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The 19th Century

Questions to Consider

What can be learned by comparing the map of California gold regions in this topic to the map of native Californian tribes in the previous topic?

How does the appearance of Native Americans in photographs taken in the mid-1850s differ from those depicted in paintings and lithographs of the same time?

The Mission System and Spanish Rule

By 1823, Spaniards had founded 21 missions from San Diego to Sonoma. The mission system was Spain's centuries-old method of advancing and securing its colonial frontiers. Spain used natives to colonize new lands and provide a labor force to sustain its colonies. Two lithographs show European impressions of native Californian dancers in missions in San Francisco and San Jose.

The mission padres used force to obtain converts and labor. For example, the Spanish friars would allow Native Americans to escape or "visit" their homes, with the intention of following them and capturing other indigenous people. Motivated by curiosity and self-interest, many native Californians joined Spanish missions and villages, only to discover they were not permitted to leave.

Native Americans were pressed into labor, working all day, serving as farm labor and domestic servants. The lithograph Vue du Presidio de San Francisco shows native people doing work under the supervision of Spaniards in the Presidio of San Francisco.

Native women were often raped by Spanish soldiers and other settlers. The natives were severely disciplined for not working, but most often for attempting escape.

Life on the Ranchos

Secularization began in 1834, with half of all mission lands to be turned over to local native groups. But native Californians were often never told that they owned land, and many drifted away, strangers in their own ancestral homelands.

Native Californians provided most of the labor for the emergent Spanish ranching economy. Some worked as vaqueros herding cattle. The lithograph California Vaqueros, Home from the Chase pictures these is Spanish cowboys, some of whom may be of natives. Others processed tallow in huge iron pots, tended gardens, and harvested crops.

Laborers were bound to their ranches in a state of perpetual peonage, with difficult working conditions and few alternatives. In response, some natives fled inland, joining mountain or desert groups and using their ranching knowledge to organize raids on livestock.

Displacement and depopulation contributed to an intense process of what anthropologists call “ethnogenesis,” the creation of new ethnicities and identities. Native groups combined, split apart, and recombined in new ways in response to perilous times. Spanish-speaking natives intermarried with working-class Mexicans, further blurring racial categories.

The Gold Rush Era and Beyond

The Gold Rush further devastated California's native groups. The state's native population dropped from about 150,000 in 1848 to 30,000 just 12 years later. Miners and other newcomers methodically mined, hunted, and logged native groups' most remote hiding places. The print A Road Scene in California depicts European American miners moving into an area, as a native group walks the other direction. The photograph of a "mining scene with flume and miners" seems to show an Indian in the foreground.

Although the lithograph of "California gold diggers" shows Indians and white miners coexisting, these were not peaceful times. In response to the invasion of their territory, natives began raiding mining camps for subsistence. American miners — supported by the state government — organized war parties and sometimes slaughtered entire native groups.

Even as the native populations dwindled, paintings such as Carl Wimar's Indian Campfire continued to idealize a life that had almost disappeared. Photographs from this time, such as "Group of Digger Indian Squaws," "Washoe Indians — Valley of Lake Tahoe," and "Washoe Indians — The Chief’s Family," show Indians in Western dress, their traditional way of life disrupted.

The Act for the Government and Protection of Indians was passed by the state legislature in 1850. It denied native Californians the right to testify in court and allowed white Americans and Californios to keep natives as indentured servants. According to the National Park Service, an 1862 issue of the Alta California reported: "Little more than a hundred miles from San Francisco, in Mendocino County, the practice of Indian stealing is still extensively carried out. Only recently, George H. Woodman was caught near Ukiah with sixteen Indian children, as he was about to take them out of the county for sale."

The Late 19th Century

"I do not like the white man because he is a liar and a thief," Isidora Filomena de Solano, a Patwin-speaking woman from the Bay Area, told an interviewer in 1874. She echoed the sentiments of many native Californians struggling to preserve traditional ways in the midst of holocaust. Indeed, under American rule Native Americans basically had no legal recourse to fight discrimination or the dispossession of their lands.

During the 1870s, two significant events occurred. One was the Ghost Dance movement, which sought to restore native traditions. The other was the Modoc War of 1872-73, a series of battles between US soldiers and Modoc Indians near Tule Lake. These hard fought battles, which the Modoc eventually lost, were the last known time Indians in California resisted government authorities. The US Army asked photographer Eadward Muybridge to document the wars. His stereoscopic views purport to show both sides of the battle: "A Modoc Brave on the Warpath" on the native side, and "Warm Spring Indian Scouts on Picket Duty" under the Army's command.

