As of December 31, 2014, I retired from full-time teaching in Humboldt State University's Department of History. While this website will remain online, it is no longer maintained.

History 383 - Dr. Gayle Olson-Raymer

Americanization and the California Indians - A Case Study of Northern California.

Map of pre-contact California Indian tribes

Introduction: In previous discussions found in Unit I, we learned a great deal about how the California Indians fared under Spanish and Mexican colonization. We concluded that the many Indian nations neither flourished nor thrived under their colonial policies. As we will learn today, the Americanization of California was even worse for its Indian people. The destructive patterns set during westward expansion that were reliant upon the Anglo-American belief in Manifest Destiny assured that with the progression of statehood, the number and strength of California Indians would be greatly diminished.

Our focus today is on Northern California - how the Americanization of California influences the political, economic, spiritual, and cultural lives of the many Indian nations living in the northern part of the state.

Discussion Goals - Americanization and the California Indians - A Case Study of Northern California.

  1. To understand California's "Indian Problem" and the conflicting white interpretation of how to handle this problem.
  2. To learn about California policies created to deal with the Indian Problem during its early years.
  3. To examine the Federal Indian Policies that were applied to California Indians during the last five decades of the 19th Century.
  4. To understand citizen attitudes about California Indians, especially through an examination of the Indian Island Massacre in Eureka, California.

Goal #1: To understand California's "Indian Problem" and the conflicting white interpretation of how to handle this problem.

By 1848 somewhere between 70,000 and 100,000 Indians and slightly more than 800 white people lived in California. Later that year when gold was discovered, the population mix began a dramatic alteration. By the time California became a state in 1850, California Indians were a minority and a "problem" for the newly-migrated Californians who came from various parts of the world. For the next decade, the "problem" of what to do with California's Indian population was especially acute in Northern California where the new state government, California's white citizens, and the federal government had conflicting interpretations of how to handle the "Indian problem."

  1. California citizens wanted the Indians removed from Northern California as quickly as possible.
  2. The State of California had three primary interests:
  3. The Federal government was bound by three distinct policies that determined how the Americans in every state would deal with Indians: the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution, and the Indian Trade and Intercourse Act of 1890.

    In addition, the federal government was bound by its treaties with Indian nations. Treaties were legal, government-to-government agreements between two legitimate governments - the United States and an Indian nation. When an Indian nation signed a treaty, it agreed to give the federal government some or all of its land as well as some or all of its sovereign powers. In return, the federal government entered into a trust responsibility with the Indian Nation in which the federal government in exchange for some or all of Indian land, is legally responsible for the protection of tribal lands, assets, resources, and treaty rights. The trust responsibility bound the United States to represent the best interests of the tribe, protect the safety and well-being of tribal members, and fulfill its treaty obligations and commitments.

Goal #2: To learn about California's Legislative Policies Dealing with the "Indian Problem"

The famous historian of California, Hubert Howe Bancroft, summed up the state politics towards Indians in a few succinct but horrific sentences:

“That part of the early intercourse between aboriginal Americans and European which belongs to history may be briefly given, short work was made of it in California. The savages were in the way; the miners and settlers were arrogant and impatient; there were no missionaries or others present with even the poor pretense of soul saving or civilizing. It was one of the last human hunts of civilization, and the basest and most brutal of them all.” (Bancroft, History of California, 1963: 474)

Genocide posterAmong the ranks of American historians, there is still controvery over the idea that federal Indian policies may have been genocidal in nature and consequence. However, there is little to no argument among historians that what happened in California was genocide.

A little bit of background about the formal origins of the word genocide is important. In 1944, the word was created from the Greek word "genos" meaning race - plus "cide" from Latin "cidium" meaning to kill or an act of killing. In 1948, the U.N. adopted the definition below:

"In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

The following acts shall be punishable:

(a) Genocide;
(b) Conspiracy to commit genocide;
(c) Direct and public incitement to commit genocide;
(d) Attempt to commit genocide;
(e) Complicity in genocide. "

This is the definition most often used in domestic and international discussions of genocide. As we learn more about California policies dealing with the Indian nations within its borders, it will be important to remember the definition of genocide and to also think about how and why such policies fit into this definition.

So, let's begin with 1850 when the first California Legislature met to begin making the laws governing the new state. From the beginning, California neither recognized Indians as citizens with civil rights, nor did it treat Indians as sovereign people. As soon as the state government was created, the new legislators - those men largely ruled by pro-slavery and pro-southern sentiments - passed a series of legislative acts that legally did the following

Examples of such Legislation:

1. In 1850, California's first legislature passed the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians - which wrote the following into law.

