An American Genocide: by Benjamin Madley – Notes




An American Genocide:  The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873
by Benjamin Madley 
2016 / 712 pages
read by Fajir Al-Kaisi  15h 43m
rating  10 /  history (Native American) 

Chapter 1  There is controversy about the use of the term genocide and it could never have been used prior to 1945 or so when some term was needed to describe the Holocaust of WWII.   But those things  happened prior to that – and not rarely although possibly not quite as well organized and industrialized and horrific.   Madley explains what he means and equates the words which were used in the 19th century (and 20th!)  in a very inclusive Introduction.  Then he goes on to describe the events which lead to the conclusion that the term is accurate – sometimes even pointing out the passages in the UN Genocide Convention which delineate the specifics.  (Chapter 3)  “A war of extermination”  was a phrase used back then.  What’s the difference? –

Although the real decimation took place between 1846 and 1873,  Madley covers the time from the first ship landing in Monterey Bay,  the Spanish mission era, the Russian colonies in the north, the John Frémont’s California Republic and finally in Chapter 3 gets to the California Gold Rush of 1849 in Chapter 3.

It’s a long book but many pages are devoted to appendices which provide data on various massacres, battles, and other killings.  There was an early and deliberate effort  on the part of some to eliminate the Indians in part as retaliation for not moving out or killing a white man and in part for general principles – ie “they’re all thieves.”

But these thieves had helped California win its freedom from Mexico,  were instrumental in

Okay,  I knew John Frémont was a problem hero-wise,  but I didn’t know about John Sutter’s atrocious manner of living as well as many other things.    And other names come up,  Edward Kern and Mariano Vallejo to Kearny and __________.

And then came the gold fever  –  and many Indians became miners,  but often as diggers and owners.   This was just prior to the actual “rush” of out-of-state emigrants known as the Gold Rush – 1848 – when California experienced a serious economic and social upheaval due to the rush of able bodied men to the gold fields of California – just east of San Francisco and north.  Many Indians stayed home and filled the jobs left by the white men.  San Francisco experienced a serious population shrinkage.

And then new  white prospectors without any background in Hispanic heritage, came from Oregon.  There was a lot more violence because they saw Indians as being barriers to their own wealth or opportunity.   And then from the other states they came and filled up San Francisco again.  California’s white population doubled in about 6 months of 1848 – and this was before (!) the real rush.

The Whitman Massacre is a focus of the early gold seekers –

4  ** … Systematic Killings In the Central Mines –  Oregonians instigated unprovoked and sometimes gratuitous attacks on individual Indians as well as groups of them.   New immigrants imitated them and this prompted Indian reprisals and the whole situation escalated.

White miners wanted the mines free of Indians (and Blacks but Madley doesn’t go into that) in the name of “Free Labor”  –  a political party.    Chinese and other nationalities were expelled but Indians were killed – whole villages of them.   And there were more and more massacres – dawn raids of whole villages of Indians – any negotiation was rare.  Retaliation was the usual stated motive.  (The massacres Madley chose to focus on are probably those with the most source material.)

And with increasing white miner population the food sources for Indians became scarce.   It was not without notice by contemporary newspapers.

5  **** Turning Point:  The Killing Campaigns of December 1849-May 1850.
While,  the South was embroiled in the great slavery dispute which had much to do with the price of Indian “slaves”  (unfree and disposable laborers).

Charles Stone and Andrew Kelsey were guilty of starvation,  torture,  sexual assault, cruelty to the Indians on their ranch in Northern California.  Sixteen Indian males decided,  in desperation, to kill Stone and Kelsey –

That started the posses and bandits charging around the countryside in the area of Sonoma to exterminate the Indians and burn the ranches where they lived – or at least drive them all into the mountains.

Not everyone was enthusiastic about this – some ranches needed Indian labor,  others thought it was unnecessary.  When California was admitted to the Union in 1850 it was as a free state but it maintained its “state’s rights.”  –  So when 8 fairly prominent white men were arrested in connection with that murder spree,  they were granted bail,  absconded and never rearrested.   The survivors fled to the mountains where there was safety from white avengers but not from starvation.

There were four possible reasons for the multi-tribe rampage – 1. the whites couldn’t distinguish between one tribe and another:  2.  they thought that violence would teach Indians a lesson:  3.  they wanted to eliminate the advantages rancheros with Indians had by eliminating the Indians:  and 4.  some just wanted the Indians to go away.

** So on to the Bloody Island Massacre of May, 1850

1850 –
An expedition was put together and it had US army troops,  the Dragoons plus artillery,  and they  marched from Benicia to Clear Lake where they cut off the lake trapping the Pomo.  General Persitor F.  Smith ordered all Indians be shot to chastise them – to instill fear.  Captain Nathaniel Lyon carried it out.  The only escape for the Indians was into the lake –

The order’s legitimacy was contested but the result was somewhere between 60 and 800 killed – but they didn’t know if the killers of Kelsey and Stone were dead. So Lyon and the group kept going toward Mendocino.  There they rampaged some more.

