American Crime

American Crime Case #53: The Genocide of California's Native Americans, 1846–1873

November 27, 2017 | Revolution Newspaper |


Bob Avakian recently wrote that one of three things that has “to happen in order for there to be real and lasting change for the better: People have to fully confront the actual history of this country and its role in the world up to today, and the terrible consequences of this.” (See “3 Things that have to happen in order for there to be real and lasting change for the better.”)

In that light, and in that spirit, “American Crime” is a regular feature of Each installment focuses on one of the 100 worst crimes committed by the U.S. rulers—out of countless bloody crimes they have carried out against people around the world, from the founding of the U.S. to the present day.

American Crime

See all the articles in this series.



The Crime: From 1846 to 1873, a mass genocide was carried out against California’s Native American population by the U.S. government and white settlers. In 1846, before the 1848 Gold Rush, 157,000 people were living in California, 150,000 of them Native Americans. It was the densest and most diverse Native American population in the U.S. By 1873, there were only 30,000 Native Americans left alive, and by 1880, only 16,277.1

This massive ethnic cleansing was the result of the genocidal murders of the native population at the hands of U.S. soldiers, volunteer state militiamen, and vigilantes. This  included large massacres that wiped out entire villages, group killings, individual killings, the starvation of thousands, and the death of thousands due to diseases while imprisoned in U.S. Army forts or on federal Indian reservations.

In An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, Benjamin Madley documents the killings of thousands of Native Americans from historical records.

Here are some of the largest massacres that were part of the campaign waged against California’s Native American population.

The 1846 Sacramento River Massacre

In 1846, California was formally under Mexico’s control, but the U.S. military and white American settlers had already begun to fight for control of the territory which would become a U.S. state in 1850.

On March 30, 1846, Army Captain John C. Frémont along with 60 heavily armed buckskin-clad white men, guide Kit Carson, several Delaware (Lenape) Indians, and some volunteers from a nearby trading post began advancing up the Sacramento River towards land occupied by the Wintu people in an area about 90 miles northwest of what was to become the City of Sacramento.

On April 5, this band of 76 men intent on killing Indians reached an area that would later become the City of Redding in the upper Sacramento Valley. It was an area of several hundred square miles that had a rich abundance of food that supported over 5,000 Wintu people. Despite having some contradictions with other tribes in the area, the Wintus were peace-loving and had developed mutual trading relations with the other tribes.

That day, the Wintus, including women and children who were largely unarmed, had gathered along the Sacramento River to catch and process salmon for food. From recorded estimates, Madley states that “as many as 1,000 or more Wintus were there that day.”

The river was swollen that day, so any attempt by the Wintus to get back across it would be too dangerous. Frémont’s forces surrounded them and then “launched a well-planned, preemptive assault of a kind that would later  become common in California. ... the or[d]er was given to ask  no quarter and to give none.” The range of the rifles was 200 yards, much further than an arrow could travel.

After firing upon and killing many Wintus, Frémont ordered the second phase of the attack. This, Madley stated, “would become the second phase of many California massacres. ,.. a well-executed military  assault” made by an advance guard that would fire round after round at closer range.

The third phase of the attack was close-quarter killings using sabers, pistols, and butcher knives. It was reported that “the bucks, squaws and papooses were shot down like sheep and those men never stopped as long as they could find one alive.”

The Wintus who survived the first three phases of the attack tried to retreat on foot into the river, the plains, and the foothills. Then Frémont executed the fourth phase. Kit Carson and his men, the Delaware Indians, on horseback, followed those who retreated into the plains and “literally tomahawked their way through the  flying Indians.” Those trying to cross the river were gunned down.

An eyewitness, William Isaac Tustin, reported on what he saw. According to Madley, “If Tustin was correct, Frémont’s force killed as many as 1,000 California Indian men, women, and children in what may have been one of the largest but least-known massacres in U.S. history.” It was reported that not one of Frémont’s men had been killed, wounded, or even injured during the massacre.2

The Bloody Island Massacre, May 1-15, 1850

Charles Stone and Andrew Kelsey were two of the first white settlers in the Clear Lake area of Northern California, some 100 miles north of San Francisco. They became landowners with land transferred to the settlers from the local Native American tribes. As African-American slave prices rose, these settlers in California were able to buy low-cost Indians as forced “apprentices” (basically slaves) to work on their ranches.

