Untold History: The Survival of California's Indians

A young Cahuilla woman in the early 20th Century | Photo: Edward S. Curtis

If you grew up in California, you probably learned most of what you know about the history of California Indians while you were in fourth grade. All that several generations of Californians learned of the state’s Native peoples can be summed up thusly:

California was originally populated by people who did not farm but made very nice baskets. The Spanish padrés arrived, and California Indians moved to the Missions to learn farm labor. Some of them died there, mainly because their immune systems weren’t sophisticated enough to handle modern diseases. By the time Americans arrived Native Californians had mainly vanished somehow. The Gold Rush happened and California became a modern society with factories and lending institutions. Finally, in 1911, Ishi, the last wild California Indian, wandered out of the mountains so he could live a comfortable life in a museum basement.

That fourth grade curriculum has improved somewhat in recent years, and kids these days will learn more about the involuntary nature of California Indians’ association with the missions. In schools that follow the Common Core curriculum, kids will learn that California Indians used fire to manage the landscape for food, fiber, and game.

Yet California Indians still vanish from mention in the newer fourth-grade curricula by the time of the Gold Rush. They’re relegated to the past tense, as witness one test question in the Common Core curriculum: “Choose one legend told by California Indians a long time ago and tell what parts of the natural region are in the story.” “All California Indian cultures made: a) deerskin b) pine nuts c) baskets d) kutsavi.”

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California Indian history didn’t end with the Gold Rush. It’s still in progress. California Indians make baskets and manage landscapes with fire -- and drive pickup trucks and earn doctorates -- in the present tense, planning for a future seven generations distant. In that sense, the thread of California Native history extends farther into the future than that of mainstream society, focused on the next fiscal year at most.

It’s probably no accident that the fourth grade curriculum stops mentioning the Native peoples of California at around the time of the Gold Rush. The Gold Rush was a period  in which white settlers' treatment of California Indians might well be too horrible for us to share with children. Even for adult Californians, looking closely at historic harms visited on Native Californians is an unsettling experience.

That sorry history makes it all the more remarkable and fortunate that California Indians are still here, still working to shape the state and its landscape, still working to heal the rift between their non-native neighbors and the landscape we all depend on.

Before Contact

A healer from the Hupa tribe | Photo: Edward S. Curtis

It’s a matter of rough consensus these days that California’s Native people numbered from 100,000 to 300,000 before Spanish and Russian explorers first visited the state. The precise population is a matter that spurs some disagreement among scholars. For some time, historians assumed that California’s indigenous people were spared the worst of the first few waves of epidemics the Europeans brought with them to the Americas. Before Spanish settlement in 1769, the thinking went, the state’s relative isolation on the far side of tall mountains and impassable deserts likely protected California Indians from the plagues that had ravaged the rest of the continent since the early 1500s. If California was indeed isolated from those epidemics, then its pre-contact population would have been not too far different from the numbers the Spanish found.

Recently, researchers have pointed out what Native Californians themselves knew all along: the mountains and deserts weren’t obstacles to Native travel. Far from it: people lived throughout the hottest deserts and the coldest mountain ranges, traveling regularly for trade and other reasons. Once European diseases got a foothold in the Southwest and Mexico, they likely crossed into California. Besides which, it’s likely that Manila galleons traveling from the Philippines to Acapulco stopped off along the California coast on regular, if unrecorded, occasions.  And if diseases had ravaged the diverse societies of California well before the Spanish came, then Native populations before the epidemics would obviously have been considerably higher. 

Some scholars contend that California may have been home to a third of North America’s population before 1492. Regardless of the total count, uncolonized California was well-populated. Along the shores of Tulare Lake in the San Joaquin Valley, as many as 70,000 people, mainly Yokuts, may have gathered at least seasonally. The Chumash and Tongva regions of coastal Southern California were dotted with thriving villages, many just a short walk from their neighbors. The Bay Area, with its immensely productive wetland ecosystem, was populated by tens of thousands of Ohlone, Coast Miwok and Sierra Miwok, Patwin, and Wappo people. Around 300 dialects of 100 distinct languages were spoken in California, one of the highest concentrations of cultural diversity in the world.

