Indigenous groups seek justice for California Gold Rush massacre
Descendants of Indigenous people killed by settlers in the 19th century are calling for more government accountability.
San Francisco, California – During the 19th-century Gold Rush era, state-sanctioned groups of settlers massacred thousands of Indigenous people in northern California, in what both historians and Indigenous descendants of the victims have labelled a genocide.
Last month, following years of pressure from Indigenous groups and media reporting about the historical injustice, a California law school founded by Serranus Hastings, who initiated hundreds of the killings, agreed to change its name. Now, Indigenous people in California are calling for broader accountability from the state and federal governments.
“These were not battles, they were massacres. We didn’t have weapons to fight back,” Deb Hutt, a descendant of an Indigenous group that was hunted down in California, told Al Jazeera. “Who is accountable? The whole state of California? The federal government who actually reimbursed the state of California for their payments to these murderers?”
During the Gold Rush era in the 1840s, several hundred thousand settlers trekked to California, bringing herds of cattle and horses into lush valleys where Indigenous people had lived for thousands of years, according to historian Brendan Lindsay, author of Murder State: California’s Native American Genocide, 1846-1873.
The animals grazed and ranchers cut grass for hay, reducing the food available for elk and deer, which starved or were hunted by ranchers, Lindsay told Al Jazeera.
Faced with starvation, Indigenous people, who relied on elk and deer as a food source, resorted to stealing and killing settler livestock. In retaliation, settlers formed volunteer groups to hunt down and kill Indigenous people, Lindsay said.
“The massacres were triggered by people starving to death, who needed to kill a horse or cow and eat it to survive,” he said. “And then the owners of those cattle and horses, they go out and repay that theft with murder. That’s the cycle. It’s the rarest of things where a California Indian person killed a white person.”
While Californians know these events as the “Indian wars”, they were not wars at all, Lindsay said: “What they are is massacres. They are unilateral in nature. They are typically unprovoked.” He believes the events meet the United Nations’ definition of genocide.
Settler encroachment decimated the area’s Indigenous population; according to one estimate, the population dropped to 18,000 from 150,000 during the 19th century.
‘Evil of this magnitude’
California authorised these massacres under an 1850 law that enabled volunteer militias to deal with crises when state forces were unavailable. The law allowed the governor to certify settler groups, and pay their wages, travel and food, Lindsay said: “It’s kind of like when you go on a business trip and your company reimburses you for all your expenses.”
Amid reports of certified settler groups killing Indigenous people, California’s legislature in 1860 launched an investigation, and the ensuing report noted that settlers did not deny slaughtering Indigenous people.
“Indians continue to kill cattle as a means of subsistence, and the settlers in retaliation punish with death,” the report stated, noting that within a four-month period, “more Indians have been killed by our people than during the century of Spanish and Mexican domination. For an evil of this magnitude, someone is responsible. Either our government, or our citizens, or both, are to blame.”
In 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order, formally apologising to Native Americans for historical mistreatment and violence. He later signed a bill that acknowledged California’s role in paying for the massacres of Indigenous people, and agreed to work cooperatively with tribes that have ancestral territory within state-owned land to transfer the land back to them.
Lindsay said the federal government reimbursed California millions of dollars for Indian affairs, including the costs of volunteer companies that slaughtered Indigenous people – and by establishing reservations, it encouraged settlers to massacre Indigenous people who were outside those borders. In 2000, the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs issued a general apology for its “legacy of racism and inhumanity”, including massacres and forced relocations.
Hastings, who founded the California law school, orchestrated the killings of at least 283 Indigenous people in Round Valley, marking the deadliest of the state-sanctioned massacres, UCLA history professor Benjamin Madley told The New York Times.
In 1878, Hastings reportedly donated $100,000 in gold coins to start the UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. In 2017, a professor at the school, John Briscoe, wrote an essay arguing that the college should change its name: “Our rising sensibility obliterates the names of those who sought to enslave or discriminate against a people. How ought we treat the names of those who sought to exterminate a people?”
In November, following years of dialogue with Indigenous people, the law school’s board of directors voted to officially change its name. The decision followed the release of a report by a committee tasked with researching the history and issuing recommendations.
The board said the process raised its awareness of “the wrongs committed by the college’s namesake and the ongoing pain they cause, and our decision is that we can no longer associate our great institution with his name”.
Reclaiming the land
Over the course of history, massacres, disease, starvation and government-run Indigenous boarding schools have taken the language, culture and land from Indigenous people in California, Hutt said. “Everything was taken away from us,” she said.
When it comes to the role of state and federal governments, Mona Oandasan, a descendant of Indigenous tribes massacred by settlers in Round Valley, Long Valley and Eden Valley, told Al Jazeera that apologies were not enough. In her community’s quest for justice, “we have discussed contacting different government officials all the way up to the federal level”, she said.
Hutt said the state should include the true history in school curricula to make young people aware of the region’s dark past. California’s Department of Education did not immediately respond to an inquiry on the matter. The federal government should also be held accountable for its role in funding the massacres, Hutt said.
Today, she wants to know where the remains of her ancestors are, so that they can be returned to her community. “We would like the bones of our ancestors,” she says.
Hutt also believes the land that was taken from them should be given back to her people. “I would hope and dream that maybe we would get some kind of a settlement like [Indigenous people in] Nunavut, in Canada,” she said, referring to a land-claims agreement that allowed Inuit people to independently govern their territory.
“We’re here, we’re human beings, and we’re still alive.”