Stone and Kelsey were known to torture and kill many of their Native American slaves. They routinely raped the Native American women and girls. It was reported that “they murdered the Indians without limits and mercy.”3

After a horse and an ox went missing from Andrew Kelsey’s ranch, two Native Americans were blamed for it. They knew that Stone and Kelsey would take revenge for this. At first they were going to pay Stone and Kelsey, but then decided that the best thing to do was to kill them. Madley wrote that these two Indians “could not envision the scope of retaliatory mass murder that killing Stone and Kelsey would provoke. In just five months, between December 1849 and May 1850, vigilantes and US Army soldiers would kill as many as 1,000 Indians, or more, across four Northern California Counties.”

The first wave of murders started on Christmas Day 1849 when First Lieutenant John W. Davidson led the U.S. 1st Dragoons, an infantry unit to fight the Indians, into battle. The ranks of 1st Dragoons had included people like Nathan Boone (Daniel Boone’s son) and Jefferson Davis, later the president of the Confederacy. They rode into a group of Indians firing on them, killing many and wounding others. [The 1st Dragoons, or the 1st Regiment of the Dragoons, was formed as a cavalry unit in the western United States. Besides fighting the Indians, they played a big part in the battles during the Mexican-American War. They were not specifically formed  to fight the native population.]

Davidson saw another group of Indians on an island in Clear Lake. He wanted to attack but his troops were tired, so he retreated and planned for an attack later in the spring.

The locals grew restless at the inaction of the U.S. military, so they organized vigilante actions. These became the second wave of mass murders, from February to March 1850. These vigilantes indiscriminately attacked and killed Native Americans. In one report, “a party of Americans came over from Sonoma to avenge upon the Indians in general the murder of Kelsy.... This party were on their way to Soscal to attack the Indians there, but were turned back by another party of white men at Napa, who prevented them from crossing the ferry. They then returned to Calistoga, and murdered in cold blood eleven innocent Indians, young and old, as they came out of their ‘sweat house,’ and then burned their ‘wickeyups,’ [huts often used for ceremonial purposes] together with their bodies.”

The white men who stopped the vigilantes were part of a group of ranchers “motivated by moral conviction and economic interests [to come] to the aid of  Indians  under attack.... The [Native Americans] ...were also human beings, and some non-Indians considered the vigilante actions 'cruel.' “  Their actions resulted in the arrests of some of the vigilantes, who were not convicted, but this halted much of the vigilante action.

So, a third wave of mass murders, the Davidson plan, was given the go-ahead. Led by expedition commander and Brevet Captain Nathaniel Lyon, Company C of the 1st Dragoons along with a detachment of the 3rd Artillery and detachments of the Army’s 2nd Infantry set out for Clear Lake “with the orders to proceed against the Clear Lake Indians and exterminate if possible the [Pomo] tribe.”

After a seven-day march, they reached Clear Lake on May 11. On May 15 they trapped the Pomo people on the island in Clear Lake. Lyon ordered his men to kill their two Indian guides—one was shot, the other was hanged.

The original order given to Lyons was not to negotiate. The Pomos met the soldiers, peacefully, as they thought they would be able to negotiate. But once they saw this was not possible, a few Indian men attempted to thwart Lyon’s forces from getting on the Island. The troops then attacked and slaughtered the Pomos.