The men’s neighbors had them arrested but the courts let the men out on bail and the newspapers reported it and then retreated  under pressure.  No one was much interested in criticizing the activities and some lauded the military rampagers.  Lyons went on to Civil War glories and the Indians went on to more indignities.   And so went justice in early days of the state of California –  by not prosecuting the perpetrators the Army, Congress, the Courts of California as well as the newspapers’ backing off made mass killing of Indians appropriate.  So things  got worse.

William Ralganal Benson is the source of much of the material – Benson was the son of a Pomo Indian mother and white father who lived as a child from the quiet days before the white invasion until 1937.  He mainly made beautiful baskets for sale to collectors and museums.

5**  Legislating Exclusion and Vulnerability: 1846-1853

The Indians of California were denied legal status – open to exploitation and annihilation.
** Martial Law:  1846-1849
A public decree from the military governance of 1846 said that Indians who were not employed were vagrant.  Employers had to see a certificate but that was violated and what transpired was the essence of slavery.

**  The Constitutional Convention 1849
was mostly guided by what would pass the US congress in order to gain statehood.   Who can vote? –   Only white male landowners as it turned out, but it was only 1 vote shy.

** New Laws, New Systems of Servitude – March and April 1850
Now the law was to “Protect” Indians and included provisions that said Indians were criminals until proven innocent,  de jure servitude and corporal punishment.

They were eventually legally excluded from society which denied them legal protection, state and federal and  they were treated as outsiders at best,  inhuman at worst.  The state militia was established to assist –

6  ** – Rise fo the Killing Machine: Militias and Vigilantes April 1850 – December 1854
(“Killing Machine” is a term Madley uses often –  it’s like the metaphor of Tammany Hall “machine”  –  machine politics.)

Militias are historical units in the US – they helped in the Revolution but they also assisted in the massacre of Indians.


Woodville incident – near me.

California’s militia could protect or destroy the Indians.  This was the Killing Machine of which Madley writes.   It was paid for by the state and federal governments.

7 **   Perfecting the Killing Machine: December 1854-March 1861

(The Gold Rush pretty well ended about 1855 or so – )

This just keeps going,  one massacre after another for chapter after chapter.  It hits home with the Tulare County incident but there’s nothing I didn’t know.  In fact,  I thought it was worse than reported by Madley although I knew it was not much in terms of the history of California –  kind of a local incident.   The local incidents were going on all over the state – funded by the state and  repaid by the federal government.

Otoh,  I did learn that the local Yokuts did not usually live in the mountains but lived on the valley floor and only moved to their mountain residence as a result of being pushed up there – it’s a reservation now.  A pretty good one in some ways and by comparison only.   I’d actually heard both ways.  I’d say they likely lived in the mountains during the summer heat here – but of course there was the huge Tulare Lake then, too.

8 ** The Civil War in California and Its Aftermath – 1861-1871
Even as South Carolina it’s business as usual for Indian suppression.   A new bill for funding militias –  but enthusiasm waning.  New genocidal campaign –  paid for by Feds as well as state –  posses to Indian villages – as usual.

More complaints – kill, kill, kill –  not huge numbers in any one massacre but lots of little ambushes and hunt down and shoot – genocidal –    30 guides killed 190 Indians.

Killing of Indians and kidnapping of their children for sale and profit.

** The 1861 Slave-Raiding Boom
Hundreds of Indians kidnapped and sold into indentured servitude for 10 or 20 years.  Legislation approved.  Split families and prevented births.

Vigilante groups continued –

Now the California Volunteers – for the Civil War – many recruits.  Not all funded.  Now short-term militia campaigns became larger and longer term army campaigns. Now the genocide was a Federal project.

More Indians to reservations and they starved there – killed if getting food elsewhere.  If not starving they got diseases like measles, diarrhea, etc.   No blankets.  Sent there to die.

Lassik tribe – Yana Tribe – “White people want our land, want to destroy us.”

And the killing continued.   Private local fundraising to hunt Indians –  1 cow missing,   the tribe is guilty – the tribe is destroyed.  Scalping was common – popular with the Indian hunters.

Thousands of volunteers patrolled the state looking for Indians who might be on the loose – off reservations.   Betrayal  – luring Indians to peace conferences or jobs and then the whole tribe shot.   The water springs were guarded so the Indians died of thirst.  Some escaped and then starved where they ended up –  (Fort Tejon,  north of LA area).

More killings – more names of military leaders – more starvation – Genocide is the only word for it.   That term  would have been used then but it wasn’t invented until the 1950s.

** The Army’s “Two-Years’ War” Begins

Governor Stanford, the Humboldt Times gloated that “an opportunity is now offered to rid our county forever from the curse of Indians at the expense of the Federal Government.” The paper added: “The Indians once exterminated or removed, our county would soon take its place among the most flourishing in the State.” Where bureaucracy had delayed and constrained federal funding for state militia operations, the creation of the US Army’s California Volunteers made it possible for the federal government to directly fund California citizen Indian hunters.

