He stood more than 6 feet tall — big in those days — and all you could see of mountain man Seth Kinman were his forehead, cheeks, nose and eyes — all the rest was hair.
He killed grizzly bears, elk, deer and Indians — making chairs out of the bears and elk, and boastfully claimed he scalped the Indians.
Instead of facing justice, he was received warmly by four presidents of the United States and became famous.
“His countenance was expressive of a mixture of brutality, cunning, and good humor. He was a thorough animal…” said Oscar Penn Fitzgerald, missionary, educator and journalist whom he met on a California steamboat. “It was the eye of a wild beast, the baleful glitter you have seen in the eyes of snakes, panthers, catamounts, or other creatures of the reptile or feline kind.”
He always wore mountain man clothes and carried a Bowie knife, a flintlock rifle with a 4-foot barrel he called “Old Cotton Bale” that he used until the 1860s.
That’s the way he dressed as he marched in Lincoln’s funeral procession in Washington and New York.
“Kinman had a penchant for western buckskin clothes and eastern publicity,” one writer said. And when he died, they buried him wearing them.
Seth Kinman was born in Uniontown, Pa., in 1815 — his father a millwright, innkeeper, and ferry operator on the West Branch of the Susquehanna River. When he was 15, his father moved the family to Tazewell County, Illinois.
After his father died in 1839, he sold the mill, tried some farming, and married Anna Maria Sharpless of Catawissa, Pa. They had five children, but only two survived.
Kinman would sit in front of his Eagle Hotel in Pekin, Ill. fast-fiddling his favorite tune “Arkansas Traveler.” Then in 1848 when he heard about Samuel Brannan racing through the streets of San Francisco waving a bottle of gold dust and yelling “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!” he was off to California.
Kinman prospected for gold for Pierson B. Reading’s party on the Trinity River near today’s Douglas City, but with little success. Leaving the gold fields, he launched into a hunting career and cut a deal with the Army to supply elk meat at 25 cents a pound.
With his trusted Old Cotton Bale rifle, he roamed the woods of Northern California into Oregon and boasted of killing more than 800 grizzlies, and shooting more elk than ever counted — more than 50 in one month alone.
In 1853, Kinman became the first American to buy land in Humboldt Land District in northwestern California, and reportedly brought the first herd of cattle to Humboldt County.
During those days, he met future President Ulysses S. Grant and future Civil War Gen. George Crook at Fort Humboldt.
The county at that time was home to thousands of grizzlies, and Kinman made a chair out of two of them. In “The Lost History of Seth Kinman,” author Marshall R. Auspach said, “The four legs and claws were those of a huge grizzly and the back and sides ornamented with immense claws.
“The seat was soft and exceedingly comfortable, but the great feature of the chair was that, by touching a cord, the head of the monster grizzly bear with jaws extended, would dart out in front from under the seat, snapping and gnashing its teeth as natural as life.”
Kinman gave the chair to President Andrew Johnson in 1865.
By 1868, the last grizzly in Humboldt County had been killed.
His first iconic chair however was made of elk horns and presented to President James Buchanan in 1857, and years later he made another one for President Rutherford B. Hayes.
Seth Kinman claimed to be an Indian Agent, but evidence of his feelings toward Native Americans suggests he was not their friend:
He collected scalps — and fellow gold prospector James R. Duff called him “an avowed enemy of the red man… (who) shot an Indian on sight.”
Historian Lynwood Carranco revealed that, “Seth always took an Indian along on a hunt — partly to carry the game, but primarily to serve as bear bait,” and “sometimes he regarded them (Indians) as human beings ... other times, only as predatory animals to shoot at.”
Humboldt County locals in those days were enraged over Indians allegedly stealing cattle, raiding ranches and farms, while shooting and sometimes killing white settlers.
Retaliation became commonplace, and Indians were being killed as well.
Federal troops were branded as ineffective and accused of taking sides with the Indians.
Something had to be done.
Locals formed a vigilante group called the “Humboldt Volunteers, Second Brigade,” coldly resolving to “kill every peaceable Indian — man, woman and child.”
On the night of Feb. 26, 1860, six Humboldt white landowners and businessmen armed with clubs, axes and knives headed for Indian Island in Humboldt Bay and attacked the Indians.
Guns were not used because the killers didn’t want residents of nearby Eureka to hear the shots — though several reports claimed shots were indeed heard.
