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California Indians: a brief history

The American Indian Issues: a curricular guide for educators, written at Humbolt State University as a project of the University’s Center for Indian Community Development. The guide is an accessible yet honest introduction to California Indian history. Intended for high schools, it nevertheless facing the tough issue of genocide.

Below is the basic outline of California Indian history from their curricula.

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Teacher’s Guide

Indians in Northern California:
A Case Study of Federal, State, and Vigilante Intervention, 1850 – 1860

In 1848, somewhere between 70,000 and 150,000 Indians and less than 1,000 Euro-Americans lived in America’s new acquisition – California.   Later that year when gold was discovered in the Sierra Nevadas, the population mix began a dramatic alteration.  By the time California became a state in 1850 and the rush for gold had attracted hundreds of thousands of people, California Indians had become a minority.  Thus, the newly-migrated Californians began wrestling with their “Indian problem.”

Between 1850 and 1860, the “problem” was especially acute in Northern California where three different attitudes arose from four different sectors:

    • The Euro-American population – which largely wanted the Indians removed from Northern California as quickly as possible.
    • The Indian Nations of Northern California - which wanted to live undisturbed in their ancestral homelands.
    • The State of California – which had three primary interests:  protecting white settlers and miners from Indian attack, protecting white property from Indian loss or attack, and regulating Indians as a labor force.
    • The Federal government – which was bound by its trust relationship with Indian Nations throughout the United States to maintain some degree of safety and well-being among the Indian People.
    • Big Lagoon Rancheria (Yurok, Tolowa)
    • Blue Lake Rancheria  (Wiyot, Yurok, Tolowa)
    • Elk Valley Rancheria  (Tolowa)
    • Hoopa Valley Reservation  (Hupa)
    • Karuk Tribe of California (Karuk)
    • Resighini Rancheria  (Yurok)
    • Rohnerville Rancheria  (Wiyot, Mattole, Bear River, Eel River)
    • Round Valley Reservation(Yuki, Pit River, Pomo, Concow, Wailaki, Nomelaki)
    • Smith River Rancheria   (Tolowa)
    • Table Bluff  Indian Reservation (Wiyot)
    • Trinidad Rancheria  (Yurok, Miwok, Tolowa)
    • Yurok Reservation (Yurok)

Click here to access the
Teacher’s Guide

Indians in Northern California:
A Case Study of Federal, State, and Vigilante Intervention, 1850 – 1860

In 1848, somewhere between 70,000 and 150,000 Indians and less than 1,000 Euro-Americans lived in America’s new acquisition – California.   Later that year when gold was discovered in the Sierra Nevadas, the population mix began a dramatic alteration.  By the time California became a state in 1850 and the rush for gold had attracted hundreds of thousands of people, California Indians had become a minority.  Thus, the newly-migrated Californians began wrestling with their “Indian problem.”

Between 1850 and 1860, the “problem” was especially acute in Northern California where three different attitudes arose from four different sectors:
The official policy of the Federal government, then, was in direct opposition to both the State policy and the desires of its growing white population.  This paper will attempt to explain the federal, state, and civilian interventions in the lives of the Indian Peoples of Northern California, as well as the genocidal consequences of such actions.   In so doing, it will begin with a brief introduction to the Indian Nations of Northern California and then continue with a discussion of California policy, federal policy, and citizen vigilante actions that dramatically effected Indian People.

The Indian Nations of Northern California

When Euro-Americans arrived in Northern California, they had little knowledge of or interest in the many sovereign tribal groups that acted independently in matters of land ownership, war, and trespass. In Northern California, the newcomers largely hoped that the dozens of existing Indian Nations that had been living in the area from time immemorial would be removed or otherwise extinguished.

As this paper will indicate, after the decade between 1850 and 1860, the Indian Nations that survived the genocidal endeavors of Northern Californians were gathered into several federal reservations where they struggled to  maintain their cultural and spiritual traditions in the face of widespread federal, state, and citizen opposition.

