Ishi,,.. the Last Yahi. The last stone-age Indian of North America

 In the spring of 1993, I purchased a small paperback book  at a library book sale for $.25.  It was called, "Ishi. Last of His Tribe, by Theodora Kroeber", and after I had read it, I  wanted to know more about this  fascinating fellow and fascinating subject.  The book was a novelized version of a true story of the discovery of a stone age Indian in California in 1911.

Ishi was a member of a tribe called the Yahi, which everyone thought to have been long extinct.  He had been living with a small band of survivors, hidden for 40 years, in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, and was truly stone age in his abilities.  He could flintknap an arrowhead beautifully, hunt with a bow and arrow, spear salmon with a homemade spear, and  he lived without any of the amenities of the "modern" world.  But most importantly, his language and culture were unadulterated by modern society, so we can see a glimpse of a civilization that existed for thousands of years.

Ishi was probably about 48 when he was "captured".  The Yahi tribe had lived in this area of California for about 3,000  years, in harmony with nature.  But the tale of their extinction  begins after the discovery of gold in California, and it is a tale of white men massacring women, children, and babies, of disease, and slavery, and the annihilation of an entire culture.  Except for Ishi.

Here, in this small piece of land, in the desolate and isolated foothills of the Cascade Mountains in Northern California, a nation endured for about three  thousand of year, and a rich and lasting culture thrived. But in the space of 50 years, the white man was able to fully wipe it off the face of the earth, except for one man who had stayed hidden since he was a child with a small group from his tribe.

Ishi, and the remaining Yahi, were  first "discovered"  in 1908. A group of surveyors, working in the Deer Creek Canyon area, came across his home in the hillside where he was hiding with three other people: his mother, probably his sister or cousin, and another older adult male.  Ishi's mother was too sick to run, so she hid in the cave.  His sister/cousin and the older male ran away, and were never seen by Ishi again.  He guessed that they had fallen in the swollen river and drowned.  Ishi was able to hide. The surveyors then did a surprising thing.  They gave Ishi's mother some water, and took every single item of value in the cave as souvenirs.  This included Ishi's bow and arrows, food, tools, baskets, fur robes, and everything they needed to see themselves  through the coming winter.  Then they left.  Ishi's mother died a short time later, leaving him alone.  As alone as anyone has ever been or could ever be.

For the next years, until the fall of 1911, Ishi lived by himself in his homeland, with no other soul knowing of his existence.  Imagine the isolation!  In September of 1911, Ishi  decided to end his period of isolation and extreme loneliness and risk imminent death.  He decided to leave the only  home he had ever known, and wandered toward Oroville, California.  Here he was discovered and put into the local jail, and became known as "The Wild Man of Oroville".

 By sheer luck or fate, the field of anthropology had become a new profession, and two anthropologists from the University of California in Berkeley saw the news articles.  One of them, thinking this could perhaps be a remnant from a tribe thought to be extinct, went and visited Ishi in the jail, and eventually was able to identify him as a Yahi, a tribe thought to have been annihilated 40 years earlier.  Ishi was about to start his second life.

The two anthropologists were named Alfred Kroeber ( It would be Kroeber's wife who would eventually write the story of Ishi, based on her husband's knowledge and notes.) and Thomas Waterman, realized the importance of this "wild Indian", and brought him to San Francisco to live at the University of Southern California. Here, they studied Ishi, his culture, his way of life, his language, and documented it for posterity.

Waterman and Kroeber, took Ishi to live at the University Museum, amidst some relics of his own people.  He recognized a basket at the museum as one his relatives, a cousin, had made.  Ishi adapted amazingly well to modern life, and living with his former enemies.  He dressed in a suit and tie, and had his own living quarters.  He learned some English, and was able to communicate through words and signs.

Ishi taught the anthropologists about his people, the Yahi, their language and their customs, and he was recorded on the Edison phonograph and movie film.  From the stone age to the modern age he came, and with such grace and charm that he was the talk of San Francisco.  Thousands flocked to the museum on weekends to see the "stone age" Indian and shake his hand.  He could never get used to big crowds, but small wonder.   Imagine the adaptations he had to make in his way of thinking.

Ishi, the anthropologists, and a doctor named Saxon Pope who had become a close friend of Ishi's because of his interest in archery,  went back with Ishi for a number of weeks to stay in his homeland with him, and learn how and where he lived.  What a bittersweet journey that must have been for Ishi.  He could finally roam his homeland with no fear of being killed, but all of his people and all that he had known was gone...gone forever.

From living hidden in the caves in a stone age existence and total isolation to living with his enemies who had tried to kill him his whole life, who spoke a totally different language and had totally different customs, and who had miraculous inventions, such as the automobile, the airplane, the phonograph, and electricity.  But somehow his culture and his background had prepared him for this.  Can we say as much about our culture?  Ishi showed no bitterness toward the white people, or to the farmers and ranchers who over the years had tried to kill him and his people.  He was gracious and shy, but became depressed and sullen when pressed too much to talk about his life in the wilderness.

The last survivor of a lost race.  Sounds like the plot of an unbelievable story, but this one is true. He was "the last of his tribe", and it is everyone's loss.  Of course, Ishi's story only dramatizes events that have occurred repeatedly throughout the nation since the landing of the Pilgrims.

If  killing Indians outright did a large share of damage to the civilizations, disease did  even worse.  And this is what happened to Ishi with the onset of tuberculosis.  Having no resistance to the disease, he was unable to recover, and died on March 25, 1916.  He was cremated along with his bow and arrows, and other personal belongings.  His ashes are in a cemetery in San Francisco.

A gentle, unassuming man, shy of large crowds, polite to extremes, modest, with a gracious smile, Ishi has entered the field of immortality.  A symbol of so many that had gone before him.

This is a fascinating and compelling story, and I never tire of telling people about it.  I went to a party a while ago, and a friend was there.  We saw a mutual acquaintance  our ours, and my friend said, "You should ask Roger about his "Ishi" adventure".  Our acquaintance said, "Why would I want to hear about an ishy adventure?"  Well, maybe you had to be there.

As you can probably tell, Ishi has kind of become my  hobby. 


Kroeber, Theodora
     (1976) Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America.
     University of California Press, Berkley.
     - A very readable account of Ishi's life and times. A well referenced and illustrated book.
     Many of the original documents cited in this biography are reproduced in Ishi the Last Yahi

Heizer, Robert F. and Theodora Kroeber
     (1979) Ishi the Last Yahi: A Documentary History. University of California Press, Berkeley.
     - A fascinating collection of newspaper, magazine, and journal articles written written about
     Ishi during his life.

Kroeber, Theodora
    ( 1964) Ishi: Last of his Tribe. Parnassus Press, California.
     - The novelized story of Ishi's life by the wife of the anthropologist who befriended him.

Drop me a  line if you want to know more; I'll tell you what I can.


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