Hey Ranger: Jonathan and Amelia Lyons: A Love Story in the Midst of Adversity

By Jim Wheeler May 26, 2014 10:15 am

Jonathan and Amelia photographed in the 1870s. NPS archives
 “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. 
They must be felt with the heart.” – Helen Keller 

The extravagant beauty of the land and sea and the fascinating interwoven ecology of its rare plants and animals take center stage in Redwood National and State Parks (RNSP). I’ve spent most of my adult life working in these parks, yet I continue to be amazed by the power of our natural wonders. However, I’m also a lover of history. Many of the landscapes that we cherish and want to maintain for the future have been shaped by the hands of people. An important mission of national and state parks is to protect and preserve not only natural resources, but also our nation’s rich cultural heritage and the stories of our diverse people. Our history is intimately connected to the land and every bit as important. One story cannot be told without the other.

I would like to share part of the history of RNSP that I’ve been researching during the past year. The intent of my research was to better understand the history of the people who lived in the Bald Hills of RNSP during the last 150 years. What I discovered is a love story.

Jonathan Lyons was born in Franklin County, Ind., in 1831. His family later moved to Iowa. It was from there that, as an asthmatic 18-year-old, he joined a wagon train bound for Oregon and worked his way across the country. After spending some time farming in the Willamette Valley in Oregon, stories of gold strikes on the Salmon River in northern California enticed him to come to Klamath County in 1852.

Unlike others who sought fortunes in gold, Jonathan planted a garden at the Forks of the Salmon River. He drove some cattle up from Sonoma and established a grocery and butchering business. Lyons traveled along the Salmon and Klamath rivers with a mule with a side of beef slung on each side, earning his living mining the miners. He was always a welcome visitor in the mining camps. The fact that he could travel the rivers unmolested during that first decade of the State of California is a testament to the way Jonathan dealt with everyone he met, as individuals and equals, and earned him the respect of the native Indian people he encountered.

This was a period of invasion and loss for Native American Indian people. Many newcomers harbored notions of superiority and manifest destiny that left no margin of respect for the native civilizations they encountered, their property, religion, laws or lives. These beliefs led to passage of laws that denied the humanity of native people, would not let them testify in court against the newcomers and allowed survivors of indiscriminate massacres to be kept or sold as virtual slaves by their captors. Indeed, many local newspapers called for the extermination or removal of American Indian people from California. Jonathan would have witnessed some of the violence that was committed by both sides on the Klamath and Salmon rivers during the 1850s, yet by 1860 he chose to make a home among the Hupa people in Hoopa Valley.  

In 1861 Jonathan met a young Hupa woman he called Amelia, from the village of Meskut in Hoopa Valley. They were legally married at Martin’s Ferry on the Klamath River. We don’t know Amelia’s Hupa name or when she was born. We also don’t know if he married her according to Hupa tradition, but he likely would have paid her family the respect they were due with an appropriate dowry. It was in Hoopa Valley that their first son, Anderson, was born in 1863. In the Klamath County Census of 1870, of 17 households listed in the Bald Hills–Martins Ferry area, 15 Indian women were listed as “keeping house.” Only three of the Indian-white marriages were recorded by the county clerk. The Lyons’ marriage was one of the three.

By 1864, Jonathan and Amelia had relocated to the lower Klamath near Martin’s Ferry, when Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation was established. Sources suggest this was the result of Jonathan helping Indian people, whom he felt were being treated unjustly, during the so-called “Indian Wars.” An example is the case of a young Hupa woman who stabbed and killed a soldier from Fort Gaston who was trying to rape her. Jonathan helped steal a canoe in which she was able to escape Hoopa Valley. After escaping certain death at Fort Gaston, she lived at the mouth of the Klamath River and her descendants are now members of the Yurok Tribe.

By 1870, after having two more sons, Sherman near Martin’s Ferry and Harvey at the former Albee Ranch on Redwood Creek, Jonathan and Amelia moved again to the Bald Hills location they called the Home Place, where their fourth son, Antonio, was born. It was here that Jonathan began to acquire, through purchase and patent, lands that came to be known as the Lyons Ranch in the Bald Hills. 

Amelia was a basket weaver, which means she likely practiced a form of controlled burning in areas where she lived in order to alter growth patterns of plants used in the weaving of baskets, to keep prairies open and to keep prairie margins in a stage of early succession. It was native women like Amelia who managed the Bald Hills before 1850. Jonathan and his sons and grandson also used fire as a management tool to keep the advance of conifers into the oak woodlands and prairies at bay until broadcast burning was outlawed by the state in the 1930s.

The Lyons ranch, along with those of other mixed couples in the Bald Hills and on the coast, served as a bridge between the native and white communities after hostilities had largely ended. The Lyonses employed mostly native men on their ranches, and Amelia and her children maintained contact with her family in Hoopa Valley. It was mixed families like this that became the foundation of some of the smaller communities and towns in northern Humboldt and Del Norte counties.

Although they were probably vilified by some in the early days as a mixed-race couple, by 1900 the Lyons’s were being lauded by the newspapers mentioned before for the success of their sheep ranches: 

1,630 head of sheep head down to the Long Ridge Barn, which still exists, in December of 1925, the hardest winter in Bald Hills since 1890. NPS archives

“Pioneer Jonathan Lyons and his estimable wife are surely enjoying the profit of their own labors, for beneath their own fig and vine they are now watching the third generation coming to replace them in part of the toils and tribulations of life. Jonathan Lyons and wife are still in harness. Miss Josie, a splendid girl who acts as postmistress, takes the heaviest load from her mother’s shoulders, while Mr. Lyons has a man or two outside to do the labor whom he guides. Four sons, men without a blemish to their name reside on fine farms, with plenty of fat, clean sheep to keep the larder well stocked. … Such is the home of the pioneer.” — Humboldt Times, August 3, 1903

Jonathan Lyons, pioneer, farmer, butcher, sheep rancher, humanitarian, and peacemaker, died in 1913; Amelia, devoted wife and mother, accomplished basket-weaver and diplomat in her own right died at her daughter’s home in Fortuna in 1921. They are buried beside each other in the Blue Lake Cemetery.

The Lyons family’s consistent and gentle management of the Bald Hills, including the use of fire on the landscape into the 1930s, helped to maintain the prairies and plant communities in a similar state to that which existed prior to 1850. Since 1992, when RNSP began using prescribed fire on a large scale to manage the prairies and oak woodlands, one can now visit the Bald Hills and see a landscape very similar to the one chosen by Jonathan and Amelia for their Home Place.

Jim Wheeler is a park ranger in Redwood National and State Parks’ Interpretation and Education Division.