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The California Native American Genocide

“The land we occupy today is the very same ground on which these terrible crimes took place. We Californians are the beneficiaries of genocide. I suspect few Californians today contextualize their homes as sitting upon stolen land or land gained by bloody force or artful deceits, nor do they likely consider the social and political questions of present day Native American affairs in this light.”

—Brendan Lindsay, Murder State: California’s Native American Genocide, 1846-1873

In fourth grade, attending a public school in Fullerton, I learned about the history of California. One aspect that was not covered in this curriculum was the fact that in the first three decades of American statehood, California’s Native American population experienced a genocide at the hands of white American citizens.

This was not just an accidental by-product of disease or “natural” forces—many thousands of Indians in California were violently massacred by legal state-sponsored militias. These roving death squads operated under color of law and with the support of politicians, the press, and local citizens. Other Native Americans perished due to starvation, slavery, and planned neglect.

This tragedy, often overshadowed by nostalgic recollections of the Gold Rush, has only recently been making its way into public consciousness. I would wager that most Californians today have no idea.

The first comprehensive treatments of this subject were published very recently, in 2012 and 2014. These are An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873 by Benjamin Madley, and Murder State: California’s Native American Genocide, 1846-1873 by Brendan Lindsay. Both authors are professors of history in California.

Over the past few months, I’ve read these books and have been working on this report. More than any other aspect of local history I’ve written about, this has been the most difficult. This is not because these books are not well-written. It is because this topic is, to quote Madley, “unrelentingly grim.” This project has taken me longer than normal because it is emotionally very heavy. It is profoundly disturbing and unpleasant.

So why, then, is it important to understand this history? The answers to this are many, but for Lindsay, they are actually very practical and relevant.

“The motive for this book rests upon a very practical foundation,” Lindsay writes. “Native Americans in California today are making inroads in matters of health, cultural renewal, sovereignty, and the reclaiming of lost lands and other rights. California voters, teachers, courts, and lawmakers thus continue to make choices that affect Native American people in the state.”

Over the past few years, in the course of researching and writing about the local Native American tribe (the Kizh), I’ve actually befriended living members of this tribe. They are a kind and generous people with a sad history, and they are still seeking official federal recognition today, in 2020.

An honest assessment of the way California and the United States have treated the Kizh and other California tribes (of which there are around 100) is essential in making fair public policy decisions about justice for living tribal members.

And so, in a spirit of honesty, empathy, and justice, I present a summary of what I’ve learned about California’s Native American genocide.

When scholars like Madley and Lindsay use the term “genocide” they are not being sensationalistic, but rather are referring to something that is clearly defined by international law, specifically the 1948 UN Convention on Genocide. Using this legal framework, it is clear that what Euro-Americans did to Native Americans in California meets the legal criteria for genocide.

A notable difference between what happened here and what happened in other genocides like the Holocaust is that, instead of being directed by a central authority, genocide in California was largely conducted by ordinary citizens through the democratic process (more on this later).

The Ideology Behind Genocide

Early in his book, Lindsay poses the question: “How did unthinkable acts, such as the purposeful murder of infants, become thinkable, thinkable in fact to people who valued freedom, had deep faith, loved their own children, and sought to make better lives for themselves and their families? How could otherwise good people commit such heinous atrocities, and indeed honor and celebrate those atrocities?”

A similar question was posed by Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt in her book Eichmann in Jerusalem: Notes on the Banality of Evil, in which she explores the 1960 trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. During the trial, Eichmann appears to be a painfully ordinary bureaucrat, not a bloodthirsty monster. Arendt’s explanation is that most people who commit atrocities, past and present, do so because they uncritically accept a popular ideology, and act in accordance with this.

In the case of the California Native American genocide, two main ideologies lay behind the catastrophe: Manifest Destiny and racism against Indians.

