California genocide

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California genocide
Part of the Conquest of California
and California Gold Rush
"Protecting The Settlers" Illustration by JR Browne for his work "The Indians Of California" 1864.jpg
"Protecting The Settlers", illustration by J. R. Browne for his work The Indians Of California, 1864
Location California
Target Indigenous Californians
Attack type
Genocide, ethnic cleansing, human hunting, slavery, rape, Indian removal
Deaths9,492 to 16,094 (Madley) [1] (other estimates: 4,500 [2]–100,000 [3]) indigenous Californians outright killed, thousands more died due to disease and other causes
Injured24,000 [4] to 27,000 [4] Native Americans were taken as forced laborers by white settlers; 4,000 [4] to 7,000 [4] of them children
Perpetrators United States Army, California State Militia, settlers of Mexican, Spanish and other European descent

The California genocide consisted of actions taken by United States government agents and private citizens in the 19th century, following the American Conquest of California from Mexico, that resulted in the dramatic decrease of the indigenous population of California. Between 1849 and 1870 it is conservatively estimated that American colonists murdered some 9,500 California Natives, [1] and acts of enslavement, kidnapping, rape, child separation and displacement were widespread, encouraged, carried out by and tolerated by state authorities and militias.

The 1925 book Handbook of the Indians of California estimated that the indigenous population of California decreased from perhaps as many as 150,000 in 1848 to 30,000 in 1870 and fell further to 16,000 in 1900. The decline was caused by disease, starvation and massacres. California Native Americans, particularly during the Gold Rush, were targeted in killings. [5] [6] Between 24,000 [4] and 27,000 [4] Native Americans were also taken as forced labor by settlers. The state of California used its institutions to favor white settlers' rights over indigenous rights and was responsible for dispossession of the natives. [7]

Since the 2000s several American academics and activist organizations, both Native American and European American, have characterized the period immediately following the U.S. Conquest of California as one in which the state and federal governments waged genocide against the Native Americans in the territory. In 2019, California's governor Gavin Newsom apologized for the genocide and called for a research group to be formed to better understand the topic and inform future generations.


Indigenous peoples

Indigenous ethnic and (inset) linguistic groups of California prior to European arrival.

Prior to Spanish arrival, California was home to an indigenous population thought to have been as high as 300,000. [8] The largest group were the Chumash people, with a population around 10,000. [9] The region was highly diverse, with numerous distinct languages spoken. While there was great diversity in the area, archeological findings show little evidence of intertribal conflicts. [6]

The various groups appear to have adapted to particular areas and territories. California habitats and climate supported an abundance of wildlife, including rabbits, deer, varieties of fish, fruit, roots, and acorns. The natives largely followed a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, moving around their area through the seasons as different types of food were available. [10]


California was one of the last regions in the Americas to be colonized. Spanish missionaries, led by Franciscan administrator Junípero Serra and military forces under the command of Gaspar de Portolá, did not reach this area until 1769. The mission was intended to spread the Christian faith among the region's indigenous peoples and establish places to develop area resources and products for the empire. The Spanish built San Diego de Alcalá, the first of 21 missions, at what developed as present-day San Diego in the southern part of the state along the Pacific. Military outposts were constructed alongside the missions to house the soldiers sent to protect the missionaries.[ citation needed]

Spanish and Mexican rule were devastating for native populations. “As the missions grew, California’s native population of Indians began a catastrophic decline.” [11] Gregory Orfalea estimates that pre-contact population was reduced by 33% during the Spanish and Mexican regimes. Most of the deaths stemmed from imported diseases and the disruption of traditional ways of life, but violence was common, and some historians have charged that life in the missions was close to slavery. [12]

California statehood and genocide

In the latter half of the 19th century California state and federal authorities incited, [13] [14] aided, and financed miners, settlers, ranchers, and people's militias to enslave, kidnap, murder, and exterminate a major proportion of displaced Native Americans. The latter were sometimes contemptuously referred to as "Diggers", for their practice of digging up roots to eat. Many of the same policies of violence were used here against the indigenous population as the United States had done throughout its territory. [15] [16] [17] [18] [19] [20] [21]

