When the Settlers Cleaned up their Lands, California 1850s

When settlers came to the west, the tribes tolerated their presence, many even welcomed them because of the trade possibilities.  The first settlers may have been deferential and honorable, perhaps because of how many tribal people remained, but  soon, by 1844, many thousands began claiming lands without talking to the tribes first. These settlers were in many ways self-righteous of their rights to land. Many did not appreciate the presence of the Indians living near them.

Tribes tolerated the “Bostons” yet these Whitemen treated them badly. When they claimed the land, they did not want the Natives to come onto their property. They treated the Natives as servants and low-class peoples, and many took natives as slaves. Christians did not even think they were people because they were not saved. Instead they were treated like interlopers on American lands. Their lifeways and cultures were denigrated. Many believed that Natives had no governance, no laws, no land claims, no concepts of time, and as such they were treated like savages.

The farmers, once settled, would plow up the prairies and  destroyed native food plants of the tribes. They hunted out the deer and elk leaving little food for the tribes. Because of the practices and attitudes of the settlers, the tribes began fighting back. Stealing the cattle or supplies of the Whitemen became a common way to take retribution for the invasion of tribal territories. Some tribes found wagon trains vulnerable and they would attack and sometimes were successful. The “traveling people” did not take the time to respectfully meet with the tribes and gift the tribes some small thing to represent their good intentions. The tribe just saw the settlers as stingy.

In the settled lands, the supposed frontier lands, there were many native peoples. They lived in villages and towns alongside rivers. In the west there was extensive interaction and trade between tribes. Many tribes were interrelated and sought extensive relations with the settlers. Chiefs that could manage it would marry their daughters to white settlers. This would gain them prestige and the good will of the rich Whitemen. This was the way the tribes practiced when new people arrived, even tribal people. For a time they would not be trusted, and then later there would be an attempt to bring them into the tribe. Many of the early settlers did not arrive with women and so many were eager to gain a native wife. The fur traders had already, many of them, taken native wives.

Societies of the Americans and natives began integrating in this manner in  many places. In California, many other relationships formed. Gold changed men in horrible ways. Gold fever, the rush for great wealth, caused extreme attitudes to form against the tribes. From southern Oregon well into California, genocides against the tribes began. Gold miners and ranchers sought to completely kill all Indians. They were seen as dirty savages that were in the way of white landclaims. Many tribes lived on the rivers, where the gold could be found, and they had to be gotten rid of, they were nuisances and whitemen began exterminating them by the hundreds like so many wolves.

Attitudes hardened and killing Indians became commonplace. One account of this is written by historian Fred Lockley, and it shows how Whitemen treated Indians.

I (Salmon Brown) crossed the plains with my family and settled in California. I went into the stock business and soon had a good sized band of sheep. I soon became acquainted with a neighbor of mine, Hi Good, who like myself was a sheepman. He was a six footer, gaunt and wiry, he had dark hair, dark eyes and swarthy complexion. He walked as though he was made of springs and was tireless in the mountains. Hi Good was a great friend of Sublette, the noted frontiersman.

Sublette lived on the Sacramento river not far from the old “Dye Grant.” I grew to be very fond of him. He and Hi Good some years before, had gone out and cleaned up a marauding band of Indians who had been killing their stock. They killed all the bucks and squaws but saved the prettiest young girls and the most promising boys. Hi Good gave them away but saved an active fine looking young boy for himself and made a sheep herder of him.

The boy soon became a fine horseman and an expert with a rope. Hi Good was quite a hand at telling stories about his Indian fights. He often told in the presence of this boy how he and Sublette had surprised the band of Indians to which this boy had belonged and shot them down.

When the boy was nearly grown, he and Hi Good were out riding over the range one day. The boy dropped back and loosing his rope from the horn of his saddle made a cast and caught Hi Good around the neck. Quicker than the pit would scorch a feather he jerked Hi off his horse and set off at a run. He dragged him from then horn of his saddle for over a mile and then cut what was left of him loose and left him lying on the hillside. The Indian boy then went back to care for his band of sheep.

Good was missed and a search party went out to see if he had met with foul play. Bill Sublette was in charge of the search party. Bill Sublette knew Hi Good has started out with the Indian boy so he went out to where Hi Good’s sheep were. They found the Indian boy in charge of the sheep. “Where is Hi Good,” asked Sublette? The Indian boy, who was about seventeen looked Sublette straight in the eye and said: “He killed my people- I killed him. I dragged him to death. I left him lying on the hillside for the coyotes.” The Indian boy  without the quiver of an eye lash or any signs of fear watched the men draw their revolvers to send him on the long trail. He fell forward, riddled with bullets. Sublette and the others rode away and left him where he fell.

Salmon Brown the story teller, neighbor to Hi Good, was a son of John Brown, the same John Brown who fought at Harper’s Ferry,Virginia in 1859, against the institution of slavery.

Joe Meek
Bill Sublette (Likely)

William Sublette was a well known explorer in the earliest days of white exploration of the west. He was in the Arikara war (1823) and traveled with John Fremont, Joe Meek, and Jedediah Smith and ranged in his travels from Missouri to Oregon and California well into the 1840s.  He, along with Smith, owned the Rocky Mountain Fur Company and trapped the west. Histories do not suggest he was involved in sheep ranching in California, but he quite likely traveled there many times from his home in Missouri.

Dye Grant Plat, Bancroft Library, Berkeley

The Dye Grant was a Mexican Land Grant given to Job Francis Dye (1844) under the title of Rancho Primer Cañon o Rio de Los Berrendos (River of the Antelopes) in what is now Tehama County, California, and alongside the Sacramento river. Dye was an American fur trapper. The first sheep in the area were brought into the valley by Kit Carson, and the earliest big ranches began in the 1850s. Many gold miners who did not get rich, instead went into sheep ranching.

Wintu Dancers 1890

The likely tribe exterminated in the story, was a village of Wintu People, tribes that today are the Nomlaki peoples.

The West for the Americans was tough place, made more so by their continued attempts to exterminate all tribes whenever they encountered them. This account parallels the Gold Rush in California (1848), when attempts to exterminate tribes were extreme.  Fred Lockley is a noted Oregon historian, noted for publishing short histories in newspapers, and collecting them into books later. Most of his stories are similar to the above, stories from pioneers about their experiences. This story appeared in the Oregon Magazine August 31, 1922, titled “The Red Man’s Son”  and it is unknown whether the story made it into one of his books. Lockley presented the story without comment.

I worked to get the timeline to agree for all the events stated in the story and with the dates of when Sublette might have been in California, various sites suggest that Sublette died in 1845, but John Brown’s fight was in 1859, and Salmon Brown states that he went to California after the death of his father (December 1859). The dates clearly do not agree and I am wondering if the Sublette mentioned might not have been a son of Bill Sublette instead, ie: William Sublette Jr.? Most of the printed histories of Sublette do not mention Bill Sublette settling in Northern California or involved in sheep at all.


Lockley’s story was collected from the Marion County Archives copy of the Oregon Magazine for August 1922.

5 thoughts on “When the Settlers Cleaned up their Lands, California 1850s

  1. Wow…the White men have no guilt whatsoever for killing off an entire people, then when the one boy they enslaved kills ONE White man for murdering his whole family – they shoot him dead with no consequence whatsoever? Sure was a great era to be White wasn’t it. Thank you for digging up this story. It is a sad reflection of the gross inequities of race mid 1800’s.

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