Primary Sources


Wars with the California Tribes

Wars with the California Tribes (1891)

Wars with the California Tribes



WHILE the Oregon volunteers were still at the Dalles in defence [sic] of their homes, gold was discovered in paying quantities at Mormon Island and in Sutter's mill race in California. In a trice all California was mad, and the gold craze spread all over the United States. A flood of emigration by land and sea poured into the gold coasts of the Pacific. The year 1849 became historic and the forty-niner a character in the tragedy and comedy of the times.

The flood of emigration, the crush of enterprise, the selfishness of the greed, the cruelty of acquisition, under the circumstances, proved to be greater evils for the Indians than even the discovery of Columbus and the Spanish occupation. Gold miners had no patience with Indians. They would ransack the mountains in search of claims. They would kill all who interfered with their supposed rights. The Indian knew this, as a rule "vacated the ranche [sic]" on a single warning. If he stood for his rights, the policy of the Government was to get rid of him as


quickly as possible by buying him out, so as to avoid bloodshed.

Generally speaking the Indians of California were not fighters. The Yrekas in the north were brave and gave much trouble, but the tribes to the south lacked union and spirit. The entire Indian population did not exceed 30,000, of whom not over half were classed as wild Indians. The first clash with California Indians came at Mormon Island, and it was instigated by miners, who perhaps sought an occasion to teach their hostile neighbors what they might expect if they did not clear the way for exploration and occupancy. It was a cruel "set to" which resulted fatally to a number on both sides, but which resulted in impressing the Indians with the conviction that the vicinity of a gold mining camp, was the least desirable place in the world for their own camps.

As miners pushed their way into the mountains and mining camps became thick in the gulches and valleys, the difficulties with the Indians increased. Skirmishes became frequent, but as a rule the Indians were marauders and cattle thieves, rather than open, organized warriors. They were "pestiferous" as the mining phrase went, and in this respect were more objects of malice than if they had been regularly


on the warpath. The Government harkened to the calls for aid to put them down. It could not send troops so far, but it sent 100,000 arms. The miners quickly formed a local militia and would, no doubt, have made a war of extermination upon the Indians of the Territory, had not the Government in a spirit of humanity, hit on the plan of treating with them and giving them a place on the reservations. Most of the tribes took their places gladly on the reservations, but some of the mountain tribes either feared to come in or preferred the freedom of their mountain fastnesses.

These were treated as hostiles, and the improvised militia of California quickly made war upon them. The California wars of 1851-52 were chiefly those brought about by efforts to catch these hostiles and corral them on reservations. The hostiles of the San Joaquin Valley were hunted down and brought to terms by the celebrated Mariposa Battalion. Jose Rey, chief of the Chowchillas, was defeated in several engagements and finally lost his life in a battle which determined the fate of his tribe. The Yosemites, or "Grizzly Bears," who lived in the wonderful cannon valley which perpetuated their name, were brave warriors by repute, but when confronted by militia they offered little resistance.

[37] The wars in and around Sacramento Valley amounted to but little more than a succession of skirmishes. By 1853 the California tribes were pretty generally subdued and driven on to the five reservations set apart for them. These reservations were badly managed by the Government agents, who drew plentiful supplies from the Government but gave the Indians none. The consequence was the reservations fell into disrepute and were practically abandoned. White settlers took mean advantage of the absence of the Indians, the latter having been forced into a nomadic life and having become more thievish and cowardly than ever before. Every Indian theft, every attempt on their part to scout and live, or to come back on their reservations to assert their rights, became a cause for war upon them, and it is quite probable that more perished in the difficulties which thus arose, than in all the prior effort to conquer them. Over 150 Indians were massacred by white settlers at Nome Cult in 1858, the only excuse being that they had driven off the cattle of the settlers from the reservation, because they were consuming the acorns on which the Indians depended for food. At King's River, the Indians were shot down by scores, and driven away because the Government would not support them and they had become


a nuisance. In these humanitarian efforts to exterminate the natives, the settlers had the support of the state militia and there was no sentiment against this kind of murder. At Mattole Station and Humboldt Bay, similar massacres took place and there was no mercy shown to a refractory Indian. The next morning after the massacre at Humboldt Bay, sixty corpses of Indian men, women, boys and girls, showed how impious had been their refusal to go off to the then secluded region of Mendocino.

The character of the California settlers, gathered from all the ends of the earth, inspired by greed, with a golden stake in hand, was such as to make Indian wars of California frequent, short and decisive. They were wars which involved excessive cruelty, wars of extermination. The miners were a society by themselves, and a unit in their own protection. There was, of course, a powerful necessity for protection, as was shown not only in their wars with Indians, but in those stern measures which became the code of justice of their "Vigilance Committees." They were really at war with themselves, and peace and the reign of law came only after the rope had taught many of their own number, the same lessons their shotguns had impressed on the Indians.


From the collections of the American Antiquarian Society



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Last updated June 9, 2005