By the late 20th Century, many residents of the largest nations in Humboldt, Shasta, Del Norte, and Mendocino Counties  – the Tolowa, Yurok,Hupa, Karuk, and Wiyot – lived on the following federally-recognized Indian reservations:

  • protecting white settlers and miners from Indian attack,
  • protecting white property from any loss due to Indian claims or attack, and
  • regulating Indian labor.
  • The arrest, based upon the complaint of any resident, of any “able-bodied Indians” if they could not support themselves, were found loitering or strolling about, or were leading an immoral or profligate course of life.
  • The hiring out of such Indians within 24 hours for a period not exceeding four months, if it was determined by proper authority that he or she was a vagrant.
    In the month of October last I apprehended three kidnappers, who had nine Indian children, from three to ten years of age…The fact is, kidnapping Indians has become quite a business of profit, and I have no doubt is at the foundations of the so-called Indian wars.  To counteract this unholy traffic in human blood and souls, I have appointed a number of special agents in the country through which the kidnappers pass when carrying the Indians to market  in the settlements, with instructions to watch for them, and thus, I think that a temporary check has been put to their commerce. (United States Office of Indian Affairs, 1851:315).

California State PoliciesDuring its first formative decade, the State of California neither recognized Indians as citizens with civil rights, nor did it treat Indians in any way as sovereign people.  Indeed, the State only had three real interests regarding its indigenous people:
To these ends, in April 1850, Californiaís first legislature passed the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians which, in part,  stated that regardless of what was done to an Indian person, “in no case shall a white man be convicted of any offense upon the testimony of an Indian.”   Additionally, the Act carefully prohibited slavery in any form, while it also endorsed the following:
This law was interpreted in such a way that all Indians, including children, faced indentured servitude through a simple procedure of arrest and “hiring out” through any local justice-of-the-peace. Once indentured, the term limitation was almost always exceeded, thus resulting in slavery:  The result was a “profitable ’slave trade’ in able-bodied Indian men, women, and children throughout Northern California. Children were readily bought and sold, for household work; and women were purchased for both household work and sexual liaisons”   (Beckman, 1997).

In 1860, the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians was amended  to declare that any Indian not already indentured could be kidnapped.  If they resisted, “war” could be waged on them and “prisoners” could be lawfully taken.  Evidence of kidnapping Indians and their subsequent sale is abundant.  In 1851, the Superintendent for Indian Affairs for California, George M. Hanson, reported to the Bureau of Indian Affairs:

Other sources document the kidnapping of 35 young Yuki girls and their sale to settlers in Sacramento as slaves and concubines, the kidnapping and selling of hundreds of Indian children for $50 to $200 in 1860 after the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians was amended, and  estimates of the sale of over 10,000 Indians – 4,000 of whom were children – in California between 1850 and 1863 when the practice was finally repealed  (Norton, et. al, 1998:5-8).In addition to legally enslaving Indians, the State of California officially endorsed their slaughter in 1851 when legislators authorized payment to citizen volunteer companies that suppressed and killed Indians.  Clearly, if California were left alone and the federal government failed to intervene, the Indians of Northern California were destined for destruction.  And so it was that the Bureau of Indian Affairs Indians in Northern California sent three new Indian Agents to begin negotiations with various Indian Nations in Northern California.