In an article 13 days later in the Daily Alta California, an army captain described the attack:

“They ... poured in a destructive fire indiscriminately upon men, women, and children. ‘They fell,’ says our informant, ‘as 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 died 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 sex, nor age was spared; it was the order of extermination fearfully obeyed.”4

The army disputed this report and tried to cover up the massacre. But William Rhalganal Benson, a Pomo, exposed the attempted cover-up, stating:

“Many women and children were killed on around this island. one old lady a (Indian) told about what she saw while hiding under a bank, in under a overhanging tuley [bulrushes]. she said she saw two white man coming with their guns up in the air and on their guns hung a little girl. They brought it to the creek and threw it in the water ...  a little ways from she, said layed a woman shot through the shoulder. she held her little baby in her arms. two white men came running torge the woman and baby, they stabed the women and the baby and, and threw both of them over the bank in to the water. she said she heard the woman say, O my baby; she said when they [the survivors] gathered the dead, they found all the little ones were killed by being stabbed, and many of the women were also killed [by] stabbing....They called it the siland creek. (Ba-Don-Bi-Da-Meh).”5

At Clear Lake in July 1850, Major Edwin Allen Sherman said, “There were not less than  four hundred warriors killed and drowned at Clear Lake and as many more squaws and children who plunged into the lake and drowned... So in all, about eight hundred Indians found a watery grave in Clear Lake.”

“If Sherman’s estimate is correct,” states Madley, “the May 15, 1850, attack may rank among the most lethal of all Native American massacres in the history of the United States and its colonial antecedents. According to Sherman’s figures, it would have exceeded the 260-300 Hunkpapas and Miniconjous murdered at Wounded Knee in 1890, surpassed the 400-700 Pequots massacred at Mystic, Connecticut, in 1637, and rivaled the 600-800 Puebloan people killed at Acoma, New Mexico, 1599.”6

1853 Yontocket Massacre

In the spring, 1853, several Tolowa Indians were killed by vigilantes at Battery Point in far northern California (in what is today Crescent City). The vigilantes went after the Indians after one of them was seen carrying a pistol.

In the late fall of that year, at Yontocket on the California coast near today’s border with Oregon, the Tolowa people rendezvoused with the Yuroks and several other tribes from southern Oregon. The tribes came as a spiritual pilgrimage to pray on the sacred ground of Yontocket, which the tribes thought to be the center of their universe.

A large group of white vigilantes led by J.M. Peters organized to go after the Tolowa because they believed that the conclave at Yontocket included some of the survivors from the Battery Point massacre.

In the early morning, Peters and his vigilantes surrounded the village where the Tolowas were sleeping and opened fire on their tents. As the Tolowas attempted to escape, they were gunned down from all sides of the encampment. The vigilantes burned Yontocket to the ground, and Peters later announced that “scarcely an Indian was left alive.” Peters called his attack “a saturnalia of blood.”

At that time, it was not reported how many had died.

In 1963, an 87-year-old Tolowa, Eddie Richards, recounted the stories told to him about the massacre by his relatives and an eyewitness. They said that “hundreds and hundreds” of Indians were massacred at Yontocket:

“The white people got all around them.... Every time someone go out, never come back in.... They set fire to the house, the Indians’ house. You could see them cutting heads off. They stick them things into them; pretty soon they pick them up and throw them right into the fire. Some of ‘em tried to get away, run down the slough. Soon as they get down there, if they don’t get ‘em right away, they get ‘em from the other side when they come up. Shoot ‘em right there waiting for them.”7

The survivor told Richards, “the water was just red with blood, with people floating around all over.”

Another old Tolowa said she had been told that “the white people were all around, they just watched. Then they set fire to the place. Women try to get away, he grab ‘em, throw ‘em in the fire. Take pot shots at ‘em when they try to run.”

Another person recounted that he had been told that the vigilantes “killed so many Indians they could not bury them all, so they took the bodies and tied rocks around their necks and took them in the slough....and buried them that way.”

A Tolowa historian, Loren Bommelyn, stated that “Over 450 of our people were murdered or lay dying on the ground. Then the whitemen built a huge fire and threw in our sacred ceremonial dresses, and regalia, and our feathers, and the flames grew higher...they threw in the babies. Many of them were still alive...(Then they) burn[ed] the village to the ground.”

