In the first months of 2014, running unopposed for his second term as Eureka's mayor, Frank Jager found himself doing a lot of reading. He was researching his grandfather, a member of the Pottawatomi, a Great Plains tribe that fought alongside the French in the French and Indian War in the 1700s. In the aftermath of the war, the tribe was removed from its historic homelands and relocated to Oklahoma and Kansas.
That got Jager thinking about the removal of the Wiyot from Tuluwat, and Humboldt County's own legacy of genocide and theft. As mayor of Eureka and the grandfather of two Wiyot girls, he thought he could offer a simple gesture to heal old wounds, so he spent a weekend in mid-March drafting a letter to the tribe.
"In February 1860, 154 years ago, citizens from Eureka participated in what has been described as a massacre of unfathomable proportions," the letter began, going on to describe the attack on "that winter night long ago" when women and children were slaughtered. "As Mayor of Eureka, and on behalf of the city council and the people of Eureka, we would like to offer a formal apology to the Wiyot people for the actions of our people in 1860. Nothing we say or do can make up for what occurred on that night of infamy. It will forever be a scar on our history. We can, however, with our present and future actions of support for the Wiyot work to remove the prejudice and bigotry that still exist in our society today."
The letter was released to the public before it underwent legal review by then City Attorney Cyndy Day-Wilson, which posed a problem. While many in the public found the letter a heartfelt and long-overdue apology to take responsibility and make amends for a more than century-and-a-half-old massacre, Day-Wilson saw a financial liability. While legal experts widely agreed that was nonsense — that apologizing for a crime carried out by unknown people 14 years before Eureka was officially incorporated would in no way expose the city to liability — the council followed Day-Wilson's advice and edited the letter, removing mention of who attacked the Wiyot that day or anyone being sorry for it.
Jager's letter had been gutted.
"Of all the things that happened when I was the mayor, that was probably the most disappointing," he said, adding that some weeks later he traveled south to the Wiyot Tribe's Table Bluff Reservation to address the tribal council and apologize to them as a private citizen.
Recollections of that meeting differ. Jager says he recalls apologizing and telling the council about how he hoped to see the city erect a monument on the island commemorating the massacre. But Hernandez, the Wiyot Tribal chair, says he recalls it differently.
"He apologized and said, 'What else can we do?'" Hernandez says. "We said, 'Return the island.'"
What's clear is that Jager's gesture with the letter opened the door for something more, pushing both the tribe and the city to rethink what was possible.
"For him to come to the tribe and to apologize, I thought that was courageous," Seidner says. "I was happy that evening."