Native Americans and the California Gold Rush

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Native Americans and the California Gold Rush

Excerpts from Exterminate Them: Written Accounts of the Murder, Rape, and Slavery of Native Americans

During the California Gold Rush, 1848–1868

Edited by Clifford E. Trafzer and Joel R. Hyer

Published in 1999

With its mild climate, its vast and fertile interior valleys, and an abundance of game, the region we now know as California once supported a large native population. Historians estimate that before contact with the Europeans some three hundred thousand native people lived in the territory known as California. These Indians organized themselves into more than one hundred different tribes. Each of these groups had distinct cultures and traditions, and all benefited from an environment that provided them with the best diet of any native population.

Blessed with ample land and food, California's indigenous peoples found little reason to come into conflict with one another. This peaceful life began to change in 1769, when Spanish missionaries arrived on the California coast and set out to convert the native population to Christianity. The Spanish sought to extend their empire northward into California. They began building missions (churchbased districts), pueblos (villages), and presidios (forts) in the southern territory around San Diego extending all the way to San Francisco Bay. The primary goal of the Spanish missionaries who occupied the twenty-one missions in California was to convert the natives to Christianity. According to Father Francisco Palou, "We rejoiced to find so many pagans upon whom the light of our holy faith was about to dawn." Dawn it did, as missionaries baptized nearly fifty-four thousand Indians in the first decades of their work. By the turn of the century they had gathered nearly the entire population of native Californians south of San Francisco Bay into their missions.

It was the missionaries who truly changed Indian life. Not only did they convert the natives to Christianity; they also sought to convert them to a European way of life. Neophytes (newly baptized Indians) were taught a variety of skills in the missions. They learned to be weavers, brick makers, farmers, and vaqueros (cattle drivers, or cowboys). But they did so against their will, becoming slaves to their supposed saviors. The baptized Indians could not leave the missions, and they were severely disciplined for misbehavior.

Other Indians living in remote mountain valleys had little contact with the Spaniards. Yet for the majority of the Indians, abuse at the hands of missionaries and diseases brought by the Spaniards destroyed their way of life. Of the sixteen thousand Indians baptized by missionaries in their first decade, more than nine thousand died. By 1817, 90 percent of the mission Indians had died due to disease or abuse.

In 1821 Mexico declared its independence from Spain. In 1834 the Mexican government ended the dominance of the missions and granted large tracts of land to the Californios (descendants of the original Spanish settlers). The Indians received little from the breakup of the missions and remained subject to the control of the wealthy landowners.

When California became part of the United States in 1847 and less than one thousand Americans lived there, the native inhabitants could not have foreseen the impending destruction of their way of life. The influx of eighty thousand miners in 1849 alone provided a small glimpse of the change that was about to occur. As hundreds of thousands of emigrants arrived, the Indians became terribly hostile to the miners, and trouble stirred in the hills of California. By the end of the gold rush, the entire Indian population was devastated—it had declined to just thirty thousand people, down from three hundred thousand before European contact.

Newspaper accounts and government documents detail the hostile interactions of Indians and whites. Although these accounts are limited to the white perspective, some newspaper journalists were sympathetic to the Indians' plight and advocated more humane solutions to what was often referred to as "the Indian problem." The following excerpts provide examples of the interactions between Indians and whites that eventually led to the utter destruction of most Indian tribes in California.

Things to remember while reading the excerpts from Exterminate Them:

  • Most whites, even those sympathetic to the plight of Native Americans, considered themselves better or more civilized than Indians and were very condescending toward Native Americans.
  • The conflicts between Indians and whites helped many people recognize the need for governmental regulations of white and Indian interaction.
  • Some people believed war with the Indians could have been avoided.
  • Whites often created stereotypes of the Indian character that justified many of their treatment of the Indians.
  • The first two articles are sympathetic to the Native Americans. The last two describe the stirrings of war between the whites and the Native Americans.