Madley reports that:

“So many victims were incinerated, submerged, or floated away that the attackers could not obtain a complete body count. White sources estimated as many as 150 massacred that morning. Still, this may have been an underestimate. Tolowa sources—recorded first in oral histories and later written down in the twentieth century—insist that whites massacred as many as 600 people at Yontocket. Even if we halve the latter estimate, Yontocket may rank among the most lethal of all massacres in US history. Yet, it remains unknown except to a few scholars, locals, and of course, the Tolowa.”8

The mass murder of Native Americans continued into the late-1870s. All told some 130,000 Native American lives were snuffed out—80 percent of the Native population in 1846—through massacres, murders, starvation, and disease carried out by the American military and American settlers.

The Criminals

Genocide of the California Native Americans could not have been carried out over this 30-some year period without many criminals taking part, including the government, the army, the mass media, and groups of individuals (vigilantes and the militia). Key criminals include:

U.S. President James K. Polk and U.S. Army Captain John C. Frémont. Frémont was sent to California in 1846 by Polk, who had designs on taking California away from Mexico. Frémont’s role was to organize and protect the American settlers in California from the Mexicans and Indians. When Frémont and his troops became a formidable threat to the Mexican government then ruling California, the Mexican government ordered him out of California. On his way north towards Oregon, Frémont and his troops committed the 1846 Sacramento River massacre.

The California State Legislature. The California State Legislature passed the 1850 Act for the Government and Protection of Indians. Between 1850 and 1863, this law facilitated removing California Indians from their traditional lands and separating at least a generation of children and adults from their families, languages, and cultures. The Act made Indians charged with crimes guilty until proven innocent. It established a system of California Indian servitude, in which Indian children could be held and forced to work without pay and any jailed Indian could be purchased for their labor. It also legalized corporal punishment of Indians.

The California state government spent over $1 million to fund the California state militias that went on Indian killing expeditions throughout the state. It was reported that these militias killed about 2,000 California Native Americans between 1850 and 1861.

U.S. government. As California’s “Indian War Debt” mounted, it meant that the state might have to halt the militia Indian killing expeditions. So, under President Franklin Pierce, the U.S. government stepped in to reimburse California for its “Indian War Debt” by passing legislation in 1856 and 1857. About this, Madley wrote, “This enormous cash transfer provided crucial funding for California’s killing machine and made the genocide an increasingly state and federal project.”9

California Governor Peter H. Burnett. In 1851, Burnett used a racist argument to justify the genocide of California Native Americans. He called for a war of extermination and said that it “will continue to be waged between the  races, until the Indian race becomes extinct...The inevitable destiny of the race is beyond the power  or wisdom of man to avert.”

Senator John B. Weller, who was later to become California’s second governor, told his fellow U.S. senators that California Indians “will be exterminated before the onward march of the white man....humanity may forbid, but the interest of the white man demands their extinction.”

The California press played a huge role in whipping up a racist fervor against the Indians and promoting genocide. After the gold rush started in California, the press began to ramp up its attack on the Indian population, which it viewed as a problem. In 1848, The California Star stated that the Indians would become thieves, and that “a continual war will be necessarily waged, for depredations committed, till all are exterminated.” A month later a columnist for the Star wrote that the Indians “are a burden and pest to the country, and gladly would I behold the exit of every one of these miserable creatures from our midst.”10

By the end of the 1850s the press became the main advocates for exterminating the Indians. The Red Bluff  Independent wrote, “It is becoming evident that extermination of the red devils will have to be resorted to before the people in proximity to the rancherias will be safe, or mountain roads traveled with any degree of safety except by parties of well-armed men.” In 1865, the  Courant wrote, “It is a mercy to the red devils to exterminate them, and a saving of many white lives...there is only one kind of treaty that is truly effective—cold lead.” And from the Shasta Courier, “Extermination is the only sure protection...and the sooner the remedy is applied the better.”11

The Alibi

The U.S. government, military and white settlers claimed they were only protecting themselves from Indians who were out to kill them. U.S. Army units would claim that they ran into a war party, so they had to defend themselves, despite the fact that women and children, who were a part of these groups of Indians being killed and massacred, would never have been on a war party.