    • The object of the government is to obtain all the information it can with reference to tribes of Indians within the boundaries of California, their manner, habits, customs, and extent of civilization, and to make such treaties and compact with them as may seem just and proper…The board will convene…and will determine upon some rule of action which will be most efficient in attaining the desired object, which is, by all possible means, to conciliate the good feelings of the Indians, and to get them to ratify those feelings by entering into written treaties, binding on them, towards the government and each other  (Loughery correspondence to McKee, Barbour, and Wozencraft, October 15, 1850:52).
    • created reservations on about 11,700 square miles representing 7-1/2 percent of California’s total land;
    • promised various kinds of federal aid – especially schooling, clothing, farming instruction and equipment); and
    • guaranteed rights to maintain traditional hunting and fishing practices.
      To place upon our most fertile soil the most degraded race of aborigines upon the North American continent; to invest them with the rights of sovereignty, and to teach them that they are independent nations, is planting the seeds of future disaster and ruin.   The Los Angeles Star (As quoted in Raphael, 1993:108.)As to the wild Indians now located within this State, your committee must protest against locating them within our limits.  Occupying an important frontier position on the great Pacific…it is indispensable that this State should be wholly occupied by a homogeneous population, all contributing, by their character and occupation, to its strength and independence.  To take any portion of the country west of the Sierra Nevada, for the home of the wild, and generally hostile Indians, would be manifestly unwise and impolitic… (As quoted in Raphael, 1993:113.)
    • Reservations did not require the federal government to make a treaty with the California tribes, nor did their establishment require any Indian approval.
    • Each reservation could not exceed 25,000 acres. Five reservations were approved, thereby granting a total of 125,000 acres to the entire California Indian population.  (This was about 60 times less than the over 11,700 square miles that the unratified 18 treaties had set aside for reservations.)
    • Reservations could not be established in any lands inhabited by white California citizens.  All reservations, then, would be created in the most undesirable and uninhabited areas of the state.
    • The federal government, not the Indians, would own and control reservation land.
    • All Indians would be forcibly removed to an assigned reservation for their own “protection.”
    • The Klamath Reservation was established on November 16, 1855 when President Pierce set aside 20 miles along the lower Klamath River extending a mile from the banks of the river in each direction.  According to one local historian, the function of the Klamath Reservation was to “pacify a few troublesome Indians in the immediate area [of the river]” and to “serve as a dumping ground for displaced natives from all of Northwest California” (Raphael, 1993:174).
    • The Hoopa Valley Reservation was established in 1864 under a “treaty of peace and friendship between the United States Government and the Hoopa, South Fork, Redwood, and Grouse Creek Indians.”
    • Thompkins Ferry Massacre, 1851.  After several white miners were killed outside of Trinidad by local Indians, a group of men formed a committee that hunted down and massacred as many local Indians as they were able to find.
    • Bridge Gulch, April or May 1852.  After Colonel John Anderson was killed by some Wintun Indians, thirty volunteers were deputized. A group of 70 men surrounded and open fired upon a camp of men, women, and children.  Between 80 and 300 Indians were massacred, depending upon the accounts given.
    • Orleans Bar, April 1852.After miners discussed the “Indian problem,” they voted to kill on sight any Indians having a gun.
    • Weaverville, May 1852. In revenge for the killing of five cows belonging to a white man, 153 Wintun Indians were killed.
    • Yontoket, 1853. 200 Tolowa people were murdered by citizens from Crescent City.  A survivor described the massacre:  “The whitemen built a huge fire and threw in our sacred ceremonial dresses, the regalia, and our feathers, and the flames grew higher.  Then they threw in the babies, many of them were still alive.”
    • Round Valley, 1856-1860. Drydon Laycock claimed that during this period, settlers went out “two or three times a week” and killed “on an average, fifty or sixty Indians on a trip” (Bordewich, 1996:50-51).
    • Eel River, 1859. After local Indians stole about 600 head of cattle and killed 19 white settlers, a group of ranchers from Laytonville claimed to have killed 283 men and taken 292 prisoners to the Mendocino Reservation.
      Cold-blooded Indian killing being considered honorable, shooting Indians and murdering even squaws and children that have been domesticated for months and years, without a moment’s warning and with as little compunction as they would rid themselves of a dog.
      A report was brought from Eureka on Sunday morning, that during the night nearly all the Indians camping on Indian Island, including women and children, were killed by parties unknown.  A few loaded canoes bringing the dead bodies to Union on their way to Mad river, where some of the victims belonged, confirmed the report.  But when the facts were generally known, it appeared that out of some sixty or seventy killed on the Island, at least fifty or sixty were women and children.  Neither age or sex had been spared.  Little children and old women were mercilessly stabbed and their skulls crushed with axes.  When the bodies were landed at Union, a more shocking and revolting spectacle never was exhibited to the eyes of a Christian and civilized people.  Old women, wrinkled and decrepit, lay weltering in blood, their brains dashed out and dabbled with their long gray hair.  Infants scarce a span long, with their faces cloven with hatchets and their bodies ghastly with wounds… They were all killed with the exception of some few who hid themselves during the massacre.  No resistance was made, it is said, to the butchers who did the work, but as they ran or huddled together for protection like sheep, they were struck down with hatchets.  Very little shooting was done, most of the bodies having wounds about the head  (Harte, 1860).
      The immediate reason for the massacre is still a mystery.  At the time some whites maintained, not very plausibly, that the ìhoarse, guttural sounds, interspersed with hideous yells of the Wiyot rite sifting across the bayî scared the citizens of Eureka into believing that an attack on the town was imminent.  There is a second possibility.  Just three days before the massacre, a certain Captain Moore had purchased the island from another white man.  He may have seen practical advantage in removing its occupants.  A grand jury was eventually impaneled to investigate the events on the island; it blandly reported that ìafter a strict examination of all witnesses, nothing was elicited to enlighten us as to the perpetrators.î  Nevertheless, for years afterwards, the killers were pointed out on the streets of Eureka.  They were, it was said, “men of intelligence,” and nearly all men of family  (Bordewich, 1996:32).
  • Federal InterventionIn 1851, Redick McKee, George W. Barbour, and O. M. Wozencraft began a 500-mile journey through Northern California. The federal governmentís new Indian Agents had received the following instructions from the U.S. Office of Indian Affairs.

