Letters + Opinion » Views

Genocide and Fugly Chairs

What Antiques Roadshow left out of Seth Kinman's legacy

by

1 comment

Recently, Antiques Roadshow did an appraisal of a Colt Model 1851 pistol that apparently belonged to early Humboldt County settler Seth Kinman. Spoiler alert: It's supposedly worth $50,000. During the show, the appraiser took the opportunity to wax poetic on the value of the gun because of its known tie to Kinman who is described as a "frontiersman," a "mountain man," a "scout" and as someone who worked "with and against the Native Americans." Cool story, bro.

Sometimes when I go and do lectures about Humboldt County and California Indian history I end up mentioning Seth Kinman. I often describe him like this: "Seth Kinman was an early settler of Humboldt County. He murdered Native people. He also made ugly chairs." Unfortunately, Kinman occupies an almost mythological space in Humboldt history. He fit the part of "early settler" well — the agile frontiersman, avid hunter and long-bearded man of the land came to settle this region that is currently called Humboldt County.

He looked the part. When I talk about Kinman, I usually put up a photo. It's easily found online but I came across it the first time when I was researching in the archives. In the photo, Kinman poses for a still portrait with his son. He is surrounded by his "curiosities" (as they are often called in histories about him). These are the things that made him famous: butt ugly chairs (often made of horns or bones), a lot of dead animal skins and scalps. That's right, scalps. Native American people's hair, which he forcibly removed from their (probably) massacred dead bodies after he (likely) killed them. They are trophies to him, the same way the dead animals are treated as trophies. And we are supposed to celebrate along with him as he poses for us, saying "look at all the things I collected (look at all the things I killed)."

I never show the entire photo. I deliberately cut it off so that it doesn't show the scalps of Native people — Native people who were likely pleading for their lives, the lives of their children, the lives of others trying to escape, who were then killed and stripped of their scalps so Kinman could pose with them while sitting on his fugly chair. There's another photo you can easily find of Kinman, splayed across the floor like some kind of murderous centerfold, where he's also posing with scalps, a tomahawk and his long rifle. His dead eyes are staring just off camera and I imagine somewhere in the room is some photographer's assistant trying not to retch at the hideous chairs scattered about.

One of Kinman's claims to fame is that he gave an ugly chair to Abraham Lincoln. I like picturing Lincoln going, "Wow," all polite, "such an interesting chair." And then getting home and having Mary Todd go, "What is this? No."

Usually when I present this photo I tell people about the first time that I saw it. I was in the archives at Humboldt State University looking at documents discussing the genocide of California Indian