The just resistance of California’s indigenous inhabitants to the genocidal attacks on them became a further justification to kill and murder more of them. A program of mass fear of the Indians was unleashed throughout California. Native American resistance to being exterminated was labeled aggression and proof that native tribes were at “war” with the white population.

Even when an Indian did kill a non-Indian, it became a justification for wiping out all Indians in the area. Madley reported that so-called punitive expeditions against Indians “chose not to differentiate between the guilty and the innocent.” This led to “the mass murder of any California Indians in the vicinity, regardless of their age, gender, identity, location, or tribal affiliation.” The need for collective punishment was used to justify the indiscriminate killing of Indian men, women, children, and elders, and theft or destruction of their property.

Running through all this was white supremacy and “Manifest Destiny”: the notion that the white “race” was inherently superior to other peoples, who were less than human, and that the God-given destiny of white people in America was to conquer and rule the land from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from “sea to shining sea.”

The Real Motive

There’s a popular conception that California (known at that time as Alta California) was stolen from Mexico. While this is true, the fact is that by the time of the gold rush, Mexico had lost control of California. President Polk coveted California and feared that another country might colonize it. At the end of the Mexican-American War in 1849, the U.S. forced Mexico to sign the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which gave the U.S. control of the Southwest, including California.

Prior to the 1848 Gold Rush, the population of California was 157,000—150,000 Native Americans, 6,500 of Spanish and Mexican descent, and about 800 non-native Americans. Once gold was found, it was estimated that over 300,000 people immigrated to California by 1850, the year California became a state.

California’s 150,000 Native Americans practiced a way of life which often involved collective, not private ownership of land and resources, and required large expanses of land for agriculture, hunting and gathering. And from the beginning, California’s indigenous peoples justly resisted the theft of their land and the destruction of their societies. This stood as an obstacle to the white settlers’ drive to colonize and dominate all of California: to control and exploit its land and resources and expand the capitalist forms of exploitation they brought with them.

The only solution for the on-rushing hoards of white gold seekers (called 49ers) and colonizers was to get rid of the Native Americans and steal their land.

This genocide was also driven by the fact that half the population of California was non-white. Such racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity was not in accord with what was required by the U.S. to cohere the country and its new territory around white supremacy. A white, Protestant, English-speaking California was what the U.S. required.

Non-white immigrants were physically attacked and many killed by the white 49ers. The government imposed the Foreign Miners Tax Act that made it more difficult for those who were not white to survive. Chinese immigrants faced racist mobs. Despite the fact that California was a free state, the imposition of the Fugitive Slave Bill of 1852 allowed for Southern slave masters who immigrated to California to continue to have slaves.

But there was no one population other than the Native Americans in California that firmly stood in the way of a country based on Manifest Destiny and white supremacy. California was stolen from Mexico and its indigenous Native Americans—through a ruthless genocide against tens of thousands that nearly wiped out the state’s indigenous population.

1.  An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe by Benjamin Madley, 2016, Yale University Press, New Haven & London,  p. 3. [back]

2. Ibid., p. 48 [back]

3. Ibid., p. 112 [back]

4. Ibid., p. 130 [back]

5. Ibid., p. 130 [back]

6. Ibid., p. 132 [back]

7. Ibid., p. 223 [back]

8. Ibid., p. 224 [back]

9. Ibid., p. 250 [back]

10. Ibid., p. 65 [back]

11. Ibid., p. 330 [back]


  • An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe by Benjamin Madley, 2016, Yale University Press, New Haven & London
  • Genocide and the Indians of California, 1769-1873, Doctoral Thesis by Margaret A. Field, University of Massachusetts, Boston
  • “The Heritage We Renounce: Gold and Genocide, True Story of the 1849 California Gold Rush, Part 1,” Revolutionary Worker #1039, January 23, 2000
  • Wikipedia—John C. Frémont, Kit Carson, Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, William Rhalganal Benson
  • California’s 1852 Fugitive Slave Law


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