The Klamath at the turn of the last century. Photo: Alfred Kroeber. All photos and illustrations via the Humboldt Historian.

A hastily homemade coffin, lined with white muslin, encased the body of the first Morek schoolteacher, Margaret Sutherland Murray. It was an autumn evening, Tuesday, October 3, 1905, when four men, including Morek school trustee Joe Lewis, at whose home Miss Murray had lived over the past four years, gripped the sides of a litter to carry the coffin down a narrow path, one-and-a-half steep miles to the Klamath River. Following behind the coffin were Joe Lewis’s wife Ida and twenty-year-old Brenda Harmon, a schoolteacher at nearby Mettah and a friend of Miss Murray’s, who had helped prepare her body for its final journey.

There are conflicting stories about the circumstances of Miss Murray’s surprising death by rattlesnake bite. Reports claim that she made irrational decisions, that her medical care was imperfect, that she was “under a spell,” the result of failing to heed Yurok customs surrounding the ceremonial construction of a fish dam at Kepel Creek. What ties these reports together is the belief that Miss Murray need not have died. Even her brother would come to accept that it was his older sister’s “own acts” that brought about her death.

That the fifty-nine-year-old schoolteacher had been living away from her family, at such a distance from the Eureka homes of her brothers John Sutherland Murray and George Deuchar Murray, was only the first oddity in the tale of her life on the Klamath and her death there.


Born in New Zealand in 1846, Margaret came to San Francisco with her parents, John Sutherland Murray and Jane Deuchar Murray and her brother John Jr. in 1849. In 1851, drawn by tales of treasure at Gold Bluffs, the Murrays moved from San Francisco to Union (Arcata) and John Sr. began work as Humboldt County’s first Surveyor. In 1855 and 1857, George and Lucy were born. Soon after, the Murrays bought land in Eureka. In 1859, their new home, a one-and-a-half-story gabled structure of pine lumber, went up. At the time, the house was in the woods, on a road that stretched from the waterfront to a nearby logging camp, but during their occupancy, the land became Block 61, on a diagonal to the courthouse at 5th and J Streets, and their family life was embraced by Eureka civic life.

The children attended local schools, with at least George and Margaret traveling south for further education: he to the University at Berkeley and to Hastings Law School, she to Miss Lynch’s Seminary in Benicia. In 1865, when nineteen-year-old Margaret began teaching, she was one of only three grammar school teachers in Eureka. There she would stay, for at least 25 years, continuously employed in Eureka schools.

Then, in the early 1890s, Miss Murray suddenly lost her position. According to her brother George: “They said she was old, was rich, and should retire to give the young girls a chance who were looking for positions as teachers.” Margaret Murray was now told that instead of teaching her fourth grade class at the 11th and G Street school, a short walk from home along Eureka’s wooden sidewalks, she would have to remove herself to schools far afield — that is, if she wanted to teach at all. She did want to teach. As George later commented, “she saw no reason for sitting down and rusting out,” so she took what was available to her, first “a small mountain school 40 miles from Eureka” for two years, then the one-room Blaine School at Stone Lagoon for two years. In each case, she was again asked to leave and was replaced by much younger women, new to teaching.

Finally, at age fifty-five, Margaret went about as far from Eureka as a teacher could go and still be in Humboldt County, to open a new school two days’ hard travel from Blue Lake, at the ancient Yurok site of Morek, near Kepel Creek, thirty miles from the mouth of the Klamath at Requa and twelve miles downriver from Weitchpec.

Why was Margaret Murray chosen to open the new school at Morek, instead of one of the younger women? In a letter written after Margaret’s death, George takes pains to explain to his sister Lucy why Margaret went to that “truly isolated place”:

Four years ago the Morek School District was organized. As usual, one young girl after another was engaged… But none of them ever reached Morek. As they neared the place they were informed of the situation by exaggerated stories, and they simply turned around and came back to Eureka…

Then it was that Mr. Lewis wrote to Mr. [J. B.] Brown that there was no use in sending young girls up to the Morek District and asked him to send some woman who was not a young inexperienced girl, one who understood how things were situated there and would adapt herself to circumstances.