2. California passed a law in 1854 "making it a crime to disinter, mutilate or remove the body of any deceased person" - but Indian bodies were understood to be exempt from the law. This begins a period of Indian grave robbing that does not end until federal legislation (NAGPRA, 1990) is passed in the late 20th Century that specifically makes this practice illegal.

3. In 1860, California passed an amendment to the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians [Approved April 18, 1860.] In essence, this amendment declared that Indians who were not already indentured/enslaved could be kidnapped.

"Sec. 3. County and District Judges in the respective counties of this state, shall, by virtue of this act, have full power and authority, at the instance and request of any person having or hereafter obtaining an Indian child or children, male or female, under the age of fifteen years, from the parents or person or persons having the care or charge of such child or children, with the consent of such parents or person or persons having the care or charge of any such child or children, or at the instance and request of any person desirous of obtaining any Indian or Indians, whether children or grown persons, that may be held as prisoners of war, or at the instance and request of any person desirous of obtaining any vagrant Indian or Indians, as have no settled habitation or means of livelihood, and have not placed themselves under the protection of any white person, to bind and put out such Indians as apprentices, to trades, husbandry, or other employments, as to them shall appear proper, and for this purpose shall execute duplicate articles of indenture of apprenticeship on behalf of such Indians, which indentures shall also be executed by the person to whom such Indian or Indians are to be indentured - such indentures shall authorize such person to have the care, custody, control, and earnings, of such Indian or Indians, as shall require such person to clothe and suitably provide the necessaries of life for such Indian or Indians, for and during the term for which such Indian or Indians shall be apprenticed, and shall contain the sex, name, and probable age, of such Indian or Indians; such indentures may be for the following terms of years: Such children as are under fourteen years of age, if males, until they attain the age of twenty-five years; if females, until they attain the age of twenty-one years; such as are over fourteen and under twenty years of age, if males, until they attain the age of thirty years; if females, until they attain the age of twenty-five years; and such Indians as may over the age of twenty years, then next following the date of such indentures, for and during the term of ten years, at the discretion of such Judge; such Indians as may be indentured under provision of this section, shall be deemed within such provisions of this act, as are applicable to minor Indians."

What were the goals of such legislation?

  1. Promoting Indian slavery. Californians interpreted the 1850 law in such a way that all Indians, including children, faced indentured servitude through a simple procedure of arrest and "hiring out" through any local justice-of-the-peace. Once they were indentured, the term limitation was almost always ignored, thus resulting in slavery.
  2. Denying Indians equal protection under the law by forbidding Indians to defend themselves in a court of law and describing the only type of life acceptable to white Californians was to contract Indians out as servants.
  3. Pomoting vigilante violence by empowering and funding militias. In 1850 with the first California constitution, Article VII gave the Governor the power "to call for the militia,Copy of discharge papers from Humboldt militia to execute the laws of the State, to suppress insurrections, and repel invasions." In his annual address to the California Legislature on Jan. 7, 1851, Governor Burnett highlighted significant events of 1850, including "repeated calls ... upon the Executive for the aid of the militia to resist and punish the attacks of the Indians upon the frontier." During 1850, Governor Burnett called out the militia two times. Additionally ...

Studies conducted in the late 20th Century of the California archives found that while it was impossible to determine exactly the total number of units and men engaged in militia attacks against the California Indians during the period of 1850 to 1859, the official record verifies that the governors of California called out the militia on "Expeditions against the Indians" on a number of occasions, and at considerable expense - $843,573.48. (Comptroller of the State of California, Expenditures for Military Expeditions Against Indians, 1851-1859, Sacramento: The Comptroller, Secretary of State, California State Archives, Located at "Roster" Comptroller No. 574, Vault, Bin 393.)

Selected Incidents of Indian Genocide in Northern California, 1851-1860

Goal #3: To examine the Federal Indian Policies that were applied to California Indians during the last five decades of the 19th Century

While the state was enslaving and eliminating California natives, the federal government spent the next four decades trying to bring California Indian policy into compliance with Federal Indian policy. As such, they took four approaches:Book cover of "Little White Father" with photo of Redick McKee

  1. Negotiating treaties
  2. Removing Indians from their ancestral lands and placing them on newly-created reservations
  3. Educating and assimilating Indian children
  4. Alloting Indian lands

1. Negotiating Treaties - 18 Treaties (negotiated with 139 sovereign nations). In 1851, the federal government appointed three Indian Commissioners to negotiate treaties with California Indians. Because the federal government recognized Indian tribes as foreign nations, treaties were the legal means for developing an agreement and ensuring peace with them.

Selected Chronology of the 18 Lost Treaties

2. Removing Indians from their ancestral lands and placing them in newly-created reservations. The Federal government approved five new military reservations in March 1853.  The Congressional resolution that created the reservations made several points quite clear.