“Manifest Destiny,” a term coined by Stephen O’Sullivan in 1845, was the popular notion that it was America’s God-ordained destiny to expand all the way to the Pacific Ocean. This despite the fact that, at that time, the west was part of Mexico and peopled by hundreds of indigenous nations.

This ideology, combined with a pervasive racism against Native Americans (as inferior savages), allowed for what Troy Duster has called “conditions for guilt-free massacre…the denial of humanity to the victim.”

Lindsay cites numerous examples of 19th century historians, politicians, and journalists expressing these twin ideologies of Manifest Destiny and racism to support territorial expansion of the US (and the resulting genocide).

Caleb Cushing, an influential politician and supporter of expansionism said in 1859, “We belong to that excellent white race, the consummate impersonation of intellect in man, and loveliness in woman, whose power and privilege it is, wherever they may go, and wherever they may be, to Christianize and civilize, to command be obeyed, to conquer and to reign. I admit to an equality with me, sir, the white man, my blood and race, whether he be the Saxon of England or the Celt of Ireland. But I do not admit as my equals the red men of America, the yellow men of Asia, or the black men of Africa.”

Cushing was not an outlier, but expressed commonly-held beliefs of the era. Newspapers and popular publicans in the 19th century routinely portrayed Native Americans as inferior savages. To quote but a few examples:

From Parley’s Magazine of New York: “Equally inanimate and filthy in habit, they do not possess ingenuity and perseverance…sullen and lazy, they only rouse when pressed by want.”

From the Chico Weekly Courant: “They are of no benefit to themselves or mankind…If necessary, let there be a crusade, and every man that can carry and shoot a gun turn out and hunt the Red Devils to their holes and there bury them, leaving not a root or branch of them remaining.”

Wagons West

From 1846-1848, guided by the ideology of Manifest Destiny, the United States waged an expansionist war against the fledgling Republic of Mexico. The US won and under the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, acquired half of Mexico’s territory—all the way to California.

In 1848, gold was discovered in California, sparking what became known as the Gold Rush. Tens of thousands of Americans flocked westward seeking their fortunes.

The influx of tens of thousands of Americans into California proved disastrous for native Californians. In 1848, the indigenous population of California was estimated at around 150,000. Within 60 years, this population would collapse by nearly 90%.

The Real Gold Rush was Land

While the original impetus for massive westward expansion was gold, the commodity of more lasting value turned out to be land.

The US government offered “public” lands to Americans at the tiny sum of $1.25 per acre through many programs such as the School Land Warrant Program.

The War Department also decreed that up to 160 acres per person could be had by all veterans of the Mexican American War.

Upon claiming all this cheap or free land for grazing, timber, minerals, water, and farmland, some American Californians faced a problem. As it turned out, much of the land was already occupied by Native Americans who had been there for millennia.

What to do?

“Protecting the Settlers” from Harper’s Magazine (1861)

Democratic Death Squads

While both Lindsay and Madley’s books cover much of the same material, Madley’s is more comprehensive in its documentation of direct massacres of Indians, primarily by white settlers in the form of militias.

In the appendices to An American Genocide, Madley documents dozens of specific massacres, taken largely from primary sources.

Madley was able to document these because those committing these mass murders were not ashamed. The unfolding genocide was not a secret, but something openly celebrated and called for by newspapers, politicians, and local leaders up and down the state.

The pattern became a familiar one, as Lindsay describes: “This cycle of starvation of native peoples, their stock theft for food, and the bloody, retaliatory vengeance by settlers and ranchers, exacted often with self-righteous fury, was the key sequence of events leading to the Euro-American claim that extermination of Indigenous populations was a practical necessity.”

That was the term often used at the time: extermination.

The Marysville Evening Herald proclaimed in 1853: “Extermination is no longer even a question of time—the time has already arrived, the work has been commenced, and let the first white man who says treaty or peace be regarded as a traitor and coward.”

