California Indians — Part I

Part of the problem we have understanding the indigenous people of the present-day United States is the reality that, “Native” Americans weren’t native to the Americas.  It’s more than semantics, but to avoid nitpicking, it might be fair to say that the Indians were “first” to arrive in the Americas.  It was a migration of Stone Age people, which simply means that they relied on stone implements to ensure their survival.  It was a very long migration cycle, perhaps lasting one or two thousand years.  They may have had significant genetic similarities, whether the first or last to arrive in North America, but they were also ethnically and culturally diverse.  They may not have shared a common language, for example.  After their arrival, as they split off and migrated further into North America, ethnic and cultural differences increased even more.

In the United States, such terms as American Indian Tribe, Native American Tribe, Alaskan Native Village, tribal nation, or other similar concept, is any extant or historical clan, tribe, band, nation, or any other group or community that can trace their origins to the First People migration, 20-25,000 years ago.  We often associate them with land or territory that they traditionally inhabited.  Today, the term tribe has become a convenient administrative category of a wide range of First People groups, also known as “Federally recognized Indian tribes” which have specific meanings under United States law.  We should, in all fairness, realize that Indian groupings are much more than that.

Anthropologists and archeologists tell us that the settlement of the Americas began when Paleolithic hunter-gatherer groups entered North America from the North Asian Mammoth steppe across a land bridge we today call Beringia.  Beringia formed between northeastern Siberia and western Alaska at a time when sea levels were low during the glacial maximum period.  As they arrived, their primary concern was food, so they located sources of nourishment and followed these sources over their natural (often seasonal) migration patterns.  In this way, the Asian groups filtered into the continent, spread out in different directions.  Some of these migrated eastward, others south.  Around 14,000 years ago, they began settling in present-day South America — all this time, making adaptations to their environment, an important factor in explaining who they are today.  Perhaps the Asian’s “onward” migrations took place because areas of the western continent region were already occupied by earlier arrivals.

The Californians

Native American Habitations in CA

Scientists believe that Indian cultures in California have existed for 20,000 years.  Over time, the First People of California evolved into 500 ethnic groups of various sizes.  Some of these groups had no more than fifty people — others as many as five-hundred.  What makes the California Indians interesting is that they inhabited similar climatic and ecological zones, and so despite the large number of Indian groups we can identify as uniquely Californian, they have remarkable similarities in their technological evolution — the materials used to create tools, homes, storage containers, for example. Their hunting, trapping, and fishing implements were also similar.  The size of Indian groups was directly related to the availability of fresh water and food sources.  What made them distinct from one another was how they adapted to California’s several environments.

Today, scientists distinguish California Indians by their region of habitation.  How we refer to these people today may have no relevance to who they are, according to their own language — so I see no value in alluding to them by names that may have no relevance to the Indians themselves; suffice to say that the California government classifies them by regions, and this makes perfect sense. We all know who the Plains Indians were even if we can’t memorize dozens of hard-to-pronounce names that they called themselves.

Northwest California Indians inhabited a rainforest environment.  All settlements existed along or near rivers, lagoons, and coastal bays.  Their dugout canoes were ideal for this environment.  They could manufacture such boats because of the magnificent trees that were available to them.  Similarly, redwood and cedar woods were used in the construction of their homes.  Natural phenomena shaped their religious beliefs.  The men who ruled these settlements or villages were the most-wealthy among them: those who claimed the most land or fishing areas, had the most food, and/or possessed the most goods. The notion that Indians never owned the land is pure poppycock.

There are two divisions of the Northeast Indians: those living on the western side of this region lived in mountainous areas.  They relied on acorns and salmon as their chief sources of food.  On the eastern side, the Indians survived in a high desert environment where they relied on grass seeds, tuber berries, rabbit, and deer.  They were independent from one another, but interconnected through trade and intermarriage.  Even before the arrival of Europeans, Indian populations increased or decreased because of disease and virulent illnesses.

Central California is a vast territory with many Indian groupings, from coastal to mountain areas.  Food was plentiful — deer, elk, antelope as examples, large animals that required sophisticated tools to kill them and process them for food.  They tended to live in semi-subterranean roundhouses, which sheltered them comfortably in winter or summer.  Interestingly, many of the Central Californian Indian’s rituals were quite similar — but the villages were fiercely independent and self-governed.  Some of these villages sustained upward of one-thousand people; they were large enough to develop craft specialists, producing goods that could be bartered within the settlement.  Family groups in smaller settlements produced all that was needed to sustain the family group.

Southern California groups were also unique.  It was the place where the northern groups migrated to, where they found a highly disparate landmass and climate.  These Indian groups maintained vibrant trade relationships, bartering sea based resources to animal and faunal resources found further inland.  Villages varied from poor desert communities to sophisticated and well-populated settlements.

The foregoing summary tells us about California Indians before the Spanish arrived.  What the Spanish learned from their late 17th Century experiences in Central and South America they took with them to Alta California.  The Franciscans determined that it would be better to establish their missions as independent entities from Spanish colonial leaders.  It would be the ‘soft side’ of conquest and it began in 1769 with Franciscan Junipero Serra and Gaspar de Portola.  Serra would be instrumental in establishing twenty-one Catholic missions in California.

