‘Exterminate the Savages’

California’s violent attempt to rid the state of its original people


By Darrel Cruz

Buried beneath the state’s progressive exterior, California has a history of genocide. A horrific series of events was even sanctioned by the government and, tragically, nearly 100% successful in its mission.

“PROTECTING THE SETTLERS,” an illustration by J. Ross Browne for his 1864 book, The Indians Of California, shows a massacre by militia men of an Indian camp. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The history of violence against Native Americans began with the Spanish Missions. (The Spanish atrocities are a long story of its own.) The destructive actions continued with next wave of migrants, “The Americans,” who came on suddenly with the arrival of thousands of people looking to strike it rich during the Gold Rush.

“Whites are becoming impressed with the belief that it will be absolutely necessary to exterminate the savages before they can labor much longer in the mines with security,” wrote the Daily Alta California in 1849, reflecting the prejudices of the day.


The American emigration facilitated a takeover of the area by overwhelming numbers and was the direct cause of the murders. In the early days of Gold Rush, Anglo American miners banded together to form gangs or vigilante militia. Their objective, according to American Experience, PBS’s history series, was to exterminate the “red devils,” to eliminate the obstacles that the Native Americans had become in their minds. Their modus operandi was to attack native villages wherever they might find them in the vicinity of their mining activities, to eliminate their presence utterly — killing the men, the women, and the children.

Then the state government stepped in and its first order of business was to create laws against the original people. The new laws, based on draconian dogma and deception, had wording that concealed the true purpose of the laws.

IMAGES ARE RARE of Washoe from the era of the genocide. This postcard shows a Washoe women and child in traditional clothing during that time. Courtesy image

On April 22, 1850, California legislature passed An Act for the Government and Protection of Indians. The act and subsequent amendments facilitated removing California Indians from their traditional lands, separating children and adults from their families, languages, and cultures (1850 to 1865), and indenturing Indian children and adults to Whites.

The wording of “Government and Protection of Indians” is deceiving when in fact the 1850 Act should read “Laws Against Native Americans.”

The 1850 Act included such provisions as:

White persons could apply to the Justice of the Peace for the removal of Indians from lands.

Any person could go before a Justice of the Peace to obtain Indian children for indenture until their age of maturity (for males, 18 years, and females, 15 years).

With the consent of the justice, any person could give bond for the Indian’s fine and costs. In return, the Indian was “compelled to work until his fine was discharged or cancelled.”

This law enabled White people to commit every sort of heinous crime including murder, rape, kidnapping, slavery, torture, and human trafficking, with the utmost depravity. This was a harbinger of things to come and much worse.

Bounties on Natives ranged from $5 to $25 a scalp; yes, the state sanctioned scalping as proof of killing Natives for money, including scalping of men, women, and children. Decapitated heads and mutilated body parts were acceptable as proof. And some just killed for the joy
of killing.

As the story goes, there was a person up in Humboldt County who was found with a small child, a young Indian child. And people asked him, “What are you doing with this child?” He said, “I am protecting him. He’s an orphan.” And they said, “Well, how do you know he’s orphan?” He responded, “I killed his parents.”

1850 – 1859: California Militia and “Expeditions against the Indians”

Not content to passively enable the genocide, the state got into the action itself. Article VII of the first California constitution gave the governor the power “to call for the militia, to execute the laws of the State.” Governor Peter H. Burnett leveraged this power, creating brutal militias with the sole purpose to systematically murder Native people in California. He was the first of many California governors to invoke this artice. Under the state constitution and militia laws, the governors would order local sheriffs to organize “Expeditions against the Indians.”

MILITIAS ORDERED: Peter Burnett, the first governor of California, invoked the state constitution to create brutal state militias, with the sole purpose to kill the Native Californians. Photo circa 1860. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

“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,” said Gov. Burnett on Jan. 7, 1851.

A story as recounted by my friend April Moore, who was Maidu and Washoe, gives a sense of how it was to live as a Native in these times.

One of [my grandmother’s] stories that really stuck with me, it was so emotional, the way she portrayed it. It was an event that happened to her aunt and her two great-aunts. It was some time during the early part of the morning. These aunts, two greats-aunts, and this baby and other family members were living out in this small village site, and they’d heard this noise, and it had woken them up. They weren’t quite sure what it was.

And suddenly all this noise started up — the gunfire, the screaming, the shouting — and then they heard all these different people screaming and shouting. So, they ran out to look, to see what was going on, and saw these soldiers on horses who were taking people and killing them, slamming children against rocks and trees, and just running down men and shooting them. And they were violating the bodies by cutting them up. So, these two aunts grabbed the baby because they couldn’t find their sister, the mother of the baby, because she’d fled in fear, apparently. So, they grabbed this infant and ran as far as they could go, and hid.

Nobody knows the exact number of Natives living in California at first contact, with estimates ranging from 1,500,000 to 500,000. Between the Spanish years, American years, and with the introduction of diseases, by 1860 there were only 35,000 remaining and by 1900 merely 15,000. According to Benjamin Madley, author of An American Genocide, the state spent a total of about $1.7 million — a staggering sum in its day — on bounties, militias, and expeditions.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued an apology in June of 2019 for the state’s dark history. In a presentation, he “recited a published chronicle from the 19th century that listed a tally of Indian deaths, including an account of a White settler who chose to kill children with a revolver instead of a high-caliber shotgun because ‘it tore them up so bad,” reported the New York Times.

“It’s called genocide,” he said at the presentation, according to the Times. “That’s what it was, a genocide. No other way to describe it. And that’s the way it needs to be described in the history books.”

~ Darrel Cruz is a Washoe Tribal Member and formerly the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California. He feels compelled to write about this history so that we don’t forget it. Tune in for more stories from Cruz at the June 18 Good Morning Truckee.

To learn more about this tragic era of California history, check out these resources.

Early California Laws and Policies Related to California Indians, report by Kimberly Johnston-Dodds

An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873, book by Benjamin Madley

American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World, book by David Stannard

Murder State: California’s Native American Genocide, 1846-1873, book by Brendan C. Lindsay

American Experience, history series by PBS

An Overdue Encounter with the Past, article by Berber Jin, stanfordpolitics.org


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