The Heritage We Renounce

Gold and Genocide

True Story of the 1849 California Gold Rush,
Part 1

Revolutionary Worker #1039, January 23, 2000

On January 24, 1998, the state of California began a celebration of the 1848 discovery of gold in California. The three year commemoration, which began on the 150th anniversary of the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill, will continue through the 150th anniversary of California statehood later this year.

Speaking before 9,000 people at the commemoration, Pete Wilson, California's governor at the time, said: "It's a great day. What a wonderful thing, to celebrate our past and be so grateful, no matter how we got here, no matter what our origins." Wilson, who, as governor, led vicious attacks on immigrants, continued with unintended irony: "It brought about an invaluable tradition--a tradition of people who came here from every corner of the earth. They were risk-takers, pioneers, people who blazed new trails, literally and figuratively."

This is the myth built around the Gold Rush--a story of rugged people from around the world, who ventured to California to make a fortune and succeeded through hard work and luck. It is the myth of a capitalist system that benefits all, where hard work is rewarded with riches.

Today, newspaper business pages refer to the growth of the computer industry in California's Silicon Valley as a "modern day gold rush."

But the real story of the Gold Rush is covered with the blood of thousands of victims. Writing at the time, author Henry David Thoreau called it "the greatest disgrace to mankind." For the indigenous native people, non-European immigrants, and African-Americans, the story of the Gold Rush is one of oppression, discrimination, and genocide.

California Before the Gold Rush

By the end of the 1700s, Spain had acquired a colonial empire in the "New World" that reached from the tip of South America up through South and North America, from the Mississippi to what is now California. One historian described an essential feature of this Spanish empire: "A cruel alchemy converted human wealth into material treasure by consuming hundreds of Indian lives for each ingot of gold and silver shipped to Madrid. A holocaust of slavery, atrocities and disease reduced New Spain's native population from 11 million at the time of Cortez [who conquered the Aztecs in 1519-1521<196>RW] to 6 million by 1550."

The main social institution created by the Spanish in California was a system of missions. Catholic missionaries enslaved thousands of Native people in 20 missions up and down the California Coast. The Native people built the missions, grew food for the colonists, and were subject to floggings, shackles, and imprisonment.

The death rate for Indians enslaved in these missions was appalling. Between 1790 and 1800 the Franciscan missionaries took in 16,100 Indians, of whom 9,300 died--a 58 percent death rate. By 1818 the percentage of Indians who died in the missions reached 86 percent.

In 1821, after 11 years of struggle, Mexico (which included present-day California) achieved independence from Spain. In 1834, Mexican Governor Jose Figueroa initiated a plan where most of the California Missions would be "secularized." Figueroa promised that half of the land would be allocated to the Mission Indians and half would be distributed to people given land grants. However, the promise of distributing the wealth of the Missions to Native people never materialized. Instead in a few years, almost all of the wealth of the Missions were sold or given to friends and associates of the governor. Many Indians after being freed angrily destroyed the Mission buildings where they had been confined.

A system of ranchos (large ranches), on land grants supplied by the governor, replaced the Missions as the main backbone of the California economy. By 1846, the governors and their deputies had given away 26 million acres to 813 applicants. The ranchos were provisioned with supplies and equipment plundered from the Missions and were staffed by Indians, who, like serfs, did all of the hard work. One rancho required the labor of 600 Indian servants. According to one historian, the ranchos were "a California cousin of the South's plantations."

California didn't become a U.S. state until 1850 and in 1840 there were only 400 U.S. citizens in California. But this didn't stop the U.S. from planning to seize California from Mexico. In 1845, on the night of his inauguration, U.S. President James Polk confided to his Secretary of the Navy that one of the main goals of his administration was to take California from Mexico. The U.S. doctrine at that time was known as "Manifest Destiny." This doctrine justified U.S. expansionism by saying that this was "God's will." In a blatant provocation, in 1846 President Polk sent U.S. troops in the recently annexed state of Texas into territory that was claimed by Mexico. When Mexico responded, the U.S. declared war on Mexico.

In the final battles of the War with Mexico the U.S. marched on Mexico City. A Mexican merchant, writing to a friend about the bombardment of Mexico City, said, "In some cases whole blocks were destroyed and a great number of men, women, and children were killed and wounded."

A U.S. soldier described what he witnessed when U.S. soldiers entered Mexico City: "Grog shops were broken open first and then, maddened with liquor, every species of outrage was committed. Old women and girls were stripped of their clothing and many suffered still greater outrages. Men were shot by the dozen...their property, churches, stores and dwelling houses were ransacked.... Dead horses and men lay about pretty thick, while drunken soldiers, yelling and screeching, were breaking open houses or chasing some poor Mexicans who had abandoned their houses and fled for life."