What Happened

Bridgeman Art Library

The foregoing term soft conquest of the California Indians was the de facto purpose of Franciscan missions.  They were coercive religious labor camps designed to benefit Spanish colonizers.  The plan was carefully contrived: the military would first intimidate the Indians (the bad guy routine) and when the Spanish settlers introduced domesticated animals, which consumed Indian food sources, which made the Indians dependent on food sources managed by the missions, the Franciscans would, with sympathetic understanding, convince the Indians that they could achieve a better existence in the afterlife as devoted Catholic converts (the good guy routine).  Romantic portraits of the missionary system, as painted by revisionist historians, is pure fiction.

It was a through this well-established pattern of bribes and intimidation (and the Indian’s amazement that Europeans were immune to the diseases that killed off their people in the thousands) that convinced the frightened Indians to seek the protection of Catholic missionaries.  

Spanish authorities allotted ten years to the Franciscans for the conversion of these heathens to Catholicism.  Afterward, the Franciscans were to surrender control of all mission assets (livestock, fields, orchards, and buildings) to Indian control.  Franciscan missionaries ignored this law, which ultimately resulted in the wholesale theft of Indian land and wealth.  Still, the most effective factor in achieving control over the Indians was the introduction of pandemic disease and illness.

For tens of thousands of years, the First People evolved in isolation, without any exposure to the horrific diseases that had plagued Europeans for centuries.  They had their own variation of illnesses, of course, but among the European diseases, none was more virulent or deadly to native populations than smallpox — but syphilis, diphtheria, chickenpox, and measles took their toll as well.

When the Spanish arrived in California, they brought more than disease to the Indians; they brought also unhygienic practices that produced water-borne bacteria.  Indian populations, such as those in the present-day Santa Clara Valley, were devastated — and among the Indians, the children were most susceptible.  Measles alone killed thousands, from San Francisco to Santa Barbara — a consequence of the missionary practice of forcibly separating children from the parents at the age of six years, and forcing these children to live in filthy communicable barracks.  It didn’t help the Indian’s ability to resist these diseases when the missionaries literally worked them to exhaustion.

But the final nail in the Indian’s coffin occurred when native people lost faith in their village or tribal shamans to relieve them of their suffering and they were beset with severe psychological depression.  By the early 1800s, California Indian populations had declined by sixty percent.

The Indians Fight Back

If one wanted to characterize the life of an average California Indian in the year 1800, it would include unrelenting demand for labor, forced separation from their children, never-ending threats of physical coercion, and despair.

At first, Indian resistance took the form of surreptitiously maintaining their traditional religious beliefs.  Outwardly, the Indians became adherents to Catholicism; but they prayed to their traditional deities, and conducted native dances and religious rituals in secret.  And they ran away.  Thousands of the estimated 82,000 converts deserted the missions, but no more than one in every twenty-four actually escaped mission labor camps.

To the Indians, the Franciscan padres were powerful witches; the only way to stop them was through assassination.  In 1801, Indians poisoned three padres (one of them died).  In 1805, one Indian of the Yokut tribe attempted to stone a padre to death.  In 1812, one padre brazenly informed “his Indians” that he intended to punish them with a new instrument of torture.  He was promptly killed.

There were also more than a few armed revolts.  Indians in San Diego organized two major attacks against the missionaries and their military escorts within five weeks of their arrival in 1769.  In 1775, San Diego Indians destroyed Mission San Diego and killed the padre to stop him from sexually assaulting members of their community.  Two missions were destroyed along the Colorado River in 1781, killing four padres in the process and permanently disrupting the Spanish overland route from Mexico into Southern California.

The last great mission Indian revolt occurred in 1824 at Mission Santa Barbara.  Disenchanted Chumash Indians fought a pitched battle against Spanish soldiers, violently overthrew the mission, sacked it, and set it afire.  Around this same time, a number of guerrilla bands developed.  Mounted on horses and utilizing modern weapons, guerrilla bands began raiding mission livestock and assaulting Spanish colonial military forces.

Increasing native hostility was enough to persuade the Mexican Republic to strip the padres of their power over native Americans; afterward, the Spanish mission system throughout Mexico collapsed.  By 1824, around 100,000 (nearly a third) of the California Indian population had died — and yet, despite these circumstances, tribal groups maintained their identities and cohesion.  The missions became a mixture of Indians from different tribes, speaking their own languages, following their own traditions, and ignoring other Indians.  One thing they shared in common was their steadfast refusal to learn the Spanish language, which caused the Spaniards/Mexicans to appoint labor overseers who spoke the native tongue.  These overseers helped the Indians to maintain their distinct cultural identity.  Another factor was that the Indian groups refused to live in mixed-tribal barracks.

(Continued next week)


  1. Bradley, B. And D. J. Standford.  The Pre-Clovis First Americans.  University of California, 2012.
  2. Castillo, E.  D.  The History of California Indians.  California Native American Commission, Online.
  3. Dixon, E. J.  Bones, Boats, & Bison: Archeology and the First Colonization of Western North America.  Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999.
  4. Lightfoot, K.  California Indians and Their Environment.  Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009.
  5. Quinn, A.  Hell with the Fire Out: A History of the Modoc War.  New York: Faber & Faber, 1998.

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in American Indians, California, History, Indian War and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to California Indians — Part I

  1. Well that’s a different view. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I had never heard the mission system described that way.

    Liked by 1 person

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