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The Present Condition of the Mission Indians in Southern California



From "Sketches of Adventure in California and Washoe", by J. Ross Browne, Harper and Brothers, New York, 1864. Note: the chapter headings have been added for this online document format. Text is transcribed from the original 1864 volume. Illustrations are scans of the original etchings in the 1864 work.


The Indian Problem

" The wild Indians … became troublesome at a very early period after the discovery of the gold mines. It was found convenient to take possession of their country without recompense, rob them of their wives and children, kill them in every cowardly and barbarous manner that could be devised, and when that was impractical, drive them as far as possible out of the way. Such treatment was not consistent with their rude ideas of justice. At best they were an ignorant race of Diggers, wholly unacquainted with our enlightened institutions. They could not understand why they should be murdered, robbed, and hunted down this way, without any other pretense or provocation that the color of their skin and the habits of life to which they had always been accustomed…. The idea, strange as it may appear, never occurred to them that they were suffering for the great cause of civilization, which, in the natural course of things, must exterminate Indians.

White men were killed form time to time; cattle were driven off; horses stolen, and various other iniquitous offenses were committed. The federal government, as is usual in cases where the lives of available voters are at stake, was forced to interfere. Troops were sent out to aid the settlers in slaughtering the Indians. By means of mounted howitzers, muskets .. rifles, dragoon pistols, and sabers, a good many were cut to pieces.

Congress took the matter in hand at an early day, and appropriated large sums of money for the purchase of cattle and agricultural implements. From the wording of the law, it would appear these useful articles were designed for the relief and maintenance of the Indians. Commissioners were appointed at handsome salaries to treat with them, and sub-agents employed to superintend the distribution of the purchases. Treaties were made in which the various tribes were promised a great many valuable presents, which of course they never got. There was no reason to suppose they ever should; it being a fixed principle with strong powers never to ratify treaties made by their own agents with weaker ones, when there is money to pay and nothing to be had in return.

The cattle were purchase, however, to the number of many thousands. Here arose another difficulty. The honest miners must have something to eat, and what could they have more nourishing than fat cattle? So, the cattle were driven up to the mines, and sold at satisfactory rates - probably for the benefit of the Indians, though I never could understand in what way they were relived by this speculation, unless it might be that the parties interested turned over to them the funds received for the cattle. [He jests - no Indian ever saw the benefit of these cattle sales].

It is very certain they continued to starve .. and … many of the chiefs protested that if the white people would only let them alone, and give them the least possible chance to make a living, they would esteem it a much greater favor than any relief they had experienced from the … donations of Congress.

The Reservation System

The Government was not to be defeated by its [failed] benevolent intentions. Voluminous reports were made to Congress, showing that a general reservation system, on the plan so successfully pursued by the Spanish missionaries, would best accomplish the object. It was known that the Missions of California had been built chiefly by Indian labor; that during their existence the priests had fully demonstrated the capacity of this race for the acquisition of civilized habits; that extensive vineyards and large tracts of land had been cultivated solely by Indian labor, under their instruction; and that by this humane system of teaching many hostile tribes had been subdued, and enables not only to support themselves, but to render the Missions highly profitable establishments. In 1853 laws were passed for the establishment of a reservation system in California, and large appropriations were made to carry it into effect. * Tracts of land of 25,000 acres were ordered to be set apart for he use of Indians; officers were appointed to supervise the affairs of the service; clothing, cattle, seeds and agricultural implements were purchased; and a general invitation was extended to various tribes to come in and lean how to work like white men. [*The annual budget for the reservations was $250,000; over their six or more years of existence, more than $1.5 million dollars in 1850s currency was expended to 'solve' the Indian problem. In today's dollars, that would be $73.5 million dollars]

The Reservation Masters

There were 25,00 acres of public land available at each place… and sixteen or seventeen [white] men on each reservation [were] employed to teach them how to cultivate the earth. It was not the policy of the government to require the [white masters] to perform any practical labor at seventy-five or a hundred dollars a month, which was scarcely double the current wages of the day. Good men could obtain employment anywhere by working for their wages; but it required the best kind o administration men to earn extraordinary compensations for an extraordinary amount of idleness. Not that they were all absolutely worthless. On the contrary, some spent their time hunting, other s in riding about the country, and a considerable number in laying out and supervising private claims, aided by Indian labor and government provisions.