Mexico surrendered and, in 1848, was forced to sign the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, giving away about half its territory to the United States. And so, on the eve of the discovery of gold, California--occupied Mexico--became a U.S. territory.

The True Story of Sutter's Mill

High school textbooks about the history of California tell this story about the beginning of the Gold Rush:

On the morning of January 24, 1848, James Marshall was building a sawmill for his employer, John Sutter, when he discovered gold and forever changed the history of California.

However these facts do not even begin to tell the whole story. First of all, who was John Sutter and what was his enterprise all about?

John Augustus Sutter talked the Mexican governor into granting him 48,000 acres--76 square miles--of land in the Sacramento Valley. Of course the land "granted" to Sutter was already occupied. Two hundred Miwok Indians were living about 12 miles south of what became known as Sutter's Fort. Kadema Village was five miles west. Five miles north was the territory of the Maidus.

Indians did almost all of the work on the Sutter Ranch. Miwoks and Maidus built the fort, plowed the fields, planted wheat and other crops, tended the livestock, wove cloth, ran a hat factory and a blanket company, operated a distillery, worked in Sutter's tannery, staffed what was basically a hotel for visitors to the area, and killed deer to get food for them all.

If you visit Sutter's Fort today, guides and signs will tell you that the Indians were there voluntarily and were treated well. In fact, Sutter's system amounted to serfdom and verged on outright slavery. Heinrich Lienhard, one of Sutter's managers, wrote, "I had to lock the Indian women and men together in a large room to prevent them from returning to their homes in the mountains at night. Large numbers deserted during the daytime."

Sutter armed Indian men from nearby villages to steal children from more distant villages and sold the captives in San Francisco to pay his debts. Another writer wrote that Sutter "was fond of the young Indian women," implying that Sutter forced the Indian women into sexual relations.

In 1844 Pierson Reading, another of Sutter's managers, wrote, "The Indians of California make as obedient and humble slaves as the Negro in the south. For a mere trifle you can secure their services for life." The real situation was reflected in the testimony of one California Indian who wrote: "My grandfather was enslaved by Sutter to help in building the Fort. While he was kept there Sutter worked him hard and then fed him in troughs. As soon as he could, he escaped with his family and hid in the mountains."

Sutter himself was unable to make the transition to the new economy and the rush of thousands of new settlers. The Indians fled the fort leaving no one to harvest his wheat. Miners plundered his livestock. His legal claim to the land was challenged and Sutter went bankrupt.

Genocide of Native People

No group suffered as much from the Gold Rush as California's Native peoples. Estimates of the number of Native people in the area that is now California, before the arrival of Europeans, range from 310,000 to 705,000. Even before the Gold Rush the population of Native people in California had fallen to 150,000 due to the Mission system and diseases introduced by Spanish and Mexican settlers. The remaining Indian population was decimated during the Gold Rush. By 1870 the number of Native people had plummeted to 31,000 according to the California census.

Some 4,000 Indian miners were reported prospecting for gold the summer following the discovery at Sutter's mill, usually working for white people. But new laws were quickly passed to prohibit the use of Indians in the mines. Then, the California government adopted a systematic policy of genocide.

In his January 1851 message to the California legislature, California Governor Peter H. Burnett promised "a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the two races until the Indian race becomes extinct." Newspapers cheered on the campaign. In 1853 the Yreka Herald called on the government to provide aid to "enable the citizens of the north to carry on a war of extermination until the last redskin of these tribes has been killed. Extermination is no longer a question of time--the time has arrived, the work has commenced and let the first man who says treaty or peace be regarded as a traitor." Other newspapers voiced similar sentiments.

Towns offered bounty hunters cash for every Indian head or scalp they obtained. Rewards ranged from $5 for every severed head in Shasta City in 1855 to 25 cents for a scalp in Honey Lake in 1863. One resident of Shasta City wrote about how he remembers seeing men bringing mules to town, each laden with eight to twelve Indian heads. Other regions passed laws that called for collective punishment for the whole village for crimes committed by Indians, up to the destruction of the entire village and all of its inhabitants. These policies led to the destruction of as many as 150 Native communities.

In both 1851 and 1852 California paid out $1 million--revenue from the gold fields--to militias that hunted down and slaughtered Indians. In 1857, the state issued $400,000 in bonds to pay for anti-Indian militias.

The Alta Californian newspaper reported on a massacre of Native People carried out by Captain Jarboe in 1860: "The attacking party rushed upon them, blowing out their brains and splitting their heads open with tomahawks. Little children in baskets, and even babes, had their heads smashed to pieces or cut open. Mothers and infants shared the same phenomenon.... Many of the fugitives were chased or shot as they ran.... The children, scarcely able to run, toddled toward the squaws for protection, crying with fright, but were overtaken, slaughtered like wild animals and thrown into piles."

