For thousands of years, the Indians of California had enjoyed considerable cultural stability. It is estimated that the pre-contact native population of California was 300,000, one of the densest native populations anywhere in North America. However, with beginning of Spanish colonization in 1769, the world of the California Indians was dramatically altered, beginning a trend of cultural disintegration and physical destruction that would last over one hundred and fifty years.
Although the first native contact with whites came in the sixteenth century, with the landings of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo and later Sir Francis Drake, such interaction was brief and limited, without long-term implications. However, the foundation of the Mission San Diego in 1769 initiated a Spanish plan for colonization of Alta California. The missions were, in Spain's perception, designed to mutually benefit both the Indians and the Spanish Empire. The Indians were to receive the blessings of Christianity, agriculture and civilization, while through these adobe outposts Spain established political, economic, and cultural control over the California frontier. In theory, the missions would be temporary institutions; once the natives were converted and rendered self-sufficient they would be given land to become farmers and full-fledged citizens of the Spanish empire.
Initially, the missions attracted considerable interest among the local groups. Many no doubt came out of curiosity, many more were lured by the material wealth of the mission. Those who converted to Christianity were dubbed “neophytes” by the Franciscans, as opposed to the non-Christian “gentile” Indians. What many Indians failed to realize is that baptism was a binding contract with the mission. While gentile Indians might be free to come and go, neophytes were not allowed to leave the missions, and were under the strict authority of the friars. Corporal punishment was common at the missions, and recaptured neophytes, upon interrogation, often claimed they ran away after being beaten too severely. Stocks and chains were also used to restrain and punish offenders. To prevent escapes, neophytes were locked inside at night, and unmarried women were locked in a special "nunnery" to preserve their chastity. Structured mission life, with scheduled meals and constant supervised labor, no doubt produced a certain cultural shock to people accustomed to setting their own work rhythms. However, even the harshest critics of the missions agree that the physical labor required of the Indians was not particularly strenuous. It is estimated that they worked roughly 30-40 hours a week, about the same amount of time they would have labored daily in order to make a living as hunter-gathers.
Most friars certainly did not administer discipline with wonton cruelty or malicious intent. Corporal punishment was a common European method of military and civil discipline. The pious friars probably flailed themselves more often then they beat their neophytes. It seems that discipline became more impersonal and draconian after 1800, when the mission population rapidly increased from 4,500 to 20,000, straining the ability of the friars to keep order without resorting to the lash.
For all the best intentions of the dedicated Franciscans friars, the missions system wrought misery and havoc upon the people it was supposed to civilize. As anthropologist Alfred Kroeber summed up: "It must have caused many of the Fathers a severe pang to realize, as they could not but do daily, that they were saving souls only at the inevitable cost of lives. And yet such was the overwhelming fact. The brute upshot of the missionization, in spite of its kindly flavor and humanitarian root, was only one thing, death." Mission conditions were especially conducive for the spread of disease. Indians had no immunity to the new diseases that the friars and other Europeans brought with them. Venereal disease, transmitted by soldiers unencumbered by vows of celibacy, was especially devastating, as it was passed from mother to child in the womb, leaving a generation to suffer its debilitating effects. The classic killers, cholera, dysentery, measles and mumps, claimed tens of thousands of lives. The first smallpox was recorded in 1828 and 1837, an epidemic broke out that ravaged far inland. Deadly pathogens radiated from the missions, killing many of the gentile Indians who lived nearby.
The missions failed in their goal of making the Indians self-sustaining agrarians within ten to twenty years. Instead, they destroyed many native political and social institutions that might have helped them survive during the Spanish, Mexican and American periods. It was, however, the intention of the mission to transform the natives into a docile state, and they succeeded in raising a generation of Indians who knew nothing but mission life and were helpless on their own.
Unfortunately, once the newly established Mexican government secularized the missions, they cast off thousands of dependent neophytes. Many were taken advantage of, as whites seized lands they had been allotted by the secularization decree. Indians who had been trained as vaqueros found meaningful employment on the great ranchos, but many others languished in poverty. Such was their plight in 1884 when Helen Hunt Jackson wrote the melodramatic novel Ramona to publicize the sorry condition of the destitute and abandoned former mission Indians.
