California genocide

The California Genocide refers to the violence, relocation, and starvation that led to a decrease in the indigenous population of California as a result of the U.S. occupation of California. The indigenous population of California under Spanish rule dropped from 300,000 prior to 1769, to 250,000 in 1834. After Mexico won its independence from Spain, and after the secularization of the coastal missions by the Mexican government in 1834, the indigenous population suffered a much more drastic decrease in population to 150,000. The period immediately following the U.S. Conquest of California has been characterized by numerous sources as a genocide. Under US sovereignty, after 1848, the Indigenous population plunged from perhaps 150,000 to 30,000 in 1870 and reached its nadir of 16,000 in 1900. Between 1846 and 1873, 4,500 to 16,000 California Native Americans were killed by non-Native Americans.[1][2] The dispossession and murder of California Native Americans during this period was aided by democratic processes and institutions of the state of California, which favored settlers' rights over indigenous rights.[3]


Prior to Spanish arrival, California was home to an indigenous population estimated at 300,000, with the largest group being the Chumash people with a population around 20,000 . The diversity of the region was evident in the numerous distinct languages spoken. Even with the great diversity in the area, archeological findings show little evidence of intertribal conflicts.[2]

The various groups appear to have adapted to its particular area. California supported an abundance of wildlife, including rabbits, deer, varieties of fish, and acorns. This resulted in a high level of food independence and allowed the natives to engage in a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, moving around their area as food was available.[4]

California was one of the last regions in the Americas to be colonized. Spanish missionaries led by Franciscan administrator Junipero Serra and military forces under the command of Gaspar de Portola arrived in 1769. The goal of this mission was to spread the Christian faith among the region's indigenous peoples. They built the first of 21 missions, San Diego de Alcalá, in present-day San Diego. Military outposts were constructed alongside the missions to house the soldiers sent to protect the missionaries.

California statehood and genocide

Mexican sovereignty over Alta California was short lived, as after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed to end the Mexican–American War in 1848, the U.S. took control of California, and in the latter half of the 19th century both State and Federal authorities, incited[6][7] aided and financed miners, settlers, ranchers and people's militias to enslave, kidnap, murder and exterminate a major proportion of displaced Native American Indians, sometimes contemptuously referred to as "Diggers", using many of the same policies of violence against the indigenous population that it did throughout its territory.[8][9][10][11][12][13][14][15][16]

Simultaneous to the ongoing extermination, reports of its effects were being made known to the outside world.[notes 1]

A notable early eyewitness testimony and account: "The Indians of California" 1864, is from John Ross Browne, Custom's official and Inspector of Indian Affairs on the Pacific Coast systematically categorizing the fraud, corruption, land theft, slavery, rape and massacre perpetrated on a substantial portion of the aboriginal population.[17]

By one estimate, at least 4,500 California Indians were killed between 1849 and 1870.[18] Historian Benjamin Madley recorded the numbers of killings of California Indians between 1846 and 1873 and estimated that during this period at least 9,400 to 16,000 California Indians were killed by non-Indians, mostly occurring in more than 370 massacres (defined as the "intentional killing of five or more disarmed combatants or largely unarmed noncombatants, including women, children, and prisoners, whether in the context of a battle or otherwise").[19] Professor Ed Castillo, of Sonoma State University, provides a higher estimate: "The handiwork of these well armed death squads combined with the widespread random killing of Indians by individual miners resulted in the death of 100,000 Indians in the first two years of the gold rush."[20]

Call for tribunals

United States federal law contains no statute of limitations on war crimes and crimes against humanity, including genocide. Native American scholar Gerald Vizenor believes that universities should be given the authority to assemble tribunals to investigate these events:

Genocide tribunals would provide venues of judicial reason and equity that reveal continental ethnic cleansing, mass murder, torture, and religious persecution, past and present, and would justly expose, in the context of legal competition for evidence, the inciters, falsifiers, and deniers of genocide and state crimes against Native American Indians. Genocide tribunals would surely enhance the moot court programs in law schools and provide more serious consideration of human rights and international criminal cases by substantive testimony, motivated historical depositions, documentary evidence, contentious narratives, and ethical accountability.[21]

Vizenor believes that, in accordance with international law, the Universities of South Dakota, Minnesota and California Berkeley ought to establish tribunals to hear evidence and adjudicate crimes against humanity alleged to have taken place in their own states.[22] [notes 2]

