Management of the California Indian Reservations

The management of these reservations was under one of the ablest Indian rings ever known in America.’ Not a reliable report went in to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs for five years, but their work was so well done that they received compliments for their able accounts of their labors. The total number of Indians was scandalously exaggerated, as we have seen, and the number at the reservations in like manner. So far as can be learned, not more than 2000 Indians were subsisted at the reservations at any time, and they drew principally on the oak trees, the manzanita bushes, and the clover fields for their rations. The great majority of the Indians were quietly earning their living as vaqueros and farmhands, or picking it up in the mountains, as they had before the government began civilizing them. Fabulous numbers of acres were reported to be under cultivation, and magnificent crops were always just about to be harvested when blight or mildew or smut or drought intervened and ruined them. A small army of employees was on hand to instruct the Indians and defend the agency in case of outbreak, and the agent or employee who failed to get a claim of his own, and have it fenced and improved by Indian labor, was a man of no enterprise.

In 1858, in consequence of repeated charges and protestations by army officers and citizens, special agent Bailey was sent out to investigate affairs in California. He did not seem to grasp the whole truth, but he was not in the ring, and he told the truth as he saw it. He showed that the salaries alone of the employees amounted to $81,889.48, besides subsistence for themselves and families, which would bring the amount to over $100,000; that there was no such number of Indians on the reservations as reported; that the value of the crops was much less than a quarter of the salaries of the employees; that the only contented Indians were off the reservations; that friends and relatives of the agent and employ had been allowed to settle in the Nome Cult and create disturbance there; and that the Indians were neither being taught anything nor civilized in any respect. The Commissioner of Indian affairs reported that the California reservations were a failure. He gave among other reasons of the failure, the statement that the Indians had not been “sufficiently thrown on their own resources.” It is difficult to sec how they could have been thrown on their own resources more fully, unless the acorn, berry, and grass crops could have been destroyed. After a year or such a matter a change was made. A new superintendent was appointed; the appropriation was cut down to $50,000 a year; and Tejon, Fresno, King’s Valley, Nome Lackee, and Mattole, with all their improvements, were abandoned in the course of a few years.

There was more “Indian war” in California in 1858, and several years succeeding. At Nome Cult over one hundred and fifty Indians were cruelly murdered by the whites, who had been allowed to settle on the reservation. No charge of aggression, except cattle stealing, was given as an excuse, and this proved, on investigation, to be false. The real cause was that the Indians drove away from the reservation the cattle of the settlers, which had been roaming the reservation and consuming the acorns, on which the Indians depended mainly for subsistence. Armed parties went to the rancherias in the open day and shot down the wretched “Diggers,” without regard to age or sex. Then they called on the State government for aid, and, organized as militia, roamed the country round, killing every Indian they could find. At King’s River the settlers drove the Indians away because the government did not support them, and they were an annoyance to the community. The Indians fled to Fresno, where there was not food sufficient for those already there. Then these kind hearted people of King’s River hauled over the acorns which the Indians had collected there, and sold them to the government for food for its protégés. At Mattolo Station the settlers killed a number of Indians because they considered them a burden. In the neighborhood of Humboldt Bay the settlers made the same complaint; the State sent out militia, who took those that would consent to go to Mendocino, and killed the refractory. Life at Mendocino was not appreciated as highly by them as it should have been, and some of them returned to their old haunts. Highly indignant at this outrage, a party of settlers attacked their camp at night, using firearms at first, and knives when the battue grow more exciting. In the morning sixty corpses of men, women, boys, girls, and infants, ornamented with bullet wounds, stabs, and gaping throats, showed that justice had been done. There were other wars, but these samples will suffice. It is perhaps better to call them wars, because the word massacre has come by usage to mean such a murder as Indians would commit, and an Indian who was not wholly lost to self respect would not do such things as these.

