California genocide

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California genocide
Part of the California Indian Wars
"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
TargetIndigenous 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]
Injured10,000[4] to 27,000[5] taken as forced laborers by white settlers; 4,000 to 7,000 of them children.[5]
PerpetratorsUnited States Army, California State Militia, American settlers, settlers of Mexican, Spanish and other European descent

The California genocide was the killing of thousands of indigenous peoples of California by United States government agents and private citizens in the 19th century. It began following the American Conquest of California from Mexico, and the influx of settlers due to the California Gold Rush, which accelerated the decline of the indigenous population of California. Between 1846 and 1873, it is estimated that non-Natives killed between 9,492 and 16,094 California Natives. Hundreds to thousands were additionally starved or worked to death.[1] Acts of enslavement, kidnapping, rape, child separation and displacement were widespread. These acts were encouraged, tolerated, and carried out by state authorities and militias.[6]

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, low birth rates, starvation, killings, and massacres. California Natives, particularly during the Gold Rush, were targeted in killings.[7][8][9] Between 10,000[4] and 27,000[5] were also taken as forced labor by settlers. The state of California used its institutions to favor white settlers' rights over indigenous rights, dispossessing natives.[10]

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[edit]

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.[11] The largest group were the Chumash people, with a population around 10,000.[12] 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.[9]

The various tribal groups appear to have adapted to particular areas and territories. According to journalist Nathan Gilles, because of traditions practiced by the Native people of Northern California, they were able to "manage the threat of wildfires and cultivate traditional plants".[13] For example, traditional use of fire by the California and Pacific Northwest Tribes, allowed them to "cultivate plants and fungi" that "adapted to regular burning. The list runs from fiber sources, such as bear-grass and willow, to foodstuffs, such as berries, mushrooms, and acorns from oak trees that once made up sprawling orchards".[13] Because of traditional practices of Native Californian tribes, they were able to support habitats and climates that would then support 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.[14]

The Native people of California, according to sociologist and environmental studies Professor Kari Norgaard, were "hunting and fishing for their food, weaving baskets using traditional techniques" and "carrying out important ceremonies to keep the world intact".[15] It was also recorded that the Indigenous people in California and across the continent had, and continue to, use "fire to enhance specific plant species, optimize hunting conditions, maintain open travel routes, and generally support the flourishing of the species upon which they depend, according to scholars [16] like the United States Forest Service ecologist and Karuk descendent Frank Lake".[15]


California was one of the last regions in the Americas to be colonized. Catholic 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 Catholic faith among the region's Native peoples and establish and expand the reach of the Spanish Empire.[14] 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."[17] Gregory Orfalea estimates that pre-contact population was reduced by 33% during the Spanish and Mexican regimes. Most of the decline stemmed from imported diseases, low birth rates, 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.[8][18] However, according to George Tinker, a Native scholar, "The Native American population of coastal population was reduced by some 90 percent during seventy years under the sole proprietorship of Serra's mission system".[19]

According to journalist Ed Castillo, Serra spread the Christian faith among the Native population in a destructive way that caused their population to decline rapidly while he was in power. Castillo writes that "The Franciscans took it upon themselves to brutalize the Indians, and to rejoice in their death...They simply wanted the souls of these Indians, so they baptized them, and when they died, from disease or beatings... they were going to heaven, which was a cause of celebration".[14] According to Castillo, the Native American population were forced to abandon their "sustainable and complex civilization" as well as "their beliefs, their faith, and their way of life".[14]

Response following statehood[edit]

Following the American Conquest of California from Mexico, and the influx of settlers due to the California Gold Rush in 1849, California state and federal authorities incited, aided, and financed the violence against the Native Americans. The California Natives were also sometimes contemptuously referred to as "Diggers", for their practice of digging up roots to eat.[20][21][22][23][24][25][26] 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."[27][28][29] During the California genocide, reports of the decimation of Native Americans in California 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.[30] White settlers took 10,000 to 27,000 California Native Americans as forced laborers, including 4,000 to 7,000 children.[4][5]

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.[31][32] This was confirmed by a contemporary, Superintendent Dorcas J. Spencer.[33]

Violence statistics[edit]

In 1943, a study by demographer Sherburne Cook, estimated that there were 4,556 killings of California Indians between 1847 and 1865.[1][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, including between 1,680 and 3,741 killed by the U.S. Army. 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"). Madley also estimates that fewer than 1,400 non-Indians were killed by Indians during this period.[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] Another contemporary historian, Gary Clayton Anderson, estimates that no more than 2,000 Native Americans were killed in California.[34]

