Where Did All the Indians Go?

I grew up in southern Idaho and eastern Washington next to large Native American Indian reservations. I went to grade school, junior high and high school with kids from the rez; some were friends, others were rivals, one was my high school sweetheart.

Even to my very young eyes, it was obvious that the Indians on the Fort Hall Reservation in the high desert near Pocatello were living in poverty-stricken conditions; circumstances on the Colville Reservation near Grand Coulee Dam were slightly better, but still grim.

It was also clear to me the Indians were a defeated people, even though our history books in school presented a white-washed version of Western conquest featuring Sacagawea as Lewis and Clark’s friendly and willing guide through the wilderness, and Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer and his armed-to-the-teeth 7th Calvary as courageous underdogs at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876.

It wasn’t just Custer’s Last Stand. It was the last stand for the Indians, too, as their descendants living in crushing poverty on large Indian reservations four generations later made painfully apparent to me.

I moved to California right after high school in 1978, and one of the first things I wondered was, “Where are all the Indians?” Besides the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation secluded in the state’s northwest corner, there didn’t appear to be any large tracts of Indian land, or large groups of Indians, in northern California.

Where did they all go?

As it turns out, that’s the same question that led UCLA historian and north state native Benjamin Madley to write “An American Genocide: The United States and California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873.” Published in 2016 to accolades and awards, Bradley recently talked about his book at the Cascade Theatre. I missed the event, but I bought the Kindle version of the book and was not disappointed, for Madley has indeed answered the question,Where did all the Indians go? The short answer is that white people systematically attempted to exterminate them, and almost succeeded.

Through a painstaking and often gory review of historical records that document 370 separate Indian massacres across California perpetrated by the U.S. Army, state militias and vigilantes between 1846 and 1873, Madley argues that in the wake of gold rush immigration, the newly minted state of California, with federal help, assembled an Indian “killing machine” that resulted in the murder of upwards of 16,000 Indians, a war crime that today would be classified as genocide under the U.N. Genocide Convention.

Chances are that many more than 16,000 Native American Indians were taken by California’s killing machine, since not all Indian deaths were recorded, and many of California’s Indian tribes practiced cremation upon death. Thanks to depredations and disease spread by previous Spanish, Mexican and Russian colonists, the Indian population had been halved, from roughly 310,000 before European settlement to 150,000, when gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in 1848. By 1873 there were just 30,000 Indians left.

History buffs might note that the U.N. Genocide Convention was established in 1948, in response to the systematic mass murder of 6 million Jews by Nazi Germany, which occurred some 70 years after the events described in “An American Genocide.” They might accuse Madley of presentism, applying present day standards to a past when the standard didn’t exist. Perhaps they might have a point.

But Madley styles himself as an “activist historian,” and today’s convention proves a useful tool for gauging the many extremely disturbing atrocities perpetrated by white people against Indians meticulously documented in “An American Genocide.” These crimes include kidnapping, rape, enslavement and the mass murder of mostly peaceful Indian men, women and children, including babies, via rifle, pistol, sabers, Bowie knives and tomahawks.

“The California Indian catastrophe fits the two-part legal definition set forth in the U.N. Genocide Convention,” Madley writes. “First, various perpetrators demonstrated, in word and deed, their ‘intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group as such. Second, at different times a variety of perpetrators committed examples of all five acts of genocide listed in the convention.”

The five acts of genocide listed by the U.N. are:
• Killing members of the group;
• Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
• Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
• Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
• Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Mandley opens with a concise but rich history of California’s estimated 60 diverse Indian tribes and the land of plenty they inhabited before European settlement. Throughout the book, a similar description is given for each tribe just before it’s massacred by white colonists.

Historians agree that California’s Indian tribes were mostly a peaceful, with multiple languages and prowess in farming, hunting and fishing. Some tribes used seashells for currency and traded with other tribes.

Their way of life was brutally interrupted by Spain and the Franciscan missionaries in 1769. As mentioned, contact with the Spanish and other early colonists halved California’s Indian population to just 150,000 before the gold rush.