The diverse cultures in California were intimately interwoven with the landscapes they called home. From the Tolowa of the northernmost California coast to the Quechan still living in and around Yuma, California Indians shaped the landscapes they lived in significant ways, using fire, hand tools, and millennia of familiarity with local ecosystems. They did this so successfully that across much of what would become the state of California, the tended landscape provided all the food, fiber and medicine the people needed without any need for agriculture as the rest of the world practiced it.

Why did missions have red tile roofs? | Photo: bdinphoenix, some rights reserved

The Missions

That intimate, interwoven relationship with the landscape was the California Indians’ strength, but it also proved to be an ironic vulnerability. In 1769, acting in part out of concern that the British would lay claim to the area, the Kingdom of Spain began to establish what would become a chain of missions and forts stretching from San Diego to Sonoma.

Two aspects of the burgeoning Mission system would end up doing serious harm to California Indian peoples, and to their landscape-based cultures. The first was that the Spanish brought few civilian settlers with them. That was a response to Indian resistance to Spanish colonialism elsewhere in the Southwest, such as the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 in what is now New Mexico, in which 400 colonists were killed and another 2,000 forced to flee. In Alta California, the Spanish would do things differently. Each of what was eventually 21 missions would be staffed by just two Franciscan priests, with a defense complement of half a dozen soldiers.

Alta California was considered one of the farthest-flung, least important parts of the Spanish Empire, and the effort to colonize received very little in the way of material support from the crown. Each Mission was expected to become a self-sufficient agricultural settlement as quickly as possible. Without civilian colonists to cultivate crops and tend livestock, the priests chose to harness California Indians to do the actual labor of farming, animal husbandry, building construction, and domestic work.

The Spanish attitude toward California Indians was nuanced, and at times internally inconsistent. Officially, Indians were considered gente sin razon, literally “people without reason,” but colloquially meaning something closer to “uncivilized people.” The Franciscans saw nothing wrong with enticing Indians to stay at the Missions, baptizing them in a ceremony many of the Indians probably considered of little personal importance, and then holding them as captive labor for the rest of their lives. From the Spanish point of view, baptized Indians became part of the Christian flock and were thereafter obligated to follow the instructions of their shepherds. Baptized Indians who left without permission were hunted down as “runaways,” and often punished severely on recapture. Punishments like whippings were also handed out for various infractions, or randomly at the whims of bored and resentful soldiers.

On paper, the Spanish considered the Indians gente, or people, though they were considered minors according to Spanish law. That’s an incredibly low bar by which to assess the degree of human rights accorded to the Indians in the Mission Era, and it’s notable only because the Americans would later lower that bar to the ground.

As many as ten percent of Indians living at missions became runaways. One reason that percentage wasn’t significantly higher, given the mistreatment at the missions, was due to the other serious ill effect Spanish colonization had on Native culture. The Spanish came to a landscape where generations of Indians had depended on grass and herb seeds carefully wild-tended for at least 8,000 years, and set loose cattle and horses on the Indians’ food supply. As free-ranging Spanish livestock was fruitful and multiplied, Native peoples’ food supplies were converted to livestock pastures. At their height, the missions collectively owned more than 150,000 cattle, which made short work each spring of native grasses and herbs, and introduced invasive weeds besides. Staying at the missions was often a realistic alternative to starvation.

An idealized portrait of the first Christian baptism in California | Image: "San Juan Capistrano Mission" by Engelhardt, Zephyrin (1922).

Still, California Indians often resisted being “missionized.” There were rebellions against the missions across California almost as soon as the missions were founded. In 1771, when the mission system was just two years old, a group of Tongva made what was likely the first attack on a mission, raiding the Mission San Gabriel in response to Spanish soldiers’ rape of a Tongva woman. Similar attacks, often in response to mistreatment of resident Indians, happened across California for the next 60-odd years.

Some of the Indians’ campaigns against the missions were substantially successful. Kumeyaay warriors burned down the Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcalá in 1775. The next year, a group of Chumash people set fire to the roofs of several buildings at the Mission San Luis Obispo. The Franciscans rebuilt the destroyed buildings using adobe and tile roofs, giving birth to a signature California architectural style.