Anthropologist Robert Heizer estimated that “for every white man killed, a hundred Indians paid the penalty with their lives.”

Many of these retaliatory massacres of Indian villages were conducted by democratically-organized militia of local volunteers with names like the Eel River Rangers.

In these punitive expeditions, the brave volunteers didn’t just kill men; they killed women and children.

U.S. Army Lt. Edward Dillon “reported to his supervisors in 1859 that he had received intelligence that during a two week expedition led by [a man named] Hall and other citizens, some 240 Indians were killed.”

Hall later recalled, “We took one boy into the valley and the infants were put out of their misery and a girl 10 years of age was killed for stubbornness.”

These “volunteers” were usually reimbursed for their expenses by the state and federal governments.

Here’s a list of some of the murderous “expeditions” documented in Madley’s book, along with how much the “volunteers” were reimbursed by the state of California:

Gila Expedition (1850):  In Quechan country near the Colorado River: 12 Indians reported killed at a cost of $113,482.

First El Dorado Expedition (1850): In Nisenan territory: More than 19 Indians reported killed at a cost of $101,861.

Mariposa Battalion (1851): In the southern mines: Between 73-93 Indians killed for $259,372.

Second El Dorado Expedition (1851): In Nissan territory: 21 Indians killed for $199,784.

Siskiyou Volunteer Rangers Expedition (1852): In Modoc territory: Between 73-200 Indians killed for $14,987.

Shasta Expedition (1854): In the McCloud River Valley: 58-63 Indians killed for $4,068.

Coast Rangers and Klamath Mounted Rangers Operation (1854-1855): In Del Norte County region: “Hundreds” of Indians killed for $0.

Klamath and Humboldt Expedition (1855): In Northwestern California: 45-80 Indians killed for $99,096.

Let me pause here for a moment for those tempted to think that these expeditions constituted “war” and were thus justified. In the vast majority of cases, the number of non-Indians killed was zero. This had to do with superior firepower of the militias and a strategy of opening fire from a distance upon unarmed villages. Again, the most common motive for these massacres was theft of cows or horses by starving Indians. Okay, on with the list.

Siskiyou Expedition (1855): In Modoc Territory: 25-45 Indians killed for $14,036.

Tulare Expedition (1856): In Tulare County region: Over 59 Indians killed for $12,732.

Modoc Expedition (1856): In Modoc country: 185 Indians killed for $188,324.

Mounted Volunteers of Siskiyou County: 59-72 Indians killed for $5,149.

Second Klamath and Humboldt Expedition (1859): 100-125 Indians killed for $52,185.

Pit River Expedition (1859) In Achumawi, Atseguwi, Maidu, and Yana territory: 200 Indians killed for $72,156.

Mendocino Expedition (1859-1860): In Yuki territory: 283-400 Indians killed for $9,347.

Humboldt Home Guards Expedition (1861): In Humboldt County: 77-79 Indians killed for an unknown amount of money.

This is by no means an exhaustive list.

“Perpetrators, bystanders, survivors, and secondary sources indicate that non-Indians killed at least 9,492 to 16,094 California Indians, and probably more, between 1846 and 1873,” Madley concludes.

In Humboldt County, the citizens of Uniontown and Eureka voted for a tax to be levied on residents “to prosecute the Indian war to extermination.”

Indian hunting could be a profitable endeavor.

“Scalp and head bounties were instituted in some towns and counties. In one example, a county paid 50 cents for every Indian scalp and $5 for every Indian head brought in…One man brought in as many as 12 Indian heads in one trip alone,” Lindsay writes.

“Perhaps the most shocking bounty opportunity was one suggested by the editors of the Lassen Sage Brush in 1868, a $500 bounty for “every Indian killed.” This would be such an incentive as to make killing Native Americans tantamount to California’s new Gold Rush.”

This “war of extermination” was not just the result of some callous locals, but found sanction at the highest levels of government.

