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At the time of Spanish colonization in the late 1700s, California was home to more than 300,000 Native Americans. There were more than 200 tribes. But, after the Mexican-American war in 1848, the state of California became a property of the US, gold was discovered near Sutter’s Mill in 1848 and created a new era for California. The era of a wild race for riches. A man named Sam Brannan, who was an American oligarch and a founder of California Star newspaper, was running on the streets of San Francisco, shouting “Gold! Gold! Gold! Gold from the American river!”.
He spread the rumors about the gold, that spread around the US at a lightning speed. Almost three-quarters of the male population in the US left their towns and headed to California to get their piece of the pie. The California Gold Rush is one of the most exciting events in the history of the US, starting from the stories of men making millions of dollars, to the stories of losing everything.
Before the Gold Rush, San Francisco was a small town of few hundred people, but closer to 1850s its economy was booming due to gold. However, there is an important aspect involved in between the lines of gold digging. Even though gold was found and was one of the ways to prosperity and power for the white settlers who arrived in California in 1849, it was a disaster for peaceful Native Americans.
In this paper, the author will be talking about the genocide of Native American people, but first the author will describe Native Americans, how they lived, survived, what food they ate and mainly their lifestyle.
Next, the author will talk about the roots of the genocide and why it happened. Thirdly, the author will talk about the fascinating story of the man named Ishi, who was one of the survived Native Americans. Lastly, the author will conclude with the points presented and the importance of the Native American genocide.
Native Americans who lived in California were mainly from the Central Valley area, between the Pacific Coast and the Sierra Nevada. They lived a Stone Age lifestyle, meaning they used only stone tools and weapons. Their lifestyle was dictated by the natural raw materials that were available in California. Overall, the region of California was always attractive due to its variety of microenvironments, such as seacoasts, tidewaters, redwood forests, valleys, deserts, and mountains. This explains why California was one of the most densely populated culture areas of Northern America. Native Americans also had over 100 different tribes across California and spoke up to 80 different languages, such as Shasta, Miwok, Mohave, Pomo and etc. One of the largest tribes was named Miwok. They mostly lived along the foothills of the Sierras and up into the mountains. The Miwok tribe had small groups of villages, called tribelets. Each tribelet had a leader, who inherited his position from his father. In tribes that lived in the mountains, they had shelters made of layers of bark slabs leaning against each other in a cone type of form. And in the foothills, they had shelters covered with bundles of grass or animals’ fur. In the center of the house, they had a fireplace and an oven. For Miwoks who lived in the foothills deer’s meat was the source of food, and for mountain regions, antelopes and elks were most hunted. As for clothing, they used deer’s skin that would wrap women as a dress and men around their hips. For the money, they used clamshell disks, and usually, people wore them on their necks as a way to show their wealth. By now, a reader should have a grasp of the lifestyle peaceful indigenous people had.
Now, let’s dive deep into the roots of the genocide that Native Americans had to face. Different historians have different views on the depopulation of the Natives, such as the situation of Spanish colonization in mid 1500’ when they took Natives and made them as slaves, to dig for gold and labor. They also raped indigenous women and kept them in chains. But their goal was not to kill Indian people, but bring them to submission, so Spanish people could have control over them and use their labor. Although some of them died due to slavery, many of them died from malnutrition and starvation. Another view of the destruction of the Native population was due to the disease named malaria, that was brought to California in the 1830s by Europeans. Malaria is a disease caused by parasites and Natives were not immune to it, which led to deaths. However, a disease cannot be really considered as genocide nor Spanish colonization period since they were not directly killing Indian people, but on the other hand, they were using them for their own interest, such as labor or gold. The genocidal period can be considered when the American missionaries and settlers came and started to reframe the whole Indian land towards their own interest. Once new settlers arrived, they started to forcefully remove Indians from the land. Especially violence was at its peak, when an American individual, named James Marshall discovered gold in the Sutter’s Mill, located along the American River. Even though James Marshall wanted to stay quiet about it, an individual named Sam Brannan, described above, spread the rumors at a fast tempo. But by 1850, the easy gold was gone, and white people had to search deeper and deeper, however, they started to encounter Natives that were on their way to prosperity. Hence, the massive violence act was readily realized during the Gold Rush period from 1848-1855.
