California Native History Contexts

In recent months I have been delving into records of the California Superintendency. I have studied several California tribes in the past, namely the Tolowa and Shasta tribes, and my master’s paper was about the Tolowa Fish Camp at Indian beach. I have not taken the time previously for much more reading about California Natives because I know its a big state with a complex history. I have had my hand full with the 60 tribes of western Oregon. But going through federal microfilm for the California Superintendency, from the beginnings of United States Indian affairs is quite instructive.

The records begin in the early 1850s, after the 18 treaties were negotiated in 1851, and we see the tail end of the Reddick McKee Indian Affairs administration. Missing in the records is the transition period of the late 1840s, and some important sets of correspondence that should be in the record. We do not see the letters that were sent by the Indian Affairs office in DC, nor other records relating to more in-depth changes in the Indian affairs policies. Many letters related to open and closing reservations are missing. We can sometimes see the effect of changes, but not orders for changes to occur. Much of the series of correspondence is only financial matters. What is missing in comparison with the Oregon records is the M2 series, which for Oregon is some duplicates of the M234 letters and lots of other correspondence from DC. I have yet to find a “M2” set for California, perhaps it was never microfilmed and the letters remain in NARA San Bruno as physical copies. Otherwise there are a number of letters which were removed, and there are removal slips in the series, and placed in a Special series, like entry 266, or entry 43 etc. related to certain Indian affairs in California. Regardless the expanse of the M234 collection is vast, and traces the creation and termination of numerous reservations and native communities. There are some remarkable records in the series they tell the history of the movement, removal, war, conflict, and illegal actions of the settlers on all California tribes.

To begin this overview its important to understand that the state is huge, with at least two different contexts, the Alta or Northern California area, with tribes that were not fully colonized by the Spanish, but had to deal with waves of gold rushing American men who committed an incredible amount of genocide and destruction on the tribal communities.  The Northern California area can be easily divided in half, the line at Sonoma and Petaluma, the furthest north a Spanish fort was established. The tribes north of Sonoma were not colonized much by the Spanish besides occasional slave raids. There were also a couple Russian settlements north of Petaluma which adds a unique context for at least the coastal zone, and the origin of the name Russian River. The tribes below Sonoma, and into the Bay area were heavily colonized into the Rancheria system. Then the Southern California region had many Missions where colonization was in full practice. Native women would be taken into the mission and Native men made to do farming and there was a wholesale conversion to Catholicism.

The Mexican American war was fought in 1846-1848 and resulted in the taking of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas and parts of Colorado from the Spanish. One understanding that came out of the treaty of surrender was that Spanish land grants would be honored. But as usual, Americans did not honor any of the treaty deals when it came to land and their rights to take whatever resources they wanted. Many tribal communities had received Spanish Land grants and their lands over the next 30-40 years were constantly being invaded by Americans. The Federal authorities were completely ineffectual and the California legislature allowed Americans to claim Indian land and force the tribes from their lands. Even Reservations established for the tribes were constantly being invaded and there were no clear guidance as to how to deal with this invasion. The Army refused to act in civil matters, and there was no effectual law enforcement in the state for decades. Mission Indians, communities actually well colonized and living almost exactly like their Spanish colonizers as farmers and ranchers, were ignored and they were pushed from their lands without much help from any authorities. There were laws in place in California that allowed for “citizens” to make a land claim which preempted the claims of the Native communities. These settler claims were supported by California court cases. The Federal government finally had to force the issue and declare specific areas where federal lands were reserved for the tribes and the lands were to be removed from the saleable lands. This did not occur until 1876 and in the nearly 30 year previous to this much tribal land was illegally taken by settlers. This situation was different in the north, above Sonoma as the tribes were not colonized and so while land fell under Spanish claim, the tribes still had not been conquered and were living traditional lives. For these tribes the Americans were the first colonizers. The colonizers were gold miners, and settlers, and those who wished to serve the gold miners by establishing coastal towns. Many crimes were committed against the tribes, taking land was only the first step, there were murders, kidnappings, rape and genocide committed by the settlers and miners. On the Russian river and vicinity there were gangs of volunteer militia, the Rangers who were called Red Caps who committed numerous acts of genocide. I have written about this northern California genocide previously, in the Tolowa, Yurok, and the Chetco areas of the Oregon Coast. Similar to what was happening in Oregon, no white men would be held accountable for crimes against the tribes, and so murders, kidnappings, and thefts on tribes were constant during the time that these same squatter settlers were seeking to take all land from the tribes by ignoring their rights.

Back to Slavery, during the transition period of the 1850s, there were constant reports of Spanish slavers raiding Native villages and kidnapping women and children mainly. Children would be taken far away from their families and sold to a settler families (mostly Americans) who would “help” them become civilized (Christian conversion etc) and adopt them into the family. Their “adoption” meant the children had to labor for the family for much of their life without pay. Women would be subject to being “enticed” from their family and taken to a cabin and sequestered there to be raped continually by their captors. Women too would be sold and there are reports that even some of the reservation men would resort to selling the services of women to white men to make money. There are numerous reports of Indian agents and Agency workers taking native women and hiding them away in a cabin. If the agency employees were labelled “Squaw Men” (shacking up with an Indian woman) they would be blackballed from further employment at the reservation.