In an address to the state legislature in 1852, California governor Peter H. Burnett, said, “That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the two races until the Indian becomes extinct, must be expected; while we cannot anticipate this result with but painful regret, the inevitable destiny of the race is beyond the power and wisdom of man to avert.”

Meanwhile, his administration reimbursed the Indian-killing militias hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“By January 1854, the state of California had already spent $924,259 on Native American genocide,” Lindsay writes. “Some of the money had been reimbursed by the federal government, but much remained unpaid. The state resorted to issuing war bonds to pay for the costs of campaigns against Native Americans.”

Under California law at this time, Indians had little recourse or protections for crimes committed against them. California’s criminal code prevented Native peoples from serving as witnesses against whites, stating “No black or mulatto person, or Indian shall be permitted to give evidence in favor of, or against, any white person.”

Indian Slavery in California

“Cannot some plan be devised to remove them [Indians] from our midst? Could they not be removed to a plantation in the vicinity of our city, and put under the control of an overseer, and not be permitted to enter the city, except by special permit of the Superintendent? Our citizens who are in want of their labor could apply direct to the Superintendent for such help as they might want, and when their work was finished, permit them to return to their home.”

Los Angeles Star (1856)

Although California was never officially a slave state, white settlers created a system of de facto slavery for Native Americans.

“Destroying Native lifeways, economies, and people, EuroAmericans created an economy based on stolen land worked by what was, in many of its essentials, slave labor,” Lindsay writes.

In the early 1850s, the California legislature passed the ill-named “Act for the Government and Protection of Indians.” According to Lindsay, this act made California’s indigenous population “practically legal non-entities and the objects of legalized kidnapping, enslavement, and murder, ensuring that access to Native labor would not only continue, but increase.”

In Los Angeles in the 1850s, there was actually a de facto slave mart for Native Americans.

“Euro-Americans harnessed laws contained in the act against Indian vagrancy and drunkenness to obtain a form of short-term slave labor from Native Americans,” Lindsay writes.

A lack of Native resources created an “economy of slow starvation” for native peoples.

In addition to this legalized slavery, “the legal system placed Native workers in homes all over Southern California through apprenticeship laws, also contained in ‘An Act for the Government and Protection of Indians.’ Scholars have estimated that white Americans enslaved as many as 20,000 Native Americans in California. This slave system, disguised as an apprenticeship in advanced civilization for inferior peoples, contributed to the genocide of Native peoples tremendously. By separating families, depriving children of Native linguistic and cultural education, and inflicting mental and physical hardships, Euro-Americans destroyed Native families, lowered birthrates, and committed physical, cultural, and economic genocide.”

Broken Treaties and Neglected Reservations

In 1850, the year California became a state, three federal treaty commissioners were sent to the new state. They were able to negotiate 18 separate treaties with various Native American tribes.

Unfortunately, under pressure from California senators, the US senate voted not to ratify these treaties. They also voted for an “injunction of secrecy on the treaties, which were hidden from the public until 1905.”

With no ratified treaties, the federal government allotted no land to California tribes, but instead created reservations that were “federal property where Native Americans were housed.”

“Native Americans living east of California had for centuries been pushed westward but in California that option was unavailable, lest one push California’s population into the Pacific Ocean,” Lindsay writes.

Lacking official treaties which might have guaranteed rights and sovereignty, California Indians were left at the mercy of federal Indian commissioners.

The first superintendent of Indian affairs in California was a man named Edward F. Beale. Upon his arrival in 1852, he sent this report back to Washington:

“Driven from their fishing and hunting grounds, hunted themselves like wild beasts, lassoed, and torn from homes made miserable by want, and forced into slavery, the wretched remnant which escapes starvation on the one hand, and the relentless Americans on the other, only do so to rot and die of a loathsome disease, the penalty of Indian association with frontier civilization. This is not idle declamation—I have seen it; and I know that they perish by the hundreds; I know that they are fading away with a startling and shocking rapidity, but I cannot help them. Humanity must yield to necessity. They are not dangerous; therefore they must be neglected.”