Simultaneous to the ongoing extermination, reports of the decimation of Native Americans were made to the rest of the United States and internationally. [note 1]

The California Act for the Government and Protection of Indians was enacted in 1850 (amended 1860, repealed 1863). This law provided for "apprenticing" or indenturing Indian children to Whites, and also punished "vagrant" Indians by "hiring" them out to the highest bidder at a public auction if the Indian could not provide sufficient bond or bail. This legalized a form of slavery in California. [22] White settlers took 24,000 to 27,000 California Native Americans as forced laborers, including 4,000 to 7,000 children. [4]

A notable early eyewitness testimony and account: "The Indians of California" 1864, is from John Ross Browne, Customs official and Inspector of Indian Affairs on the Pacific Coast. He systematically described the fraud, corruption, land theft, slavery, rape, and massacre perpetrated on a substantial portion of the aboriginal population. [23] [24] This was confirmed by a contemporary, Superintendent Dorcas J. Spencer. [25]

By one estimate, at least 4,500 Californian Indians were killed between 1849 and 1870. [2] Contemporary historian Benjamin Madley has documented the numbers of Californian Indians killed between 1846 and 1873; he estimates that during this period at least 9,492 to 16,092 Californian Indians were killed by non-Indians. Most of the deaths took place in what he defined as more than 370 massacres (defined as the "intentional killing of five or more disarmed combatants or largely unarmed noncombatants, including women, children, and prisoners, whether in the context of a battle or otherwise"). [1]

The Native American activist and former Sonoma State University Professor Ed Castillo was asked by The State of California's Native American Heritage Commission to write the state's official history of the genocide; he wrote that "well-armed death squads combined with the widespread random killing of Indians by individual miners resulted in the death of 100,000 Indians in [1848 and 1849]." [3]