Then it was that J. B. offered the school to Miss Murray, and she went up there… .She did what all the teachers on the Klamath do, she persuaded the Indian children to attend school. In this way she became the friend of both the Indians and the whites… Life up there in that community where they made her feel that she was more than welcome, was more inviting to her than life in Eureka where they had made her feel that there was no place for her, and so she stayed up there and was contented, and was interested in her work, and was doing good…

With Miss Murray’s encouragement, twenty-three children attended classes at Morek in 1905; daily attendance ranged from nine to nineteen students. California-prescribed texts were used in the little one-room school, but Miss Murray had also gathered over 200 library books for the children on the river.11 From the start, she stayed with Joe Lewis and his wife, Ida Rector Lewis. Both, like many in their community, were of mixed European and American Indian descent. “The Lewises own a ranch,” George Murray wrote, “on which they raise sheep and cattle, and their house is as comfortable as the residence of any white man on the Klamath River. They live better than the average white rancher in that section of the country.”


This photograph shows a traditional Yurok fish dam on the Klamath River built in a V-shape, like the fish dam at Kepel — this may even be the Kepel dam.

In letters written to George in June of 1904, Miss Murray describes the hardships endured by the Lewis family, hardships shared with the entire community, including illness and death. Two of the Lewis children, Georgia and Thomas, died that summer: she describes her affection for Thomas: “He was a bright attractive little fellow… I shall miss him so much as he accompanied me in my tramps to see my Indian friends, and although only five he thought nothing of walking a mile and back over rough trails.” It was for Thomas and his brothers that Miss Murray had insisted her brother George send her the Eureka Daily Standard and the San Francisco Call, because they had the best funny pages, which the boys enjoyed so much.

There had been a string of rough winters along the Klamath. In the last decade of the 19th century, after years of over-fishing and commercial cannery operation, the Klamath fish runs had ceased to bring their former bounty to the Yurok people.15 The results were obvious: the most vulnerable people, the youngest and oldest, were dying of disease and malnutrition. To remedy the situation, Yurok elders concluded that it was time they return to their traditional practice of building a fish dam, or weir, at a site ancient for that purpose, the mouth of Kepel Creek.

The winter of 1904 brought the worst conditions yet to the Klamath. By the autumn of 1905, the people desperately hoped that the renewal of the fish dam ritual would return milder weather and improved fish runs to the region.

During ten days in the early autumn of 1905, while their sisters attended school with Miss Murray, Indian boys were learning from their elders about the construction of the fish dam, something that had not been done at this place for decades. Every day young men hiked up the hill above Kepel, felled pines and rolled down to the river as many as were needed for that day’s building. On the ninth day, they gathered the fallen boughs of trees. At the same time, preparations were being made for the world renewal dances that would take place when the dam was finished.

Extreme care was taken that everything having to do with the building of the dam be done precisely, in accordance with the old ways. Because of the width of the river near Kepel Creek, the people traditionally built a V-shaped dam, with its point upriver. Besides the form of the dam, the details of its construction and the behavior of both its builders and local residents were also prescribed.

The elder who served as chief engineer of the dam’s construction “was allowed to look at no woman. If any female approached, he covered his head.” Also, “travelers up and down the river were required to travel along the opposite, south bank. Moreover, they were required to shade their eyes with their hands so as not to see the partly finished structure. Looking at it would ‘spoil’ it.”

The dam took only ten days to build, but it would be in place for over a month. The school at Morek, like other mountain schools, was in session from early April to sometime in November, then dismissed for the winter months. School administrators would not have wanted to suspend classes from the low-river time of late August to early October to accommodate the Yurok and their fish dam. Most likely, Margaret Murray herself did not want to sacrifice over a month of work with the children. But the Yurok of Morek, with what was arguably the longer view, felt that, since the only reasonable route from Joe Lewis’s home to the Morek schoolhouse took the schoolmistress past the fish dam, on the forbidden northside trail, the only possible response was that she stop taking that walk.