Mercilessly, they butchered from 60 to 250 women, children and elderly men of the Wiyot tribe. “Blood stood in pools on all sides; the walls of the huts were stained and the grass colored red,” the “Northern Californian” newspaper reported. “Lying around were dead bodies of both sexes and all ages from the old man to the infant at the breast.”
Other nearby Native American sites also were attacked.
Seth Kinman’s participation in all this is hazy but there’s evidence that he was part of it.
He’s listed among those participating in a convention organized to deal with the Indians. Then several years later, he scouted for Capt. William Hull’s California Volunteers, which Kinman said, “slaughtered and captured Indians, and at one time they took as many as 160 captives to Fort Humboldt.”
On a trip to the East Coast exhibiting his hand-made crafts, Kinman took a 10-year old Native American boy named Burtch or Burtchfield with him — claiming he did so because he’d killed the boy’s parents. Burtch died during the trip.
Happily, there was also a heroic side to Seth Kinman’s life:
One dark January night in 1860, a few miles south of the entrance to Humboldt Bay the ocean paddle-wheeler SS Northerner sailing from San Francisco to Oregon with 108 on board was shipwrecked after hitting a submerged rock.
Thirty-eight people died, while 70 others crashed their way through heavy surf to shore. With a rope tied around his waist, Seth Kinman and others plunged into the chilly waters to help rescue the survivors.
Pacific Mail Steamship Company called him a hero and awarded him a Bible and free lifetime passage on their ships.
In 1864, Kinman gave an elk-horn chair to President Lincoln, and told him that “he had another little keepsake with him in the form of a fiddle made from the skull of his favorite mule, which, when alive, appeared to have music in his soul, for he would always look around the camps on the plains when he heard music,” according to historian Stanley Kimmel in “Mr. Lincoln’s Washington.”
“After the mule had been dead for some time, he passed his bleached bones one day and the idea struck him that there might be music in the bones, so he made the fiddle. Later he took a rib, and some hairs from the tail, and made the bow.
“Much to the amusement of Lincoln and other spectators, he played ‘Essence of Old Virginia’ and ‘John Brown’ on the bones of the mule. Lincoln said that if he could play the fiddle he would ask him for it, but since he could not, the fiddle would be better off in Mr. Kinman’s hands.”
Lincoln died by an assassin’s bullet 140 days later. As his funeral cortege slowly made its way through the streets of Washington and New York, Kinman walked along — clad in his trademark buckskins.
The last presidential chair he made was for President Grover Cleveland, calling it “the finest of them all.”
In 1888, Seth Kinman accidently shot himself in the leg which led to amputation and his death.
Buried at Table Bluff, Calif., where he last lived, he was one of the last of America’s extraordinary mountain men.
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Syd Albright is a writer and journalist living in Post Falls. Contact him at email@example.com.
Chat with Lincoln… Wearing his buckskins, Seth Kinman visited with President Lincoln in the East Room of the White House and presented his trademark chair. During the meeting, he and the President had a shot of Bourbon, while Kinman showed him his rifle “Old Cotton Bale.” Lincoln handled the old flintlock and then said, “Seth, that’s the kind of artillery I was raised on.” When Lincoln was shot in Ford’s Theater, Kinman said he was there and saw it happen.
The Kinman family… Seth and Anna Maria Kinman’s children were James (born in 1842), Carlin (1846), Austin (1847), Ellen (1849) and Roderick (1851). Anna Maria and sons James and Austin died during the winter of 1852-53, while they were living in a cabin owned by renown portrait artist Stephen Shaw in Ferndale, Humboldt County. It is believed that the following year, Seth returned to Illinois to bring his mother and surviving three children to California.
Promoting his image… Seth Kinman was an accomplished self-promoter—commissioning famed Civil War photographer Matthew Brady to photograph him and his famous chairs and artifacts. He bought thousands of copies from Brady in the form of “cartes de visites,” an early type of snapshot, for eight cents apiece. He sold the pictures as he toured the country, clad in his buckskins, playing the fiddle and telling tall tales of the Western Frontier—putting “the entertainment value of a story ahead of the strict facts.”
Seth’s memoires… In 1876, Seth Kinman dictated his memoirs that didn’t get published until 2010. He also kept an extensive scrapbook of newspaper articles. About 1930, former neighbor George Richmond, copied Kinman’s memoirs and scrapbook by hand. Then the original manuscript and scrapbook were lost. Richmond’s work plus stories from Kinman family members finally were published in the book “I’m Gonna Tell Ya a Yarn.”