American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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California Indians, Genocide of

Title: Sutter's Creek in California
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On January 24, 1848, gold was discovered on the South Fork of the American River in California. One hundred and fifty years later, the state of California observed the sesquicentennial of the 1849 gold rush. The anniversary, however, was no cause for celebration among California Indians. The Spanish mission system, the seizure of California from Mexico by the United States, the influx of thousands of American miners and settlers, and California statehood—all had disastrous consequences for the Indian peoples. Sherburne Cook, an expert on California Indian demography, found that between 1770 and 1900 the Native population experienced a fall from 310,000 to approximately 20,000, a decline of over 90 percent.


Given the enormity of the population decline and its rapidity following the gold rush, it is appropriate to examine the concept of genocide as defined in international law. The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was unanimously adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 9, 1948. It became international law following World War II in recognition of the crimes against humanity committed by Nazi Germany that annihilated millions of people because of their religions or ethnic origins. Ninety-seven nations have ratified the Convention, most of them within a few years after its passage, but it was not ratified by the United States Senate until 1985 after almost thirty-six years of delay and contentious debate.

The Genocide Convention outlaws the commission of certain acts with intent to destroy, wholly or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. What is less known is that the scope of the Convention is much broader than forbidding the actual killing of such groups. The Convention also includes acts of causing serious bodily or mental harm; the deliberate infliction of conditions of life calculated to bring about physical destruction; imposing measures to prevent birth; and forcibly transferring children of one group to another group. Furthermore, the definition includes not only the commission of such acts as punishable, but also the conspiracy to commit genocide, the direct and public incitement, the attempt to commit, and complicity. The Convention specifies that it is genocide whether such acts are committed in a time of peace or in a time of war.

An examination of the California Indian case makes it absolutely clear that the crime of genocide was committed indirectly during the Spanish and Mexican periods of hegemony and directly by the Americans following the 1849 gold rush. The information contained in this essay can provide only a brief outline of the scope of the tragedy.

Spain and the Mission System

The Spanish period of conquest introduced a system of religious missions that began in 1769 and ended in 1821. Spanish policy was to convert the Indians to Christianity and to use Indian labor to further Spanish economic aims. A chain of twenty-one Franciscan missions were established along a narrow section of the California coast from San Diego in the south to San Francisco in the north. The Spaniards also founded civilian towns (pueblos) and military garrisons (presidios). In the countryside were ranchos, where soldiers and settlers grazed stock using Indian labor.

By 1805 there were twenty thousand neophytes (Indian converts to Christianity) in the Spanish missions. Although Indian persons were recognized as human beings with souls and limited rights, Spanish laws nevertheless permitted armed Spaniards to round up the peaceful coastal Indians and impress them into de facto slavery. The Indian lands seized were then held in trust by the Spanish crown under the encomienda system, by which the Spanish administered their colonies. California became, in effect, a Spanish military colony. Spanish policy was not to annihilate the Native population directly, as occurred later during the gold rush, but rather to absorb it as a labor force for Spanish ranches and the agriculturally based missions. Mission life was brutal and harsh. Indian neophytes were forced to construct the mission buildings, herd the cattle, work the fields, and wait on the mission priests. Men and women were segregated with the men confined to coffin-like rooms with barely enough space in which to lie down, and the women and girls were housed in bare dormitories called "nunneries." Indian marriage and divorce customs were suppressed, along with all aspects of Native religion. Anglo-borne diseases easily ravaged the concentrated mission populations. A measles epidemic in 1806 killed 1,600, and in some missions children under ten years were almost entirely wiped out. Malnutrition was a persistent problem. Labor was unpaid, and the neophytes were punished by the Franciscans for the smallest infractions. Indians who ran away, or who resisted, were severely punished if not killed. Typical punishments included whipping with a barbed lash, solitary confinement, mutilation, use of stocks and hobbles, branding, and even execution.

Although limited in its geographic scope, the harsh conditions of mission life resulted in the disintegration of most coastal Indian societies and a significant decline in the overall indigenous population of interior California. The total Native population declined by half, from over 300,000 to 150,000 Indians before the end of the mission system.