While rule under Spain and then Mexico was harsh, Madley notes that California Indians were eventually granted some status as second-class citizens. They also provided a much-needed labor force for the ranchers, farmers and vintners who’d taken over much of their fertile homeland by the 1830s and 1840s.

Although Mexico had abolished slavery, conditions for many Indians remained abysmal, as in this visitor’s description of feeding time at Sutter’s Mill in 1845: “Sutter keeps from 600 to 800 Indians in a state of complete slavery, and … I had the mortification of seeing them dine: 10 or 15 troughs, 3 or 4 feet long were brought out of the cook room, and seated in the broiling sun, all the laborers great and small, ran to the troughs like so many pigs, and fed themselves, with their hands, as long as the troughs contained even a moisture.”

Henry B. Brown, “On the Sacramento near Shasta Head of Great Sacramento Plain,” April 1852,

As extreme as that was, things were about to get exponentially worse, beginning with the arrival of U.S. Army Capt. John C. Fremont and an expedition of “60 buckskin-clad white men on horseback” armed with Hawkens rifles, two pistols each, sabers and butcher knives in northern California in the spring of 1946.

At Peter Lassen’s ranch, settlers told Fremont that 1000 Indians were preparing to attack settlements in the area, camped on the Sacramento River near what’s now the city of Redding. Fremont and his men, accompanied by nine Delaware Indians, two California Indians and five settlers, went in search of the encampment, and came upon it late one April afternoon, staked out next to a bend in the river, surrounded on three sides by water.

If the California Indians in Fremont’s party had been brought along for translation purposes, there would be no need for parlay on this day. In what would turn out to be a pattern repeated hundreds of times over the next 27 years, his men encircled the camp at a safe distance, out of range of the Indians, who were armed only with bows and arrows. First, they began picking off Indians with small arms fire; they then switched to rifles as they tightened the noose but remained out of range. After most of the warriors, who were outnumbered by women and children on that day, were picked off, Fremont’s men, following orders, moved into close quarters “combat,” using their pistols, sabers and knives to kill anything that moved.

The results are explained by an eyewitness account from one of Fremont’s men who claimed to not have participated in the massacre, which he blamed on over-rambunctious settlers: “The settlers charged into the village taking the warriors by surprise and then commenced a scene of slaughter which is unequaled in the West. The bucks, squaws and papooses were shot down like sheep and those men never stopped as long as they could find one alive.”

Indians who tried to escape by land on foot were chased down and killed by white men on horseback armed with guns, sabers and tomahawks. Indians who tried to swim for it were gun-downed by the hundreds and floated downstream. Nowadays, this is known as “executionary noncombatant killing.” It’s most definitely a war crime, even by 19th century standards.

Demonstrating the one-sidedness of the massacres to come, no one in Fremont’s raiding party was killed or injured. The idea was to teach the Indians a lesson: Don’t mess with the white man. Madley calls this “pedagogic killing.”

Citing multiple eyewitnesses to the massacre who left written records, including Fremont’s guide Kit Carson, Madley speculates there may have been more than 1000 California Indians killed in the Sacramento River Massacre, most likely from the Wintu tribe, who were probably gathered for the annual spring salmon run, not to make war on settlers. It may be “one of the largest but least-known massacres in US history,” according to Madley.

The 1846 Sacramento River Massacre set the tone for United States-California-Indian relations just as the U.S. defeated Mexico in the Mexican-American War and gold was discovered at the aforementioned Sutter’s Mill in 1948, expediting California’s statehood.

Perhaps the most frustrating fact pointed out by Madley’s exhaustively researched book is that some white people, Anglo-Americans who made the journey west seeking fortune, immediately grasped that California’s Indians were being treated unfairly. Such sympathizers fell one vote shy of granting California Indian adult males the right to vote in the state constitution, adopted in 1850 when California officially entered the union.

“This single vote excluded most Indians from the political process,” Madley writes. “Had it gone differently, enfranchised Indians might have been able to stop their mass murder.”