Beale, like later Indian commissioners, was eventually fired for mismanagement and fraud.

His replacement, Thomas J. Henley, was even worse.

“In 1855 John Ross Browne, a US Treasury agent empowered as a special investigator for the federal government, was sent to inspect Indian affairs and conditions on California’s reservations…Brown excoriated Henley and other federal agents associated with Indians affairs in California. In a series of reports to the commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington, he described the corruption apparent on the reservations he visited and the utter waste of federal funds. In particular he noted the shady dealings of the officials, including Henley. In one telling report, Brown said that private enterprises by the officials were seen on the reservations and seemed to make use of Native labor, federal funds, and land set aside for the care of Native people on the reservation. Timber from federal land was being harvested without recompense, and the discharges of a sawmill were destroying the fisheries Native people depended on. Much of this, Brown charged, was for the profit of Henley and other whites living on the reservation. Indeed his many reports charged that those empowered to carry out the operations were inept, ineffective, and downright corrupt,” Lindsay writes.

Under Henley’s leadership “funds in the thousands of dollars meant for the subsistence of Native peoples were being expended on for-profit ventures of federal employees and white settlers on reservation lands.”

Many on the reservation were being slowly starved to death or died of disease brought on by malnutrition or their weakened state.

Henley, like his predecessor, was eventually fired for mismanagement and fraud.

There also existed a lucrative trade of kidnapping women and children from the reservations.

Army Lt. Dillon reported in 1861 “that he knew of at least 50 instances when Native children were kidnapped and sold to local settlers.”

Despite being fired from their positions as Indian commissioners, both Beale and Henley “obtained land near reservations and used Native Americans as unpaid labor to make their fortunes.”

By 1860, the seven reservations in California “were either reduced or closed altogether.”


Lindsay concludes that “genocide in the state of California in the 19th century was planned by white settlers, miners, and ranchers who used extermination, either physical or cultural, to obtain Indian land and resources…Hopefully this study is sufficient to generate shame and outrage, today at least, and help in the process of revitalizing, rebuilding, and enumerating Native communities by educating all Americans of the genocidal past of the shared place that Native and non-Native persons now call home.”

24 replies »

  1. Thank you for this summary of our dismal treatment of local natives. Another excuse for “settlers” was the idea that European religions were God-given and superior; thus Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and California’s so-called “missions.” Recent efforts in some states to censor these facts from discussion in schools stem from the stupid idea that our children should be kept ignorant of history.

  2. I agree with Linda Anderson having found many “pretendians” and bingo-Indians who are federally recognized that have learned well from white folks. These are greedy Indians imitating the same cultural ways of those who enslaved, raped and murdered their ancestors, such irony of illness when the victims become the perpetrators.

    • Really? You are equating the acts of murder, enslavement, and rape with … what, exactly? Running a casino? This is your reaction to reading first-hand accounts of people murdering infants and delivering bags of human heads for government bounty… to say… “the victims have become the perpetrators” ??? What are you talking about?

  3. All men are greedy. It’s not a matter of being red, yellow, black or white. We all need saving, mainly from ourselves. Jesus means, “God Saves”.

  4. Whitemen have no shame even to this day. They also say that natives are respected by whitemen, yet they don’t attempt to fix what they have done but to continue the slow genocide hoping it would all go away.

    • We also must acknowledge that Spanish Catholics have tried their darn hardest to sweep their atrocities towards Native Americans under the rug too. From the the era of Catholic-Franciscan mission system of New Spain to the latter years of early Mexico’s ranchero system vs former Native territories.

  5. Thank you! These are two important books that need to become more widely read, particularly in California. Having read them, I thought the summary was good but obviously the books have much more detail, disturbing but important detail. They are both worth a read or a audio listen.