See also


  1. Aboriginal Americans. Quote: 'Dr. MacGowan, in a lecture delivered at New York, estimated the present number of Indians in the United States to be about 250,000, and said that unless something prevented the oppression and cruelty of the white man, these people would gradually become reduced, and finally extinct. He predicted the total extermination of the Digger Indians of California and the tribes of other States, within ten years, if something were not done for their relief. The lecturer concluded by strongly urging the establishment of a Protective Aborigines Society, something similar to the society in England to prevent cruelty to animals. By this means he thought the condition of the Indian might be improved and the race longer perpetuated'. The British Medical Journal, Vol. 1, No. 274 (Mar. 31, 1866), p. 350
  2. Need for Accountability and Reparations. Quote: Therefore, in accordance to Article IV of the Genocide Convention [1948], which requires all parties to prosecute those charged with genocide, conspiracy to commit genocide, direct and public incitement to commit genocide, attempt to commit genocide, and complicity in genocide, regardless of their capacity as a ruler or public official, in a competent tribunal within the State where the crime took place or in a competent international tribunal that has proper jurisdiction over the case, any persons or agencies that commit acts of genocide within the territory of the United States must be held accountable for their crimes. Glauner, Lindsay. "Need for Accountability and Reparations: 1830-1976 the United States Government's Role in the Promotion, Implementation, and Execution of the Crime of Genocide against Native Americans", DePaul Law Review 51 (2001): 911. pp916-917


  1. Madley, Benjamin (2016). An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846–1873.
  2. 1 2 "California Genocide". PBS. Retrieved December 14, 2015.
  3. Lindsay, Brendan C. (2012). Murder State: California's Native American Genocide 1846-1873. United States of America: University of Nebraska Press. pp. 2,3. ISBN 978-0-8032-6966-8.
  4. Castillo, Edward. "A Short Overview of California Indian History". Native American Caucus of the California Democratic Party. Retrieved December 14, 2015.
  5. Kelsey, p. 18
  6. On January 6, 1851 at his State of the State address to the California Senate, 1st Governor Peter Burnett used the following words: "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."
  7. Coffer, William E. "Genocide of the California Indians, with a comparative study of other minorities." Indian (The) Historian San Francisco, Cal. 10, no. 2 (1977): 8–15.
  8. Norton, Jack. Genocide in northwestern California: When our worlds cried. Indian Historian Press, 1979.
  9. Carranco, Lynwood, and Estle Beard. Genocide and Vendetta: The Round Valley Wars of Northern California. University of Oklahoma Press, 1981.
  10. Lindsay, Brendan C. Murder state: California's native American genocide, 1846–1873. U of Nebraska Press, 2012.
  11. Johnston-Dodds, Kimberly, and John L. Burton. Early California Laws and Policies Related to California Indians. California State Library, California Research Bureau, 2002.
  12. Johnston-Dodds
  13. Trafzer, Clifford E., and Michelle Lorimer. "Silencing California Indian genocide in social studies texts." American Behavioral Scientist 2014, Vol 58(1) 64– 82
  14. Madley
  15. Chapter III p284 which was confirmed by a contemporary, Superintendent D.J. Spencer.
  16. "Minorities During the Gold Rush". California Secretary of State. Archived from the original on February 1, 2014.
  17. Madley, Benjamin, An American Genocide, The United States and the California Catastrophe, 1846–1873, Yale University Press, 2016, 692 pages, ISBN 978-0-300-18136-4, p.11, p.351
  18. Vizenor, Gerald. ``Native liberty: Natural reason and cultural survivance``. U of Nebraska Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-8032-1892-5 page 139
  19. Gerald Vizenor: "Genocide Tribunals: Native Human Rights and Survivance" – A talk given at the IAS on October 10, 2006


  • Chapman, Charles E., Ph.D. (1921). A History of California; The Spanish Period. The MacMillan Company, New York. 
  • Engelhardt, Zephyrin, O.F.M. (1922). San Juan Capistrano Mission. Standard Printing Co., Los Angeles, California. 
  • Kelsey, H. (1993). Mission San Juan Capistrano: A Pocket History. Interdisciplinary Research, Inc., Altadena, California. ISBN 0-9785881-0-X. 
  • Ruscin, Terry (1999). Mission Memoirs. Sunbelt Publications, San Diego, California. ISBN 0-932653-30-8. 
  • Paddison, Joshua (ed.) (1999). A World Transformed: Firsthand Accounts of California Before the Gold Rush. Heyday Books, Berkeley, California. ISBN 1-890771-13-9. 
  • Hinton, Alexander Laban, Andrew Woolford, and Jeff Benvenuto eds. (2014). Colonial Genocide in Indigenous North America. Duke University Press. 
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