List of recorded massacres[edit]

Year Date Name Current location Description Reported casualties References
1846 April 6 Sacramento River massacre Sacramento River in Shasta County, Northern 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 [35]
1846 June Sutter Buttes massacre Sutter Buttes in Sutter County, Northern 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+ [36]
1846 December Pauma massacre Pauma Valley in San Diego County, Southern 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) [37]
1846 December Temecula massacre Temecula in Riverside County, Southern California 33 to 40 Luiseño Indians killed in an ambush in revenge for the Pauma Massacre east of Temecula, California. 33–40 [37]
1847 March Rancheria Tulea massacre Napa Valley in Napa County, Northern California White slavers retaliate to a slave escape by massacring five Indians in Rancheria Tulea. 5 [36]
1847 March 29 Kern and Sutter massacres Mill Creek in Tehama County, Northern 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 [36]
1847 late June/early July Konkow Maidu slaver massacre Chico in Butte County, Northern 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 [36]
1850 May 15 Bloody Island massacre Clear Lake in Lake County, Northern 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 [38][39][40]
1851 January 11 Mariposa War Various sites in Mariposa County, Northern 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 Massacre Shasta in Shasta County, Northern California Miners killed 300 Wintu Indians near Old Shasta, California and burned down their tribal council meeting house. 300 [41]
1852 April 23 Bridge Gulch massacre Hayfork Creek in Trinity County, Northern 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 [42]
1853 Howonquet massacre Smith River in Del Norte County, Northern California Californian settlers attacked and burned the Tolowa village of Howonquet, massacring 70 people. 70 [43]
1853 Yontoket Massacre Yontocket in Del Norte County, Northern California A posse of settlers attacked and burned a Tolowa rancheria at Yontocket, California, killing 450 Tolowa during a prayer ceremony. 450 [44][45]
1853 Achulet Massacre Lake Earl in Del Norte County, Northern 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 [46]
1853 Before December 31 "Ox" incident Visalia in Tulare County, Central Valley 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". [47]
1855 January 22 Klamath River massacres Klamath River in Del Norte County, Northern 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. [48]
1856 March Shingletown Shingleton in Shasta County, Northern California In reprisal for Indian stock theft, white settlers massacred at least 20 Yana men, women, and children near Shingletown, California. 20 [49]
1856–1859 Round Valley Settler Massacres Round Valley in Mendocino County, Northern 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+ [50][51]
1859–1860 Mendocino War Various sites in Mendocino County, Northern 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+ [50]
1859 September Pit River Pit River in Northern California White settlers massacred 70 Achomawi Indians (10 men and 60 women and children) in their village on the Pit River in California. 70 [52]
1859 Chico Creek Big Chico Creek in Butte County, Northern California White settlers attacked a Maidu camp near Chico Creek in California, killing indiscriminately 40 Indians. 40 [53]
1860 Exact date unknown Massacre at Bloody Rock Mendocino National Forest in Mendocino County, Northern California A group of 65 Yuki Indians were surrounded and massacred by white settlers at Bloody Rock, in Mendocino County, California. 65 [54]
1860 February 26 1860 Wiyot massacre Tuluwat Island in Humboldt County, Northern 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 [55][56][57][58]
1863 April 19 Keyesville massacre Keyesville in Kern County, Central Valley American militia and members of the California Volunteers cavalry killed 35 Tübatulabal men in Kern County, California. 35 [59]
1863 August 28 Konkow Trail of Tears Chico in Butte County to Covelo in Mendocino County, Northern 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.[60] They reached the Round Valley on September 18, 1863. 184 [60]
1864 Oak Run massacre Oak Run in Shasta County, Northern California California settlers massacred 300 Yana Indians who had gathered near the head of Oak Run, California, for a spiritual ceremony. 300 [61]
1865 Owens Lake massacre Owens Lake in Inyo County, Northern 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 [62]
1865 Three Knolls massacre Mill Creek in Tehama County, Northern California White settlers massacred a Yana community at Three Knolls on the Mill Creek, California. [63]
1868 Campo Seco Mill Creek in Tehama County, Northern California A posse of white settlers massacred 33 Yahis in a cave north of Mill Creek, California. 33 [64][65]
1871 Kingsley Cave massacre Ishi Wilderness in Tehama County, Northern 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 [66]

Population decline[edit]

