piece of information about my great great grandfather Alexander Blodgett, Wintu, who was from the Redding, CA area. His story drew me to comparisons with another California native story's by the name of Ishi. It was his story, more than any other, that has stood out to me. It was my early introduction to Ishi, by Theodora Kroeber, that heavily influenced my perspectives on Native American history, anthropology and my family.
Ishi was the last wild Indian of the American West, supposedly. When I was 12, I read a book about Ishi in one sitting. I don’t even know if it was necessarily a good book. The title is pretty bad: Ishi in Two Worlds: The Last Wild Indian of the American West. I didn’t care. It just seemed amazing to me that he was the last of his people. But what had happened to the Yahi? My 12-year-old brain wasn't able to process the horrors that he endured.
I think my mother was happy that I showed interest in “California Indians” as she called them. “You know J.D., you are a California Indian. You are a Wintu.” Still, I had no idea what that meant especially since I thought was a Yakama. That’s right, all Blodgetts. The family of Blodgetts on the Yakama Reservation originally comes from Alfred Blodgett whose home was located near Redding and Lake Shasta in northern California; just 90 miles from where that “wild” Indian Ishi appeared in Oroville in 1911. To you give you an idea the distance between the Wintu and the Yahi band of the Yana is like the drive from Toppenish to just past Pasco. In my mind, the question persisted what happened to Ishi’s family. The book was not very clear. The movie showed snip-its. All facts were sugar-coated. No one wanted to say what happened there was only one wild Indian left. To be the last one, I wouldn’t wish that flavor of hell on my worst enemy.
Like Ishi’s story, my ancestry was equally a mystery to me. I didn’t know who my Wintu ancestors were past my Grandmother Marie Blodgett’s father Alfred. All I ever was told about Alfred is that he met my great grandmother Sophia Hoptowit whilst showcasing his baseball skills at Chemawa Boarding School. He had many children and then died within a month of losing a child. My grandmother was left to care for her younger siblings in their home in Medicine Valley. Beyond Alfred was just darkness, until I learned about Alfred’s father, Alexander from a source on Ancestry.com.
I will say that I was not prepared to read the story of Alexander Blodgett. Just looking at the picture. I first thought, “Great! A Blodgett in jail. So proud. So not surprised.” At first, he appeared in his picture as this "madman" with what was obviously a prison number on his tweed suit. His thin mustache seemed so familiar, something that I had seen on uncles and cousins around the Yakama Reservation. Then there was the look in his eyes that promised he earned his prison time. But those eyes do burn a certain glow of sadness that I’ve never seen before. That sadness was not borne from prison life.
What I learned about Alexander, along with his prison photo, was born in 1856 during the discovery of gold in Northern California. He was born where lovely Lake Shasta now rests. Alexander’s people were later displaced in the 1930s by the inundation of the Pit River and McCloud Rivers. He married a Wintu from an adjacent river named Ida Mae West and they had five children: Hazel, Clarinda, Margaret, William, and Alfred.
In 1901, the local authorities at the Bureau of Indian Affairs for the Northern District of California in Redding reported to the Blodgett home where he and his family peacefully enjoyed their lives in what remained of the wild part of California. The Bureau of Indian Affairs authorities demanded that the children leave with them immediately to be educated at an existing Indian Educational Institution that is Chemawa so that they might learn the art of becoming fine, upstanding, civilized human beings. Violence ensued; a BIA agent nearly lost his life having been beaten to within an inch of his life by the fists of Alexander. I can only imagine that Alexander went into blackout mode. One cannot help but picture oneself in that situation. What would you do? Unfortunately, the price of this action was at too great a cost. It was a pyrrhic victory. That moment set in course consequences that would last for generations. He lost much more than his freedom that day. In the three years that Alexander spent in San Quentin for manslaughter, he managed to lose his children to the BIA, and he was soon estranged and divorced from his wife. Ida Mae would provide the State of California only a single word to justify the severing of their marriage that was finalized in 1907: abandonment.
Up until that critical moment, Alexander Blodgett was at peace or at least as at peace as a California Indian could be at that time. He had a wife, children, and a home. He had much more than Ishi, and from that perspective, he was a rich man. Having lived just a short distance away at the same time, he had survived what Ishi’s band of Yahi did not: disease and brutal murder. However, the remainder of Alexander's existence was far more lackluster than that of Ishi. Alexander was not taken in by a well-known anthropologist. He was not the subject of unprecedented anthropological research as the last wild Indian of the American West. He was not offered a job to assist, then renowned anthropologist, Dr. Theodore Kroeber in his research interests. No, Alexander lived the rest of his days as a manual laborer, a drifter, a felon and worst yet he had committed the ultimate sin of being a true wild Indian. He outlived Ishi by 11 years and in 1927, at the age of 68, died of pneumonia near Salem, Oregon; just one year after my grandmother, his son Alfred Blodgett’s sixth oldest child, Marie Blodgett was born in Medicine Valley.
Ishi lived five short years in “civilization” before dying of tuberculosis in 1916. Alexander lived 68 years in that same civilized world without mention. Both were from Tribes in northern California and were from neighboring tribes. Both did what came instinctively in order to protect their loved ones yet both lost their families and died with broken hearts. It seems that neither benefitted from what the civilized world had to offer. Yet the world preferred the thought that Ishi was the last wild Indian left.
I keep Alexander’s picture on the wall in our house because it reminds me of my family and the journey of learning about our ancestry amidst the atrocities endured by all California Indians. I stare at the number on his chest and it represents so much of what I still don’t know about my family, but at the same time, his familiar-looking face speaks to what I will ever need to know about Alexander Blodgett. Quite simply, his values were to endure, make the best of what little he had and protect his children at all costs. With that little bit of information that I have learned of Alexander Blodgett’s life, I can only hope that if necessary I could be as wild as him but sincerely hope that wildness will never be forced upon my family again and tonight without fear our children can sleep peacefully in their beds.
One of the first shirts I designed when I started Native Anthro, was of Alexander Blodgett and history story. I am compelled to share his story because we should never let this type of thing happen to our children again. We should never let other people's children be torn apart from their family based on their religion or ethnicity. His story continues to hold relevance today.