List of recorded massacres

Year Date Name Current location Description Reported casualties Claimants
1846 April 6 Sacramento River massacre California Captain John C. Frémont's men attacked a band of Indians (probably Wintun) on the Sacramento River in California, killing between 120 and 200 Indians. 120–200 [26]
1846 May 12 Klamath Lake massacre California Captain John C. Frémont's men, led by Kit Carson, attacked a village of Klamath Indians on the banks of Klamath Lake, killing at least 14 Klamath people. 14+ [27]
1846 June Sutter Buttes massacre California Captain John C. Frémont's men attacked a rancheria on the banks of the Sacramento River near Sutter Buttes, killing several Patwin people. 14+ [27]
1846 December Pauma massacre California 11 Californios captured at Rancho Pauma were killed as horse thieves by Indians at Warner Springs, California, leading to the Temecula massacre. 11 (settlers) [28]
1846 December Temecula massacre California 33 to 40 Luiseño Indians killed in an ambush in revenge for the Pauma Massacre east of Temecula, California. 33–40 [28]
1847 March Rancheria Tulea massacre California White slavers retaliate to a slave escape by massacring five Indians in Rancheria Tulea. 5 [27]
1847 March 29 Kern and Sutter massacres California In response to a plea from White settlers to put an end to raids, U.S. Army Captain Edward Kern and rancher John Sutter led 50 men in attacks on three Indian villages. 20 [27]
1847 late June/early July Konkow Maidu slaver massacre California Slavers kill 12–20 Konkow Maidu Indians in the process of capturing 30 members of the tribe for the purpose of forced slavery. 12–20 [27]
1850 May 15 Bloody Island massacre California Nathaniel Lyon and his U.S. Army detachment of cavalry killed 60–100 Pomo people on Bo-no-po-ti island near Clear Lake, (Lake Co., California); they believed the Pomo had killed two Clear Lake settlers who had been abusing and murdering Pomo people. (The Island Pomo had no connections to the enslaved Pomo.) This incident led to a general outbreak of settler attacks against and mass killing of native people all over Northern California. The site is now California Registered Historical Landmark #427. 60–100 [29] [30] [31]
1851 January 11 Mariposa War California The gold rush increased pressure on the Native Americans of California, because miners forced Native Americans off their gold-rich lands. Many were pressed into service in the mines; others had their villages raided by the army and volunteer militia. Some Native American tribes fought back, beginning with the Ahwahnechees and the Chowchilla in the Sierra Nevada and San Joaquin Valley leading a raid on the Fresno River post of James D. Savage, in December 1850. In retaliation Mariposa County Sheriff James Burney led local militia in an indecisive clash with the natives on January 11, 1851 on a mountainside near present-day Oakhurst, California. 40+
1851 Old Shasta Town California Miners killed 300 Wintu Indians near Old Shasta, California and burned down their tribal council meeting house. 300 [32]
1852 April 23 Bridge Gulch massacre California 70 American men led by Trinity County sheriff William H. Dixon killed more than 150 Wintu people in the Hayfork Valley of California, in retaliation for the killing of Col. John Anderson. 150 [33]
1852 November Wright massacre California White settlers led by a notorious Indian hunter named Ben Wright massacred 41 Modocs during a "peace parley". 41 [34]
1853 Howonquet massacre California Californian settlers attacked and burned the Tolowa village of Howonquet, massacring 70 people. 70 [35]
1853 Yontoket Massacre California A posse of settlers attacked and burned a Tolowa rancheria at Yontocket, California, killing 450 Tolowa during a prayer ceremony. 450 [36] [37]
1853 Achulet Massacre California White settlers launched an attack on a Tolowa village near Lake Earl in California, killing between 65 and 150 Indians at dawn. 65–150 [38]
1853 Before December 31 "Ox" incident California U.S. forces attacked and killed an unreported number of Indians in the Four Creeks area (Tulare County, California) in what was referred to by officers as "our little difficulty" and "the chastisement they have received". [39]
1855 January 22 Klamath River massacres California In retaliation for the murder of six settlers and the theft of some cattle, whites commenced a "war of extermination against the Indians" in Humboldt County, California. [40]
1856 March Shingletown California In reprisal for Indian stock theft, white settlers massacred at least 20 Yana men, women, and children near Shingletown, California. 20 [41]
1856–1859 Round Valley Settler Massacres California White settlers killed over a thousand Yuki Indians in Round Valley over the course of three years in an uncountable number of separate massacres. 1,000+ [42] [43]
1859–1860 Jarboe's War California White settlers calling themselves the "Eel River Rangers", led by Walter Jarboe, killed at least 283 Indian men and countless women and children in 23 engagements over the course of six months. They were reimbursed by the U.S. government for their campaign. 283+ [42]
1859 September Pit River California White settlers massacred 70 Achomawi Indians (10 men and 60 women and children) in their village on the Pit River in California. 70 [44]
1859 Chico Creek California White settlers attacked a Maidu camp near Chico Creek in California, killing indiscriminately 40 Indians. 40 [45]
1860 Exact date unknown Massacre at Bloody Rock California A group of 65 Yuki Indians were surrounded and massacred by white settlers at Bloody Rock, in Mendocino County, California. 65 [46]
1860 February 26 Indian Island massacre California In three nearly simultaneous assaults on the Wiyot, at Indian Island, Eureka, Rio Dell, and near Hydesville, California, white settlers killed between 80 and 250 Wiyot in Humboldt County, California. Victims were mostly women, children, and elders, as reported by Bret Harte at Arcata newspaper. Other villages were massacred within two days. The main site is National Register of Historic Places in the United States #66000208. 80–250 [47] [48] [49] [50]
1863 April 19 Keyesville massacre California American militia and members of the California Volunteers cavalry killed 35 Tübatulabal men in Kern County, California. 35 [51]
1863 August 28 Konkow Trail of Tears California In August 1863 all Konkow Maidu were to be sent to the Bidwell Ranch in Chico and then be taken to the Round Valley Reservation at Covelo in Mendocino County. Any Indians remaining in the area were to be shot. Maidu were rounded up and marched under guard west out of the Sacramento Valley and through to the Coastal Range. 461 Native Americans started the trek, 277 finished. [52] They reached the Round Valley on 18 September 1863. 184 [52]
1864 Oak Run massacre California California settlers massacred 300 Yana Indians who had gathered near the head of Oak Run, California for a spiritual ceremony. 300 [53]
1865 Owens Lake massacre California To avenge the killing of a woman and child at Haiwai Meadows, White vigilantes attacked a Paiute camp on Owens Lake in California, killing about 40 men, women, and children. 40 [54]
1865 Three Knolls massacre California White settlers massacred a Yana community at Three Knolls on the Mill Creek, California. [55] [56]
1868 Campo Seco California A posse of white settlers massacred 33 Yahis in a cave north of Mill Creek, California. 33 [57] [58]
1871 Kingsley Cave massacre California 4 settlers killed 30 Yahi Indians in Tehama County, California about two miles from Wild Horse Corral in the Ishi Wilderness. It is estimated that this massacre left only 15 members of the Yahi tribe alive. 30 [59]

