Exterminate Them: Written Accounts of the Murder, Rape, and Enslavement of Native Americans during the California Gold Rush

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9780870135019: Exterminate Them: Written Accounts of the Murder, Rape, and Enslavement of Native Americans during the California Gold Rush
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About the Author:

Cliffor Trafzer is Director of American Indian Studies at University of California, Riverside. He received the 1996-97 Wordcraft Prose Writer of the Year Award for Death Stalks the Yakama.

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Foreword

In the early winter of 1848, Johann August Sutter, a former Mexican governmental official, local caudillo (warlord), and Indian slave owner, hastily convened a meeting with the chief of the Colma Nissenan Indians. Appointed by the military governor as the new United States Indian subagent and now apparently a rehabilitated ex-Mexican Patriot, Sutter shouldered the task of establishing official relations with the local tribesmen that he had until recently terrorized and enslaved. His first order of business was to negotiate a "treaty" with Coloma tribesmen that would lease the entire watershed of the American River to Sutter personally. After all, gold had recently been discovered at a sawmill he had commissioned to be constructed nearby. During the negotiations, Sutter was warned by the chief that the yellow metal he so eagerly sought "belonged to a demon who devoured all who searched for it." In a moment of clarity, the military governor of Alta California denied Sutter's self-serving actions. Nevertheless, the chief's dire predictions proved to be devastatingly on target.

In popular literature and school textbooks the events that followed the discovery of gold have for too long been portrayed as a great adventure, luring American males to the far west in search of personal fortunes and validating the hysterically popular doctrine of Manifest Destiny. The predominate theme in these representations has been the personal sacrifices, hardships, and ultimate disappointment in the great enterprise. The fate of the California Indians was, like Indian futures everywhere, doomed and dismissed into the waste bin of history. After all, these writers reasoned, the Indians were a stone-age people who, in social Darwinistic dogma, must inevitably yield to the overpowering force of a technologically "superior people." This book is about the human cost of that adventure.

Underlying the events chronicled in this documented history of the California Indians in the gold rush is what I describe as the "chaos theory" of Gold Rush history. Historians and other writers have the tendency to assemble historical documents and measurable facts in such a way as to construct a rational, modular organization of data chronicling events that seem to unfold in a rather pedestrian and predictable manner. Studies of gold rush mining laws, the adoption of the state constitution in 1850, and other historical fact seem to suggest an orderly and ultimately responsible reaction to the hectic events of a nineteenth-century mining frontier. However a more analytical, thoughtful and critical study of this era through its historical documents reveals quite the contrary. There was, in fact, a complete breakdown of all legal and moral constraints on American immigrants' civic and criminal behavior. For example, California's first governor bluntly advocated Indian genocide by declaring, "A war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races until the Indian race becomes extinct."

This work documents the creation of state laws that virtually enslaved California Indians, despite the fact that California entered the Union as a "free" state. It further reveals the systematic abrogation of guarantees of protection for Indian land and civil rights according to the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. This international agreement had severed Mexico's tenuous hold on the population and territory of Alta California. The state constitutional convention deemed Indian citizenship, property, and civil rights and their right to testify in court proceedings to be unimportant. Consequently the state's native peoples were relegated to the legal status of extraconstitutional nonpersons. This legal chicanery made possible the greatest orgy of land fraud, dispossession, slavery, and mass murder ever witnessed in North American Indian history. The period from 1850 to 1868 was essentially a twisted Darwinian laboratory showcasing the triumph of brute force aided by a pathonogenic and technological assault on a native people unparalleled in Western hemispheric history.

In fact nothing even remotely similar to the mass murder and cocomitant gut wrenching vortex of population decline seen in this period has ever been recorded in United States history. This is not to dismiss the traumatic removal, aggressive military assaults, and dispossession of Cherokees during the 1828 Georgia Gold Rush in their beloved homeland. Nor does it trivialize the devastating effects of the 1876 Black Hills gold discovery in the sacred Black Hills of the Dakotas. Even the Alaskan Gold Rush at the turn of this century fails to provide a comparable example of territorial loss or a comparable body count.

As the 150th anniversary of the California gold discovery approached, I, along with many other California Indians, struggled with my consciousness about how I might participate in the California Sesquicentennial in an honest and dignified manner. To ignore it would be to surrender to those who would trivialize the violent annihilation of something like half of our surviving population. For those interested in only the bottom line, 100,000 California Indians died in the first two years of the Gold Rush. Not much here to celebrate.

Wyandot Indian historian Professor Cliff Trafzer and his coauthor Joel Hyer have assembled a collection of documents that bear stark testimony to the heartless and methodical manner in which the aboriginal population of California was systematically dispossessed of its homeland and routinely oppressed, exploited, and terrorized.

Many of the documents and newspaper accounts found in this volume have been previously published. Unfortunately many of those publications are now out of print and frequently are difficult to find.

In the early 1970s I pursued a graduate program in American anthropology with the esteemed scholar Robert F. Heizer. He published many of these documents in a number of limited editions. What distinguishes this study from Heizer's early document anthologies is the inclusion of contextual historical and ethnographic background information. Despite these considerations, all contemporary California history scholars and students, and other seekers of historical truths, are indebted to Heizer and his many California Indian informants.

In contrast, this work presents a comprehensive and focused look at historical data and an assessment of the impact of the Gold Rush on the Indians of California. In the following pages the reader will find an eye-opening and disturbing glimpse of the colonization of the golden state and the Indian response to it. This is a very important text and will provide today's readers with contemporary Gold Rush civilian and military accounts.

Only an honest and frank discussion of the legacy of the Gold Rush can provide today's Californians and others with a balanced understanding of this state's defining event. It is no small irony that the present state executive is determined that Indian gaming be dominated and controlled by the "compassionate" government that declared its intention to destroy Indians in a genocidal struggle little more than a century and a half ago.

History is often painful and disturbing, but it is always enlightening.

Edward D. Castillo A Cahuilla Man

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