California Indians outnumbered colonists 150,000 to 15,000, ten-to-one, before the gold rush, which like a magnet attracted 80,000 new immigrants to the state by 1850.

Any legal rights California Indians enjoyed under Mexican rule were stripped away, Madley notes. Existing Anglo-American farm and ranch owners treated the Indians in their employ as disposable slaves. They shifted from working Indians to death in the fields to working them to death in the southern, central and northern mines.

Exemplars of this were Big Valley Ranch owners Andrew Kelsey and Charles Stone, “reportedly the first Anglo-American colonists in the Clear Lake region.” They constructed a fence to keep the Pomo and Wappo Indians they had “inherited” with their property, as was the custom under Mexican rule, imprisoned on the ranch. Any Indian caught outside the fence after dark was severely tortured.

According to extant historical sources, some of whom were shocked and disgusted by Stone and Kelsey’s treatment of the Indians, the laborers were fed meager rations and literally worked to death, in the fields and in the mines. Kelsey and Stone reportedly raped young Indian girls with abandon, tortured the parents if they objected, and occasionally shot and killed Indians for no reason.

As many as 100 Indians had died in Stone and Kelsey’s employ before the Indians struck back in 1849. After losing a horse they borrowed from Kelsey to hunt deer, the starved Indians killed Kelsey and Stone rather than be killed by them for losing the horse.

The Indians fled, and when news of the Stone and Kelsey’s killings reached Sonoma, 25 members of the U.S. 1st Dragoons went in pursuit on horseback, killing any Indians they encountered along the way. The Dragoons murdered as many as 35 Wappo Indians in cold blood near Calistoga and torched their village and food stores. They had nothing to do with killing Stone and Kelsey.

“The killing of a non-Indian by an Indian was increasingly a pretext for the mass murder of any California Indians in the vicinity, regardless of their age, gender, identity, location or tribal affiliation,” Madley writes.

The Dragoons found a large group of Pomo Indians encamped beyond reach on an island in Clear Lake. Vowing to come back, they returned to Sonoma. A vigilante militia featuring two of Kelsey’s brothers then preceded to kill as many Indians as they could find in the Napa and Sonoma Valleys, burning villages to the ground.

Eight vigilantes were charged for their crimes by California’s new Secretary of State but were released on bail and never tried.

Edward S. Curtis, “In the Tule Swamp—Upper Lake Pomo,” photograph, 1924.

As California’s constitution was being hammered out in 1850, the U.S. Army perfected the art of pedagogic killing at Clear Lake in what’s now known as the Bloody Island Massacre. With the aid of the Dragoons, an infantry unit and an artillery unit, two long boats were hauled overland to Clear Lake, where hundreds of Pomo were encamped on the island.

As in the Sacramento Valley Massacre, there would be no negotiation with the surrounded Indians. The heavily armed soldiers faced little resistance as they landed on the island. A report from the Daily Alta California, the state’s largest newspaper at the time, described the massacre:

“They … poured in a destructive fire indiscriminately upon men, women and children. ‘They fell,’ says our informant, like grass before the sweep of the scythe.’ Little or no resistance was encountered, and the work of butchery was of short duration. The shrieks of the slaughtered victims dies away, the roar of muskets … ceased and stretched lifeless upon the sod of their native valley were the bleeding bodies of these Indians—[n]or age was spared, it was the order of extermination fearfully obeyed.’ ”

The Army denied the extermination order and typically played down the number of Indians massacred at Clear Lake. Consulting the available historical sources, including Indian accounts, Madley calculates there were as few as 60 deaths but likely many more. Up to 800 Pomo men, women and children may have been killed on the island or in the attempt to swim to safety, shot by soldiers waiting on the bank and wading through the tule rushes. No soldiers were killed.

As California gold began flowing into the U.S. treasury, Madley writes, the state’s Indian killing machine began taking shape. Adding to the U.S. Army soldiers and vigilante groups that were already annihilating Indians, the state began raising its own militias, financed with bonds and assurances of remuneration from the federal government.