Missionization often met with Native resistance. Neophytes at times poisoned or murdered the Franciscan fathers. There were also outright revolts. Among the most noteworthy was the 1824 uprising at Missions La Purisima and Santa Barbara. There were also mass escapes, such as the one in 1795 in which over 200 Costanoan Indians fled Mission Dolores. Nonviolent resistance included the practice of abortion and the infanticide of children born out of forced concubinage of Indian women by priests and soldiers.

Mexico and Secularization

After sixty-five years of Spanish rule, the missions were abandoned in 1834 when Mexico achieved its independence from Spain. After the Mexican Revolution, the 1824 Constitution formally secularized the mission system. California's Indians were made citizens of the new republic, and mission property, at least in theory, was turned over to them. Franciscan resistance and the political turmoil of the period, however, forestalled secularization. As late as 1836, the Franciscans continued to mount military campaigns to seize new "recruits" from the interior for labor at the missions. In reality, Mexican policy was essentially the same as that of Spanish rule. Neither Spain nor Mexico acknowledged Indian ownership of the land.

The Mexican period was a time of confusion and disarray for the Indians, and it led to further depopulation. Some of the emancipated neophytes hired themselves out as farm laborers and servants. There were also those who revolted, as in the Santa Ynez Revolt of 1824. Some fled to the interior to join still independent Indian communities. Those employed on the ranchos became victims of the hacienda system of peonage bordering on slavery. Yet others were left at the mercy of the pueblos, where they were exploited as domestics, plied with alcohol, and left for a life of poverty and debauchery.

These oppressive conditions contributed to the spread of European-introduced diseases that caused most of the deaths during the period of Mexican rule. The Pandemic of 1833 killed an estimated 4,500 Indians, and a smallpox outbreak killed several thousand more. As a result, by the time of the American invasion there were only about 6,000 exmission Indians still residing along the coast, along with 7,000 predominately Indian-Mexicans. There were also about 700 Europeans. More than a 100,000 Natives remained in interior California.

Americans and the Gold Rush

The American period commenced with the U.S. victory over Mexico and the Bear Flag Revolt by the "Americanos" in between 1846 and1848. The discovery of gold in 1849 and the rush of miners and settlers that followed the discovery completely overwhelmed the Native population. As word of the gold discovery spread, prospectors flocked to the hills to wash the sands and gravels of mother lode streams and rivers. Mining operations destroyed Native fish dams, polluted salmon streams, and frightened away the wild game. A pastoral California, with its Indian population, Spanish missions, and Mexican ranchos, was quickly overrun by an invasion of gold seekers from throughout the world, the Forty-Niners. A virulent racism was spawned in the quest for riches, and a holocaust of the California Indians was ensured.

Under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which was signed at the end of the Mexican– American War, the United States was obligated to recognize two kinds of property rights: traditional rancho rights of the Californios and open land where Indian title was still intact, including Indian villages and the abandoned missions. Yet the American authorities immediately violated the treaty after taking over California.

The discovery of gold at John Sutter's sawmill on the American River in 1848 ushered in a period of extreme abuse of the Indians. To mobilize the dispossessed Indian labor force, the U.S. military government in California decreed that Indians who did not work for ranchers or who did not have an official passport could expect to be tried and punished. Worse, an Indian might be shot on the pretext that he was a horse thief. By the end of that summer, 4,000 miners, half of them Indian, were prospecting for gold. This atmosphere of tolerance toward Indian gold miners lasted no more than a year.

Unlike other Indians in the Far West, Native Californians often lived and worked with non-Indians in the early conquest era. This was especially the case during the Spanish and Mexican periods before 1850. The Gold Rush fundamentally changed this relationship when California became marked by a precipitous Indian population decline, unique in U.S. frontier history. Before the gold discovery, Indians outnumbered whites by nearly ten to one, but by the early 1850s whites had come to outnumber Indians by almost two to one. Gold fever resulted in tens of thousands of immigrants— young single men, flocking to the California gold fields, hoping to strike it rich. Insatiable greed dominated the immigrant population, and unbridled individualism marked the new California society. As a result, the white population steadily rose to more than 200,000 while the Indian population reached its nadir of 23,000 by 1880, about 15 percent of its pre-Gold Rush population.