In 1785, the 24-year-old Tongva linguist, shaman, and orator Toypurina organized men from several villages to storm the Mission San Gabriel with the intent of killing all the Spaniards there. She specifically cited both mistreatment of women -- her mother had been raped by Spanish soldiers -- and cattle’s devastation of Tongva food sources as reasons for the attack. A soldier overheard two of the participants talking about the planned raid and warned the priests; the attack was thwarted and the male participants flogged. Despite the collapse of the attack, Toypurina became a figure of legend and a symbol of opposition to Spanish rule.

In 1821 Mexico won independence from Spain. In 1824, a new Mexican federal constitution granted full citizenship to its Native people, including Native Californians. In practice, the difference in California Indians’ lives was often negligible. Mistreatment at the missions continued, in part out of soldiers’ anger over the Mexican government’s budget cuts imposed on the missions. In 1824, a savage beating of a Chumash worker at the Mission Santa Ynez sparked a bitter revolt there and at the nearby La Purisima Mission, known as the Chumash Revolt of 1824. While the revolt at Mission Santa Ynez was put down relatively quickly, more than 2,000 Chumash warriors captured La Purisima, repelled an attack by Mexican soldiers, held the mission for four months, then looted the mission of its supplies and valuables and headed for the hills.

This drawing circa 1900 depicts Estanislao, standing at right. | Public domain image via Sunset Magazine 

Just three years later, Estanislao, a Yokuts resident of Mission San Jose who had risen to a position of some prominence in the mission’s hierarchy, left the mission with about 400 followers. With an army eventually numbering more than 4,000 escapees from the missions in San Jose, Santa Cruz, and San Juan Bautista, Estanislao led a series of daring raids, using tactics he’d learned from the mission soldiers, that often resulted in no loss of life. Legend has it that Estanislao left his mark at raid sites by carving the letter “S” with his sword, which may have provided inspiration for the fictional character Zorro.

In 1829, the Mexican Army routed Estanislao’s army from a camp on what was then called the Rio Laquisimas. Estanislao escaped, sought pardon from Mexican authorities, then spent the next few years in the Sierra foothills raiding Mexican settlements with a newly growing army. In 1833, a malaria epidemic introduced to the Central Valley by fur trappers killed at least 20,000 California Indians, decimating Estanislao’s band. He returned to Mission San Jose, where he taught the Yokuts language until his death in 1838.

Aside from providing a model for other legends, Estanislao ended up lending his name to the Rio Laquisimas — now called the Stanislaus River — and to the county that shares the same name.

All in all, the impact of the missions on California native life were severe. In the 65 years between establishment of the missions in 1769 and their secularization by the Mexican government in 1834, more than 37,000 California Indians died at the missions — more than lived in the missions in any single year. Around 15,000 of those deaths were due to epidemics aided by the missions’ crowded conditions, while a significant number of the rest succumbed to starvation, overwork, or mistreatment.

The American Nadir

The Mexican-American War, which resulted in the conquest of California by the United States,  was very bad news for Californian Indians. As brutal and cavalier as Spanish and Mexican rule had been for Native Californians, it was the onset of American rule that brought with it the worst period in the entire known history of California’s indigenous people.

The barbarism and racial hatred toward indigenous people American settlers brought with them to California can hardly be overstated. Over the 27 years from 1846 — when American settlers started making themselves at home in Mexican California — and 1873, when the last California Indian War ended with the defeat of the Modocs at their Tule Lake stronghold, California’s Native population declined by at least 80 percent, from around 150,000 to perhaps 30,000. Or perhaps far fewer. The 1870 federal census tallied 7,241 remaining California Indians. Given the state of the federal census in 1870, some Indians may have been missed.

Many of the deaths were due to starvation and disease, as Native bands of refugees hid in some of the new state’s most inaccessible, inhospitable places to avoid what must have seemed certain doom at the hands of Americans.

But a very distressing number of those deaths came as the result of what American settlers often expressly referred to as a campaign of extermination.