Estimated native California population based on Handbook of the Indians of California (1925) (Cook 1978)
Groups Population by year
All minimum sources below cite:[12][unreliable source?]
1770 1910
Yurok 2,500
(up to 3,100[67])
Karok 1,500
(up to 2,000 to 2,700[68][69] )
Wiyot 1,000 100
Tolowa 1,000 150
Hupa 1,000 500
Chilula, Whilkut 1,000 (*)
Mattole 500
(up to 2,476[70])
Nongatl, Sinkyone, Lassik 2,000
(up to 7,957[70])
Wailaki 1,000
(up to 2,760[70])
Kato 500
(up to 1,100[67])
Yuki 2,000
(up to 6,000 to 20,000[71])
Huchnom 500 (*)
Coast Yuki 500 (*)
Wappo 1,000
(up to 1,650[72])
Pomo 8,000
(up to 10,000[73] to 18,000[73])
Lake Miwok 500 (*)
Coast Miwok 1,500 (*)
Shasta 2,000
(up to 5,600[74] to 10,000[75])
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[76])
Miwok (Plains and Sierra) 9,000 700
Yokuts 18,000
(up to 70,000[77])
Costanoan 7,000
(up 10,000[78] to 26,000 combined with Salinan[79])
Esselen 500 (*)
Salinan 3,000 (*)
Chumash 10,000
(up to 13,650[80] to 20,400[80][81])
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[82])
Juaneño 1,000
(up 3,340[83])
Cupeño 500
(up to 750[84])
Cahuilla 2,500
(up to 6,000[85] to 15,000[85])
Diegueño, Kamia 3,000
(up to 6,000[86] to 19,000[87])
Mohave (total) 3,000 1,050
Halchidhoma (emigrated since 1800) 1,000
(up to 2,500[88])
Yuma (Total) 2,500 750
Total of groups marked (*) .......... 450
Less river Yumans in Arizona 3,000
(up to 4,000[89])
Non-Californian Indians now in California .......... 350
Affiliation doubtful or not reported .......... 1,000
Total 133,000
(up to 230,407 to 301,233)


Land theft and value[edit]

According to M. Kat Anderson, an ecologist and lecturer at University of California, Davis, and Jon Keeley, a fire ecologist and research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, after decades of being disconnected from the land and their culture, due to Spanish and U.S. colonial violence, Native peoples are slowly starting to be able to practice traditions that enhance the environment around them, by directly taking care of the land. Anderson and Keeley write, "The outcomes that indigenous people were aiming for when burning chaparral, such as increased water flow, enhanced wildlife habitat, and the maintenance of many kinds of flowering plants and animals, are congruent and dovetail with the values that public land agencies, non-profit organizations, and private landowners wish to preserve and enhance through wildland management".[90] Through these returned practices, they are able to commit and practice their culture, while also helping the other people in the area that will benefit from the ecological differences.

Call for tribunals[edit]

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.[91]

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.[92] Attorney Lindsay Glauner has also argued for such tribunals.[93]

Apologies and name changes[edit]

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."[94] After hearing testimony, a Truth and Healing Council will clarify the historical record on the relationship between the state and California Native Americans.[95]

In November 2021, the Board of Directors of the University of California Hastings College of Law voted to change the name of the institution because of namesake S. C. Hastings' involvement in the killing and dispossessing of Yuki people in the 1850s.[96][97]

Academic debate on terminology[edit]

According to Benjamin Mountford and Stephen Tuffnell, there is vigorous debate over the scale of Native American losses after the discovery of gold in California and whether to characterize them as genocide.[98] Some scholars and historians dispute the accuracy of the term "genocide" to describe what occurred in California, as well as the blame which has been placed directly on the United States government.[34][99] One of the most prominent historians espousing such a view is Gary Clayton Anderson,[100] a professor in the University of Oklahoma, who describes the events in California as "ethnic cleansing".[34][101] He states that "If we get to the point where the mass murder of 50 Indians in California is considered genocide, then genocide has no more meaning".[34] Other historians who reject the term "genocide" include William Henry Hutchinson, who claims that "the record of history disproves these charges [of genocide]" and Tom Henry Watkins who states that "it is a poor use of the term" since the killings weren't systematic or planned.[102][103]

See also[edit]


  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


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  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 Pritzker, Barry. 2000, A Native American Encyclopedia: History, Culture, and Peoples. Oxford University Press, p. 114
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  6. ^ Adhikari, Mohamed (July 25, 2022). Destroying to Replace: Settler Genocides of Indigenous Peoples. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company. pp. 72–115. ISBN 978-1647920548.
  7. ^ Madley, Benjamin (2016). An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846–1873.
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