3. Educating Indian Children. In 1881, an elementary school system for Indians was established in California. However, the Indians soon recognized that the schools were a threat to their culture, as well as to the tribe as a political unit.

4. Alloting Indian Land. A major tool the federal government used in trying to assimilate Indians during this time was the General Allotment Act of 1887, also known as the Dawes Act.

Thus, by the end of the 19th Century, federal governmental policies ensured that California Indians had been herded onto reservations, had witnessed their children trying to be assimilated through forced education, and had lost much of their land through allotment.

But federal and state policies were not the only actions that were destroying the Indian Peoples of Northern California. The citizens - primarily farmers and miners - turned to vigilante actions designed to exterminate the local Indian population. While we have already talked about vigilante activities legally sanctioned and paid for by the state government, it is instructive to learn about at least one case study of such actions in Eureka, California.

Goal #4: To understand citizen attitudes about California Indians, especially through an examination of the Indian Island Massacre in Eureka, California.

As we have already read in Chapter 1 of Wherever There's a Fight, the lives of California Indians were endangered from the early days of the Gold Rush. Sam Brannan, the owner of The Californian, wrote an editorial on March 15, 1848 that stated, "We desire only a White population in California; even the Indians among us, as far as we have seen, are more a nuisance to the country, we would like to get rid of them." As Elinson and Yogi comment, "His attitude reflected popular sentiments" (p. 14)

Three years later, Governor Peter Burnett announced in his annual message to the citizens of California, "That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the two races until the Indian race becomes extinct, must be expected; while we cannot anticipate this result with but painful regret, the inevitable destiny of the race is beyond the power and wisdom of man to avert." (As quoted in Elinson and Yogi, p. 16).

To get a better understanding of how such popular sentiments were put into action, we are going to use the example of the events that led up to and followed the massacre at Indian Island in Humboldt County.

Cold Call: 11th Cold Call on required reading - "Genocide and Extortion" in The Journal at

Chronology of Indian Island

Photograph of Indian IslandPre-Contact.  About 1500-2000 Wiyot people lived in their ancestral territory that included the current tows of McKinleyville, Blue Lake, Arcata, Eureka, Kneeland, Loleta, Fortuna, Ferndale, and Rohnerville.  Indian Island was and remains the center of the Wiyot People’s world.  It is home to the ancient village of Tuluwat and the traditional site of the World Renewal Ceremony held annually to welcome the new year.  The ceremony lasted between 7-10 days and began with the men leaving the island and returning the next day with the needed supplies.  The elders, women, and children remained behind. The ground beneath Tuluwat village is an enormous clamshell mound (or midden). This mound, measuring over six acres in size and estimated to be over 1,000 years old, is an irreplaceable physical history of the Wiyot way of life. Contained within it are remains of meals, tools, and ceremonies, as well as many burial sites.

1850.  The town of Eureka was founded by a group of miners who needed a more convenient route to the overland trail from Sacramento the California gold fields.  Shortly thereafter, Humboldt Bay became the busiest port between San Francisco and Portland.  As Eureka’s population and economy grew, its white residents became increasingly uneasy about local Indians whom ranchers blamed for thefts and cattle loss.  Merchants began to see Indian villages that thrived along the Bay as a direct threat to their growing trade.

1860. An army officer at Fort Humboldt observed, "Cold-blooded Indian killing being considered honorable, shooting Indians and murdering even squaws and children that have been domesticated for months and years, without a moment's warning and with as little compunction as they would rid themselves of a dog." An editorial in the Humboldt Times opined, "The whites cannot afford horses and cattle for their [Indian] sustenance, and will not. Ergo, unless Government provides for the Indians, the settlers must exterminate them."

Map showing Indian massacres in Humboldt County"It has now been two months since the Indians in this vicinity started in open hostility to us, though so far they have confined their operations to the trail connecting this County to Weaverville. This being our direct channel of communication with the Sacramento Valley, and a trail over which the United States Mail must pass once a week, it is of the utmost importance that it should be kept open. The Indians on this trail first manifested their hostility to us by shooting a man who was traveling alone. We supposed that a few men would be sufficient to punish the Indians and make them ask for peace, and accordingly, a party was organized, provided for by private means and sent in search of the hostiles. After trailing the Indians for several days, they were attacked from ambush and one man was killed. In the meantime their camp which they had left unguarded was attacked, and ten mules were killed. This party consisted of only twelve men. Subsequently, another party of twenty-five men went out who were provisioned at a heavy private expense. In endeavoring to drive the Indians from the vicinity of the trails, they were fired upon in a deep canyon, and one man was killed, another wounded. The company has now disbanded, not feeling inclined to incur further danger and hardships at their own expense. The trails are now closed, there being no travel over them except by night or in large parties. The question now is what is there done? There are no troops here at the garrison and the people are not able to carry on a war at their own expense. The people of the county are of the opinion that if the militia could be called out, and arms furnished, the merchants would feel encouraged to furnish supplies, and wait for the State to pay. We can furnish the men if they can only be supplied."