Mettah schoolteacher Brenda Harmon claimed, sixty years later, that Miss Murray’s marches to and from school were met with curses shouted in their own language by the young builders of the dam, and that they threatened a rattlesnake would bite her. No doubt the Yurok laborers were frustrated. Try as they might to adhere to the formula for a successful fish dam, the lady teacher refused to recognize its requirements. But we do not know that they threatened or cursed her. No contemporary correspondent mentions curses or threats.

However, it is clear that the schoolteacher was not her usual steady self. What Brenda Harmon, then boarding with the Charles McCoveys, wrote at the time of the event confirms that Margaret Murray was not thinking clearly on the weekend that she died:

On Thursday last I got a note from Miss Murray saying that she was coming down the river to visit me and to see Mrs. Griggs about some Indian caps on Sunday but she added if you have an engagement for Sat and Sun do not stay at home for I will see Mrs. Griggs and go right back. Well, I had promised to go over to Hoopa on Sat… .I could not very well stay home so Friday evening when I went up the river, I stopped at Lewis’ and told Miss Murray that I would not be there and also that Mrs. Griggs was out in the mountains picking pine nuts and if she would only wait until next Sunday we would all stay home and be there when she came. ‘No’ she said that she would go anyway.


On her last day, Margaret Murray set out from the Lewises, far right, for the home of Laura Griggs, far left, a distance of about five and a half miles. She was within one mile of Laura Griggs’ home, and just one quarter mile from the McCovey home, when she was bitten by a rattlesnake. This 1920 Klamath River map from T.T. Waterman’s 1909 Yurok Geography shows the fish dam near the map’s center, the village of Kepel opposite Capell Creek, and the northside trail Miss Murray took to Morek. The circled names have been added from a plat map, circa 1910.

Miss Murray had told her brother that she customarily carried a thick stick with her when she walked, specifically for the purpose of fending off rattlesnakes, and that snakebite was common and treatments well-known. All the children ran barefoot and even the youngest schoolchild didn’t flinch to kill a rattler with a stick. To friends and family in Eureka, Margaret had described common snakebite remedies on the River, including details about improvised tourniquets and the administration of whiskey (“the white man’s remedy”) as well as the immediate application of salt plasters, practiced by the native people.

Given all this, one has to wonder if Miss Murray was entirely lucid when, early on Sunday, October 1, she started off down the hill, crossed the river to the south side of the Klamath, and walked toward the Isaac Griggs place to meet with Laura Griggs to talk about a cap despite the fact that she’d been forewarned that the basketmaker was “up on the mountain collecting pine nuts.” When Miss Murray was within a mile of her goal, having traveled at least four up-and-down miles from the Lewis home, she stepped on and was bitten by a rattlesnake. (She would talk about that fatal step to more than one person before she lost consciousness for the final time.) She may or may not have carried a stick with her that day; we do know that she ignored her own advice about seeking prompt remedies.

It was estimated that Margaret encountered the snake only one-quarter of a mile from the Charles McCovey home. Yet, despite her familiarity with her surroundings, despite knowing the McCoveys as the hosts of her friend Brenda Harmon, Miss Murray did not head in that direction for help. Instead, she retraced her steps, crossed the river, and started uphill, back home to the Lewises. Accounts differ about what occurred along those difficult miles, although we do know that she stopped at the home of an Indian couple two miles short of her destination. There she took a short rest, said she was in a hurry to reach her own lodgings, and insisted on leaving soon after she arrived. Although she agreed that the man of the house could accompany her, she refused to ride his horse. The only gesture toward help that the failing schoolteacher allowed herself was to put her hand up against the animal’s side for support as she walked.

It was around noon when she stumbled into the Lewis home, soaked in sweat, the tips of her fingers tingling, and burst out: “Rattler!”

Ida immediately put her to bed and applied home remedies. Joe hurried out to find his nephew, Walter McKinnon, and sent him off to the Redemeyers’ place, five miles distant, for what the Lewises hoped would be a reviving supply of whiskey. An hour later, when McKinnon reached his destination, he found Brenda Harmon sitting in the garden eating grapes. She was in the company of Oliver Nason, another schoolteacher on the River, who boarded with the Redemeyers. At the news, all three young people rode back as quickly as possible to the Lewis home, McKinnon bearing the hoped-for bottle of whiskey.