Daily Alta California, January 18, 1849 Sacramento City. Jan. 4th, 1849

Yesterday we were allagog with a report which came in, that some wagoners, (some eight), were fighting with some Indians at the fork of the road betweenhere and the "dry diggings, [sic]" three or four miles this side of the log cabin at the "Green Spa." Some say a wagon broke down, and that while one of theteamsters went to get help or another wagon, the other stopped to guard the broken one—that some Indians came about and a fight arose—that the other teamster and some other men came up, and a general fight took place—that the Indians ran, and that the Indians had stolen an ox, and that the whites wished to punish them. The proof that they stole the ox, is, that his tracks were found leading to the rancheria, but were not found going away from it.

To-day when I came in from work, I found the people all astir, in consequence of an express having arrived from Leidsdorff's ranch, saying some Indians had been to a camp near, and driven off eight white men, (Oregonians.) Everybody who could raise a horse turned out to go to theirrelief —They were just returning. They said the excitement was caused by the following circumstances:


Agog: Intensely interested.


Here: Sacramento City.


Teamsters: People who drove the team of horses or mules that pulled the wagons.


Relief: Rescue.

Yesterday an old Indian, well known in this neighborhood, and who had a good character came to a camp of Oregonians, and oneof them claimed one of his horses. The Indian said he had bought the horse from a white man, and did not like to give him up.... The white man persisted that he was his horse, and took him away from him. The Indian was enraged, and rode off, making use of expressions which were not agreeable to the Oregonian, and he took up his rifle and shot him. The Indian's horse went home, his saddle covered in blood, but without his rider. Today, some time, armed Indians came to the camp of, or met some eight Oregonians, and the latter knowing the occurrence of yesterday, presumed they had come to take revenge, and gave them battle, and werewhipped. One of them came in to the Fort and told his story, and the whole garrison turned out to their rescue, but when they returned, having heard other stories, they were pretty generally sorry the Indians had not whipped them worse.


Whipped: Beaten.

Notice was given, that to-night there would be a meeting to take into consideration the propriety of organising [sic] a provisional government. [Trafzerand Hyer, pp.36–7]

Daily Alta California, January 15, 1851 Our Indian Difficulties

It is to be hoped that thetemperate and reasonable address of the Indian Agents, which we published yesterday, may have weight with the public, and induce thatforbearance and moderation which the importance of the matter demands. Not only do we hope that the miners and people generally will pause and let reason and justice guide their conduct toward the ignorant starving savages, but that our legislators and all those who hold public and high trust will use their influence to prevent theeffusion of blood. It is not for the benefit of our State, viewed even in apecuniary light, to annihilate these poor creatures. But there are reasons infinitely beyond all estimated dollars and cents, all prospects of profitable business or possessions, which should guide our councils and conduct. There is a question of justice, of humanity, of right, of religion. They are the original possessors of the soil. Here are all the associations of their lives. Here are their traditions. The trees which we cut down are the volumes of their unwritten histories. The mountain-tops are their temples; the running streams which we turn aside for gold have been the store-houses of their food, their fisheries by us destroyed and their supplies cut off.

The wild game, which gave them food we have driven from the valleys, the very graves of theirsires have been dug down for the glittering gold which lay beneath. The reckless of our people have not stopped at theseinevitable results. They have abused and outraged the confidence and friendship of the trusting Indians, robbed and murdered them withoutcompunction, and, in short, perpetrated all those outrages against humanity, and decency, and justice, which have entailed upon the American public nearly every war which has turned red with Indian blood the green vallies [sic] from the Pequod and Narragansett nations, all the way through the continent, which we have taken from them, to the sand-bordered homes of the Yumas, and the oaten hills of the Clear Lake tribes.


Temperate: Mild or moderate.


Forbearance: Patience.


Effusion: Flowing.


Pecuniary: Concerning money.


Sires: Forefathers.


Inevitable: Unavoidable.


Compunction: Second thought or guilt.


Vices: Moral vices.


Debauched: Seduced; had sexual relations with.