On April 12, 1860 the state legislature approved $9,347.39 for "payment of the indebtedness incurred by the expedition against the Indians in the County of Mendocino organized under the command of Captain W. S. Jarboe in 1859." California's governor wrote a letter to Jarboe congratulating him for doing "all that was anticipated" and giving his "sincere thanks for the manner in which it [the campaign] was conducted."

In 1850 California passed the so-called "Act for the Government and Protection of the Indians." This act allowed any white settler to force any Indian found to be without means of support to work for him. Since Indians could not testify against white people in court, almost any Indian could be seized as a virtual slave under this law. Many settlers didn't even bother with the law and purchased Indian children outright. Fortunes were made off the sale of Indian women and children.

An editorial in the Marysville Appeal illustrates this practice: "But it is from these mountain tribes that white settlers draw their supplies of kidnapped children, educated as servants, and women for purposes of labor and lust...there are parties in the northern portion of the state whose sole occupation has been to steal young children and squaws ...and dispose of them at handsome prices to the settlers who...willingly pay $50 or $60 for a young Digger to cook or wait upon them, or $100 for a likely young girl."

In order to clear the way for white settlement, the U.S. Senate in 1853 authorized three commissioners to negotiate treaties with the Indian tribes in California. Eighteen treaties were negotiated. The Indian tribes agreed to give away millions of acres of land in exchange for the U.S. government's promise of protection and lands with adequate water and game to sustain them and their way of life. These lands would have contained about 7.5 million acres, or 7.5 percent of the land area of California. The Indians began moving to their new lands only to find out that the U.S. Senate had refused to ratify their treaties.

Instead of the treaties, the U.S. decided on "a system of military posts" on government-owned reservations. Each of these reservations would put into place a "system of discipline and instruction." The cost of the troops would be "borne by the surplus produce of Indian labor." No treaties were to be negotiated with the Indians; instead they would be "invited to assemble within these reserves."

Native people were rounded up at gunpoint and forced to march to the "reservations." In her poem, History Lesson, the Native American poet Janice Gould described the forced resettlement of Native People in Northern California: "The removal has taken two weeks and of the 461 Indians that began this miserable trek, only 277 have come to Round Valley. Many died as follows: Men were shot who tried to escape. The sick or the old or women were speared if they could not keep up, bayonets being used to conserve ammunition. Babies were also killed, taken by the feet and swung against trees or rocks to crack their skulls."

Indians on reservations were hired out to settlers to do the work of pack animals. A settler reported that in 1857: "About 300 died on the reservation from the effects of packing them through the mountains in the snow and mud...They were worked naked with the exception of deer skins around their shoulders...They usually packed 50 pounds if they were able..."

Although vastly outgunned and outnumbered, California Indians resisted the genocidal war being waged against them. One of the most famous acts of resistance was the Modoc War in the early 1870s. The Modoc left the reservation that they had been forced to live in and returned to ancestral lands in the lava bed region of Siskiyou County. Under the leadership of a Kentipoos, also known as Captain Jack, 150 Modoc warriors fought valiantly against over 1,000 U.S. troops. They were able to hold off the troops for months. After army howitzers and lack of water weakened the Indian forces, Captain Jack was captured and hung. The war left 83 U.S. soldiers dead and cost the U.S. over $1 million.


"You: who have priced us, you who have removed us: at what cost? What price the pits where our bones share a single bit of memory, how one century turns our dead into specimens, our history into dust..."

Wendy Rose, Three Thousand Dollar
Death Song
, 1980 (Miwok/Hopi)

The real story of the gold rush is the story of the genocide of Native people, the theft of land from Mexico and crimes against many other sections of the people. These are crimes driven by the nature of a system that places the accumulation of wealth above everything else. Huge financial empires were built off of the gold rush, from families like the Hearsts to companies like Wells Fargo and the Bank of California. The truth is that the wealth of California's elite is dripping with blood.

To be continued

Part 2 of this article will look at the impact that the gold rush had on Spanish-speaking Californians, immigrants from Latin America and China, African Americans and its legacy of environmental destruction.

Sources for this article include:

A People's History of the United States, Howard Zinn, Harper and Row, 1980

Gold, Greed and Genocide: Unmasking the Myth of the 49ers, Project Underground pamphlet, 1998

Rush for Riches: Gold Fever and the Making of California, J.S. Holiday, University of California Press, 1999

Lies Across America, James W. Loewen, 1999

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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