There is another chapter in the history of California that is as disgraceful as the treatment of the so called ”wild tribes.” It is the story of the Mission Indians. This does not include accounts of assassination under the name of war, of midnight surprises and noonday butcheries, of women cut to pieces and children brained. It is the record of a slow advance of a superior race, driving the natives from their ancient homes with remorseless power, and crushing them back into the mountains and the desert. There is no need of going fully into the story of their wrongs here – it has been recorded ably in various publications that are within the reach of almost every reader; neither is it properly within the province of this work, except as an illustration of some of the most serious flaws in our Indian system. Under the old treaty system the Indians lost their rights easily enough, but they were still recognized to have rights. That they were often deceived, defrauded, and intimidated into making treaties against their interest is unquestionable, but still a treaty was necessary, and their consent must be obtained in some way before their lands could be taken. Since the abrogation of the treaty making power, there has been a constant tendency towards the concentration of absolute power over the Indians in the Executive Department. This is bad policy, in the abstract, for the fewer steps that are required to get Indian lands; the more easily it will be accomplished. When all the obstacles are centered in one man it will be most easy to overcome them. If from good or bad intent, in weakness or in ignorance, he abolishes a reservation and return the land to the public domain, the evil is undone with the utmost difficulty. White men become vested with rights and cling to them tenaciously. In some instances the courts might remedy the wrong, but courts give relief only to suitors whose claims are properly presented. As a rule, Congress is the only source of relief, unless the Executive sees the mistake and endeavors to retrace its steps, a move not often easily accomplished.

In the country obtained by cession from Mexico, the tribes are in a far more helpless situation than those of other sections, for they have not been recognized as having even a possessory title to the lands on which they lived. From these, however, are to be excepted those to whom specific grants had been made by the Spanish and Mexican governments for their settlement and support. The policy of Spain was theoretically the same as our own. The Indians were in a state of pupilage, and were to be redeemed to Christian civilization by the government. The close connection of the Catholic Church with the government, and its well known missionary proclivities, made this a more hopeful task for Spain than it has proven for Protestant countries. A devoted agent for the work in Alta California was found in Father Junipero Serra, a Franciscan monk, who was sent into that unknown region in 1769 by the Spanish authorities, their colonization previous to that time having been confined to the peninsula. Beginning with the Mission of San Diego, in 1709, Serra and his colaborers established the missions of San Carlos de Monterey, San Antonio de Padua, San Gabriel, San Luis Obispo, San Francisco (Dolores), San Juan Capistrano, Santa Clara, and San Buena Ventura, in the order named, by 1782. After Serra’s death, in 1784, the work was continued by the order, and the missions of Santa Barbara, La Purissima Concepcion, Santa Cruz, Soledad, San Jos, San Juan Bautista, San Miguel, San Fernando Rev, and San Luis de Francia, were founded within the century. Santa Inez was established in 1804, San Rafael in 1819, and San Francisco de Solano in 1823; the latter two never attained any great importance. Under the care of the Franciscans the missions grew strong and rich. There was no starvation then. Great herds and flocks supplied meat and clothing, while the wonderful vines and other vegetable growth of California added luxuries to their subsistence. The Indiana were happy, contented, religious, and growing steadily into the ways of the civilized world. The priests had instructed them in the mechanical arts until there were skilled workmen at all the missions capable of doing almost any kind of work.

The intentions of Spain towards the Indians must be gathered chiefly from the laws concerning them, of which it has been well said, “All of them manifest the great anxiety which the rulers of Mexico have felt, to collect the natives together in communities and subject them to municipal regulations, to secure to them the ability to pay the tribute imposed upon them for the supply of the national treasury, to induce them to forget their ancient religious rites and embrace the Catholic faith, to reform their idle and roving propensities and make them industrious and useful subjects.” The chief purpose of the colonization was to make the country valuable to Spain. It was the object of every European power that established colonies anywhere, to secure from them a money return to the mother country. The natives especially were assets of the State, which it was desirable to make available as speedily as possible. The Church did not receive the treatment at the hands of Spain that might have been expected. At the suppression of the Jesuits, just prior to the entry of the Franciscans into California, the government took control of the “Pious Fund ” belonging to that order, in trust for Church purposes, but it was swallowed up eventually by the State. The disadvantages to the Church of an alliance with the State were similar to those in England, under Henry VIII., though the property was not taken in the same forcible way. That a secularization of the Missions was early contemplated was shown by the establishment of the pueblos of Los Angeles and San Jose, and the presidios of San Diego, Monterey, Santa Barbara, and San Francisco. It is also reasonably certain that Spain contemplated granting the ownership of the Mission lands to the Indians of the respective Missions, but this was not done until after Mexico had asserted her independence, and then in such a way that the title has not held good, except in case of some of the San Juan Capistrano lands.