Ishi was the last of his people, the rest of whom had fallen to disease, starvation, and murder by Americans. | Photo: Edward S. Curtis

In April 1846, Army Captain John C. Frémont, who would later become the first Republican Presidential candidate, led his men on an expedition northward along the Sacramento River to a site near the present-day site of Redding. There they encountered a large group of California Indians, probably Wintu, gathered on a peninsula surrounded by the river. The group included older people, women, and children, likely there to harvest some of the spring salmon run. Frémont’s men, a heavily armed company of 76 men, confronted them at the neck of the peninsula. Some of the Wintu warriors attempted to defend the elders, women and children, but to little avail. Many of the Wintu were killed where they stood, first with rifle fire, then — when the attackers’ guns overheated — with bayonets, and finally with butcher knives. Those who tried to escape were chased down on horseback and killed. No American soldiers were seriously injured.   

One eyewitness, whose unpublished account was cited in UCLA historian Benjamin Madley’s recent book An American Genocide, estimated the toll of Wintu in the Sacramento River Massacre at upwards of 600 or 700, with perhaps another 300 dying while trying to flee across the swollen Sacramento River.

Frémont’s massacre is historically notable in part for its possible death toll, but mainly because it was the first such act of extermination in a three-decade campaign against California Indians. Many such massacres were conducted not by the U.S. military, but by groups of vigilantes spurred by a combination of race hatred and desire for the remaining land occupied by Indians. Many California Indians were attacked by emigrants from the Oregon Territory seeking revenge for the killings of missionaries Marcus and Narcissa Whitman in Walla Walla in November 1847, though there was no known link between any California Indian and the Cayuse who actually killed the Whitmans. Such “Oregon men,” and others of their ilk, would incite mob violence against any Native Californian for minor offenses, or illusory ones. In one typical incident in May 1850, a group of ten armed white men furious over the loss of some cattle attacked a nearby Nisenan/Southern Maidu village, assuming the Indians were responsible for the theft, and killed at least two people. The cattle were found alive the next day.

There were distressingly many more large massacres; between 60 and 100 Pomo at Bloody Island in 1850, more than 150 Wintu at Hayfork in 1852, perhaps 450 Tolowa people at Yontocket in 1853, 42 Winnemen Wintu people at Kaibai Creek in 1854: the list continues. More California Indians likely died in random, near-daily attacks on small groups. Whites were able to murder Indians with impunity, both legal and social. Very few settlers spoke up for the rights of California Indians except in the most abstract sense. 

When Native people attempted to defend themselves, or to redress wrongs through violent means, or even to feed themselves by helping themselves to livestock, seemingly random extrajudicial executions were common responses by white Californians. Little effort was made to ascertain the Native targets’ guilt or innocence, or even to make formal charges: the idea was that prominent killings would “teach Indians a lesson.”

In Shasta City, officials in 1851 offered a bounty of five dollars for every California Indian head turned in. Several unsuccessful miners suddenly found a more lucrative living in murdering Indians, bringing in horses laden with as many as a dozen Native people’s severed heads. Marysville and Honey Lake paid similar bounties on scalps. In places where no bounty was offered, freelance Indian killers often sought and received payment for services rendered from the state government.

There were subtler acts of genocide committed against California Indians soon after the Americans took over. Even before the state’s admission to the Union in September 1850, California’s Legislature passed a bill — ironically called the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians — which codified the Spanish practice of forcing California Indians into slavery, though it set a few token restrictions on the practice. As many as 10,000 California Indians, especially children, were kidnapped and sold into slavery before Emancipation in 1863. Many of them were worked to death. Another clause in the Act forbade cultural burning of grasslands. A vagrancy clause made it illegal simply to be a Native Californian in public unless said Native could prove he or she was employed by a white person. Another provided that no white man could be convicted based on testimony of a California Indian.

Section 10 of the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians made cultural burning illegal.

Meanwhile, a attempt to designate eight million acres of California as Indian reservations died in the U.S. Senate, but that decision was kept secret. The Indians didn’t regain title to the lands they ceded during treaty negotiations.

All the while, Americans were making it harder for Native Californians to make their traditional livings. While Spanish and Mexican cattle had been problematic in a broad swath of the coastal mountains, Americans brought their livestock into the Central Valley, the mountains, and even the deserts. Mining, which exploded in extent during the Gold Rush, poisoned and silted up salmon streams in the Sierra Nevada, the Klamath Mountains, and the Transverse Ranges. Native people seeking refuge in the few places in California that whites had not yet decided to conquer often suffered severe privation, even starvation.