Population decline

Estimated native California population based on Handbook of the Indians of California (1925) ( Cook 1978)
Groups Population by year
All minimum sources below cite: [9][ unreliable source?]
1770 1910
Yurok 2,500
(up to 3,100 [60])
Karok 1,500
(up to [61] [62] 2,000 to 2,700)
Wiyot 1,000 100
Tolowa 1,000 150
Hupa 1,000 500
Chilula, Whilkut 1,000 (*)
Mattole 500
(up to 2,476 [63])
Nongatl, Sinkyone, Lassik 2,000
(up to 7,957 [63])
Wailaki 1,000
(up to 2,760 [63])
kato 500
(up to 1,100 [60]
Yuki 2,000
(up to 6,000 to 20,000) [64] [65]
Huchnom 500 (*)
Coast Yuki 500 (*)
Wappo 1,000
(up to 1,650 [66]
Pomo 8,000
(up to 10,000 [67] to 18,000 [67])
Lake Miwok 500 (*)
Coast Miwok 1,500 (*)
Shasta 2,000
(up to 5,600 [68] to 10,000 [69]
Chimariko, New River, Konomihu, Oakwanuchu 1,000 (*)
Achomawi, Atsugawi 3,000 1,100
Modoc in California 500 (*)
Yana/Yahi 1,500 (*)
Wintun 12,000 1,000
Maidu 9,000
(up to 9,500 [70])
Miwok (Plains and Sierra) 9,000 700
Yokuts 18,000
(up to 70,000 [71])
Costanoan 7,000
(up 10,000 [72] to 26,000 combined with Salinan) [73])
Esselen 500 (*)
Salinan 3,000 (*)
Chumash 10,000
(up to 13,650 [74] to 20,400 [74] [75]
Washo in California 500 300
Northern Paiute in California 500 300
Eastern and Western Mono 4,000 1,500
Tübatulabal 1,000 150
Koso, Chemehuevi, Kawaiisu 1,500 500
Serrano, Vanyume, Kitanemuk, Alliklik 3,500 150
Gabrielino, Fernandeño, San Nicoleño 5,000 (*)
Luiseño 4,000
(up to 10,000 [76]
Juaneño 1,000
(up 3,340) [77]
Cupeño 500
(up to 750 [78])
Cahuilla 2,500
(up to 6,000 [79] to 15,000 [79])
Diegueño, Kamia 3,000
(up to 6,000 [80] to 19,000 [81])
Mohave (total) 3,000 1,050
Halchidhoma (emigrated since 1800) 1,000
(up to 2,500 [82])
Yuma (Total) 2,500 750
Total of groups marked (*) .......... 450
Less river Yumans in Arizona 3,000
(up to 4,000 [83])
Non-Californian Indians now in California .......... 350
Affiliation doubtful or not reported .......... 1,000
Total 133,000
(up to 230,407 to 301,233)