At times the Indians engaged in violent resistance against the Spanish. In 1781, the Yuma Indians of the Colorado River revolted following the establishment of two missions near their villages. They were incited to violence after a party of settlers allowed their animals to wander through their fields. The Yuma razed the two missions, killing four friars. The next day, they ambushed the Spanish settlers, killing all 30 of the men and taking the women and children as slaves. The Spanish authorities in Mexico, their military resources occupied against the Apaches further east, neglected to retaliate. Although a few of the captives were ransomed, the land route between Alta California and Mexico remained closed for over forty years.
In 1824, the mission Indians themselves stages a major revolt at the Mission La Purisma Concepcion and Mission Santa Ines, following the flogging of a neophyte. Four Californios were killed along with seven loyal neophytes. Word of the revolt spread to Santa Barbara, where the alcade of the local Indian community, hearing rumors of retaliation against his heretofore innocent village, sacked and looted the Mission of Santa Barbara and fled into the hills. The Indians holed up at the Mission La Purisma were induced to surrender after an artillery bombardment killed 16 of their number, and seven rebels were later executed. For a brief period rebel leaders attempted to organize a general revolt against the Mexicans, but they failed to rally sufficient support from the politically disorganized tribelets. Some of the escaped rebels formed a new community at the base of the Sierra Nevada near Walker's Pass (I and I 68).
In 1829, a group of Indians under the alcade Estanislao (named for the Polish saint Stanislaus) staged an effective revolt, leading a band of 1000 away from the Mission San Jose and establishing a camp near the river that now bears his name. Two Mexican expeditions were sent against him, but he entrenched his forces and repelled both assaults. The young Lieutenant Mariano Vallejo raised a third forced, and crushed Estanilao. Fleeing south, Estanislao obtained a pardon from a priest, and promptly went to work as an effective hunter of run-away neophytes until he died of smallpox. Still, the prospect of 1000 armed warriors badly frightened the Californios, who then had fewer than 2000 men of military age and suffered a dearth of military equipment and munitions.
The revolts of 1824 and 1829 demonstrated that many Indians felt real grievances against the missions. However, it is difficult to deny the fact that the mission system could have only existed with the general compliance of the neophytes. Some 30 friars along with fewer than 300 poorly trained and lightly armed soldiers were able to hold a population of 20,000 neophytes at bay only with the cooperation of the Indians. Some Indians leaders, appointed as alcades by the padres, helped keep their people behaved. Most neophytes no doubt had some reason to stay at the mission. Many must have found the Catholic religion, with its pageantry and ceremony, appealing. Others enjoyed the reliable food and clothing provided by the missions. Others must have been intimidated by coercive techniques of discipline and were too afraid to resist or flee. The disruption of Indian communities due to disease and raiding may have lead many to join the missions as a last resort.
While most of the inland tribes had little direct contact with the Spanish, other than occasionally clashing with soldiers sent to collect runaway neophytes, the introduction of Spanish horses radically altered the cultures of the San Joaquin Valley. Previously, the Miwok and Yokuts had been sedentary hunter-gathers, living along the rivers and tule swamps of the valley. However, with the infusion of horses, runaway and stolen, these tribes were transformed into bands of semi-nomadic pastoralist raiders. Within a period of ten years, they mastered the art of riding, and soon plagued Spanish settlements and later Mexican ranchos. It would seem that the level of violence within these Indian societies rose dramatically, as they stole horses from each other as well in raids that began to resemble the warfare of the Plains Indians, also based on the reciprocal looting of enemy herds.
This warlike quality led several Indians to be enlisted into the California Battalion that formed in 1846 under Col. John C. Fremont. Company H of the battalion consisted primarily of Indians, and was successfully employed raiding enemy herds of cattle and horses, dubbed “my forty thieves” by Fremont. (Hurtado, 81) After the conquest was completed, however, the California Battalion was directed to turn its attentions to the suppression of horse raiders in the Central Valley.
Whites such as John Sutter living on the frontier of Mexican California learned the value of Indian labor. Sutter, who established a personal empire in Nisenan territory at the confluence of the Sacramento and American Rivers, based his economy on exploiting the labor of local Indians. The only source of European goods in the region, Indians naturally flocked to his fort. Indians at the fort were issued a circular sheet of metal, in which a hole was punched upon the completion of a day's work. Seven holes might be sufficient to obtain an article of clothing in the fort's store, usually a cheap second-hand garment. Sutter refused to pay his Indians in currency, and thus bound them to him through a web of debt and credit. Sutter's Fort actually did not dramatically disrupt the traditional habits of the local Nisenan; indeed Sutter relied on the nearby villages to provide a support network for his workers, many of whom were seasonal.
Yet Sutter's interaction with the natives has a darker side, as his coercion was not merely economic. Sutter maintained a private army of roughly 40 mission trained Indians, which he used to suppress those groups that failed to cooperate, often attacking and dispersing villages that refused to respond to his calls for laborers, as well as attempting to wipe out the Miwok raiders who threatened his herds. Sutter was a chronic womanizer, and often used Indian girls to satisfy his lust. On occasion he treated his Indians as property, lending them to his creditors so that their labor could work of his debts, and once making a gift of an Indian girl to a friend.
The Indians of the interior, although farther removed from contact with whites, suffered from lethal diseases. The primary killer seems to have been mosquito-born malaria, introduced by a party that passed through Oregon in 1834. The results were devastating, as observers reported finding villages inhabited only by bloated corpses and bleached skeletons.
By 1848, the California Indian population had already declined markedly, from roughly 300,000 to roughly 100,000, almost exclusively due to disease. Nonetheless, non-missionized Indians were still a majority in California, as the population of Mexicans, Americans and neophytes was only 14,000. Indians still entirely controlled the foothill and mountain regions of the state. Mostly Indians populated the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, although this region constituted a frontier zone where Indians and Europeans interacted in both friendly and unfriendly terms. Only the California coast below San Francisco belonged exclusively to Europeans, although daring horse raiders made theirpresence known even here.
The discovery of gold in 1848 proved disastrous. By the end of 1849, 100,000 gold-seekers had flocked to the state, tipping the demographic balance against the Indians for the first time. They flocked to regions that had once been the exclusive domain of the Indians: the Sierra Nevada foothills. Miners, heavily armed and warned of the dangers of wild savages, drove Indians away in order to establish claims. Homicide was common, and many miners operated on a "get him before he gets me" mentality.
Indians made war against the miners in the blood feud style that had characterized pre-contact conflict. Usually a white offense triggered the violence, with trespassing or rape of an Indian women being the most common incitements. The Indians, outraged, responded with a killing, usually of the individual offender. Whites countered Indian violence with the organized, confrontational Western style of warfare. They organized themselves into militia companies and ruthlessly pursued and attacked Indians they suspected of causing trouble. Occasionally, they massacred entire bands indiscriminately. In 1850, following the murder of a white man, an American militia aided by Regular United States Army troops killed sixty Pomo men, women, and children, a brutal over-retaliation that became known as the Bloody Island Massacre. In 1871, a militia company surrounded and ambushed the last remnant of the Yahi tribe, killing over 70. One of the handfuls of survivors was the celebrated Ishi, then only a boy, who escaped by jumping to the river. Many counties offered bounties for Indian scalps, and a professional scalp hunter who might ride in with a dozen or so Indian heads in order to claim payment. Altogether, it is estimated that some 4,500 Indians died violent deaths during the Gold Rush.
Indians had long been considered a potential pool of servile labor, but early California codes legitimized pseudo-slavery for hapless natives. Under an “apprenticeship” programs, Indian children might be bound to serve a white until they were thirty years of age, effectively making them unwilling indentured servants. Indians convicted of drunkenness or vagrancy had their services auctioned off for a period of time. An illegal trade in kidnapped Indian children developed, with over 4000 children snatched from their home and sold as “apprentices.” (Rawls, 96) This practice wasn't brought to an end until after the Civil War and the passage 13th Amendment banning involuntary servitude.
Cultural disruption also played a part in the marked decline of Indian numbers. Violence depleted, disrupted, and scattered Indian communities. The elderly, deprived of the community that might have supported them in their old age, perished. Malnutrition and poverty weakened individuals, who succumbed to a fresh wave of diseases. Many Indian women prostituted themselves, while more were subject to rape and venereal disease, which took its toll on fertility rates. Women suffered comparably worse than men, who were able to better incorporate themselves into the new economy as laborers. As women perished from starvation, murder, venereal disease, and neglect, it became increasingly difficult for men to find suitable mates. It was difficult if not impossible for stable native families to persist, and thus marriages and childbirth declined markedly. In the first ten years after the Gold Rush, the native population declined from approximately 100,000 to roughly 35,000. After 1860, the downward trend leveled off somewhat, as survivors made painful adjustments to their new conditions. The decline continued, however, until only 20,000 California Indians remained in 1900.