**  The Konkow Maidu Trail of Tears,  September 1863 –
Removal or genocide  –

Some stories of courage by whites now – when the vigilantes and paid Volunteer units started killing the employees of the local ranches.

** Dismantling California Indian Servitude
The end of the Civil War pretty much aligned with the ending of the worst of the genocide. During the Civil War the Indians had no recourse against the military but when Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves then Stanford ended legal “custodianship” and “indenture.”   Still,  the involuntary servitude continued in various forms – until 1937.   Indians could not testify in court and that protected Indian trafficking.

** Post Civil War Killing, 1867 – 1871
Yes,  the killing continued but it wasn’t so common for several reasons one of which was that the Indians were hiding successfully,  often with non-Indians.   The census shows only 7,241 but an historian reports about 30,000.   This is simply because in 1870 the Indians were hiding.

9 ** Conclusion
There were a couple more incidents though – the Modoc War in which the Modocs held off the US militia etc. for 6 months.   A General was killed and that started a genocidal attack directed from General Sherman –  “you will be justified in their utter extermination.”

But although the Modocs killed quite a number of soldiers,  they were in such a precarious situation their food and supplies ran short.   Also,  sympathies were changing – the army gave up trying to exterminate them,  Grant apparently rethought his position,  a wave of progressivism was sweeping the East.  And finally,  Indians were allowed to testify in court against whites.  A couple of  Indian insurgents in that case were even exonerated.  But California paid the bill for their part.

And the killing went on in some places –  and racism prevailed in the courts.  But the systematic killing ended in 1873

** Understanding Genocide in California and Beyond
Newcomers nearly exterminated California’s native population.  The fact they survived at all is a marvel.  150,000 people in 2009 in Federally recognized tribes.

There was the Modoc War which lasted 6 months of hold-out in starving conditions after which many were captured and some taken to Oklahoma where they have a tribe which is Federally recognized.   Extermination was still popular among some military and community members but enthusiasm had abated.

For all of that the reservations of California are tiny and scattered.  We have nothing in the top 50.  We have the smallest – the Modoc Rancheria in Modoc County  which is 1.3 acres used as a tribal cemetery.

Is the California situation a case of genocide?  –  Madley says definitely yes and goes to great lengths to  show that although he does grant that it may be problematical in some eyes.  Some officials are guilty of several acts of genocide.

The Feds reimbursed California to the tune of one million dollars by 1864 –  that’s $19,794,756.50 in 2016.

The “newcomers” did it but the State Congress condoned it and both the State and Feds supported it.

Before European contact there were probably around 5 million Natives  in the United States –  by 1900 there were only about 250,000.

In 1880 George Manypenny, former US Indian Affairs commissioner,   published an exposé – and Helen Hunt Jackson did the same in 1881.  Theodore Roosevelt “disparaged” them –   In the 1950s the term genocide was invented.   The term has been controversial as it was “unintended”  in some minds.   There are many alternative phrasings and definitions – “ethnic cleansing.”

Madley suggests more localized evaluations are in order with agreed upon definitions of the term as well as the geographic scope of time and space.   California was a bit different.

As of 2010, California’s Native American population of 362,801 was the most of any state.[35] It also has the most Native American tribes, indigenous to the state or not, but the majority of known Californian Indian tribes became extinct in the late 19th century.

This includes many who moved here since the 19th century as well as Latin Americans of indigenous heritage.

(Abraham Lincoln apparently approved of these genocidal missions – did several things like signing the appropriations for the militia,  like approving execution of Dakota and Minnesota Indians – etc. )

Killings continued throughout Civil War – on missions,  on reservations,  from shooting or hanging or starvation.   The crushing machinery of genocide.

A bit hyperbolic-   there were other difficulties with the gold rush –  Blacks were not welcome at all:

Big business was discouraged by other miners and legislation. This was a free-market – Free Soil –  Free Labor – every man for himself thing.

Not for the weak

Well organized,

Somewhat repetitive –


“It is not an exaggeration to say that California legislators also established a state-sponsored killing machine.

California governors called out or authorized no fewer than 24 state militia expeditions between 1850 and 1861, which killed at least 1,340 California Indians. State legislators also passed three bills in the 1850s that raised up to $1.51 million to fund these operations — a great deal of money at the time — for past and future anti-Indian militia operations. By demonstrating that the state would not punish Indian killers, but instead reward them, militia expeditions helped inspire vigilantes to kill at least 6,460 California Indians between 1846 and 1873.

The U.S. Army and their auxiliaries also killed at least 1,680 California Indians between 1846 and 1873. Meanwhile, in 1852, state politicians and U.S. senators stopped the establishment of permanent federal reservations in California, thus denying California Indians land while exposing them to danger.

State endorsement of genocide was only thinly veiled. In 1851, California Gov. Peter Burnett declared that “a war of extermination will continue to be waged … until the Indian race becomes extinct.” In 1852, U.S. Sen. John Weller — who became California’s governor in 1858 — went further. He told his colleagues in the Senate that California Indians “will be exterminated before the onward march of the white man,” arguing that “the interest of the white man demands their extinction.”


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