Sally Bell with husband Tom Bell near the site of the Needle Rock Massacre, 1923 | Photo courtesy Bancroft Library

The killing went on for years, though people doing the killing were more often wearing military uniforms as the decades passed.  Native eyewitness accounts of attacks are rare: it was mainly whites doing the reporting. One exception comes from the 1850s, when white settlers along what’s now called the Lost Coast targeted a group of Sinkyone Indians for killing. Sally Bell, a Sinkyone girl who was ten years old at the time, survived by hiding in terror. She later reported:

Indian schools and termination

By the mid-1870s, white Californians had largely lost interest in exterminating the remaining California Indians on a systematic basis. “Pacification” of the tribes had been in the hands of the Army for some years, and many Californians seemed to be willing to take a more expansive view of how to rid the nation of Indians: by turning them white, or as close to it as possible.

An unusually blunt expression of this view came from The U.S. Army’s Richard Henry Pratt. In a speech in 1892, Pratt said:

Pratt’s idea had prompted him to found a school for Indian youth in Pennsylvania, where students were forced to conform to American culture. Their hair was cut. English was the only language allowed in the school. Contact with family and Native friends was restricted. The Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs adopted Pratt’s model, and set up schools across Indian Country beginning in the 1890s.

California’s first off-reservation boarding school, the Sherman Indian School, was founded in Perris, California in 1892. It moved to Riverside a decade later. Children from tribes across southern California and the desert regions of adjoining states were sent to the Sherman Indian School for decades. Students ranged in age from 5 to 20. No visits home  were allowed for several years at a time. A cemetery on the campus holds the remains of youth who died while in the school’s custody.

The Sherman Indian School in Riverside in 1910 | Public Domain photo

Sherman Indian School wasn’t unique in having its students die on occasion. Disease was rife at Indian Schools across the country. Student were forced to work long hours and subject to corporal punishment. A report based on a study conducted by the Brookings Institution in 1928 lambasted the Bureau for the conditions found in the schools, on the grounds both of student safety and of the damage the schools were wreaking on Native cultures. By removing children from their elders, and thus preventing the passing down of cultural knowledge, the schools were threatening to end many aspects of Native culture as living traditions.

Despite the report’s recommendations, Indian boarding schools remained a main educational tool in the BIA’s toolbox. Enrollment in the schools peaked in the 1970s; a few, such as Sherman, are still in operation today.


By the 1940s, the United States Congress had grown tired of waiting for boarding schools to slowly assimilate Native children into mainstream society, and decided to forcibly assimilate Native peoples by speedier methods. The solution Congress came up with was called “termination.” Termination was intended to strip Native tribes of any sovereignty they still enjoyed, starting with depriving tribes of the right to handle their own criminal cases. In California, the first Native tribe to be affected was the Agua Caliente Cahuilla, whose lands in the Palm Springs area were declared subject to state civil and criminal law in 1949.

In 1953, House Concurrent Resolution 108 made termination the official federal policy toward Native nations. The language of the resolution specifically targeted California Indians, declaring that all recognized tribes in California — along with New York, Florida and Texas — were terminated. Termination meant an immediate end to federal funding, social services, legal and law enforcement protection, and to recognition of the tribes’ rights to reservations even if guaranteed by treaty.

In the same year, Congress passed Public Law 280, which (among other things) declared that all tribal criminal and civil cases in California would be under state rather than tribal jurisdiction.

Termination would eventually be ended by an unlikely ally. | Photo: White House

From 1956 through 1958, Congress passed three laws specifically targeting 41 California Indian Rancherias for termination. The laws required that the Rancheria lands be divided up among tribe members and made their personal property. The idea was that by becoming property owners and taxpayers, Native people would assimilate into American society more quickly.

Some Native people accepted the idea of termination, in part because the Federal government offered assurances of greater education funding and infrastructure improvements to native communities in return. Those promises went largely unfulfilled. Opposition to termination grew among both Natives and non-Natives. The issue gained enough prominence that both Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon publicly called for a repeal of termination policies.