Is it not time to pause and inquire if might is right in this matter? We make war upon them and annihilate them. But is that the best policy? Is it humane? Is it polite? It is [sic] Christian? We answer it is not. The Indian has hisvices; it is to be regretted that the white man has many—ay, greater by far than these poor children of nature. And is it known, too, that they have lived on the most friendly terms with us until oppression has broken all the bonds between the races?

We have driven them to the wall. We have pushed them from the valleys where their arrows procured their meat, from the rivers where they caught their fish, we have destroyed their oak orchards; we have cut down or burned their wheat which was the seed of the wild grass; have slaughtered the men anddebauched the women. And now theatonement is to be, utter destruction! Can God look down upon such cruelty, and bless the people guilty of the outrage? We therefore call once more for the moderation of council and moderation in action. Our agents are already upon the mission. Let all good citizens give a helping hand. Let us avoid if within the bounds of possibility, an Indian war. Such a calamity would not alone be one to the Indians. It will cost the lives of many valuable citizens. And should it end in the total destruction of the Indian tribes, it would be at a cost of treasure and blood horrible to contemplate, for which there could be no adequate return, and would be a result over which thePhilanthropist, the Christian, and every true hearted man would mourn as the last great sin of national injustice, violence, and oppression. [Trafzer and Hyer, pp. 37–8]


Atonement: Reconciliation, or reparation made for a wrong.


Philanthropist: Charitable person.

Daily Alta California, January 21, 1851 Our Indian Relations

The bickerings between the Indians and whites, which at first, with an ordinary degree of tact and ability, tempered with justice, might have been silenced, and subsequent difficulties been avoided, have at length reached a point when very effective measures must be pursued, or the districts bordering upon the range of the mountain tribes be, if not depopulated, at least mostruinously checked in their progress. There is no doubt that the mountain tribes have at length assumed a hostile position, and are in sufficient numbers tokeep at bay any weak parties of our people who may march against them. Being thoroughly acquainted with the mountain passes, they possess great advantages over most of the whites who are disposed to take part in theforay against them. Hunger and desperation are not likely to make them verytreatable, and we, therefore, anticipate much trouble ere the present warlike demonstrations shall be quieted.

The settlement of the whites in the plains and vallies [sic] has necessarily driven the game from the old grounds whence the Indians derived their supplies. Of course they attribute their threatened starvation to the presence of the whites, and reasoning as they have ever since our ancestors came into their country, they very naturally have come to the conclusion that if they could exterminate the whites the old condition of things would return. And that they can do so they fully believe. Meanwhile thefts and robberies have been committed by them and retaliations have followed. They have stolen horses and mules for food, the latter being considered by them most excellent. Thus things have been progressing until the attack upon the plundering of Savage's store and the murder of three of the four persons who were present. Since then, Savage having not met with success in his call upon the Governor for power to enlist volunteers, raised what men he could and gave battle, killing some thirty of the Indians. We have conversed with Judge Marvin, recently elected Superintendent of Public Instruction, and from him have learned many important particulars.


Ruinously: Harmfully.

Keep at bay

Keep at bay: Hold off.


Foray: Attack.


Treatable: Willing to discuss a treaty.


Represents: Describes.

Hostile determinations

Hostile determinations: Plans to attack.


Drubbed: Defeated.

Herepresents the Indians as numbering probably seven thousand, withhostile determinations, spread through the mountains between the waters of the Tuolumne and the head waters of the San Joaquin. They have intercommunications throughout the mountain passes, by which they will probably be able to concentrate the greater part of their force upon whatever point may be attacked by the Americans. Judge Marvin's opinion is that the Indians must bepretty severelydrubbed before they will so far respect our power as to keep any treaties they may agree to, if such can be entered into with them. One thing is very evident; there must be immediate action. Our commissioners must be active, or a long, bloody and costly war is inevitable. While we hesitate or lose time, the golden moment for pacification may forever be lost. Even since this article was commenced, news has arrived of another battle, the particulars of which the reader will find in another place.

There can be no doubt that the Indian tribes of the mountains have been under-estimated by writers and others.The gentlemen above referred to says that he considers them as brave as the Mohawks or any other of the eastern tribes. It is truly lamentable that the U.S. government did not one year ago send out Commissioners to treat with them, authorised [sic] topurchase extinguishment [sic]of their titles to the land and agree upon annualsubsidies sufficient to compensate them for therelinquishment of their lands, fisheries, &c. Had this been done, the Commissioner, by ajudicious distribution of presents and punctual payment of all things promised, would undoubtedly have found little difficulty in placing the relation between the two races upon such a basis as would have been for the advantage of both. It looks now very doubtful whether the gentlemen of the commission will be able to secure peace before a severe lesson shall have been taught these belligerent tribes.

One of them was to leave last evening for Sonoma, to make a requisition for an escort of troops. They wish to try peaceable measures if they bepracticable. It might be the wisest course to forward all the available force of the U.S. troops in the region of the difficulties, not so near as to prevent the appearance of peaceable intentions and measures on the part of the commission, which might prevent success; nor yet so far removed as to cause the loss of much time andadvantageous opportunities in case the sword and the rifle alone have to become the agents of peace. We believe the commission fully competent with the aid of gentlemen well acquainted with the Indian character, who are ready to co-operate to settle the whole matter if it be possible without the last appeal. But if that be done it must be done quickly. TheSaxon blood is up. And when it is so, like the rolling Mississippi, no slightlevee will stay it within its channels. [Trafzer and Hyer, pp. 40–1]

The gentleman above referred to

The gentleman above referred to: Judge Marvin.

Purchase extinguishment of their titles to the land

Purchase extinguishment of their titles to the land: Pay the Indians to give up their land.


Subsidies: Payments.


Relinquishment: Handing over.


Judicious: Sensible.


Practicable: Possible.


Advantageous: Beneficial.


Saxon: Anglo-Saxon; referring to whites.


Levee: An embankment or wall to stop a flood.

Sacramento Union, February 3, 1855 Indian War

The accounts from the North indicate thecommencement of a war of extermination against the Indians. Thelatter commenced the attack of theKlamath; but who can determine their provocation or the amount ofdestitution suffered before the hostile blow was struck.


Commencement: Beginning.


Latter: The author is referring back to the Indians.


Klamath: Klamath River in northwestern California.


Destitution: Hardship.


Sustenance: Food and other supplies needed for survival.

The intrusion of the white man upon the Indian's hunting grounds has driven off the game and destroyed their fisheries. The consequence is, the Indians suffer every winter forsustenance. Hunger and starvation follows them wherever they go. Is it, then, a matter of wonder that they become desperate and resort to stealing and killing? They are driven to steal or starve, and the Indian mode is to kill and then plunder.

The policy of our Government towards the Indians in this State is most miserable. Had reasonable care been exercised to see that they were provided with something to eat and wear in this State, no necessity would have presented itself for an indiscriminate slaughter of the race.

The fate of the Indian is fixed. He must beannihilated by the advance of the white man; by the disease, and, to them, the evils of civilization. But the work should not have been commenced at so early a day by the deadly rifle.

To show how the matter is viewed on the Klamath, we copy the following from the Crescent City Herald. The people look upon it there as a war of extermination, and are killing all grown up males. A writer from Trinidad, under date of January 22d, says:

I shall start the two Indians that came down with me tonight, and hope they may reach Crescent City in safety, although I think it exceedingly doubtful, as the whites are shooting them whenever an opportunity offers; for this reason I start them in the night, hoping they may be out of dangerere morning. On the Klamath the Indians have killed six white men, and I understand some stock. From the Salmon down the whites are in arms, with determination, I believe if possible, to destroy all the grown up males, notwithstanding this meets with the opposition of some few who have favorite Indians amongst them. I doubt whether this discrimination should be made, as some who have been considered good have proved the most treacherous. I understand that the ferry of Mr. Boyce, as also that of Mr. Simms, has been cut away.Messrs. Norton and Beard have moved their families from Elk Camp to Trinidad; they were the only white females in that section that were exposed to the savages. I have no doubt there will be warm times on the Klamath for some weeks, as the Indians are numerous, well armed and determined to fight. [Trafzer and Hyer, pp. 47–8]


Annihilated: Destroyed.