But the “white man’s remedy” did not work. Margaret could not keep the whiskey down, so Lewis arranged for Eugene Young to go to Hoopa to fetch Dr. Lindley, the reservation’s physician. Young left late Sunday afternoon, rode hard, and arrived at the doctor’s place around midnight. Ida Lewis, Brenda Harmon, and Oliver Nason sat up through that night with Miss Murray.

Dr. Lindley set off from Hoopa sometime Monday morning and arrived at the Lewis home to attend Miss Murray late in the afternoon. Despite the fact that the doctor had successfully treated over a dozen cases of rattlesnake bite, he couldn’t save Miss Murray. “It was the walk that ended her life,” he told George, “the one thing necessary to distribute that poison through her system was that exertion.” Furthermore, “her stomach revolted,” he said, and she could not keep down his medicines. After he used a hypodermic needle to inject her with a stimulant for her heart, she rallied, but “sank” soon after. She died around four o’clock Tuesday morning.

The fact that Brenda Harmon had not stayed at Miss Murray’s bedside, but chose instead to leave to open Mettah school on Monday morning, thinking that Murray would recover, caused the young teacher much grief later on. At the time, she wrote: “The folks where she boards did everything for her they could and so did the Dr. from Hoopa… ” But she also added: “When I am dying I want some one to tell me that I am dying.” In 1965 Harmon would take a bitter tone toward Dr. Lindley, claiming that he refused to reveal to Miss Murray the seriousness of her condition.


Children at the old Morek School in 1931, about twenty-five years after Margaret Murray was the teacher there. The school would not have changed greatly since Margaret’s day, and these students could easily be the children of Margaret’s students. Photo courtesy Ralph Starritt.

George Murray appreciated the fact that, as soon as Margaret died, Joe Lewis intuited the wishes of the Murrays when he set in motion the return of the white schoolteacher’s body to her family: “I can understand,” he wrote, “that many people situated as he was would have simply had the funeral and buried Miss Murray away up there in the mountains, excusing themselves on the ground that it was impossible to do otherwise. But Joseph Lewis knew, and his wife knew, that we preferred to have her buried here, and they knew too that that would have been Miss Murray’s wish had she been able to express it. And, accordingly, they planned to that end.”

Joe Lewis arranged for Dr. Lindley to stop at Redemeyers on his way back to Hoopa to ask Oliver Nason to compose a message and ride to Bair’s Ranch (thirty miles distant). There, Nason was to use Blake’s telephone line to make a call to the telegrapher in Blue Lake. Nason agreed to the mission. His message read:

Your sister, Margaret S. Murray, died at 4 o’clock this morning from a rattlesnake bite. Joseph Lewis will take her body down the Klamath River to Requa, and expects to reach Requa tomorrow noon. Meet him there with an undertaker and casket.

After Lewis and Joe Pitt built “the rude coffin” and the litter they would use to carry it, Lewis struggled to find two men to accompany him on his gloomy errand in the canoe. Mrs. Redemeyer and Brenda Harmon washed Margaret Murray’s body. One of them, or Ida Lewis, lined the casket with fresh muslin and tucked a pillow under the dead woman’s head.

George Murray, Humboldt County Judge and brother of Margaret Murray.

Describing the event in a letter, George Murray takes care to let his reader know that it wasn’t only white custom that was honored on the journey of that muslin-lined casket, but also, and finally, the custom of the Klamath:

The coffin was put in to the canoe and the men folks started down the river, but they soon stopped and camped over night on the river bar, the men building a fire and sitting up with the coffin all night. In the morning they again put the coffin in the canoe and proceeded down the river. They had gone but a short distance when they came to this fish dam… The Indians are very superstitious people, and one of their rules is that no dead person shall pass through a fish dam while the dance is going on… Joe Lewis respected their superstitions and I’m glad he did. He and his party ran the canoe ashore and took the coffin out, and making [a] litter, carried the coffin on the land around the fish dam. The Indians permitted the empty canoe to go through the fish dam, and below the dam, the coffin was again placed in the canoe, and then the party proceeded down the river again.

To the very last stretch of the river and beyond, it was the task of Indian people to help pass the body along. Because George Murray and undertaker Mel Engles had not yet arrived at Requa, Joe Lewis hired an Indian man to carry the casket in his buggy down toward Trinidad, expecting to meet the north-traveling Murray conveyance at any time.

Indeed, it wasn’t long. It was only because the road for four or five miles past Trinidad was narrow, with logs sticking out into it, that the Eureka men were not already waiting at Requa for the arrival of the canoe and its burden. They had set out from Eureka within an hour of the receipt of that shocking telegram that had reached the Murray home at 7 p.m. on Tuesday night. By 8 p.m., Engles had gathered a casket and embalming material, while Murray had arranged the transportation. They arrived in Trinidad shortly after midnight, leaving again at 4 a.m., close enough to dawn so that visibility would be good and their buggy would not “be shipwrecked” along the way.


Once Miss Murray’s casket began its journey south down the coast, in the care of her brother, the story of her passing was free to begin a journey of its own. It would be told, and elaborated upon. Among the tributes of her life would emerge reflection on the strangeness of her death. “Her sad end caused a thrill of horror among friends and fellow teachers,” remarked a speaker at the 1906 annual Eureka Teachers Institute.

In letters between George and Lucy, George emphasizes the reasons why their older sister was in Morek, apparently in response to Lucy’s agonized wonderings over why Margaret had to be living anywhere near a rattlesnake in an oak grove. “The Lewises made her feel that not only was she welcome in that community,” writes George, “but that her presence there was actually necessary for their well being.”

Of course, when George reassures Lucy that Margaret’s life on the River had been a meaningful and fulfilling one, he was also reassuring himself. In the end, he suggests that she was not just met by death, but that she cooperated in its arrival: “The more I ponder over the subject, the more it seems to me that it was ordained that Miss Murray should die that day. Her own acts — the things she did, and those she neglected to do — all contributed to that end, and even Nature lent its assistance.”

In saying this, George’s viewpoint is not so far from that of the Indians’ on the Klamath: “They attribute the death of Miss Murray to the fact that daily she had been going by the fish dam on her way to school and back home again, which was in violation of the Indian law, and because of this violation of their law she died; and they argue: ‘If she had not been under a spell, could not she have gone on to McCovey’s house and got medicines and got cured?’”

We know that Margaret Murray was a woman of great will power. Her refusal to retire when she was no longer wanted in Eureka schools demonstrates this, as does her ability to survive and even thrive on the Klamath when teachers half her age would not even attempt it. And it was her strength of will that enabled her to walk all the way back to the Lewises’ that day virtually unaided, instead of seeking help. Why did she make this deadly choice? We will never know for certain.


George Murray lived twenty-one years with this uncertainty following the death of his older sister. By the time of his own death, it was said that “he knew most of the old Indians by name and they trusted and honored him.” Before Margaret’s time on the Klamath River, he had advised and assisted the Indians of Humboldt. After her death, he continued to be involved with their legal and judicial needs, representing them, for example, in land disputes. But Margaret Murray’s entwinement with the Yurok families at Morek, and her tragic death there, seem to have deepened her brother’s connection to their lives as well. In his obituary we learn of an event that George recreated annually for himself, perhaps in appreciation of the beauty of the Klamath and its people, perhaps to honor the final stage of his sister’s earthly progress: “For many years, his vacation consisted of a trip down the Klamath river in a canoe from Orleans or Weitchpec to Requa, with Indians as guides…”


The story above was originally printed in the Spring 2008 issue of the Humboldt Historian, a journal of the Humboldt County Historical Society. It is reprinted here with permission. The Humboldt County Historical Society is a nonprofit organization devoted to archiving, preserving and sharing Humboldt County’s rich history. You can become a member and receive a year’s worth of new issues of The Humboldt Historian at this link.