California Indians — Part II

The Republic of Mexico

In 1823, the flag of the Republic of Mexico replaced that of Nuevo España.  In all likelihood, none of the California Indians noticed the change.  In Mexico City, however, major changes were underway, not the least of which was the resentment of the Catholic Church’s monopoly of Indian land and unpaid Indian labor.  While it is true that New Spain officials never made any land grants to favored citizens, they did issue grazing permits and concessions to Spanish settlers.  Mexican officials, in realizing that 16% of the entire territory of California was under Church control, decided to correct this problem.  Before 1821, legal title to this land belonged to the Spanish Crown — afterward, it belonged to the Mexican Republic.

The Spanish Crown only intended the Catholic missions to exist for ten years.  After ten years, the developed estates were supposed to be distributed to surviving mission Indians.  The Indians, in turn, were expected to become hardworking, taxpaying citizens.  But that isn’t what happened.  Missionaries continually made excuses about why it was important that the padres retain dominion over the California Indians and their lands.  With the Mexican Constitution of 1824, all Indians became citizens of Mexico; on paper they had the right to vote, the right to hold public office, the right to hold title to their land.  The stark reality, however, is that nothing changed for the Indians; Mexico continued to treat them as slaves.

Mission Santa Barbara

Between 1824 — 1834, the Republic of Mexico issued land grants to fifty-one citizens.  That is, land grants to people other than the Indians, who remained incarcerated in mission labor camps.  The grants did little more than increase the lust Mexicans had for Indian land.  As the colonial population increased, so too did the hunger for land by their offspring.  The number of voices demanding that missionaries relinquish their monopoly grew louder by the year.  It was past the time to free the Indians, they said.  Their voices, however, were more apparent than their sincerity.  The power of this Californian land-owning class prevailed between 1834-1836 when the Mexican legislature revoked the power of Franciscans to extract labor from the Indians and developed their so-called land reform initiatives.  The land reforms, however, simply redistributed Indian land to the Mexican land-owning class.  Moreover, the secularization process, as it was called, was so restrictive that few surviving Indians could qualify for land eligibility.  The reason for this was that most surviving Indians were from inland areas, rather than the coastal regions where most missions were located.  When finally liberated, California Indians returned to their native homes and territories.

 When the Indians returned to their native lands, what they found was devastation.  The decline of tribal populations had crippled the ability of Indian communities from farming.  Spain’s introduction of new animals (horses, cattle, sheep, goats, and hogs) had destroyed native flora, the primary source of Indian diet.  Additionally, imported animals had driven natural wildlife (deer, elk, antelope), upon which the Indians depended for meat.  Our picture, then, is of an Indian broken in body and spirit, returning home to find nothing that would sustain him or his family.  There should be no surprise to learn that these former slaves and fugitives soon turned to guerilla warfare to seize food and protect themselves against Mexican military or paramilitary assaults and slave-hunting raids.  Eventually, a significant number of these groups merged to form new tribal arrangements through which they could reassert their sovereignty, and push back against Mexican ranchers and military outposts.

Operating on the basis of “business as usual,” Mexican authorities authorized an additional 762 land grants before 1847.  When these guerrilla bands learned that they could provide American and Canadian trappers with stolen horses, their raiding activities increased dramatically.  How significant were these raiding activities?  By the mid-1830s, Mexican land holders began abandoning their land grants because Indian stock-raiding parties drove them out of the ranching business.  Famed mill owner Johann A. Sutter even petitioned the Mexican government for protection, and when that failed to materialize, he asked the Mexican government to purchase his mill.

Despite this new Indian organization, whites from Mexico, Canada, and the United States descended upon the Indians, reducing their numbers further between 1833-1848.  When the whites weren’t raiding Indian villages and murdering women and children, they were bringing other gifts.  In 1833, they brought malaria.  One explorer noted, “From the head of the Sacramento River to the great bend and slough of the San Joaquin, we did not see more than six or eight live Indians.  We did find large numbers of their skulls and dead bodies under almost every shade tree near the water where uninhabited villages were transformed to graveyards.  The malaria epidemic is believed to have killed 20,000 central valley Indians; 2,000 died in 1837 alone.

