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Genocide, Slavery, and L.A.'s Role in the Decimation of Native Californians

Our American experience has demonstrated the fact, that the two races cannot live in the same vicinity in peace…The white man, to whom time is money, and who labors hard all day to create the comforts of life, cannot sit up all night to watch his property; and after being robbed a few times, he becomes desperate, and resolves upon a war of extermination...That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races, until the Indian race becomes extinct, must be expected. While we cannot anticipate this result but with painful regret, the inevitable destiny of the race is beyond the power or wisdom of man to avert. – Gov. Peter Burnett, State of the State address, 1851

Peter Burnett, first civilian governor of American California
Peter Burnett, American California's first civilian governor. Courtesy of the Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.

In 1851, Peter Burnett, California’s first American governor, stood before the state legislature and declared the genocide of Native Californians a sad inevitability. This shocking admission was couched in a language of excuses that blindly ignored many facts – facts we can rediscover in the collections of the American Indian Resource Center in Huntington Park.

“I think it is very telling that Burnett links Indians [to] stealing livestock,” says the center’s librarian, and member of the Winnebago Nation, Michael McLaughlin, “which did happen because their usual means of subsistence were overrun by gold-seekers, and because federal government rations to the Indians seldom reached them.”

Indeed, this desperate state of affairs was noticed by clear-thinking people all over the state. In a letter to President Zachary Taylor, Presbyterian preacher Sylvester Woodbridge Jr. detailed the Native people’s plight: 

Colonizers had been victimizing – and victim blaming – Native Californians since the arrival of the Spanish missionaries in 1769. “California tribes were forced by the Spanish and later Americans into ways of life they had no understanding of, nor desire to be part of,” says McLaughlin. “By all early European accounts they were peaceful and welcoming. Because their environments provided much abundance to them for thousands of years, there was no need for hostilities or wars as Europeans were well practiced in. But their ancient lifeways were interrupted, disrupted, and largely destroyed by the Spanish, then Mexicans, then Americans.”

Mission San Gabriel as it appeared in 1828
Mission San Gabriel as it appeared in 1828, painted in 1832 by Ferdinand Deppe.

In Los Angeles County, native people like the Tongva and Chumash were forced to convert to Christianity, change their names, and labor under missions. During the Mexican era, powerful ranchos turned many Native Californians into indentured servants. Southern California’s economy and infrastructure were largely built on the backs of those Native Americans who had managed to survive disease and starvation at the missions. But the worst was yet to come. With the discovery of gold in 1848, Americans rushed into California, California rushed into statehood, and newcomers eager to find gold and raise cattle suspended the established practice of making treaties with and assigning reservations to Indian nations.

That left California’s Indians in legal limbo, McLaughlin explains. “The U.S. Senate was persuaded by California officials and wealthy East Coast industrial interests not to ratify the California Indian treaties,” he said. “It meant California Indians became landless, homeless, with no legal standing in the U.S. as citizens. They weren't recognized as Indians because they had no treaty, and they were excluded from California government systems – educational, healthcare, unable to buy property, unable to vote, unable to testify against a white person in court, etc. This didn't really change for the next 40 years.”

Attitudes toward Native Californians were no different in Los Angeles. In an 1856 editorial for the Los Angeles Star, one writer bemoaned:

Angelinos’ disturbing, dissonant annoyance with the Native Californian’s and the need for Native labor resulted in what was essentially a slave market in downtown Los Angeles during the 1850s and ‘60s. According to historian Brendan C. Lindsay:

The laborers worked off their sentences over a week, and were often paid in liquor instead of cash, and thus the abusive, often deadly (many of these people were literally worked to death) cycle continued.  “Los Angeles has its slave mart, as well as New Orleans and Constantinople,” Horace Bell wrote. “Only the slave at Los Angeles was sold fifty-two times a year as long as he lived.” Even the Los Angeles Star questioned the practice, reporting that the city marshal and his cronies:

The Downey Block, the site of Los Angeles' Indian slave market in the 1850s. Lithograph from Thompson & West's 1880 "History of Los Angeles County."
The Downey Block, the site of Los Angeles' Indian slave market in the 1850s. Lithograph from Thompson & West's 1880 "History of Los Angeles County," courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection.

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While local Native Californians were treated as little more than disposable workhorses, the threat of “hostile Indians” in other parts of the Southwest was used to justify raising militias and killing Native people with impunity. As early as the 1840s, William Tecumseh Sherman, while serving in the West, had stated, “the Californians are very fearful of the Indians and are apt to attribute to them seditious acts for which it would be unjust to punish them.”

In Los Angeles, this hysteria reached its peak in 1850-51, due to a Cupeño uprising at Warner’s Ranch in San Diego County, and the Glanton Gang Massacre at Yuma Crossing in Arizona. During this time, prominent Angelinos, both American and Californio, became convinced that a full-scale Native invasion or revolt was imminent. “There is a deep-seated conviction in the community,” one letter stated, “that the lives of the inhabitants sparsely scattered over this extensive territory are exposed to savage vengeance.” The San Francisco-based Daily Alta California reported on a letter from the elders of Los Angeles, stating, “these gentlemen tell us in plain language…that they are in great danger.”

The expected rash of violence perpetrated by indigenous people never materialized in Los Angeles County. In fact, the opposite happened. On October 25, 1852, a group of about 100 unarmed men from the Cahuilla tribe were allowed to perform a traditional peon dance in Los Angeles on a hill near a graveyard. Six Californios, including Justice of the Peace Juan Sepulveda, accompanied them to make sure there were no disturbances. According to Sepulveda, the night descended into chaos when one of the Cahuillas got in a fight with a Californio woman over a bottle of liquor, and a riot ensued. Sepulveda left to get Anglo-American reinforcements. When Sepulveda returned with seven armed Americans, the carnage began:

“How many of the Indians were killed, is perhaps not positively known,” the Daily Alta California reported. “Eight bodies were piled up before Ivarra’s house.” The Cahuillas captured were fined one dollar and sentenced to 25 lashes, while the coroner ruled that “the deceased came to their deaths while resisting a sheriffs’ posse, and that the killing was justifiable.” A week later the Cahuillas’ legendary chief Juan Antonio arrived in the city to liberate his people from jail and collect the dead. “He is rigged out in epaulets, and other paraphernalia of military chieftains,” The Los Angeles Star reported, “and altogether has a martial bearing.”

The injustices would continue for the rest of the century – and, many would argue, to the present day. The staff of the American Indian Resource Center, part of the County of Los Angeles Public Library system, have made it their mission to catalogue the history of California’s Native peoples. The center’s collections include numerous rare out-of-print books, photographs, videos, first-hand accounts, newspaper clippings, and dissertations detailing Native Californians’ rich and tragic history. They are in the process of digitizing a trove of original letters detailing the treatment of Native Americans during California’s early statehood – documents that add valuable historical context to the genocide inflicted upon California's native people.

“It should be no mystery,” McLaughlin reminds us, “that the California Indian population dropped 95 percent between 1850 and 1900.”

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