Hoping to bring greater recognition to the achievements of a local Indian chief who was born almost 200 years ago, plans are being made to honor his memory at next year’s annual Nature Fest in Georgetown.
Named Coppa Hembo, the Indian chief never quite fit the stereotype of more well-known Indian chiefs whose reputations were born of taking on the U.S. Cavalry in major battles. Instead he was an unusually intelligent and charismatic figure with a different vision for his people.
According to local resident Guy Nixon, who has written a biography of Coppa Hembo, the future chief was born sometime between 1820 and 1824 near the headwaters of Traverse Creek. With a parent from two different tribes, he was part Washoe and part Maidu.
“He had hybrid vigor from being a mixture of two tribes,” said Nixon. “He was aware what was happening with the tribes and was able to make friends with miners, trappers, and members of other tribes.”
A natural leader, he was later made Huuk or chief of the Hill Nisenan band of the Southern Maidu, with authority over the Maidu and Washoe people living on the Divide between the forks of the American River.
He got his name when, as a teenager, he was left for dead after being mauled by a grizzly bear in Rock Creek Canyon. His hunting companions ran off after the bear fell on him. However, the next day he walked into camp carrying the hide of the grizzly. It seems the poisoned arrows shot into the grizzly took time to take effect. From that point he was called Coppa Hembo, which means bear killer. He carried the marks on his face from that grizzly for the rest of his life.
Several notable events in his life led to his becoming chief. One is his part, along with others, in fighting the Battle of Rock Creek against the Plains Miwok Indians in 1848.
The Miwok were slavers who regularly captured members of other tribes to supply to the mercury distillation sites south of San Jose. According to Nixon, the mercury was being distilled for use in munitions for a war in Europe. These sites were so deadly that just a few days of exposure to the fumes was lethal, which is why a continuous supply of slaves were needed. After several heated battles involving poisoned arrows and hand-to-hand combat with losses on both sides, the Miwok were run off.
Coppa Hembo also helped his people survive a small pox epidemic. In 1852, smallpox broke out in the California mining camps. Several miners heard that a farmer in Sacramento with milk cows infected with cowpox was offering vaccinations. One of the miners went to Sacramento, was vaccinated with the cowpox, and then came back and showed Coppa Hembo and others how to vaccinate themselves using a large hawk wing feather dipped in the serum from his own blister. He used the serum to vaccinate as many Maidu as he could and then explained that once their own blisters formed, they could vaccinate others.
Seeing the efficacy of the vaccination procedure, Coppa Hembo directed the men who had been vaccinated to spread it to all 74 villages and camps. Doing so saved the lives of the Maidu while all around them from 25 to 40 percent of unvaccinated miners perished as did 60 percent of the Hill Miwok, according to Nixon.
Coppa Hembo was also a strong supporter of education and helped build three schools on the Georgetown Divide. He was a frequent speaker at the schools, although Indians were not legally allowed to attend public schools until the First World War. Nonetheless, Indian children in the area attended.
Coppa Hembo was so respected by both Indians and non-Indians that he was frequently asked to be a judge in disputes between miners. He is also credited with keeping his people out of both the First and Second Indian Wars of El Dorado County.
Coppa Hembo used his diplomatic skills with the tribes as well. During the smallpox epidemic, he sent several members of his tribe to show the Komowsawo Miwok how to vaccinate themselves. This peace-offering led to an agreement that largely smoothed things over between the two groups until just recently.
Altogether, Coppa Hembo, served as chief of his tribe for more than 50 years. Nixon credits Coppa Hembo with successfully integrating the Maidu into American society. In doing so they avoided being removed to reservations and suffered far less discrimination.
“Rather than leading people in useless battles, he was able to work with Americans and achieve a level of assimilation for his people,” said Nixon. “He is not as well-known as other Indian chiefs, but his gift was in leadership and diplomacy. There were no segregation problems because of him. He really should be recognized for his incredible intellect. He’s in the shadows because he was not into some martyrdom thing.”
Nixon said his book about Coppa Hembo called “A River Divided. The Story & Biography of Chief Coppa Hembo,” is available for purchase at Placerville News, the El Dorado County Museum, at the Gold Rush Discovery Park, and in bookstores.
In recognition of his work as a researcher and writer, in March of next year Nixon will be speaking at a conference for the California Department of Education about his research on Coppa Hembo and on another book he has written called “Slavery in the West” describing slavery in the Americas before and after Columbus.
In the meantime, Nixon, Georgetown resident Howard Heimke, and others are working to establish a small monument to Chief Coppa Hembo in the Nature Park adjacent to Georgetown Elementary School. The 40-acre preserve is used by the students as a study area and includes hiking trails, an amphitheater, gold mine, and Native American village.
They expect to have a brief ceremony during the 2013 Nature Fest celebration in the Nature Park when they will install the memorial to Coppa Hembo.
It will be a permanent reminder of his legacy as a great leader to his people.
Contact Dawn Hodson at 530-344-5071 or [email protected] Follow @DHodsonMtDemo on Twitter.