After 1860.  An estimated 200 Wiyot people still lived in the area.  Federal troops collected the surviving Wiyot people from other villages and confined them to the Klamath River Reservation.  After a disastrous flood on the Klamath, the Wiyot were moved to the Smith River Reservation and later to the Hoopa and Round Valley Reservations.

1870.  A shipyard repair facility was built on part of the Island and operated there until the 1980s.  During that time, it dumped creosote, solvents, and other chemicals that were used to maintain ships.

Late 19th Century.  Non-Indian settlers built dikes and channels on Indian Island that changed tidal action along the shore and caused some erosion of the clamshell-shaped mound.

Early 1900s.  A church group purchased 20 acres in the Eel River estuary for homeless Wiyot people.  This land later became known as the Table Bluff Rancheria of Wiyot Indians.

1910.  Under 100 full blood Wiyot people were estimated to be living in Wiyot territory.

1913. Anthropologist Alfred Kroeber sent one of his staff members, Llewellyn Loud to Humboldt County to collect Indian human remains. Loud conducted most of his work at Indian Island. He recorded 24 skeletons existing in 22 graves that existed prior to the 1860 massacre.

Poster of Wiyot Sacred Sites Fund1918. Loud published his report and thereafter, Indian Island became a popular site for local hobbyists and entrepreneurs to search for collectables and human remains.

1923. Eureka dentist, H. H. Stuart began extensive excavations of Indian graves at Indian Island. He eventually dug up 382 graves.

1960. The City of Eureka acquired ownership of most of Indian Island.

1961. Eureka High School teacher and collector of local history, Cecile Clarke received uanimous approval from the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors "to excavate and preserve relics of Indian tribes native to this region" on Indian Island.

1963-69. Clarke and her team excavated sites on Indian Island. It carried out radiocarbon dates tests confirming the site's original occupation as 880A.D.

1992.  In February, the first candlelight vigil was held to remember those who lost their lives in the Massacre and to help the community heal.  About 75 people participated that year and by 1996, over 300 participated.  The Wiyot hope that at some  point, the vigil can be held on Indian Island which remains inaccessible to the Wiyot.

2000.  The Wiyot Tribe purchased 1.5 acres of Indian Island and began cleaning the debris and pollutants left on the village site.

2004.  On May 18th, the Eureka City County unanimously approved a resolution to return 60 acres - comprising the northeastern tip of Indian Island where the Tribe once celebrated its World Renewal Ceremony - to the Wiyot Tribe. Some of the remaining Wiyot people lived on the 88-acre Table Bluff Reservation and 550 members were enrolled in the Wiyot nation.

2009. In February, the Wiyot Tribe had its 17th candlelight vigil

2010. In February, the Wiyot Tribe commemorated the 150 year anniversary of the Indian Island Massacre.

2013. The Wiyot Tribe completed the clean-up of dioxin, asbestos, and other toxins left by the former shipyard.

2014. In February, the Wiyot Tribe had it 22nd and final Photograph of 2014Wiyot Tribe commemoration at Indian Islandcandlelight vigil as shown in the photograph to the right.

2015. In April, the Eureka City Council received a request from the Yurok Tribe to transfer more of the publicly-owned land on Indian Island to the Tribe. On April 7, the City Council unanimously voted to refer the tribe's request to a committee that promised an "expeditious" process.

Conclusions - Americanization and the California Indians - A Case Study of Northern California    

  1. The State of California decided to solve the “Indian Problem” through policies of forced labor, slavery, and vigilante militia whose job it was to kill local Indians. Map of contemporary California Indian tribes
  2. The policies of the federal government in regard to California Indians paralleled the federal policies for all Indian Nations of North America: making treaties, removing Indians from their ancestral homelands and placing them on reservations, educating their children through Americanization and assimilation, and alloting Indian lands.
  3.  State and Federal attitudes about the “Indian Problem” resulted in policies and/or actions that had enormous consequences for the Indians of California:
  4. Northern Californian citizens responded to Indian raids, Indian killings, and economic competition from Indian communities with acts of vigilante violence – none of which were punished by local, state, or federal agencies.
  5. Despite the many attempts to destroy the Indians of California, within several generations, most nations had survived and replenished their populations and maintained many of their tribal cultural, political, economic, and spiritual traditions.