Fort Baker was almost overwhelmed by the success of its first assignment, both overwhelmed and overcrowded. Ordered to gather the Indians for movement to reservations, the garrison was outnumbered with 217 prisoners by August 1862.
The prisoners were the results of a series of successful patrols in Northern California's mountainous forests between the Mad River and "Van Dusens Fork of the Eel River." A temporary post built by the soldiers with whatever was available, Fort Baker was one of three camps founded in March 1862. Definitely it was not designed to house an assembly of prisoners. The problem was recognized before things got out of hand and the prisoners were moved to the coast.
Baker's problems were waiting for it, as the first commander, Captain Thomas E. Ketcham of the 2d California Volunteer Infantry's Company A, found upon arrival. On April 3, 1862, be described one of them to the district commander.
"I deem it my duty to report to you that a party of whites (citizens) have been out hunting Indians in the vicinity of Eel River, and they say that 17 bucks were killed by the party and the women and children were turned loose," Ketcham wrote. Other citizens, he added, made a living "of killing the bucks wherever they can find them and selling the women and children into slavery."
"One person is said to have made $15,000 last season in the business," the captain charged, at an average price of $37.50 apiece.
During Baker's 20-month history the activities were so intense that little more was said of the slave trade. The post was considered the most important pivot of operations against the Indians in its district and captured 750 of the 835 Indians sent to the reservation during its history.
The post's first successful patrol started on April 23, 1862, with Ketcham taking 25 troopers to a ranch which Indians reportedly had fortified "by felling trees around it." The "fort" was reached in three days, but the Indians had left. A day later the hostiles were found encamped in a ravine. In the fight that followed, three men and one woman were killed and 24 women and children captured. Three Indians escaped.
Ketcham apologized for the death of the woman, who had been mistaken for a man. He also appealed for the lives of two captured boys, "respectively 16 and 18 years of age, who were found secreted after the firing ceased, and were without weapons," he explained. ". . I would respectively request that their lives be spared as it would likely have a tendency to induce others to surrender."
The intensity of operations did not reduce Indian depredations immediately. In July 1862, four settlers were attacked while moving a herd to town. The soldiers arrived to find one body had been stripped of its clothes, the throat slashed, and the heart cut out.
Humboldt County natives of Company A, 1st Battalion of Mountaineers, California Volunteers, took over Fort Baker in June 1863, shortly after one of the garrison's most successful patrols killed 46 Indians.
Twenty tribesmen exacted a measure of revenge from the departing soldiers by ambushing their baggage train, killing one of the guards, and taking the trunks of two lieutenants. The losses included "full dress uniform . . . three swords . . . four sashes, a valuable gold watch," but not the quartermaster and commissary papers in one of the trunks. These were found discarded near the ambush spot.
TO GET THERE: From Eureka, California, go south on U.S. 101 about 20 miles to State 36. Turn left (east) about 25 miles to Bridgeville; about 14 miles past Bridgeville is Van Dozen Creek, general site of Fort Baker which has been obliterated by frequent flooding.
Fog shrouds Fort Baker's site "on a small flat from on a and a half to two miles long, and about a half mile wide," according to first description. "The site of the camp is somewhat marshy, but well sheltered being on the west bank of the Van Dozen between high ranges of mountains running nearly north and south. It exhibits signs of having at some period been overflowed." Flooding was common; The destructive 1964 damage still was evident when site was visited year later by the author. The fort was abandoned in October, 1863.
This page was reprinted with permission from Pioneer Forts of the Far West, published in 1965
Updated 14 December 2015