Most immigrants viewed the Indian people as worthless, and they were appalled by the Mexican custom of sanctioned miscegenation (interracial sexual unions). They were imbued with a frontier mentality that taught them to despise Native peoples as subhuman "diggers." (Many California Indians used digging sticks to harvest roots and other food sources from the soil, hence the name "digger," which became a pejorative.) Before they were driven from the gold fields, some Indian miners were able to enter the trade system by bargaining their gold for trade goods. The traders countered by inventing "the Digger ounce," a lead slug that dishonestly outweighed the legitimate weights used to measure the gold brought in by white miners.

The Massacres

The Forty-Niner Gold Rush initiated a holocaust for California's Native population that scarcely diminished in intensity until the end of the nineteenth century. The Indian people were cheated, debauched by liquor and white demands for sex, starved, rounded up, and herded on brutal forced marches to small reservations (virtual concentration camps), enslaved in debt peonage, brutally murdered and massacred, and denied civil rights and equal justice before California's courts and institutions. The immigrant intruders shot Indians on sight as the Indians were gathering food or fish, or trying to protect their women and daughters from rape and kidnap. Hundreds of Indian homes were burned and the human occupants trapped by surrounding gunfire.

Some Indian peoples, like the Modocs under Kentipoos, also known as Captain Jack, fought back. One hundred and fifty Modoc warriors and their families successfully held off over 3,000 U.S. Army troops for nearly a year. In the end, the resisters were captured and the leaders hanged. After execution, the warriors were decapitated and their heads sent off to Washington for "scientific investigation." Grave robbers later disinterred Kentipoos's body, embalmed it, and displayed it in a carnival in Eastern cities. His skull was not returned to the Modocs by the government until 1984.

Between 1848 and 1860 there were at least 4,267 Indian deaths attributed to the military, or about 12 percent of the Indian population living at the time. Ironically, it was the gold stolen from Indian lands that paid for the ensuing genocide. Towns offered bounties on Indians ranging from $5 for every severed head in Shasta in 1855, to 25 cents for a scalp in Honey Lake in 1863. Some of the worst massacres occurred in northwestern California. Militia groups such as the Klamath Rifles, the Salmon Guard, the Union Volunteers, and the Pitt River Rangers, armed and paid for by the state government, roamed the countryside with the avowed aim to exterminate "the skulking bands of savages."

Possibly the most notorious massacre occurred at Indian Island near Eureka. On February 26, 1860, the peaceful Wiyot people were holding their annual religious ceremonies when they were attacked during the night as they slept by white "volunteers," who slaughtered them with axes. A Major Raines testified to finding one man, seventeen women, and eleven children among the dead. In addition, eighteen women and an unknown number of children had been carried away by their relatives for burial before his arrival. It was later learned that the Indian Island massacre was part of a premeditated plan by some local farmers and stockmen to exterminate the region's resident Indian population. That same night three other massacres took place simultaneously, two at Humboldt Bay and another at the mouth of the Eel River.

Disease and Starvation

Throughout most of California, the deaths resulting from disease epidemics greatly exceeded those from massacres. In 1853, 500 died in Nevada City of smallpox and typhoid; 800 Maidu died of influenza and tuberculosis in the same year. Venereal disease was contracted mainly from white men who abducted and raped Indian women. Syphilis infected approximately 20 percent of California's Indians, and gonorrhea may have been as high as 100 percent.

Malnutrition paved the way for death from disease. The destruction of Native food sources, either from gold mining or from outright theft, contributed to Indian susceptibility to communicable diseases. Between the years 1848 to 1855, according to Sherburne Cook, Native population declined from approximately 150,000, or about 66 percent, to about 50,000 (Cook, 1978, 93). "This desolation was accomplished by a ruthless flood of miners and farmers who annihilated the Natives without mercy or compensation. The direct causes of death were disease, the bullet, exposure, and acute starvation," he wrote (Cook, 1978, 93).

The mentality that fueled the nineteenth-century genocide continued into the early twentieth century when Ishi, a Yahi Indian, wandered out of the hills of Tehana County in 1911 as the last surviving member of his tribe. Vigilantes had undertaken raids of extermination against the Yahi and other Indian groups of northern California. Alone and emaciated, Ishi finally allowed himself to be taken by those from whom he had hid for so many years. Ishi's story is recounted by Theodora Kroeber in Ishi in Two Worlds.