Both Spain and Mexico taxed the Missions heavily, and in carrying out the secularization policy, by the edict of 1834, Mexico appropriated the greater part of the property. Each Indian head of a family was given a small tract of land; one half of the movable property was ordered to be divided among the emancipated people; and everything else was taken by the government. Some of the Franciscans left the country; others remained, and lived among their beggared and helpless flocks; one, at least, starved to death. The affairs of the Missions went from bad to worse until they were financial ruins. Many of the Indians scattered, and resumed their old mode of life. The greater parts of the Missions themselves were sold by the State, but in an irregular and illegal way. Under our control there was a very slight improvement. By a decision of the land commission in 1856, the Mission buildings and a few acres of land about them, such as were considered to be devoted to the immediate use of the priesthood, were set off to the Catholic Church, on the ground that they were sacred property, which was inalienable under the Spanish law. The remainders of the Mission lands were treated as belonging to the government, but this decision was not a final one, although it has been followed through all its consequences.

There was never a grimmer satire on justice than this. The Indians, whose labor had made the buildings, tilled the lands, and created the orchards and vineyards, were left with absolutely nothing. The Church obtained the buildings, already well advanced towards ruin, but was left with a beggared laity, and with no mode of recuperation except the purchase of additional lands for a renewal of the Mission work. This was not resorted to, and time, with neglect, has since almost completed the work of destruction that the Mexican Government began. Many of the Indians remained in their former homes, considering, with the stupid, unresisting nature that has always characterized them, that they were appendages to the land. They had worked for the priests for no compensation but support, and they did the same for the holders of the ranchos. Adam Johnston wrote, in 1850, “They think themselves the property of the owners of the respective ranchos where they reside, as much as does the Negro of the South to the owner of his cotton plantation. Indeed, the owner of a rancho looks upon them as his property, and in estimating the value of his lands; he always counts upon the services of his fifty or one hundred Indians, as the case may be, to enhance its value.” Mr. Johnston

called the attention of the government to the fact that the Mexican authorities held the Mission lands in trust for the Indians, and suggested that our government should do the same, but the suggestion was not adopted. They could have been provided for at that time easily and with little cost, but the government neglected to do it. It always moves slowly to the relief of friendly Indians, and the Indians understand it well. It is no wonder that Indian agents have had cause to complain again and again of hostile tribes advising peaceable ones to go to war if they wished to get presents from us. Our “wards” have had to fight very frequently before the “guardian” paid any attention to their wants.

In 1852 B. D. Wilson, of Los Angeles, reported the condition of these Indians to the Interior Department, but still nothing was done for them. They lived as best they could among the white settlers, or retired into the mountains. If they had any rights no one regarded them. White men preempted lands that they had held for years, and even their villages, which had been in their actual occupancy long enough to give them a title by prescription against anyone but the government, were swallowed up by these cormorants. It is a fact that since the war of the rebellion, whole villages of these people have been driven from their homes by officers of the law, under proceedings to quiet title to land, and forced to seek new homes where they could find them. They did not know enough to defend the rights which they might possibly have sustained, and there was no one to do it for them. It was not until 1883, and then on the recommendation of a woman,3 that the government even employed attorneys to defend the rights they did have. There is not much doubt that the valleys of Pala and San Pasqual might have been held by the Indians there, if any attention had been given to the defense of their claims. The pueblos there had been established under the Mexican secularization law of 1834, and the lands had been parceled out to the Indians, under the law, by the prefects and priests. They had lived there continuously afterwards, but unfortunately had failed to have their rights passed upon by the land commission, appointed under the act of 1851 to adjust private land claims in California.

In 1869 Superintendent Whiting recommended that these valleys be reserved to the Indians, and an Executive order to that effect was made in 1870. This caused general indignation among the white people who wanted those lands, and a remonstrance against it was forwarded to Washington. It is said that most of the signatures to this paper were appended by a monte-dealer named McCan and two confederates. Even the dead protested against the reservation of these lands; at least the names of people who had been buried

3. Mrs. Helen Hunt Jackson, by whose death, on August 12, 1885, the Indians of America lost one of the most active and intelligent friends they ever had.