Call for tribunals

Native American scholar Gerald Vizenor has argued in the early 21st century for universities to be authorized to assemble tribunals to investigate these events. He notes that United States federal law contains no statute of limitations on war crimes and crimes against humanity, including genocide. He says:

Genocide tribunals would provide venues of judicial reason and equity that reveal continental ethnic cleansing, mass murder, torture, and religious persecution, past and present, and would justly expose, in the context of legal competition for evidence, the inciters, falsifiers, and deniers of genocide and state crimes against Native American Indians. Genocide tribunals would surely enhance the moot court programs in law schools and provide more serious consideration of human rights and international criminal cases by substantive testimony, motivated historical depositions, documentary evidence, contentious narratives, and ethical accountability. [84]

Vizenor believes that, in accordance with international law, the universities of South Dakota, Minnesota, and California Berkeley ought to establish tribunals to hear evidence and adjudicate crimes against humanity alleged to have taken place in their individual states. [85] Attorney Lindsay Glauner has also argued for such tribunals. [86]

Apology by California's governor

In a speech before representatives of Native American peoples in June, 2019, California governor Gavin Newsom apologized for the genocide. Newsom said, "That’s what it was, a genocide. No other way to describe it. And that’s the way it needs to be described in the history books." [87] After hearing testimony, a Truth and Healing Council will clarify the historical record on the relationship between the state and California Native Americans. [88]

See also


  1. ^ Aboriginal Americans. Quote: "Dr. MacGowan, in a lecture delivered at New York, estimated the present number of Indians in the United States to be about 250,000, and said that unless something prevented the oppression and cruelty of the white man, these people would gradually become reduced, and finally extinct. He predicted the total extermination of the Digger Indians of California and the tribes of other states within ten years, if something were not done for their relief. The lecturer concluded by strongly urging the establishment of a Protective Aborigines Society, something similar to the society in England to prevent cruelty to animals. By this means he thought the condition of the Indian might be improved and the race longer perpetuated." The British Medical Journal, Vol. 1, No. 274 (March 31, 1866), p. 350


  1. ^ a b c Madley, Benjamin (2016). An American Genocide, The United States and the California Catastrophe, 1846–1873. Yale University Press. pp. 11, 351. ISBN  978-0-300-18136-4.
  2. ^ a b "Minorities During the Gold Rush". California Secretary of State. Archived from the original on February 1, 2014.
  3. ^ a b Castillo, Edward D. "California Indian History". California Native American Heritage Commission. Archived from the original on June 1, 2019.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Exchange Team, The Jefferson. "NorCal Native Writes Of California Genocide". JPR Jefferson Public Radio. Info is in the podcast. Archived from the original on November 14, 2019.
  5. ^ Madley, Benjamin (2016). An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846–1873.
  6. ^ a b "California Genocide". Indian Country Diaries. PBS. September 2006. Archived from the original on May 6, 2007.
  7. ^ Lindsay, Brendan C. (2012). Murder State: California's Native American Genocide 1846–1873. United States: University of Nebraska Press. pp. 2, 3. ISBN  978-0-8032-6966-8.
  8. ^ "The First Peoples of California | Early California History: An Overview | Articles and Essays | California as I Saw It: First-Person Narratives of California's Early Years, 1849-1900 | Digital Collections | Library of Congress". Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20540 USA. Retrieved May 21, 2021.
  9. ^ a b Kroeber, A. L. (1925). Handbook of the Indians of California. Washington. p. 883. hdl: 2027/mdp.39015006584174.
  10. ^ Castillo, Edward. "A Short Overview of California Indian History". Native American Caucus of the California Democratic Party. Retrieved December 14, 2015.
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  13. ^ On January 6, 1851, at his State of the State address to the California Senate, 1st Governor Peter Burnett said: "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."
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