Renaissance and Restoration

The attempts to forcibly assimilate Native peoples into American society had two unintended consequences that played a big role in California Indian history. Boarding schools, by creating bonds between children of different tribes, often made it more likely that Native activists would adopt pan-Indian approaches to organizing, rather than working on a tribe by tribe basis. And one termination-era law, the Indian Relocation Act of 1956, encouraged Native people to leave the reservation and look for jobs in cities. As a result, many Native people from tribes outside California emigrated to Los Angeles and San Francisco, providing ideal organizing circumstances for those pan-Indian activists.

In November, 1969, a group with the expressly pan-Indian name "Indians of All Nations" occupied the decommissioned federal prison on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay. The occupation, which made world headlines, lasted for nearly two years, and raised the visibility of both the Native cause and Native organizing. Though the visible leadership of the occupation was largely made up of members of tribes from outside California, California Indians were nonetheless well-represented among the initial wave of occupiers.

The occupation bore fruit. A chastened Congress responded to the unfavorable press by passing reforms of Indian health and education policies and bills returning lands to the Yakima Indians and Taos Pueblo. President Nixon did his part by rescinding Termination during the occupation as well.

Physical reminders of the 1969-71 Alcatraz Occupation remain to this day | Photo: National Park Service

The lessons of Alcatraz — a reminder that activism could be both effective and a source of pride — had an immeasurable effect on Native peoples across the United States. California was no exception.  California Indians had never stayed silent about the injustices done them, but the 1970s saw a renewed surge of activism both political and cultural. In 1979, Tillie Hardwick, a Pomo woman who grew up on the terminated Pinoleville Rancheria, sued the federal government to restore recognition to Pinoleville, arguing that the roads, sewers, and water mains the federal government had promised in return for termination were never delivered. Hardwick prevailed. In 1983, a U.S. District Court ruled on Tillie Hardwick v. United States by reversing terminations of 17 small Rancherias throughout the state. Other tribe members, noting Hardwick’s success,  launched their own suits. To date, more than 30 California rancherias, bands, and reservations have had their terminations rescinded.

Tribes in California began to generate revenue by holding bingo games in the late 1970s. Predictable tension between the tribes and the state over gambling regulation ensued. The Cabazon Band of Mission Indians sued California over state attempts to shut down a card club on the Band’s reservation near Palm Springs. The case reached the Supreme Court, which ruled that states have no authority to regulate gaming on Indian lands. In 1988, the Federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act amended Public Law 280 to make that SCOTUS decision formal, and establish a federal regulatory framework for Indian gaming. Indian gaming took off nationwide as a result. An attempt in 1998 by then-governor Pete Wilson to drastically limit the scope of Indian gaming in California briefly raised ire, but after a series of court battles and  a pro-Indian gaming proposition on the 1998 ballot, 58 gaming tribes reached an amicable agreement with Wilson’s successor Gray Davis in 1999. The casino operated by the Cabazon Band is now the tallest building between Los Angeles and Phoenix.

And all the while, California Indian activists were working — and are still working — to preserve both their cultures and the landscape that fed and feeds them. California Indian basketweavers work to ensure state and federal agencies take care not to spray their traditional basketry plants with herbicides, especially important as basketweavers often hold plant materials for baskets in their teeth. Native peoples in the northernmost part of the state have been instrumental in reaching an agreement to dismantle four salmon-killing dams on the Klamath, and others are working to restore forests and to protect the last remaining Winter-run Chinook salmon in the Sacramento River. Native peoples in the desert are advocating that solar developers pay proper heed to traditional cultural uses of the landscape the developers want to convert to industrial zones. And after more than a decade of campaigning, ten North Coast tribes are entering their third decade of jointly managing and restoring 3,845 acres of redwood forest in the Lost Coast area. Declared the Sinkyone Intertribal Wilderness in 1996, the parcel is adjacent to the Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, where a huge grove of old-growth redwoods, saved from the chainsaws in the 1980s, is named for Sally Bell. Perhaps some day her baby sister’s heart will be at rest.


Co-produced by KCETLink and the Autry Museum of the American West, the Tending the Wild series is presented in association with the Autry's groundbreaking California Continued exhibition.

Banner photo: Clear Lake Pomo man in tule boat, Edward S. Curtis photo