The official reports transmitted to congress from time to time gave flattering accounts of the progress of the system. The extent and variety of the crops were fabulously grand. Immense numbers of Indians were fed and clothed - on paper. The favorite prediction of the officers in charge was, that in a very short time these institutions would be self-sustaining - that is to say, that neither they nor the Indians would want any more money for a while. The self-sustaining period had not yet come.

The Results

The results of the policy pursued were precisely as might have been expected. A very large amount of money was annually expended in feeding white men and starving Indians. [Of the] starving Indians .. very few ever remained at these benevolent institutions when there was a good possibility of getting anything to eat in the woods. Every year numbers of them perished from neglect and disease, and some from absolute starvation. When a visitor appeared on the reservations, [they were told] that the Indians were "out in the mountains gathering nuts and berries." This was the case in spring, summer, autumn and winter. They certainly possessed a remarkable predilection for staying out a long time. Very few of them, indeed, have yet to come back. When it was represented in the official reports that two or three thousand enjoyed the benefit of aid from government within the limits of each district - conveying the idea that they were fed and clothed at public expense - [in truth] there are now only some hundreds.

In the brief period of six years they have very nearly been destroyed by the generosity of government. What neglect, starvation, and disease have not done has been achieved by the cooperation of the white settlers in the great work of extermination.

The Exterminations

At Nome Cult Valley, during the winter of 1858-59, more than a hundred and fifty peaceable Indians, including women and children, were cruelly slaughtered by the whites who had settled there under official authority, and most of whom derived their support with from actual or indirect connection with the reservation. True, a notice as posted up on the trees that the valley was public land reserved for Indian purposes, and not open to settlement; but nobody paid any attention to that, as a matter of course. Armed parties went into the rancherias in open day and shot the Indians down - weak, harmless and defenseless as they were - without distinction of age or sex; and, after they had achieved this brave exploit, appealed to the state government for aid! Of Shame, shame, where is thy blush, that white men should do this with out [punishment] in a civilized country, under the very eyes of an enlightened government! They did it, and they did more! For days, weeks and months they ranged the hills of Nome Cult, killing every Indian that was too weak to escape; and, what is worse, they did it under a state commission …[in a place where the Indians] were invited on the pretext that it was their home, that they would be protected. [This is one of several massacres reported from this time.]

A Harmless Race

I am satisfied, from an acquaintance of eleven years with the Indians of California, that, had the least care been taken of them, these disgraceful massacres would never have occurred. A more inoffensive and harmless race of beings does not exist on the face of the earth; but, wherever they attempted to procure a subsistence, they were hunted down; driven from the reservations by the instinct of self-preservation; shot down by settlers upon the most frivolous of pretexts; and abandoned to their fate by the only power that could have afforded them protection.

This was the result, in plain terms, of the inefficient and discreditable manner in which public affairs were administered in Washington. It was the natural consequence of a corrupt political system, which, for the credit of humanity, it is hoped will be abandoned in the future so far as Indians are concerned. They have no voice in public affairs. All they ask is the privilege of breathing the air that God gave to us all, and living in peace wherever it may be convenient to remove them. Their history in California is a melancholy record of neglect and cruelty; and the part taken by public men in high position, in wrestling them the very means of subsistence, is one of which any other than professional politicians would be ashamed. So the end of it is, that the reservations are practically abandoned; the remainder of the Indians are being exterminated every day; and the Spanish Mission system has signally failed.

1864