Mojave River Valley Museum
Historical Sketch of the California Indians
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Historical Sketch of the California Indians -
As mentioned earlier, Mexico became independent of Spain in 1821, just as the United States had become independent of England in 1776. In contrast to England, however, Spain accepted Mexico's independence peacefully and a new Mexican monarchy was established. The monarchy was short-lived, however, and by 1823 the Republic of Mexico was formed, with Guadalupe Victoria its first president. Mexico inherited all of Spain's social inequities and economic problems as well as Spain's ambitious empire in the American Southwest and Alta California. From 1823 through 1848, presidencies rose and fell at the hands of diverse groups and coalitions; corruption was rampant.
In the early 1820s, the independence of Mexico had little impact on the mission culture of California; there were enough problems close to home for the Mexican governors to deal with. While Mexico had granted citizenship and protection to Indians under the Plan of Iguala, it continued the Spanish tradition of viewing indigenous people as the lowest possible class of people without the right to hold property. In the remote territory of Alta California, the mission economy continued.
Little by little, Mexican colonists moved into Alta California and occupied land granted to them by the remote Mexican government, gradually establishing a secular society that was independent, and jealous, of the mission society. Then, finally, between 1834-36, under increasing pressures from secular interests throughout Mexico, the government moved to secularize the missions and seize all their properties. With this sanction from the central government, secularization proceeded swiftly, in Alta California, at the hands of local colonists and secular authorities. Rather than dividing mission properties into equal shares for the clerical authorities and mission Indians, however, the Mexican colonists sacked the missions and divided the properties among themselves. For the mission Indians, who had actually made the transition to Spanish Catholic culture and who had lost connections with tribal villages and indigenous ways, it was a disaster; return to a natural indigenous lifeway was rarely successful. There was little left but to become feudal laborers in colonial villages and on Mexican ranchos. It is estimated that 15,000 of the 53,600 baptized Indians remained alive and in this precarious condition in 1836.
In spite of the fact that Mexicanization of California proceeded slowly, it was a very damaging period to California Indians. The rapid decline of Indian populations along the coast led the missionaries to seek neophytes from increasingly distant regions of the interior. Recruitments came closer to military campaigns than ever before; and the usefulness of Indians as a cheap labor supply became thoroughly confused with the mission of Catholic conversion. The mission economy of Alta California simply required Indian labor.
After secularization, the economy of California was entirely based on the Mexican ranchos, which employed a system of peonage imported from Mexico. It was a particularly harsh form of feudalism, without the veneer of a righteous mission of Christian conversion and bordering on slavery. Indians living close to Mexican occupation found that their natural environment had been so far degraded that their only survival option was laboring in the ranchos. But their wages were carefully maintained at survival's minimum, only, and there was no prospect of bettering themselves. They were often paid much of their wage in alcohol, at week's end, which kept them immobilized until they had to return at the week's beginning.
Throughout the last decade of Mexican rule, an ever wider population of California's indigenous people were being incorporated into this sphere, while coastal people, who had suffered under the missions for decades, were beginning to disappear entirely. The distribution of land into ranchos was pressing eastward from El Camino Real across the coastal mountains and into the Central Valley. Settlements were being established in the Delta region as far northeast as Sacramento. This meant that military expeditions to acquire neophytes and, later, military expeditions to acquire laborers were penetrating increasingly into the tribal territories of not only the Central Valley but also those of the western Sierran foothills.
The Indians were not just affected by the kidnaping and abuse of their people; but were rapidly being deprived of their natural food supply, as Hispanos, Europeans, and Americans crowded into the area, threatening natural plants and game animals. Indians retaliated periodically for the abuses. But they were forced to adapt their own food seeking activities also and this had an even more major impact on their relations with Whites. As Indians sought food by raiding cattle from the ranchos, small bands of Mexican military and volunteers raided Indian villages with savage vengeance. Without any doubt, cause and effect became entirely lost in this situation, and everyone had a "righteous claim" for doing violence against the others.
It is estimated that about 6% of the population decline during this period stemmed from military encounters; but much more stemmed from the continuing influx of European diseases. Smallpox first appeared in 1833 and produced major epidemics among the Pomo, Wappo, and Wintun in 1838, the Miwok in 1844, and the Pomos again in 1850. An unknown disease among the Wintun, Maidu, Miwok, and Yokuts in 1833 wiped out 4500 people, 10% of their populations. In all, diseases are estimated as causing 60% of the population decline to the end of the Mexican period, and California indigenous population had fallen to a total of only 150,000 people.
For Mexico itself, it became progressively more difficult to maintain control over the northwestern territories, with Americans, who had purchased France's claim to the Mississippi watershed, moving westward through the Great Basin in increasing numbers.
Rawls, James J. Indians of California: The Changing Image (University of Oklahoma Press, 1984)
Hurtado, Albert L. Indian Survival on the California Frontier (Yale University Press, 1988)
Heizer, Robert F. The Destruction of California Indians (University of Nebraska Press, 1974)
Cook, Sherburne F. The Conflict between the California Indian and White Civilization (University of California Press, 1976)