    But the agents, and especially McKee, had their own ideas about what they should accomplish in the name of the US government.  McKee believed that while white Californians would never allow the Indians to keep all of their ancestral land or to roam freely throughout the state, Indians, nonetheless, were entitled to reservations that gave them enough farm and grazing land to labor for their own well being.With these beliefs in mind, McKee and his companions began their journey.  In just over three months, they traveled from Sonoma Valley to Redding, meeting with Indian tribes along the way. During his trip, McKee created four different reservations and negotiated five treaties with tribes along the lower Eel River Valley, Clear Lake, Scott Valley, and the Klamath-Trinity regions.  Indeed, by the end of 1851, all three of the US Indian Agents had traveled most of the state, negotiating a total of 18 treaties that:
    When they were done, McKee and his colleagues believed that they had negotiated the treaties in good faith, that they would be honored both by the California and Federal governments, and that the new reservations would be “forever guaranteed.”

    What McKee and his colleagues quickly discovered, however, was that many Californians were absolutely opposed to creating reservations and giving “savages valuable land.”  (Raphael, 1993:108.)  The following comments – one written for a newspaper and the other written to persuade committee members in the California Assembly – illustrate such opposition.

    By early 1852, the treaties were clearly in trouble in the U.S. Senate.  Redick appealed to California’s Governor Bigler.  Redick’s letter to the Governor of April 5, 1852 described brutalities committed by whites against the Indians – brutalities that he argued might be avoided if the Indians had their own reservations as negotiated in the treaties.  But the Governor responded that it was not the whites who were attacking the Indians, but rather the “savage enemies” were “daily guilty of committing outrages upon unoffending citizens” (Raphael, 117).Thus, it came as no surprise that the Governor and the California legislature successfully pressured the U.S. Senate not to ratify the treaties, arguing that the Indians had no legitimate right to any portion of the land that had once been theirs. In July 1852, ratification was denied based upon the overwhelming opposition coming from the State of California. The Indian tribes were never informed of the Senate’s decision against ratification and an unusual veil of secrecy kept the treaty documents out of public scrutiny until 1905.  Indeed, despite the original intentions of the federal government, no treaties were ever successfully negotiated and ratified with the indigenous people of California. And it was not until 1928 that Congress allowed Indian Nations to sue the Federal government for the lost compensation involved in unratified 18 treaties. The basis of compensation, however, was reservation land promised, not the vast amount of lands surrendered. The suit, prosecuted by California’s Attorney General,  was settled in 1944 with a total award of $17,053,941. After the Federal government deducted expenditures of $12,029,099 for the protection of California Indians and deducted this amount from the award, Congress eventually authorized payments of $150 to each person “on the corrected and updated roster of California Indians prepared under the original provisions of the act”  (Beckman, 1997).

    With no legal treaties, the Federal government was still responsible for protecting the indigenous population of California; and it was becoming extremely clear that the Indians would be exterminated if nothing was done.  Thus, it decided on a new approach for protecting California’s Indians – the creation of military reservations.

