Memorial on behalf of the Indians of California, 1850

The appeal below, suggests the reservation system for the tribes of California. Pastor Woodbridge’s detailed memorial addresses what scholars today are discovering about the 19th century tribes. The Tribes were not simply savages as suggested for some 100 years of histories written about the region, but instead they were losing resources and food sources and would periodically, forced by hunger, raid the American farms and ranches for food. They were undergoing massive environmental changes and cultural adjustments. At the same time they were being starved, they were under a constant barrage of attacks from the Americans who killed indiscriminately. The solution was never going to be stopping Americans from invading Tribal lands, Woodbridge instead suggests a new ranch system, which became the reservations or Indian rancherias.  Americans assumed from the beginnings of the taking of California from Spain, that the previous Spanish claim and occupation precluded them from the need to buy the land from the tribes, and because of this they ignored Indian occupations and saw them n=more as an infestation to be terminated. It was not until 1851 that 18 treaties were negotiated with the tribes, or many of the tribes, in California. No treaties were ever ratified for the state.

From: M234 R 32 Correspondence Woodbridge to Taylor

January 23 1850

To General Zachary Taylor

President of the United States.

Memorial on behalf of the Indians of California


Your high character as a just man and an upright magistrate, and your personal politeness when I had the honour of an interview with you at your residence in Baton Rouge, embolden me to address you.

Respectfully I would represent.

That the Indians in the Sierra Nevada are driven in large numbers from their usual haunts, are consequently deprived of their customary food- acorns, and hence are exposed to starvation.

That they are often killed, because when urged by hunger, they have attempted to seize the horses or cattle of the American emigrants.

That Indian women and children, guilty of no offense, are frequently put to death, and sometimes in cold blood, in these onslaughts.

That the system of serfdom still continues on the Spanish ranches in this country.

Respectfully I would venture to suggest

That the powerful and benevolent influence  of the Great Father of the Indian nations by employed to collect those most exposed in California, into ranches of their own, separate from the presence of the white community.

That good men farmers, teachers, to be placed at the head of these ranches: for the Indians though docile, are as children, without judgment or foresight.

That on the ground of benevolence and economy the Missionary Societies be encouraged to assist in carrying out this project.

The following sites are respectfully suggested as appropriate.

San Juan Mission is unoccupied and already stocked at least partially with wild cattle.

Valley of Rio de Los Reyes is a fertile country not in a gold region.

Beriess Valley is a very secluded spot from 30 to 40 miles north of Benecia, occupied at present by a Spanish ranch.

Valley of Clear Lake is full of wild Indians and therefore is unoccupied by the whites.

The advantages of this plan are practicability of immediate adoption.

Economy! for after the farms are once stocked and occupied, small additional expenses need by incurred.

Efficiency, for every Indian would at once have a home.

National credit and noble benevolence.

No wish to interfere with the arrangements of the bureau of Indian affairs, but a deep sense of the necessity of prompt and effectual aid being rendered to the poor outcast houseless, helpless savages thrown upon American protection, has led me – clergyman by profession, and the Pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Benecia to address you in this appeal.

With profound respect

I am General

Your most obedient and humble servant

Sylvester Woodbridge Jr.

Benecia California

January 23rd 1850.


Woodbridge points out “serfdom” in his memorial. In numerous Indian agent letters for California, various instances of slavery are noted, where Spanish “slavers” are pointed out as being the culprits. Generally the slavers would buy Indians from one area and sell to another area. The buyers, or slave owners would be either the remaining Spanish ranchers, and/or American settlers. The system was likely established in Spanish California’s Encomiendo system, where Native people were pressed into slavery to work to feed the Spanish settlements and missions.  The settlers and ranchers would also need laborers to build their settlements and run their vast farms and ranches, and perhaps even mine for gold. Indian children were especially valuable because they could be trained from an early age to work the farms and they would be less resistant.

Slavery at this magnitude does not appear to have existed in Oregon. There were likely a few scattered cases of  Indian adults or Indian children being used in this manner but it is not a huge issue. Slavery did exist for many of the tribes. Women and children made especially valuable slaves in the tribes. The case of the Jason Lee Methodist school could be the closest case of slavery, or servitude for Oregon. Lee and his teachers established the first Methodist mission in Oregon (1834), in the Willamette Valley. Lee wrote letters about how the  Indian children were “taken from the Plains” and brought into the school. They were made to wear American clothing and go to school. While they were in school they were also made to run the Mission farm, building fences, tend to the animals, and tend the fields for the mission. Many were forced to do this labor. This could equate with slavery, even if it has never been written about as such by scholars. It is an early case of forced assimilation, beginning in the 1830s, and which was an example that was copied to similar forced education and labor programs in the Federal Indian boarding school system. Indian children at Chemawa Indian Boarding school were hired out to local farmers as agricultural laborers. Their labor earned money that went back to Chemawa. From the student Indian labor was bought more land for the school.

Notable in this memorial is the detailed nature of the various evils faced by the Native peoples. This is then communicated directly to the President. Yet even the advance notification does not head off another decade or more of mistreatment, wars and attempts to exterminate the tribes by waves of Americans seeking their own freedom over the sacrifice of tens of thousands of Native people.

This is especially remarkable, when I note that in the next 100 years of (many) written histories of the colonization of the West, the Americans are cast into a role of benevolent savors to the savage Natives, who they nearly exterminated, yet in many stories welcomed and even helped them colonize the land.

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