In 1848, the total population of Native Americans was around 150,000 people. However, after the Gold Rush, by the 1860s, their population was around 30,000. The direct killing was a major aspect of such exponential depopulation. Starting from the 1850s when California officially became a state, for the state and the government it was imperative to make room and get land for new white settlers, who were coming to California for gold on lands of Native Americans. The quote from the Daily Atlanta California in 1849, reflecting the killing of the Natives stated, “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”. This news motivated white settlers even more, and, hence, the government used the moment to create a so-called “Indian problem” that spread around California at a fast tempo. This problem was considered as a “threat” to the land’s authority. Later, after government established the “Indian problem”, they passed a law that allowed white settlers to enslave Indian people. In the article by Erin Blakemore it was stated that the law allowed white people to arrest Natives for minor crimes like alcohol. The enslavement law that was passed, was just the start of the genocide. Later another news came into effect from Peter Hardenman Burnett, who was the government of the state, and he said that Natives are “lazy, savage and dangerous”. In 1850’s, Burnett also stated this, “That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races until the Indian race becomes extinct, 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”. This is one of the main differences between the Spanish colonization period and European, if in those periods Natives were just enslaved and were ill due to diseases brought from abroad, then in this case, actual killing and a war between two sides has started. After Burnett’s words, the conflict was not just pushed to get even more serious, but he opened all the roads and holes for white settlers. He also supported the movement by sponsoring local militias with guns and arms, who were given a task of killing native people. Also, Burnett supported volunteers who supported the movement by incentivizing with 50 cents per scalp and 5 dollars per head. Large genocide was a conclusion to the law that was proposed. A reader by now can conclude how violent and arrogant the actions of new settlers were over the land and gold. During the Gold Rush alone, an estimate of 120,000 Natives was killed out of 150,000. And according to the historian Benjamin Madley, per 1,600 people, around $1.7 million was spent to arm the militias and volunteers. As a result, this genocide of Native Americans led to an establishment of the prosperity for new settlers and the growth of the state of California.
In 1911, after the genocide has settled down, one interesting person appeared from the woods of Oroville. No one knew his name and didn’t know his own name, but new settlers were sure that he was one of the survived Natives. After letting him talk where he came from, he asked people to call him “Ishi” which means “Man” on the language of Yahi, which is the name of his tribe. From there, two kind gentlemen from the University of California, Berkeley, started building the puzzle which later formed a full story of his survival of the genocide. After taking him to Berkley to fully form his story, they found that he didn’t know many of the traditions since he was born in his tribe’s final years and, hence, most of the traditions were lost or couldn’t be used at the time of the genocide. However, they found that Ishi and his family were hiding from the white people for 40 years, but slowly, one by one was either killed or died due to different diseases. But once, when they stopped and started a small village on a cliff overlooking Deer Creek, new settlers quickly found where they lived and killed everyone, but luckily Ishi and his mother had time to hide. In a short time, his mother also died, he was left all alone. He was trying to survive as much as he could, but his starvation brought him to the Oroville. From this story, a reader can conclude, how severe were the times of genocide and how much blood was spilled. Due to Ishi’s low immune system he often was ill and in 1916, he faced tuberculosis and died not long after. His friends, the two professors, tried to bury him in his traditional way, however, it was too late to prevent an autopsy. But they did their best and cremated his body as tradition dictated.
To conclude, this part of the history of the US has always been underestimated since some historians believe it was not a genocide since Natives population has decreased also in periods of Spanish colonization and European diseases. However, as said above, Spanish people and Europeans did not provide volunteers with money for scalps or heads of Natives and did not establish any laws regarding the “Indian Problem” and, did not provide their militias or armies with arms with one mission, to kill Indian people that will be on the way of new settlers. The period of Gold Rush was one of the most violent and bloody periods for Native Americans as described above, but that period made California more attractive and led to mass migration of people from other states and provided a bright future for the state of California.
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