Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS

Alcatraz is Not an Island

Co-presented by:


Alcatraz IslandThousands of years before Spanish and Portuguese explorers discovered Northern California, 10,000 indigenous people inhabited the coastal area between Point Sur and the San Francisco Bay.

According to Indian oral history, Alcatraz was first used as a place of isolation or ostracism for tribal members. It was also used for camping and gathering foods such as bird eggs and sea life. Indian people later used the island to escape from the California Mission system.

Darryl "Babe" Wilson, a member of the Achoma 'Wi / Atsuge 'Wi tribe, recalls this history passed down from his ancestors.

To protect San Francisco from foreign invaders, the U.S. Army turned Alcatraz Island into a powerful fortress in 1850. In 1907, the fort was turned into a prison for military personnel and also held Confederate soldiers during the Civil War, conscientious objectors during World War I and a number of Indians beginning in 1873.

After a series of battles in Tule Lake, California between the Modoc tribe and the U.S. Army, six Modoc leaders were singled out to face charges for the killing of a general and a lieutenant in 1873. Even before their trial, gallows were constructed for Captain Jack, Schonchin Jack, Black Jim, Boston Charley, Barncho, and Sloluck. In early July, all six were convicted of murder and assault with intent to kill, and sentenced to hang. A few weeks later, President Grant commuted the death sentence for Barncho and Sloluck to life in prison on Alcatraz. The four others were hung in October. Barncho died of tuberculosis in prison, but Sloluck was released and sent to back to his tribe in Oklahoma in 1878.

Nineteen Hopis were incarcerated from January 3 to August 7, 1895, the largest group of Native Americans ever imprisoned there. Jailed for their resistance to farm on individual plots away from the mesas and for refusing to send their children to government boarding schools, these Hopis were part of a widespread Indian resistance to the government's attempts to erase Hopi culture. Indian people continued to be held as prisoners on Alcatraz through the early 1900s.

In 1934, Alcatraz became a maximum security penitentiary, housing 1,545 prisoners over 28 years, including infamous mobster Al Capone; bank robber George "Machine Gun" Kelly; Robert Franklin Stroud, better known as the "Birdman of Alcatraz"; and political prisoner Morton Sobell. When the facility became too expensive to operate, the prison officially closed on March 21, 1963. The island was declared federal surplus land in 1964.

Reclaiming Native Land | Alcatraz | Indian Activism | Talkback | The Filmmakers
Resources | For Educators | Broadcast | ITVS

© 2002 ITVS. All rights reserved.

Broadcast For Educators Resources Filmmakers Talkback Indian Activism Reclaiming Native Land Alcatraz is not an Island