    Military ReservationsThe Office of Indian Affairs proposed the creation of a different kind of reservation for California Indians – one that was based upon the model of the Spanish missions. The Spanish missionaries had converted the Indians to Christianity and quickly enslaved them.  Thereafter, the missions, forts, and other public buildings were built by forced Indian labor.   Once within the province of the mission, Indians were not allowed to return to their previous ways of life.  It was this model – forced relocation and labor enslavement – upon which the new reservations were based.

    Five new military reservations were approved in March 1853.  The Congressional resolution that created the reservations made several points quite clear.

    Subsequently, federal policy ensured that Indians from many different tribes were forced onto small reservations where they would be involved in labor directed by the white reservation managers.  Any chance that the Indians might create a new way of life that would be fulfilling and self-sustaining quickly diminished.

    The first military reservation was located at Tejon Pass in 1853 and the last was located in San Diego County in 1887.  The first two reservations established in Northern California were the Klamath and the Hoopa Valley.

    None of the Northern California Indian Nations wanted to relocate.  The Hupa and Smith River Nations moved only after extensive threats of violence by the military and promises of kind treatment and subsistence.  Once removed to the new reservation, many tried to return to their native lands.  However, violence was used to keep them within the confines of the reservation.  After a huge flood in 1861-62, the Indians were marched north through rain, mud, and snow to a new site along the Smith River.  Within a few years, they were again transported over the mountains to the Hoopa Valley Reservation.But the federal government’s forced marches onto reservations and the State of California’s efforts to enslave and exterminate Indians were not the only actions that were destroying the Indian Peoples of Northern California.    The citizens – primarily farmers and miners – turned to vigilante actions designed to exterminate the local Indian population.

    Citizen Vigilantes and Extermination

    Many historians and journalists have written about the common practice of “Indian killing” in Northern California.  Some  of the most well-documented incidents include:
    The citizens of Northern Californians did not seem to have much difficulty justifying their actions.  An army officer at Fort Humboldt observed, An 1860 editorial in the Humboldt Times  opined, “The whites cannot afford horses and cattle for their sustenance, and will not. Ergo, unless Government provides for the Indians, the settlers must exterminate them”  (Bordewich, 1996:50-51).  On February 16, 1860, one of the most tragic of these exterminations took place on Indian Island in the  small Northern California community of Eureka.

    The Massacre at Indian Island

    Eureka was founded in the spring of 1850 by miners who needed a more convenient route to the overland trail from Sacramento to the California gold fields.   Within a short period of time, Eurekaís Humboldt Bay became the busiest port between San Francisco and Portland and many prosperous cattle ranches thrived. As Eureka’s population and economy grew, its white residents became increasingly uneasy about local Indians whom ranchers blamed for thefts and cattle loss.  Merchants who depended upon commerce generated from the bay – especially fishing and shipping – began to see the Indian villages that thrived around the Bay as a direct threat to growing trade.   Uneasy merchants and local ranchers hoped that U.S. Army soldiers stationed at Fort Humboldt would be directed to handle what they perceived as growing Indian trouble in the area.  When such orders were not forthcoming, and after soldiers at Fort Humboldt refused to regulate Indian movement in the area, a merchant-funded militia was raised and led by Captain James Seaman.

    Seaman’s initial targets were the Indian villages on the south shore of the Eel River.  From there, his militia was directed to Indian Island where members of the Wiyot villages and tribal members from the Mattole, Yurok, Bear River, Hoopa, and Chilula Nations were gathered for their annual week-long ceremonial ritual of dancing and feasting. The Wiyot Nation  – one of the smallest tribes that lived in the region with between 1500 and 2000 people – wove basketry skullcaps, traveled in redwood canoes, and fished for shellfish, trout, and salmon.   Their territory began at Little River, continued down the coast to Bear River, and then went inland to the first set of mountains.  For over 160 years, the Wiyots had held their annual celebration in honor of a huge earthquake that killed much of their population around 1700.  The event was meant to help “balance” the earth and prevent another large tremor  (Hunt: A-7).

