By Owen Lloyd / DGR News Service

There is a great deal of sentimentality in California around the gold rush that begun in 1848. A recent textbook described the rush as a sort of prototype for the American dream: a “dream of instant wealth, won by audacity and good luck”. [1] The cherished myth goes something like this:

When gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in 1848, intrepid settlers began flocking for California, enduring terrible hardships on their path to a happier life. Men competed and struggled to the best of their ability, and with hard work and perseverance (along with a little luck) some won great wealth and happiness. Meanwhile, due to their civilizing presence, the land finally came under human use. It was now playing out its destiny in the shaping of history. It had finally taken its place in the annals of empire.

Insofar as indigenous people have played any role in this story, it is either as one of the “obstacles” overcome by the intrepid miners, or, more recently, as a sort of sentimental footnote on the inevitability of progress. For instance, the Wikipedia article on the California Gold Rush runs through essentially the same story I have mentioned above, and following this, there is a half-hearted and compulsory mention that 100,000 American Indians died in California between 1848 and 1868, 4,500 of them killed by settlers. (Numbers that must be seen as conservative, and come conveniently from the same State of California that helped facilitate the genocide.)

Justifying genocide

The first governor of California, Peter Burnett, was explicit in acknowledging the role of the state in this genocide. In January 1851 he stated in his annual address:

That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races, until the Indian race becomes extinct, must be expected. While we cannot anticipate this result but with painful regret, the inevitable destiny of the race is beyond the power or wisdom of man to avert. [2]

Note that he frames the total annihilation of American Indians as inevitable. Genocide is seen here as a sort of “realism” that we must simply accustom ourselves to, that cannot under any circumstance be resisted. The realization of genocide, in this sense, is merely the realization of a destiny bestowed upon us by the culture. Seeing genocide as fate manifesting itself allows one to enable a genocide without having to take responsibility for it. This was by no means the only way that people justified genocide in California.

Another method was to call murder benevolent, a sort of treatment for the “savage” condition. For instance, the Chico Courant opined in 1866 that “It is a mercy to the red devils to exterminate them, and a saving of many white lives. Treaties are played out — there is one kind of treaty that is effective– cold lead.” [3] A more liberal corollary of this position was the idea that only violence could placate Indians into accepting the treaties that represent their best interests.

Still another technique was to turn the situation upside-down, and frame the Indians as an oppressive class “preying” on settlers’ cattle. The word “depredation” was frequently used to justify or explain away the numerous massacres waged against the peoples of California. For instance, after 300 to 400 murders took place around Round Valley, the California Farmer said that “the cause of this wholesale killing, is stated to be the continued depredations by the Indians upon the stock of the settlers”.

It is amazing that mass murder is here being justified by the claim that some cattle were killed for food, particularly when the cattle are being raised on land stolen from them, and after white hunting parties had made such a concerted effort to kill off any game animals. Because the land takeover is taken as a given, the paper can report that the root “cause” of the violence was not the takeover of the same land that provided most of their food, but one of the adaptations made in response to that takeover.

Even some of the whites could not help but recognize the absurdity of this position. Senator Henry Wilson, responding to the situation in Round Valley, said:

As to the stock said to have been appropriated by the starving Indians, (far less savage than their persecutors), what does it amount to? Six hundred head taken by nine thousand Indians– driven from their lands and fisheries, and starving literally to death– were worth, at the outside, $12,000, let the State pay it, or double or treble the sum, and call upon the Federal Government to refund the amount. [4]

Very often, these depredations had no basis in reality, but were merely imagined in order to provide a justification for campaigns of violence. As the Daily Alta Vista put it in 1853, “The Indians have committed so many depredations in the North, of late, that the people are enraged against them, and are ready to knife them, shoot them, or inoculate them with small pox — all of which have been done.” In its final stages, this notion of the Indian as “predator” became a stereotype that no longer needed evidence. For instance, on March 2, 1861 the San Francisco Bulletin lauded the killing of seven “digger” Indians, saying that all members of the tribe could be classified as predatory. [5] This is in many ways the same approach used today to justify the killing of wolves who threaten to “depredate” the cattle of industrial ranchers.


This association of Indians with wolves was part of a general campaign to dehumanize the indigenous people of the area. American Indian women were regularly called “squaws”; the men were called “bucks”. This language helped the settlers visualize their victims as totally lacking in agency, will, or humanity. Such was the extent of this dehumanization that Charles Hubbard reported that one man beat “his own child’s brain out against a tree” and then killed the child’s mother, an Indian woman, “for no other reason than that he had no means elsewise of disposing of them”. [6]

As this story indicates, women and children were by no means exempt from genocidal violence. On the contrary, they often bore the brunt of the violence because they were far more accessible. In 1860, for instance, a group of white men set out to massacre Indians came to a place called Roff’s Ranch, and massacred nine men. As the rest of the men escaped, the women and children remained, believing that they were not at risk. However, as the San Francisco Bulletin reported:

In this way they were mistaken; for not only in the ‘excitement’ of the moment, but throughout the greater part of the day, they searched around among the ‘haystocks’ with the hatchet, and split the children’s heads open. In this way there were over forty women and children butchered… [7]

Describing the Indian Island massacre of Wiyot people that same year, the Bulletin reported:

In one of the settlements, an aged and feeble chief collected the women around him, when they were about flying on the approach of the human bloodhounds, assuring them that white men did not kill squaws and that they would be safe. But they all perished together. One of our informants saw twenty-six bodies of women and children collected in one spot by the more humane citizens preparatory to burial. Some of them were infants at the breast, whose skulls had been cleft again and again. The whole number slaughtered in a single night was about two hundred and forty. [8]

Massacres like these were considered a vital public service by the State of California, which often played an active role in assisting them. Between 1850 and 1859 alone, the federal government was estimated to have reimbursed the government of California $924,259 for its efforts in killing Indians throughout the state. [9] Adjusted for inflation, that would be the equivalent of about $23.3 million in 2012.

Sexual violence was also utilized as a means of warfare by settlers, against both women and young girls. In 1860, a report in the San Francisco Bulletin by a resident of Mendocino County revealed that an effort was being made to exterminate the Clear Lake Indians by means of venereal disease:

Of five or six hundred squaws, from ten years old and upwards, he was assured that not a solitary individual was exempt. Civilized humanity will scarcely believe it possible for human beings to be degraded so far below savages, as are the filthy wretches who infect the frontier settlements, and commit such deeds of rapine and blood as we have here but inadequately described. [10]

In the town of Cottonwood, a party of men organized themselves under the name the “Squaw Hunters” and as the name indicates, their “avowed purpose was to get squaws by force if necessary”. Stalking Shasta Indian women, they attacked a small group returning from a hunt, killing three men, two women, and three children. In response, the Shasta barricaded themselves in a cave. The Squaw Hunters claimed they were planning a campaign of war and plunder, and organized a force of 28 men to fight them out. However, the Shasta stopped the assault, killing four of the Squaw Hunter party, and losing one of their own. [11]

In Mariposa County, the sheriff and “sole civil and judicial authority ” outlawed the very existence of Indian people, as if they were phantoms, rather than living beings. decreeing:

I pronounce the Indian outlawed. Consequently, everyone is permitted to kill the Indians he encounters anywhere in the county of Mariposa, on the sole condition of burying them and of letting the sheriff know where and how many of them he has killed. [12]

Other counties in California produced similar legislation, and some also legalized the scalping of Indian people by members of the white occupation. Even in counties where murder was illegal, it was extremely rare for white people who killed Indian people to be tried in court, let alone convicted. [12]


In 1850, California passed a law called the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians. Like many laws with nice-sounding names, this act did nothing to “protect Indians”. On the contrary, this law legalized the sale and indenture of American Indian children within the state. Between 1850 and 1863 (when the law was terminated by federal emancipation), more than 5,000 children were sold as slaves; another 5,000 women and young girls were sold as sex slaves. Indian girls under 10 years of age were often sold for upwards of $100, equivalent to $2,500 today. [13]

An 1861 letter to the Humboldt Times illustrates one man’s appreciation for this law, despite its “limitations”:

This law works beautifully. A few days ago V. E. Geiger, formerly Indian Agent, had some eighty apprenticed to him, and proposed to emigrate to Washoe with them as soon as he can cross the mountains. We hear of many others who are having them bound in numbers to suit. What a pity the provisions of the law are not extended to greasers, Kanakas, and Asiatics. It would be so convenient to carry on a farm or mine, when all the hard and dirty work is performed by apprentices! [14]

As historian Frank H. Baumgardner III has said, “The California Constitution and the state’s Indian codes made it very easy to enslave Indians, especially women as well as both young boys and girls.” [15] Near Round Valley, extensive kidnapping rings developed. White settlers regularly raided Round Valley and captured Indian women and children for use as slaves. Although kidnapping rings were never legal in California, no effort was made to stop them. A prominent white kidnapper named George Woodman was among the few ever tried; when he and his partner were found guilty in court, they each paid a fine of $100 and were quickly released. [16]

What should we take from this history? I think we need to take from it a recognition that any of us living on land claimed by the United States is living on land stolen away in some manner from indigenous people. Those of us who are settlers need to recognize that we are the beneficiaries of genocide and colonialism. And we need to use what privileges we have to assist indigenous people in their quest for justice and a liveable future. In spite of everything, indigenous people are still here, and are still trying to navigate living amidst a culture of occupation that is seeking to destroy them.

More than this, we need to start abandoning the myths the dominant culture has been teaching us for so long, myths that highlight the courageous, manly exploits of genocidal settlers, and overlook what their “settling” of the landscape looked like to those whose land they were invading. It’s a story that will justify absolutely anything– genocide, ecocide, murder, rape, kidnapping, slavery, torture– in the name of civilization.

[2] Alonzo Delano, Life on the Plains and Among the Diggings; Being Scenes and Adventures of an Overland Journey to California, p. 320. 1854.
[3] Clifford E. Trafzer and Joel R. Hyer, Exterminate Them!: Written Accounts of the Murder, Rape, and Enslavement of Native Americans during the California Gold Rush, p. 1
[4] Frank H. Baumgardner III, Killing for Land in Early California: Indian Blood at Round Valley, 1856-1863
[5] Exterminate Them!, p. 78
[6] Jack Norton, Genocide in Northwestern California: When Our Worlds Cried, p. 96
[7] Robert F. Heizer, The Destruction of California Indians, p. 96
[8] Exterminate Them!, p. 129
[9] Genocide in Northwestern California, p. 76
[10] Exterminate Them!, p. 130
[11] The Destruction of California Indians, p. 84-85
[12] M. Kat Anderson, Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources, p. 87
[13] Penny Hess, Overturning the Culture of Violence, p. 118
[14] The Destruction of California Indians, p. 240-241
[15] Killing for Land in Early California, p. 31
[16] Killing for Land in Early California, p. 33