By Alan Johnstone
I expect you’ve heard of the Sioux. Other warlike tribes as well — Cheyenne, Apache. You may know something of the Seminoles of Florida, the Cherokees’ ‘trail of tears,’ the League of the Iroquois. Two American states take their name from the Dakota. But can you name even one of the indigenous groups who used to live in California? You may not even have realized that anyone did live there before Europeans arrived.
In fact, California was home to an estimated 150,000 indigenous people. But they were too weak and too peaceable to put up much resistance to the hordes of armed European invaders. They were easily wiped out and – except by a few experts — easily forgotten.
In 1848 California became the property of the United States – a spoil of victory in its war with Mexico. Gold was first discovered in California the same year. In 1850 California became a state.
The Gold Rush led to the death of 80% of California’s native people. Some 100,000 perished in the first two years alone. By 1873 only 30,000 remained. Though some died of hunger after their land was seized or of diseases caught from settlers, between 9,000 and 16,000 were murdered in cold blood — victims of a policy of genocide pursued by the State of California and eagerly assisted by its new citizens.
The Act for the Governance and Protection of Indians was passed in 1850. This sounds benign, but it was malign in the extreme. The Act allowed Native Americans to be enslaved even though California was admitted to the Union as a free state and was to back the North in the Civil War. It was illegal to enslave black people, but native men, women, and children were openly bought and sold in city streets throughout the 1850s.
The Act made it easier to remove natives from their traditional lands, separating a whole generation from their families, languages, and cultures (1850–1865). It provided for ‘apprenticing’ or indenturing Indian children and adults to Whites and punished ‘vagrant’ Indians by hiring them out to the highest bidder at a public auction if the Indian could not provide sufficient bond or bail. White settlers and the state government enslaved native people and forced them to labor for ranchers through at least the mid-1860s. They were then forced onto reservations and their children compelled to attend ‘Indian assimilation schools.’
The Act permitted ownership of Indian children (Section 3. Any person … obtaining a minor Indian … and wishing to keep it,) In 1860 this provision was expanded to enable ownership of Indian children to extend into adulthood. Indians were denied equal standing under the law (Section 6. In no case shall a white man be convicted of any offence upon the testimony of an Indian).
The first governor of California, Peter Hardeman Burnett, declared on January 6, 1851 that
He proceeded to set aside funds to equip local militias to be used against Native Americans, raiding tribal villages and shooting and scalping Native Americans. Local settlers set about doing the killing, while the authorities placed bounties on Native Americans. At one point the prize was about $25 for a male body part, whether it was a scalp, a hand, or the whole body; and $5 for a child or a woman.
Only in 1900, after the Act for the Governance and Protection of Indians was repealed, did many Californians learn that it had still been legal to kill Native Americans.
Genocide and enslavement do not exonerate the preceding Spanish and then Mexican rule with their forced conversions, brutal corporal punishment, slave labor, deadly disease outbreaks, and widespread rape and abuse. However,the intent of the Catholic clerics and the soldiers who accompanied them was to subjugate the indigenous people – not exterminate them.
See also: ‘Indigenous groups seek justice for California Gold Rush massacre,’ Al-Jazeera.