    On February 25, 1860, Seaman and his militia began a massacre of Indian Peoples around the bay.  That morning, Indians at the Eel River’s south shore were killed, along with residents of villages in Ferndale, Rio Dell, and Table Bluff.  The militia then moved onto Indian Island, shortly after most of the men had left for a hunting expedition up the Elk River.  After killing almost every Indian at the celebration, the militia moved further north to wipe out villages at Bayside, Freshwater Creek, Mad River, and Widow White’s Creek.

    The massacre at Indian Island was especially vicious, as reported by journalist Bret Harte in his front-page editorial to The Northern Californian:

    In all, 50 to 60 Wiyots were slaughtered, and another 200 – 600 had been massacred on the south spit of Humboldt Bay at the mouth of the Eel River. No one seemed to know just why it had occurred.  According to research conducted by Fergus Bordewich:

    Eurekans – then as well as now – refused to talk about it.  Over 140 years ago, almost everyone ignored the event, except Bret Harte who was literally run out of the county after printing his editorial in the local newspaper.  And today, as Wiyot historian Lynda Dionno of Eureka recently recalled, “A lot of people donít want to be reminded of what happened on that island.  A lot of people still living here today have relatives involved in what happened on that island”  (Hunt, 1998:A-7).Conclusion

    Despite inconsistent federal efforts to “protect” the Indians of Northern California, the legal policies of elected California representatives and the vigilante actions of white citizens were deliberately genocidal.  To some degree, their genocidal actions were successful: by 1870, the vast majority of the Indians who had lived in Northern California had either been forcibly removed to Indian reservations, or they had been killed.   Indeed, the Indian population of 1850 which ranged between 70,000 to 150,000 had dropped to about 30,000 just twenty years later.  By the 1900 federal census, only 16,000 Indian were recorded in California.  Those who survived suffered great indignities, as well as the loss of much tribal sovereignty.   On the other hand, despite the many attempts to destroy the Indians of Northern California, within several generations, most nations had replenished their populations and maintained many of their tribal cultural, political, economic, and spiritual traditions.

    Indeed, by the end of the twentieth century, California had more Indians than any other state in the nation.  About one-sixth of the estimated Indian population lives in California — approximately 320,000 Indians.  The Bureau of Indian Affairs serves about 56,000 Indians who live on California’s 104 federally recognized Indian reservations, about one-third of which are located in Northern California.   About 200,000 urban Indians and 75,000 other indigeneous Indians live on about 80 reservations that are not federally recognized.  (As of late 1999, approximately 52 California Indian Nations had applied to the Bureau of Indian Affairs for federal recognition.)


    Bordewich, Fergus M. Killing the White Man’s Indian. New York: Anchor Books, 1996: pp. 50-51.

    Goldberg-Ambrose, Carole and Duane Champagne. A Second Century of Dishonor: Federal Inequities and California Tribes.  Los Angeles, CA: UCLA American Indian Studies Center, March 27, 1996.  (http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/indian/ca/Tribes.htm)

    Harte, Bret.  “Indiscriminate Massacre of Indians: Women and Children Butchered.”  The Northern Californian.  Vol. 2, Issue 9.  February 29, 1860:1.

    Heizer, Robert F. (ed) Federal Concern about Conditions of California Indians, 1853-1913 (Ballena Press, 1979.)

    Hunt, Chris.  “Island of Tears.”  Times Standard.  March 15, 1998: A-1, A-7.

    Loughery, A.S. “Letter as Acting Commissioner of Indian Affairs, to Redick McKee, October 15, 1850.”  Senate Exec. Doc. 4, Serial 688, p. 52.

    Norton, Jack; Nora Norton; Thomas Hunnicut.  A Teacher’s Source Book on Genocide: The Native Experience in Northern California – The Bridge Gulch Massacre, 1852.  1998.

    Ray Raphael, Little White Father. Eureka: Humboldt County Historical Society, 1993

    United States Office of Indian Affairs.  Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs: Accompanying the Annual Report of the Secretary of the Interior, for the Year 1851.  Washington, D.C: A.O.P. Nicholson, Printer, 1857.

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