Before 1845, the Spanish/Mexican population of California numbered only a few thousand. But by 1849, during the gold rush, the non-Indian population of California had grown to 100,000. The Indian population was already in a weakened condition, suffering from disease, lack of food, and from violent confrontations with the new landowners. Once the Americans arrived, California Indians were at an even greater disadvantage. With the lure of instant wealth in front of them, the new settlers wanted little to do with the Indians. The American approach to dealing with the Natives was summed up best by California historian Hubert Howe Bancroft:
“That part of the early intercourse between aboriginal Americans and European which belongs to history may be briefly given, short work was made of it in California. The savages were in the way; the miners and settlers were arrogant and impatient; there were no missionaries or others present with even the poor pretense of soul saying or civilizing. It was one of the last human hunts of civilization, and the basest and most brutal of them all.”
On the Americans’ arrival, the large ranchos were broken up, and the new, more numerous landowners on smaller parcels of land were less tolerant of Indians. The small ranchos were farmed and grazed more intensively, and this caused an even greater reduction in the Indians’ natural food supply. Jobs once belonging to Indians, especially skilled jobs, were taken by Whites.
We need only look at the early record of the California Legislature to understand the relationship of the Americans to the native population during this era. At the first State Constitutional Convention, those assembled voted to eliminate the Indians’ right to vote because they feared the control Indians might exercise.
In 1850, a law was enacted by the first session of the State Legislature, which set the tone for Indian-White relations to come.
Act for the Government and Protection of Indians
The act provided for the following:
- The Justice of the Peace would have jurisdiction over all complaints between Indians and Whites; “but in no case shall a white man be convicted of any offense upon the testimony of an Indian or Indians.”
- Landowners would permit Indians who were peaceably residing on their land to continue to do so.
- Whites would be able to obtain control of Indian children. (This section would eventually be used to justify and provide for Indian slavery.)
- If any Indian was convicted of a crime, any white person could come before the court and contract for the Indian’s services, and in return, would pay the Indian’s fine.
- It would be illegal to sell or administer alcohol to Indians.
- Indians convicted of stealing a horse, mule, cow, or any other valuable could receive any number of lashes not to exceed 25, and fines not to exceed $200. (It should be noted that the law provided that abusing an Indian child by whites was to be punished by no more than a $10 fine. It is hard to compare the penalty with the crime.)
- Finally, an Indian found strolling, loitering where alcohol was sold, begging, or leading a profligate course of life would be liable for arrest. The justice, mayor, or recorder would make out a warrant. Within 24 hours, the services of the Indian in question could be sold to the highest bidder. The term of service would not exceed four months.
This law was widely abused with regard to the use of Indians as laborers, though it did allow Indians to reside on private land.
During 1851 and 1852, the California Legislature authorized payment of $1,100,000 for the “suppression of Indian hostilities.” Again, in 1857, the Legislature issued bonds for $410,000 for the same purpose. While theoretically attempting to resolve White-Indian conflicts, these payments only encouraged whites to form volunteer companies and try to eliminate all the Indians in California.
In 1860, the law of 1850 was amended to state that Indian children and any vagrant Indian could be put under the custody of whites for the purpose of employment and training. Under the law, it was possible to retain the service of Indians until 40 years of age for men and 35 years of age for women. This continued the practice of Indian slavery and made it legal for Indians to be retained for a longer period of time and be taken at a younger age.
In 1862, the Alta California reported: “Little more than a hundred miles from San Francisco, in Mendocino County, the practice of Indian stealing is still extensively carried out. Only recently, George H. Woodman was caught near Ukiah with sixteen Indian children, as he was about to take them out of the county for sale. It is well known that a number of men in that region have for years made it their profession to capture and sell unfortunate juveniles, the price ranging from $30 to $150 depending on their quality.”
This was not an isolated situation. U.S. Agent George Hanson reported: “A band of desperate men have carried on a system of kidnapping for two years past. Indian children were seized and carried into lower counties and sold into virtual slavery. . . . The kidnappers follow at the heels of the soldiers to seize these children when their parents are murdered to sell them at the best advantage.” When there was no other way, there was “a class of whites who systematically killed adults to get their children.”
The other practice that provided much of the labor force, especially in southern California, was to have city officials pick up Indians as vagrants. These officials would then turn the Indians over to the ranchers and other people who needed laborers. This was all done under the provisions of the 1850 law. After four months or some other term of service, the employer would return the Indians to the city, usually to a place where alcohol was served. Shortly after their return, the Indians would be picked up once again as vagrants and returned to the labor force.
These types of activities occurred until 1866, when, to comply with the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution, the State Legislature repealed the law. The 14th Amendment provides that no state should infringe on any citizen’s “privileges or immunities” nor “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law,” nor deny to any person “the equal protection of the law.”