The "Lost Treaties"

In 1851 and 1852, President Millard Fillmore sent three Indian commissioners to negotiate eighteen treaties with California Indians. Under the treaty terms, the Indians reluctantly agreed to surrender their land claims, and the federal government agreed in turn to provide some 8.5 million acres of good lands, reservations, and goods and services. It was the era of the gold rush, however, and the greed for gold and California's rich lands motivated the state legislature to pressure the U.S. Senate not to ratify the treaties. The treaties were then conveniently "lost" in the Senate archives and not rediscovered until 1905. Because the treaties were never ratified and then "lost," the Indians were forced to give up virtually all of the promised lands and settle instead for small, temporary rancherias and farms, a mere fraction of the original 8.5 million acres that were promised them. The 1887 Dawes (Allotment) Act further reduced California Indian landholdings.

A congressional act of 1928 and a 1946 law creating the U.S. Court of Indian Claims permitted California Indians to sue the government for the lost lands. A 1944 award received under the 1928 act was for $17 million, hardly just compensation considering the billions of dollars in gold and resources realized from the stolen lands. Because of the inadequacy of the 1944 award, a new claims case was entered for other lands illegally taken. Yet the 1964 award paid California Indians only 47 cents an acre for approximately 65 million acres illegally seized.

Indenture and Slavery

Until 1867, an estimated 10,000 California Indians, including 4,000 children, were held as chattel. Newspaper accounts of the time noted that while young boys sold for about $60, young women could sell for as much as $200. In some instances, entire tribes were captured, carried into white settlements, and sold. An 1850 state indenture law ordered that any Indian, on the word of a white man, could be declared a legal vagrant, thrown in jail, and have his labor sold at auction for up to four months with no pay.

The indenture law also allowed Indian children to be indentured with the consent of their parents or if they were orphans. The law provided a motive for making Indian children orphans by killing the parents so that the children could then be indentured. Child kidnapping and Indian slavery continued for fifteen years until 1867 when it was finally overturned to comply with the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude.

Death Marches and Forced Relocation

The so-called humane alternative to extermination was the policy of "domestication." This involved rounding up Indian survivors of the gold rush, or those occupying lands desired by White settlers, and sending them on forced marches to relocation centers, euphemistically called reservations. Brutal atrocities were committed during these death marches. Many hundreds died as a result of the removal operations by the military, because, if they did not die or were killed along the way, they found no provisions, houses, or other facilities once they reached their destinations and consequently became the victims of disease and starvation. Once on the reservations, the relocated Indians faced exploitation at the hands of crooked Indian agents, some of whom sold government-issue cattle intended to feed the Indians and pocketed the proceeds for themselves.

Summary and Conclusion

Sherburne Cook divides the catastrophic population decline of the California Indians into three stages. The first stage took place from 1769 to 1834 during the Spanish period under the mission system. The major cause of the decline was disease. The second stage extends from the end of the mission system in 1834 to the Mexican war with the United States in 1845. The two demographic processes responsible for the decline during this period were disease and the opening up of land to white settlement. The third and worst stage took place between 1845 and 1855, during the American period of the gold rush. This stage witnessed the decline of the remaining Indian population by two-thirds. The causes for this precipitous population decline clearly fall under the definition of genocide: the committing of acts with intent to destroy, wholly or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group. In California, especially immediately following the Gold Rush, these acts were deliberate and even institutional in scope.

Steve Talbot

Further Reading
Cook, Sherburne F. 1976. The Conflict Between the California Indian and White Civilization. Berkeley: University of California Press.; Cook, Sherburne F. 1978. "Historical Demography." Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 8: California. Robert F. Heizer, volume editor, 91–98. Washington: Smithsonian Institution.; Costo, Rupert, and Jeannette Henry Costo, eds. 1987. The Missions of California: A Legacy of Genocide. San Francisco: Indian Historian Press.; Heizer, Robert F., and Alan F. Almquist. 1971. The Other Californians: Prejudice and Discrimination Under Spain, Mexico, and the United States to 1920. Berkeley: University of California Press.; Kroeber, Theodora. 1976. Ishi in Two Worlds: A Biography of the Last Wild Indian in North America. Berkeley: University of California Press.; Moratto, Michael J. 1984. California Archaeology. Orlando, Florida: Academic Press.; Norton, Jack. 1979. Genocide in Northwestern California: When Our Worlds Cried. San Francisco, CA: The Indian Historian Press.

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