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California Genocide

The California Genocide refers to actions in the mid to late 19th century by the United States federal, state, and local governments that resulted in the decimation of the indigenous population of California following the U.S. occupation of California in 1846. Actions included encouragement of volunteers and militias to kill unarmed men, women and children.

California Genocide
Part of American Indian wars, Native American genocide
"Protecting The Settlers" Illustration by JR Browne for his work "The Indians Of California" 1864.jpg
"Protecting The Settlers" - Illustration by JR Browne for his work The Indians Of California, 1864
TargetIndigenous Californians
Attack type
Genocide, ethnic cleansing
Deaths4,500-16,000 Indigenous Californians outright killed, thousands more died due to disease and other causes
PerpetratorsUnited States Army, California State Militia, white settlers

Under Spanish rule their population was estimated to have dropped from 300,000 prior to 1769, to 250,000 in 1834. After Mexico gained independence from Spain and secularized the coastal missions in 1834, the indigenous population suffered a more drastic decrease to 150,000. Under US sovereignty, after 1848, the Indigenous population plunged from perhaps 150,000 to 30,000 in 1870; it reached its nadir of 16,000 in 1900. Between 1846 and 1873, European Americans are estimated to have killed outright some 4,500 to 16,000 California Native Americans, particularly during the Gold Rush.[1][2] Others died as a result of infectious diseases and the social disruption of their societies. The state of California used its institutions to favor settlers' rights over indigenous rights and was responsible for dispossession of the natives.[3]

Since the late 20th century, numerous American scholars 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 the early 21st century, some scholars argue for the government to authorize tribunals so that a full accounting of responsibility for this genocide in western states can be conducted.



Prior to Spanish arrival, California was home to an indigenous population estimated at 300,000.[discuss] The largest group were the Chumash people, with a population around 20,000[citation needed]. 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.[2]

The various groups appear to have adapted to particular areas and territories. California habitats and climate supported an abundance of wildlife, including rabbits, deer, varieties of fish, fruit, roots, and acorns. This resulted in a high level of food independence. The natives largely followed a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, moving around their area through the seasons as different types of food were available.[4]

The Missionaries as They Came and Went. Franciscans of the California missions wore gray habits, unlike the brown habits typically worn today.[5]

California was one of the last regions in the Americas to be colonized. Spanish missionaries, led by Franciscan administrator Junipero Serra and military forces under the command of Gaspar de Portola, did not reach this area until 1769. The mission was intended to spread the Christian faith among the region's indigenous peoples and establish places to develop area resources and products for the empire. 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]

California statehood and genocideEdit

Estimated native California population (Cook 1978)

Mexican sovereignty over Alta California was short lived after it gained independence. In 1846, the US declared war on Mexico in response to Mexican movement on the disputed border. It ended with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, by which Mexico ceded California and its other northwestern lands.

In the latter half of the 19th century, both California state and Federal authorities, incited[6][7] aided and financed miners, settlers, ranchers and people's militias to enslave, kidnap, murder, and exterminate a major proportion of displaced Native American Indians. The latter were sometimes contemptuously referred to as "Diggers", for their practice of digging up roots to eat. Many of the same policies of violence were used here against the indigenous population as the United States had done throughout its territory.[8][9][10][11][12][13][14][15][16]

Simultaneous to the ongoing extermination, reports of the decimation of Native Americans were made to the rest of the United States and internationally.[notes 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.[17]

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.[18] This was confirmed by a contemporary, Superintendent D.J. Spencer.[19]

By one estimate, at least 4,500 California Indians were killed between 1849 and 1870.[20] Contemporary historian Benjamin Madley has documented the numbers of California Indians killed between 1846 and 1873; he estimates that during this period at least 9,400 to 16,000 California Indians were killed by non-Indians. 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").[21] Professor Ed Castillo, of Sonoma State University, estimates that more were killed: "The handiwork of these well armed death squads combined with the widespread random killing of Indians by individual miners resulted in the death of 100,000 Indians in the first two years of the gold rush."[22]

Call for tribunalsEdit

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.[23]

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.[24] Lindsay Glauner has also argued for such tribunals.[25]