Meanwhile, legislators passed a series of laws that stripped all so-called wild Indians of the right to live free as they had for centuries. They also made it possible for whites to kill any Indian with virtual impunity.

Once set in motion, the killing machine relentlessly ground California Indians in its gears, murdering one or two Indians here, a dozen or several score Indians there, up and down the state, for more than two decades.

In larger massacres, the tactics employed were refined but remained the same: Armed with superior firepower provided by the U.S. government, the killers surrounded the Indians just around daybreak, preferably after they’d gathered for a celebration with lots of women and children in attendance, and start shooting. They then moved in to kill survivors with pistols, knives and tomahawks. They shot anyone who tried to escape and burned the village. The invaders were rarely injured and even less frequently killed.

Captured Indians were lured to federal reservations with unratified treaties, only to have the feds renege on promises to feed, clothe and protect them from white violence, an event that happened numerous times, as Madley documents.

Indian parents were often coerced into giving up their children, who were then sold to be house servants in what amounted to a slave market. Sometimes Indian parents were killed outright for their children. Permission granted.

Madley pursues the perpetrators of these crimes through the decades with the same relentlessness with which they set out to exterminate and exploit Indians, ticking off violations to the U.N. Genocide Convention along the way.

His book represents the first attempt to catalog all the atrocities committed against California Indians during the period of early statehood. At times it’s a bloody horror show that’s difficult to keep reading, as with this witness’s description of a local militia returning to Weaverville after a massacre in 1852:

“When they entered Weaverville with one hundred and forty-seven or one hundred and forty-nine scalps hanging to their girdles, you can well imagine the wild excitement and joy at the extermination of this tribe. Indian scalps were nailed to many doorposts for quite a while.”

The white settlers of Red Bluff, Shasta and other northern California settlements offered $5 bounties for each Indian scalp at various times; Madley describes a blanket for sale that was lined with scalps. With few exceptions, most of California’s recently arrived white settlers either supported Indian extermination or considered their extinction inevitable with the march of progress.

That prophecy was almost fulfilled. Madley ends his examination with the 1872-73 Modoc War in northeastern California, “during which a handful of Modocs held off the US Army, California volunteers and Oregon militiamen for more than six months.” The Modocs were excellent rifle marksmen and one of the few tribes that fought back successfully against white soldiers, militiamen and vigilantes. Eventually they surrendered and four Modoc leaders were hanged and beheaded. The heads were sent back to Washington. D.C.; surviving Modocs were removed to a reservation in Oklahoma.

Public opinion was beginning to turn against California’s Indian extermination policies, but that’s not why Madley marks the end of California’s Indian catastrophe at 1873. By that time, there were very few large groups of Indians left. They’d run out of Indians to kill.

“State and federal policies, in combination with vigilante violence played major roles in the near-annihilation of California Indians during the first twenty-seven years of US rule,” Madley writes. “From 1846 to 1873, colonization policies, abductions, diseases, homicides, executions, battles, massacres, institutionalized neglect on federal reservations, and the willful destruction of indigenous villages and their food stores seem to have reduced California Indian numbers by at least 80 percent, from perhaps 150,000 to some 30,000. In less than three decades newcomers—with the support of both the state and federal governments—nearly exterminated California’s Indians.”

There are few silver linings in “An American Genocide.” The evidence gathered by Madley makes a convincing argument that the near-extermination of California’s Indians meets all the U.N.’s requirements for genocide. We can’t change the past, we can only learn from it, and Madley’s book is a great but decidedly gruesome place to start.

However, there is one bright spot here in the present. Since the legalization of Indian gaming in 1988, California’s Indian population has made a comeback. Today, there are 150,000 California Indians spread across the state, the same number that existed 170 years ago, when whites began arriving for the gold rush.

Perhaps we can treat them a little more fairly during the next 170 years.

R.V. Scheide

R.V. Scheide has been a northern California journalist for more than 20 years. He appreciates your comments and story ideas. He can be emailed at RVScheide@anewscafe.com.

Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments