James Marshall discovered gold on the morning of January 24, 1848 as he was building a saw mill for Johann Sutter. In the following years over 100 thousand Euro-Americans would make their way to the golden state in search of fame and fortune. The indigenous population faced a new wave of settlers that not only threatened their territories but also their lives. By the end of the Gold Rush period California’s indigenous population laid at the brink of extinction. Legislation with roots in Manifest Destiny and dehumanization helped lead Euro-Americans to commit the greatest act of genocide in American history.
Two years after gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, California’s first governor Peter Hardenman Burnett allocated state funding for local militias’ to “protect” Euro-American gold mining settlements. That legislation offered militia members incentives in the form of individual payments for proof of dead California Indians. In 1851 Burnett made his second address to the California state legislature which made his agenda clear. “A war of extermination will continue to be waged between the two races until the Indian race becomes extinct, must be expected.”
“In 1850, California’s first governor, Peter Burnett, announced the state’s official position of genocide, ‘as the only solution to the Indian problem.’ The state funded both the bullets for the voluntary militia, and $10 to $25 for proof of executed Indians – scalps, heads, hands, or bodies.”
“California’s first bond of $400,000 was issued in 1854, to fund the bounty on dead Indians and the costs of extermination. Also in 1850, the state passed a law, ironically named the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, giving the state authority over Indians, including land settlements and denying even the federal government any trust role or authority to negotiate treaties” (Pico 2007).
1850-1860 offered great sorrow and hardship for the indigenous peoples of California. Adults were outright murdered for profit and their children were taken as slaves. Militias and bounty hunters grew in numbers due to a lack of production through prospecting. It seemed one way or another Euro-American settlers were going to make a living in their new homes. They performed their tasks of elimination with deadly efficiently. “Between 1850 and 1860, the state of California paid around 1.5 million dollars. Some $250,000 of which was reimbursed by the federal government” (Johnston-Dodds, 2002).
“Numerous vigilante type paramilitary troops were established whose principal occupation seems to have been to kill Indians and kidnap their children. Groups such as the Humbolt Home Guard, the Eel River Minutemen and the Placer Blades among others terrorized local Indians and caused the premier 19th century historian Hubert Howe Bancroft to describe them as follows…
“The California valley cannot grace her annals with a single Indian war bordering on respectability. It can, however, boast a hundred or two of as brutal butchering, on the part of our honest miners and brave pioneers, as any area of equal extent in our republic.”
“The handiwork of these well-armed death squads combined with the widespread random killing of Indians by individual miners resulted in the death of 100,000 Indians in the first two years of the gold rush. A staggering loss of two thirds of the population. Nothing in American Indian history is even remotely comparable to this massive orgy of theft and mass murder. Stunned survivors now perhaps numbering fewer than 70,000 teetered near the brink of total annihilation” (Gjohnsit, 2014).
Bounty hunters also took part in the act of extermination but for a lesser wage. Rewards ranged from five dollars per severed head to 25 cents per Indian scalp. A historical report from one Shasta City resident wrote how he saw men ride into town on mules with eight to twelve Indian heads.
Euro-American settlers were having a difficult time making money off prospecting. A number of them had a criminal past and escaped to California to find riches. Many ended up living in conditions of poverty in shanty towns or in tent cities. They migrated to California in search of a better life, what they found was their own personal Great Depression. With legislation aimed at the dehumanization of California’s indigenous peoples it was easier for settlers to justify their genocidal acts.
With Militias’ and bounty hunters in place, The California government had all they needed to fulfill their dreams of Manifest Destiny. Before the Gold Rush era there were only about 4000 Europeans living in California and only about 400 of them were Americans. The allure of gold brought in a wave of over 100 thousand settlers with a mindset of colonialism and a strong belief in helping to make the state the last great beacon of European dominance over America.
California Indians did not share the values of incoming settlers. They were seen as animals that needed to be made to heel at the feet of dominate culture by the government and new settlers. Propaganda through newspaper articles and other mediums trained the Euro-Americans to hate the Indians in their own minds. The indigenous peoples were painted as a vermin that stood in the path of the American dream of progression and prosperity. It was simple to fulfill your dreams as a thriving citizen of the United States. All one had to do was help eliminate the threat of savages that stood in the way.
“By the mid-1860’s only 34,000 Indians remained alive in California, a 90% attrition rate, comparable to the Armenian Genocide of 1915-1917. Finally, in the 1870’s, the federal government began moving on creating Indian reservations in southern California. 13 were created between 1875 and 1877. By 1930 another 36 reservations had been created in northern California” (Gjohnsit, 2014).
Today there are currently 109 federally recognized tribes in California. There are over 300 tribes in total in the state. Many of these tribes are small, ranging from a single family to a few hundred people. It is estimated that before European contact in 1770 the Native American population exceeded 320 thousand (Cook, 1978). In about 100 years Manifest Destiny and colonialism led to the deaths of about 290,000 Californians of indigenous descent.
It is important that we become aware of these atrocities towards the indigenous peoples of California. Text books are not telling the youth of America the whole truth in regards to the countries bloody history and treatment towards its first inhabitants. We must incorporate the full history into these books to both pay respect and offer the proper framing as to how we arrived at where we are today as a country. As long as the dominate culture continues to look the other way on these matters of the past, no progress or reconciliation can be made between these two groups of people in the future.
Just like the old adage says, “If we do not learn from history we are doomed to repeat it.”
Gjohnsit, User. “The Great California Genocide.” Daily Kos. Daily Kos, 14 Aug. 2014. Web. 11 May 2016. <http://www.dailykos.com/story/2008/8/14/567667/->.
“The Great California Genocide,” by User “Gjohnsit,” of Daily Kos, is diary entry that profiles the California Gold Rush period and its genocidal effects against California Indians. This is the most extensive digital article that I was able to locate on this issue. “Gjohnsit” provides a deep and well researched analysis of the events leading up to the Gold Rush and the steps the California government took to eliminate the indigenous peoples of California. This article provided a great starting point to find deeper information on the political and moral reasoning behind the little known piece of history.
Johnston-Dodds, Kimberly. “California Militia and Expeditions Against the Indians, 1850 – 1859.” California Militia and Expeditions Against the Indians, 1850 – 1859. Web. 11 May 2016. <http://www.militarymuseum.org/MilitiaandIndians.html>.
Kimberly Johnston-Dodds compiles legislation in regards to the indigenous population of California in her report to the California Research Bureau at the California State Library in September 2002. The report looks at legislation from 1850-1859. Legislation includes funding allocation for militias to “protect” settlers from indigenous communities. This is a vital piece of legislation because it was the first act of state sponsored murder towards indigenous peoples by the California Euro-American population.
Lindsay, Brendan C. Murder State: California’s Native American Genocide, 1846-1873. Lincoln: U of Nebraska, 2012. Print.
“Murder State,” by Brendan Lindsay, tells a tale of the atrocities surrounding the California Gold Rush Era. In a 27 year span five-sixths of the remaining California indigenous population were killed by settlers. This book provides a look into a history that has been for the most part been left out of main stream American history books. It is a strong source that is rooted in fact. “Murder State” is one of the few books that outright examines the only example of state sponsored genocide in United States history.
Pico, Anthony R. “History of Sovereignty in U.S.” Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians. Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, 30 Sept. 2007. Web. 11 May 2016.