See alsoEdit


  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 (Mar. 31, 1866), p. 350


  1. ^ Madley, Benjamin (2016). An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846–1873.
  2. ^ a b "California Genocide". PBS. Retrieved December 14, 2015.
  3. ^ Lindsay, Brendan C. (2012). Murder State: California's Native American Genocide 1846-1873. United States of America: University of Nebraska Press. pp. 2, 3. ISBN 978-0-8032-6966-8.
  4. ^ Castillo, Edward. "A Short Overview of California Indian History". Native American Caucus of the California Democratic Party. Retrieved December 14, 2015.
  5. ^ Kelsey, p. 18
  6. ^ 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."
  7. ^ "Governors of California - Peter Burnett. Executive Orders".
  8. ^ Coffer, William E. "Genocide of the California Indians, with a comparative study of other minorities." Indian (The) Historian (San Francisco, Cal). 10, no. 2 (1977): 8–15.
  9. ^ Norton, Jack. Genocide in Northwestern California: 'When our worlds cried'. Indian Historian Press, 1979.
  10. ^ Carranco, Lynwood, and Estle Beard. Genocide and Vendetta: The Round Valley Wars of Northern California. University of Oklahoma Press, 1981.
  11. ^ Lindsay, Brendan C. Murder State: California's Native American Genocide, 1846–1873. U of Nebraska Press, 2012.
  12. ^ Johnston-Dodds, Kimberly, and John L. Burton. Early California Laws and Policies Related to California Indians. California State Library, California Research Bureau, 2002.
  13. ^ Johnston-Dodds
  14. ^ Trafzer, Clifford E., and Michelle Lorimer. "Silencing California Indian genocide in social studies texts." American Behavioral Scientist 2014, Vol 58(1) 64– 82
  15. ^ Trafzer, Clifford E.; Lorimer, Michelle (2014). "Silencing California Indian Genocide in Social Studies Texts". American Behavioral Scientist. 58: 64–82. doi:10.1177/0002764213495032.
  16. ^ Madley
  17. ^
  18. ^ Chapter III p284
  19. ^ The California Indians, a clever satire on the government's dealings with its Indian wards. n.p., Indian Board of Co-operation. 1919?. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  20. ^ "Minorities During the Gold Rush". California Secretary of State. Archived from the original on February 1, 2014.
  21. ^ Madley, Benjamin, An American Genocide, The United States and the California Catastrophe, 1846–1873, Yale University Press, 2016, 692 pages, ISBN 978-0-300-18136-4, p.11, p.351
  22. ^ "California Indian History | California Native American Heritage Commission".
  23. ^ Vizenor, Gerald. Native Liberty: Natural Reason and Cultural Survivance, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-8032-1892-5 page 139
  24. ^ Gerald Vizenor: "Genocide Tribunals: Native Human Rights and Survivance", A talk given at the IAS on October 10, 2006
  25. ^ Glauner, Lindsay. "Need for Accountability and Reparations: 1830-1976 the United States Government's Role in the Promotion, Implementation, and Execution of the Crime of Genocide against Native Americans", DePaul Law Review 51 (2001): 911. pp916-917. Quote: "Therefore, in accordance to Article IV of the Genocide Convention [1948], which requires all parties to prosecute those charged with genocide, conspiracy to commit genocide, direct and public incitement to commit genocide, attempt to commit genocide, and complicity in genocide, regardless of their capacity as a ruler or public official, in a competent tribunal within the State where the crime took place or in a competent international tribunal that has proper jurisdiction over the case, any persons or agencies that commit acts of genocide within the territory of the United States must be held accountable for their crimes."


  • Chapman, Charles E., Ph.D. (1921). A History of California; The Spanish Period. The MacMillan Company, New York.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
  • Engelhardt, Zephyrin, O.F.M. (1922). San Juan Capistrano Mission. Standard Printing Co., Los Angeles, California.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
  • Kelsey, H. (1993). Mission San Juan Capistrano: A Pocket History. Interdisciplinary Research, Inc., Altadena, California. ISBN 978-0-9785881-0-6.
  • Ruscin, Terry (1999). Mission Memoirs. Sunbelt Publications, San Diego, California. ISBN 978-0-932653-30-7.
  • Paddison, Joshua (ed.) (1999). A World Transformed: Firsthand Accounts of California Before the Gold Rush. Heyday Books, Berkeley, California. ISBN 978-1-890771-13-3.CS1 maint: Extra text: authors list (link)
  • Hinton, Alexander Laban, Andrew Woolford, and Jeff Benvenuto eds. (2014). Colonial Genocide in Indigenous North America. Duke University Press.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link) CS1 maint: Extra text: authors list (link)