Historian Benjamin Madley says what whites did to Indians in the 19th century in California was genocide.Historians in the News
tags: genocide, Indians, gold rush
The tally is relentlessly grim: a whole settlement wiped out in Trinity County “excepting a few children”; an Indian girl raped and left to die somewhere near Mendocino; as many as 50 killed at Goose Lake; and, two months later, as many as 257 murdered at Grouse Creek, scores of them women and children. There were the four white ranchers who tracked down a band of Yana to a cave, butchering 30. “In the cave with the meat were some Indian children,” reported a chronicle published later. One of the whites “could not bear to kill these children with his 56-calibre Spencer rifle. ‘It tore them up so bad.’ So he did it with his 38-calibre Smith and Wesson revolver.”
There have been books written about the systematic slaughter of California Indians, but none as gruesomely thorough as Benjamin Madley’s An American Genocide, from which the above accounts come. He estimates that between 9,000 and 16,000 Indians, though probably many more, were killed by vigilantes, state militiamen and federal soldiers between 1846 and 1873, in what he calls an “organized destruction” of the state’s largely peaceful indigenous peoples.
“I calculated the death toll using conservative estimates,” Madley tells me. “I did not want to be accused of exaggeration.” His book shows that the intent to rid California of its indigenous inhabitants was openly and repeatedly voiced, and that the means to achieve these ends were unambiguously brutal: mass deportations, slavery, massacres. He argues that what happened to California Indians was, according to the most widely accepted definition of genocide, not all that different from what happened to Jews, Armenians or Rwandans.
The debate over genocide in Native American history often turns to California, where the Native American population fell dramatically, from about 150,000 to 30,000, in the middle decades of the 19th century. It has since rebounded, so that California has the largest Native population in the United States today, with about 723,000 Indians, including many who belong to the state’s 110 federally recognized tribes. The state is a microcosm of Indian country—and it is there, many believe, that Manifest Destiny culminated in the only way possible, with historians Robert Hine and John Faragher calling it “the clearest case of genocide in the history of the American frontier.” ...