Mexican forced labor and violence at the hands of the military and paramilitary slave-hunting parties account for a significant amount of human population decline.  On the eve of the United States’ takeover of California, 310,000 Indians had been reduced to an estimated 150,000 — in only 77 years.  It was a very bad situation, but it would become even worse.

The United States Invades

Fremont Assaults California

To say that Mexico neglected California would be a gross understatement.  It didn’t take long for Indian guerilla bands to overwhelm Mexican officials.  The arrival of U. S. military forces in California in 1846 didn’t have much trouble with the Mexicans, either.  Despite irrational and wholly unjustifiable U. S. Army raids on Sacramento River Indian villages, a majority of California Indians sided with the United States against Mexico and served them as scouts and wranglers.  When Mexican California collapsed in January 1847, a succession of U. S. military governors assumed responsibility for managing Indian affairs.  The first idiotic thing these governors did was appoint Indian-slavers Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo and Johann A. Sutter as Indian Agents.  Guerilla groups reacted almost immediately by increasing their raids against the white-eyes.  U. S. officials reacted by imposing oppressive restrictions on the free movement of natives.  For instance, the military government required Indians to carry certificates of employment on their person.

Conditions became worse after the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill.  If the whites seized Indian land in epic proportion before 1849, dispossession and murderous behavior increased ten-fold afterwards.  For example, Indian agent Johann Sutter attempted to negotiate a three-year lease for land surrounding Sutter’s Mill with the Coloma Nisenan Tribe.  The tribal chief did not understand Sutter’s interest in gold and gave him a grave warning: gold was very bad medicine; it belonged to a demon who devoured all who searched for it.  Fortunately, the military governor refused to approve Sutter’s lease arrangement.

By 1850, more than 100,000 gold-seekers descended on California like locusts — an event that overwhelmed the few American officials available to deal with them.  California civilian and military officials faced desertion on an unprecedented scale.  There was no law —or order.  Terror reigned in the dozens of mining camps, and mayhem spilled over into adjacent Indian villages.  One Indian witness observed, “We feared these invaders and as gold excitement advanced, tribal elders moved the village further and further away, each time in more haste.  Indian mothers blackened their children’s faces so that no one would steal them.”  The Indians feared vigilante groups such as the Humboldt Home Guard, who (among others) terrorized them.  Hubert Howe Bancroft noted, “The California valley cannot grace her annals with a single Indian war bordering on respectability.  It can, however, boast a hundred or two as brutal butchering, on the part of our honest miners and brave pioneers …”

The handiwork of vigilante death squads, combined with the widespread random killing of Indians by miners resulted in the death of 100,000 Indians between 1849-1851, which amounted to the staggering loss of 2/3 of the California Indian population.  In 1852, the remaining 70,000 Indians teetered on the brink of extinction.  Despite these overwhelming odds, the Indians would not go quietly into the night.  In 1850, one tribal chief by the name of Antonio Garra organized San Diego area Indians to resist an illegal tax imposed upon them by the county sheriff.  Sporadic attacks led by Garra on Mexicans and Americans led to a crackdown on Indian communities.  A rival chief captured Garra and turned him over to the authorities, who promptly hung him.  A year later, several Miwok bands in the mountains resisted miners who attempted to overrun their territory.  One trading post was destroyed and the owner’s twelve Indian wives released back to their families.  In retribution, whites of an organization called the Mariposa Battalion conducted a ruthless campaign against the Yosemite Indians.  Their chief, a man named Tenaya was promptly exiled to an “Indian Farm.”

Raids on Indian villages had but two purposes: gain Indian land and provide political capital for ambitious office-seekers.  Federal and state officials agreed to reimburse these vigilante groups for their expenses.  The story of the California Indian us a story of wanton murder on a scale unequaled in all of the United States’ Indian wars.

And then came the treaties

In 1849, Washington officials dispatched two “special emissaries” to California to report on the nature of Mexico’s recognition of Indian land titles.  Neither official spoke to a single Indian; they eventually produced an ambiguous and wholly inaccurate report that did absolutely nothing for California Indians.  But Washington had to do something about deteriorating conditions in California and settled on the appointment of three officials whose duty it was to make treaties with the Indians.  It must have been a euphemistic expression because what these officials were actually doing was extinguishing Indian land claims while forcing them on to federal/state reservations.

Not long after their arrival in San Francisco in January of 1851, and only then becoming aware of the vast size of California, the commissioners decided to split up and negotiate treaties independently.  By this time, all California Indians were suspicious of the white men who claimed they were looking after the Indian’s interests.  Few Indians were interested in attending any of these meetings.  Those who did attend the meetings were only vaguely aware of the meeting’s purpose.  Part of this problem was the unavailability of Indian language translators.  Those with a rudimentary understanding of the Indian language had to first translate into Spanish, and then to English.  Few Indians understood English — fewer still were interested in what these men had to say.

Despite these crippling drawbacks, the treaty process continued through 5 January 1852.  In all, eighteen treaties were negotiated.  The treaties agreed to set aside certain tracts of land for the signatory tribes and promised the help of farmers, school teachers, and blacksmiths.  The also promised livestock, seeds, agricultural implements, and cloth.  In return, all the California Indians had to do was give up their land and relocate to other areas, where the white men told them to go.  Of the 18 treaties signed, the names of these tribes were unidentifiable — because they didn’t actually exist.  The worst part of this was that while only a small number of Indians were willing to make these treaties, the treaty provisions applied to all California Indian groups, whether they agreed to them or not.

When these treaties became public, the pioneering public was outraged, egged on by local newspapers and local politicians.  What if, for example, these Indian lands contained gold?  What then?  Most American settlers simply wanted the Indian problem to go away — as in removed to another state, but extermination would be okay, too.  On 8 July 1852, in executive session, the U. S. Senate refused to ratify the treaties. While this was going on, Congress created a commission to validate land titles in California.  The law required that the commission inform the Indians that it would be necessary for them to file claims for their land; the commission would then investigate the claims and make recommendations whether or not to accept them.  This was part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War.  No one informed the Indians of any of this, of course, so California Indians never filed any claims.  It was a neat trick and its result completely dispossessed California Indians of their ancestral lands.  The only place where any of this could go was toward violence.


  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.

(Continued next week)

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in HISTORY, NATIVES and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to California Indians — Part II

  1. kidme37 says:

    Very sad. You’d think some decent land could have been carved out for them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Mustang says:

      What I learned in this study is the importance of ancestral lands. In this, the Indians are are much different from ourselves — so giving the Indians “land” beyond their traditional territories (as evidenced by the Modoc War) wouldn’t have mattered. In the context of those times, we might understand (but not excuse) the attitudes toward Indians of the white settlers — but I cannot understand how the government can stand by and watch such utter hopelessness of the Indians today and do nothing. The word for this is pathetic. Building ghettos on Indians lands would do no more good than developing slums for blacks in urban areas. No one is thinking outside the box.


    • kidme37 says:

      Yea, agree.


  2. larryzb says:

    We now see this disclaimer on old western movies that play on various TV channels: OCD: outmoded cultural depictions. History ought to be an accurate, fact based narrative of events that have occurred. But, western historiography is biased and typically buries important facts so most of us do not know the truth as what occurred in the past.

    My point is that we cannot glean the correct lessons from history if such history is not correct and complete. Great article above.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Andy says:

    I can’t remember ever reading of a time in our history where indigenous peoples were treated kindly, much less fairly. Perhaps there were some occasion when this occurred, but they must have been few and far between.

    This disturbing article clearly describes the plight of the California Indians, but it clearly parallels the treatment of indigenous peoples throughout the U.S. And, as you point out in one of your earlier comments, this continues even today.


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