“The Indian problem.” That’s how, in 1850, California’s first governor, Peter Burnett, described the inconvenient fact that there were indigenous people living on white men’s mining claims. His solution: “A war of extermination…Until the Indian race becomes extinct.” 

It would take 170 years for California’s government to publicly acknowledge Burnett’s campaign.

“It’s called genocide,” said Governor Gavin Newsom in June 2019 at a somber ceremony on the Sacramento River. “That’s the way it needs to be described in the history books…And so, I’m here to say the following: I’m sorry on behalf of the state of California.” 

The next step: Tell non-Natives what really happened before, during, and after the Gold Rush. It’s not an easy story to hear, but it’s one that every American should know.

All living things

In the 1700s, when Spanish Conquistadors traveled north from Mexico to what they named Alta (Upper) California, the future U.S. state was a veritable paradise that the Spanish described as a “tended garden.” Credit for that goes to the 300,000 indigenous people—and their ancestors—who had been tending to that land for at least 10,000 years. There were more than 100 tribes thriving there, including the Pomo, Modoc, Mohave, and Amah Mutsun. 

“People refer to the Indians as hunters and gatherers,” said Val Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band. “Nothing can be further from the truth.” In an interview with History 101, the tribal leader from the San Juan Valley explained that his people are “active cultural resource land managers…Our Creation stories tell us we have to take care of Mother Earth and all living things, so our ancestors took that very seriously.”

Spanish conquistadors used Native Americans as porters, slaves, etc.
The Spanish conquistadors using Natives as porters and slaves, by Theodor de Bry. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images).

The California Indians’ woes began with the arrival of a Spanish-born Franciscan monk named Junípero Serra, who helped settle San Diego In 1767. Serra and the Spanish military worked their way up the coast, setting up missions all the way north to San Francisco.

“They did not come to evangelize in the name of Jesus Christ,” said Chairman Lopez, rather “to fulfill the dictates of Papal bulls.” Issued by popes, these decrees described indigenous people as “heathens that have no soul.”

“If you have no soul, you are not a human being…They can kill you, rape you, enslave you…and it isn’t a sin,” Lopez explained. 

The Spanish systematically rounded up the Indians, confiscated their possessions, and forced them into missions where they weren’t allowed to speak their own language, wear their own clothes, or eat their traditional food. Old World diseases such as syphilis, dysentery, and malaria only made it worse. An estimated 100,000 Indians were killed in fifty years. Lauded as one of the fathers of California, Junípero Serra was canonized a saint by Pope Francis 2015. 

‘Go West, young man’

After Mexico won independence from Spain in 1821, the new government awarded land grants of up to 50,000 acres for Mexican citizens to move north and turn California’s Central Valley into sprawling ranches and farms.  According to Lopez, this “changed our landscape horrendously, and our native grasses were gone really quick.”

Back East, the U.S. population had exploded to 23 million by 1850. A widely circulated newspaper column argued for “the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” It was this “Manifest Destiny” mindset—that it was God’s will for white men to “tame” the West—that led to fearmongering and discrimination against the “soulless Indian savages.” 

Trick or treaty

In 1851, the federal government’s solution to California’s “Indian problem” was a treaty that would have awarded the Indians 8.5 million acres spread over 18 reservations throughout the state. Most tribes signed the treaty, but before the U.S. Senate could ratify it, Burnett sent lobbyists to Washington to kill it. President Millard Fillmore ordered it sealed for 50 years. 

Then, Burnett passed the ironically titled “Act for the Government and Protection of Indians.” One law allowed white couples to claim an Indian child as their own, but the law that did the most harm: “In no case shall a white man be convicted on any offence [sic] upon the testimony of an Indian.”

Not allowing Indians to defend themselves in court gave settlers and soldiers alike carte blanche to do whatever they wanted. 

California sold treasury bonds that raised $1.7 million to pay armed militias a bounty of twenty-five cents for each Indian scalp, and five dollars for each head. Survivors were sent to “Indian assimilation schools” where they were taught to read, talk, dress, and pray like white people. Many Native Californians revolted, but most of those revolts ended in massacres. In 1850, as many as 400 Pomo were slaughtered at Clear Lake. The following year, the Mariposa Battalion raided Yosemite Valley and burned down several Miwok villages. 

Native American protestors in Los Angeles.
Native Americans lead demonstrators as they march to the Federal Building in protest against President Donald Trump’s executive order fast-tracking the Keystone XL and Dakota Access oil pipelines. (Photo by Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images).

The Golden State

“While we cannot anticipate this result but with painful regret,” lamented Governor Burnett, “the inevitable destiny of the [Indian] race is beyond the power or wisdom of man to avert.”

Burnett’s lack of wisdom meant that, if you were an Indian living in California when the Gold Rush began, you only had a 20 percent chance of surviving the next two decades. As many as 16,000 Native Californians were murdered outright. By 1870, fewer than 30,000 Indians remained.

Over the next 150 years, hundreds of more treaties with Native Americans were later altered or simply not honored, leaving poverty and despair in their wake. Meanwhile, the California that the rest of the world got to know was a mystical land of pleasant weather, sandy beaches, and snow-capped mountains—not to mention Hollywood and Silicon Valley.

Today, the state boasts the world’s fifth-largest economy. As for the people whose ancestors had thrived there for millennia, they were marginalized and hidden away, portrayed on screen as either savages or sidekicks. 

You can take some solace in the fact that Burnett’s “war of extermination” did not succeed. California now boasts the largest indigenous population in the United States, with more than 720,000 Indians representing 109 recognized tribes. In order to “reckon with our dark history,” Governor Newsom launched a Truth and Healing Council that will “paint a much fuller picture of these atrocities…in a way we haven’t in the past.”

Chairman Lopez, who was not asked to serve on the Council, told us that, “For true healing to occur, the perpetrators must heal.” The state of California must “tell what they did, why they did it, how many times they did it, and what they are going to do to atone for it.”

On hand at the apology ceremony was James Ramos, a member of the Serrano/Cahuilla tribe. He spoke of his own ancestors’ struggles during the Gold Rush.

“This is a history of genocide and oppression that so many Native American tribes share—under attack, families separated, culture stolen or destroyed, displaced from the land,” said Ramos. “That is why tribal knowledge is sacred, and its preservation tantamount to our survival as a people.” 

It’s no doubt that Governor Burnett would be rolling in his grave if he found out that James Ramos is the first Indian ever elected to the California State Assembly.