Native families were constantly being enticed from the reservations to work on the local farms. Sometimes this was a benevolent relationship and a few of the American settlers actually tried to help the tribes and give them a small piece of land in exchange for their farm-worker services. I think many of these relationships unequally benefited settlers by gaining free labor for “allowing” Natives to live in their land. Many-times the Natives would be exploited with little pay and no ability to seek justice if they were not paid fairly or at all. They could leave and return the reservations, but the reservations were poorly administered and there was always a lack of funding, food, and supplies, a situation that continued for decades. In addition, the reservations were confederations of many tribes, and this had to be stressful living among strange people in a place you were not allowed to leave.

The California superintendency plan was originally to have very few reservations, like Oregon, and concentrate many tribes on them. This plan took a few decades to implement because the tribes in the north were many, not used to obeying settler demands, and were apt to defend themselves. Many of the original reservations established only operated for a few years and then a change in plans would happen and they would be forced to remove elsewhere. This happened quite a lot in California. The original Nome Lackee Reservation was abandoned after a few years and their inhabitants moved to Round Valley (originally Nome Cult). Federal records are difficult to find for the many conversations about these movements. The successful Fresno reservation, which appeared to be operating well, without serious problems, was abandoned to have the people go to Round Valley. The Klamath River Reservation, was abandoned after a major flood destroyed all property on the reservation. The native people either stayed on the river, or were moved to the quickly established Smith River Reservation. Smith River became the new safe haven but the land was leased from a settler, who charged them annual for the property and even expected payment for use of the beaches for fishing. Then without much provocation, the complaints came form white settlers who wanted to settle the reservation, and the reservation was abandoned and the people moved to Hoopa Valley Reservation. Hoopa Valley seemed to be doing quite well for some time but in 1876 the plan came to move all of the people to Round Valley. The Hoopa Reservation people refused to go but eventually many did.

Round Valley became the concentration reservation for all of the tribal people from Northern California. Round Valley itself was the second reservation to serve in the Mendocino area. The Mendocino Reservation operated on the coast for several years in the 1850s to 1860s and then was abandoned because of complaints from settlers. For the reservations in Southern California, The Tule River, Temecula, Palas, and other small reservations, rancherias, and Indian encampments (the Mission Indians), they were all being overrun by settlers. There was also much illegal harvesting from the reservations. The Mission Indians appear to have the worst experience. They had Spanish Land claims in San Diego and Los Angeles, but settlers were constantly pushing to settle their lands. Settlers were effective at taking out title claims and settling without any interference from the federal government.

The federal authorities seemed to not understand the value Native people placed on their homelands. They did not conceive of the fact that tribes would not be happy with removal and seemingly every decade major changes would occur to remove the people again to a less desirable piece of land. These removals continued for the tribes well into the 20th century because settlers knew they had the privilege of continually altering the rules of where they could settle and take land. The tribal lack of citizenship was likely the biggest factor. Native people were not made citizens of the US until 1924. By not granting citizenship the Americans could allow the tribes less rights and could exploit this weakness for decades without the tribes able to mount an effective defense. Legally Land could only be owned by citizens, and so this left tribes landless within their own lands.

These issues continue to the present day for the tribes. Many California tribes are land poor or land less because their rights were taken away with the American takeover of California. There are many critics of the rights of tribes, and suggest that they need to “just get over it.” That these are old settled issues and the tribes need to move on. But its clear to many that the poverty and racial abuses the tribes face today are a direct result of the colonization they experienced for generations. That most tribal people have no wealth, no property, no rights to property in California because if they did, this would undermine legitimization of the illegal takeover of California. Many tribal descendants were so dissociated from their original tribes that they cannot find the records to prove the tribe existed and that they deserve membership in the tribe, and so thousands of California Natives remain disenfranchised, perhaps permanently.  Maintaining the powerlessness of the Tribes in California benefits the settler descendants who believe they owe nothing back to the tribes, except that their ancestors carved their fortunes from the lands of the tribes, and the descendants have directly and materially benefited by the actions of their ancestors.

Tribal people have long memories and plan into the seventh generation for the survival of their community. about seven generations ago the tribal lands were taken illegally. These are stories now that haunt the tribes and California. Tribal nations continue to push for greater rights and land and they will not stop. The oral histories are a powerful way to carry forward tribal plans to recover all their was taken from them in the past.

This research has been greatly instructive to me and I plan to follow it thorough to find the missing records to fill in the gaps of knowledge about how tribes lost their lands and what they experienced with removal after removal. Nowadays many of the tribes have returned and they have recovered some land and rights but tribes still struggle will political powerlessness to white elites in this huge state.


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