Ere: By.


Messrs.: Plural of Mr.

What happened next . . .

The gold rush lasted from 1848 to 1868 in California. During this time the Indian population declined rapidly as the enormous influx of white miners and settlers brought deadly diseases and started fatal conflicts. By 1870 the Indian population had decreased to about one-sixth its size before the gold rush. As the Indian population diminished, the white population grew.

Because of the strong lure of wealth, California was one of the most quickly populated territories in American history. Yet it also created a unique community, one established solely for the accumulation of individual wealth. Only after the miners quit the mines and turned to service jobs or farming did large numbers of women and children join the American population in California. As more and more women and children migrated to the territory, permanent institutions, including schools and civic organizations, were established.

The new white community in California discriminated against foreigners of any type. When California entered the union in 1850, it passed laws insisting that those who did not possess American citizenship must pay twenty-dollar monthly fees to work in the mines. While the law resulted in many Mexicans leaving the mines, the Chinese paid and stayed. Angered by the nonwhites who continued to search for gold, Americans resorted to threats and violence to frighten nonwhites from the mines.

Starting with the passage of California Statute Chapter 133 on April 22, 1850, the California legislature passed twenty laws restricting the rights of Native Americans in California. Their way of life irreparably damaged, their lands polluted and stolen, Native Americans had little recourse. The laws denied Indians the opportunity to testify against whites in court, prohibited them from practicing some of their traditions like burning the prairie grasses to find game, and provided for Native Americans' indentured servitude to whites. The native populations suffered greatly from their diminished positions. Disease and fighting reduced the Native American population of California from about 120,000 before the gold rush to about 20,000 by 1870. Despite the brevity of the gold rush, it was one of the most influential periods in American history because it inspired so many to migrate westward.

Did you know . . .

  • California achieved statehood in 1850.
  • In 1846 the Native American population in California was estimated to be at least 120,000.
  • Between 1846 and 1848 about one hundred thousand Indians died from disease, malnutrition, enslavement, or murder, according to Clifford Trafzer and Joel Hyer in Exterminate Them.
  • An Act for the Government and Protection of Indians passed in April 1850. This act and amendments made to it in 1860 detailed how Indians could become the indentured servants of whites.
  • California laws did not discriminate against African Americans, although whites in California still did.
  • California established a $1.5 million fund to reimburse volunteer militia units that worked to subdue hostile Indians.
  • Federal commissioners—Redick McKee, George Barbour, and O. M. Wozencraft—negotiated eighteen treaties with California Indian groups in the 1850s. The U.S. Senate rejected all of these treaties.
  • Indian reservations eventually included less than one-seventh of California land.

Consider the following . . .

  • What were the prejudices of the journalists, and how did they shape their opinions?
  • Why did the hostilities between the Indians and whites seem to be escalating toward war?
  • There were several arguments for solving the "Indian problem." How did these sympathetic journalists propose to resolve the conflicts?
  • How could Indians protect themselves from the influx of miners?
  • How could emigrating Americans protect themselves from Indians?

For More Information

Heizer, Robert F. The Destruction of California Indians. Santa Barbara, CA: Peregrine Smith, 1974.

Heizer, Robert F., and Alan J. Almquist. The Other Californians. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1971.

Ketchum, Liza. The Gold Rush. Boston: Little, Brown, 1996.

Schanzer, Rosalyn. Gold Fever! Tales from the California Gold Rush. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1999.

Trafzer, Clifford E. California's Indians and the Gold Rush. Newcastle, CA: Sierra Oaks Publishing Company, 1989.

Trafzer, Clifford E., and Joel R. Hyer, eds. "Exterminate Them": Written Accounts of the Murder, Rape, and Slavery of Native Americans During the California Gold Rush, 1848–1868. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1999.

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Native Americans and the California Gold Rush

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Native Americans and the California Gold Rush