for years were signed to the remonstrance. The obnoxious order was revoked; the whites preempted the lauds that Mexico had given to these Indians; and our “wards” were made wanderers. Congress refused to do anything for the Mission Indians because they were citizens, and the people of California would let them have nothing because they were not citizens. The agent at the land office in Los Angeles informed them that they could not preempt land because they were not citizens. In 1873 three of them applied for registration as voters, but the Clerk of Los Angeles County refused them, on the ground that they were not citizens. They appealed to the United States Commissioner at that point, and he transmitted their affidavits to the District Attorney at San Francisco, in whose office they probably still repose. Yet the Supreme Court of California held, in 1865 (People vs. Antonio, 27 Cal. 404), that the statute of that State for the punishment and protection of Indians did not apply to Indians who had “been living for years among white men,” or, in other words, to the Mission Indians. They were subject to punishment under the same laws as white men, and yet by the statutes of California they could testify neither for nor against a white man. They had all the disadvantages of both the state of pupilage and the state of citizenship, and none of the advantages of either. Theoretically this was an impossibility; practically it was true. It is doubtful if even under the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments they have any enforceable rights. That many of them were citizens of Mexico at the time of the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo is unquestionable, and under that treaty they became citizens of the United States; but prior to the amendments each State could prescribe the qualifications of its electors, and the Supreme Court has held that the amendments do not apply to Indian tribes, so that the benefit of the amendments to Indians debarred of citizenship by State laws is very uncertain. Moreover, the Executive Department has virtually declared them in a state of pupilage again, by various orders establishing reservations for them, from 1875 to 1883.

The attention of the government was called to these people many times. In 1865 J. Q. A. Stanley, of Los Angeles, offered to act as distributing agent to them, without compensation, and the government graciously accepted his offer. He reported, several times, the constant and shameful encroachments of white men, and begged the authorities to do something for the protection of the Indians; especially to secure them lands for homes. Mr. Whiting, Superintendent of California in 1869, urged not only the provision for the future but also a remedy for the recent past. He said, ” It seems to me that while the government assumes to act as guardian for the Indians, and the latter are treated as minors, the settlers should never be allowed to acquire title (from the guardian) to lands conceded to have been donated to the neophytes by a former government. If these Indians are recognized as minors in law, and incapable of transacting business of a complicated nature, no laches of theirs can deprive them of their legal rights. … It is quite certain that since my last annual report, and since it was known that I contemplated establishing a reservation for the Mission Indians, all of the best lands claimed by the Indians at Pala and San Pasqual, and especially the watering places, have been taken up and occupied by settlers. The immigration has crowded off the Indians, and left thousands without a home. By sharp practice, and under various pretences, they have also been deprived of their horses, their working oxen, their cows and stock cattle. Illicit traffic in ardent spirits unquestionably aided in the accomplishment of these wicked robberies.” And yet such people as these settlers profane words, in some sense sacred, by talking of entering Indian lands “in good faith,” and establishing “happy homes.” The Pala and San Pasqual reservations were thrown open by fraud. The white robbers dwell in Pala, San Pasqual, and Temecuela today, some of them in houses that the Indians built. The Indians have no title to bar entrance even to their present lairs in the mountains, except the thin covering of an Executive order, revocable at will.

It is hardly possible, if we are to retain any faith whatever in a common humanity, that these wrongs can be pushed any farther. The reports of B. C. Whiting, in 1871, of John G. Ames, in 1873, and of Helen Hunt Jackson, in 1883, with various unofficial publications, have brought these things home keenly to people who are capable of shame over a national disgrace. The national authorities have shown a disposition to do something. Under Mrs. Jackson’s recommendation, attorneys have been employed to defend their remaining interests, and possibly a long deferred justice may still rescue something from the chaos of their rights. One thing is certain. Our laws should not be left so that any one man, or dozen men, can take away from these, or any other Indians, their homes, and permit white men to acquire vested rights therein. There is a Winnebago reservation case on the nation’s hands today, and a possibility of others. It is not the probability of wrong that makes the laws bad; it is the possibility. If the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus were suspended for a week, or a day, it would cause intense indignation throughout the land, not because extensive wrong would probably be done, but because possibly it might. Under the Constitution no white man’s property can be taken from him without due process of law. In parity of justice, before any rights could possibly be taken from our ”wards,” the legislative, executive, and judicial departments should all pass on the expediency and fairness of the act. It has ever been, and now is, too easy to do a wrong to these people, and too difficult to right one. If the former had always been as difficult as the latter, we should not, as a nation, have had to apologize for half of the injustice that has been done.


Dunn, Jacob Piatt. Massacres of the mountains: a history of the Indian wars of the far West. Harper & brothers, 1886.

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