Some native people, such as the "Indian Family at Santa Rosa Rancheria near Lemoor," shown here, lived in rancherias — a word that originally meant the workers' quarters on a rancho, and later came to refer to Indian settlements that were less formal than reservations. The print Yosemite Rancheria shows one such community of Indians camped near a river in 1878, six years after Yosemite had become a national park. Many rancherias still exist in California today.

By the end of the 19th century, the native Californian population had dropped to less than 20,000 as a result of disease, malnourishment, and violence. Less than half lived on reservations — most found work in California cities or in migratory agriculture (many found seasonal work in Southern California’s wine industry.) There were few jobs open in the cities, and Native Americans often were not paid honestly. The cover of an 1895 issue of The Wasp, a satirical magazine of the time, illustrates some attitudes towards "Uncle Sam's Indian Policy," which the magazine's editors considered ineffectual.

California Content Standards

English-Language Arts

Grade 4:

1.0 Writing Strategies: Research and Technology

2.0 Writing Applications
2.3 Write information reports.

2.0 Speaking Applications
2.2 Make informational presentations.

Grade 5:

2.0 Writing Applications
2.3 Write research reports about important ideas, issues, or events.

2.0 Speaking Applications
2.2 Deliver informative presentations about an important idea, issue, or event.

Grade 8:

1.0 Writing Strategies: Research and Technology

2.0 Writing Applications
2.3 Write research reports.

2.0 Speaking Applications
2.3 Deliver research presentations.

History-Social Science

Grade 4:

4.2 Students describe the social, political, cultural, and economic life and interactions among people of California from the pre-Columbian societies to the Spanish mission and Mexican rancho periods. (4.2.1, 4.2.4, 4.2.5)

4.3 Students explain the economic, social, and political life in California from the establishment of the Bear Flag Republic through the Mexican-American War, the Gold Rush, and the granting of statehood. (4.3.3)

4.4 Students explain how California became an agricultural and industrial power, tracing the transformation of the California economy and its political and cultural development since the 1850s. (4.4.2, 4.4.3)

Grade 5:

5.8 Students trace the colonization, immigration, and settlement patterns of the American people from 1789 to the mid-1800s, with emphasis on the role of economic incentives, effects of the physical and political geography, and transportation systems.

Grade 8

8.8 Students analyze the divergent paths of the American people in the West from 1800 to the mid-1800s and the challenges they faced.

8.12 Students analyze the transformation of the American economy and the changing social and political conditions in the United States in response to the Industrial Revolution. (8.12.2)

Visual Arts

3.0 Historical and Cultural Context Understanding the Historical Contributions and Cultural Dimensions of the Visual Arts. Students analyze the role and development of the visual arts in past and present cultures throughout the world, noting human diversity as it relates to the visual arts and artists.

Danse des habitantes de Californie a la mission de San Francisco [ca. 1815]. Ein tanz der Indianauer in der Mission in St. Jose in Neu-Californien, ca. 1806. Vue du Presidio de San Francisco [ca. 1815].
California vaqueros, returned from the chase, 1854 A road scene in California, 1856 [Mining scene with a flume and miners, including a California Indian(?) in foreground.]
Date:[ca. 1855-1860]
A new map of the gold region in California, by Charles Drayton Gibbes. From his own and other recent surveys & explorations, 1851. Indian campfire Washoe Indians -- Valley of Lake Tahoe
Group of Digger Indian Squaws, 1860/1870 Washoe Indians -- The Chief's Family, 1860/1870 A Modoc Brave on the War Path.
Warm Spring Indian Scouts on Picket Duty. Indian Family at Santa Rosa Rancheria Near Lemoore Yosemite Rancheria, 1878; from a painting by Miss Gordon Cummings
Indian rancheria, Yuba City [California] An Indian Rancheria in the Sierra Nevada Mts. 'Hupa leader of Madilding Rancheria.' 1899
'Uncle Sam's Indian Policy' [cover] no photograph no photograph

Note about picture captions

The original captions on some of the historical photographs may include racial terms that were commonplace at the time, but considered to be derogatory today.

Calisphere: Related Materials

Diversity in the Changing State

Native Americans and Contact

Historical Essays

1768-1820s: Exploration

1821-1847: Missions

1848-1865: Gold Rush

Lesson Plans

Los Californios: California's Spanish, Native American, and African Heritage

Analysis Tools

6C's of Primary Source Analysis (PDF) (Source: UCI History Project)
Photographs (PDF) (Source: Library of Congress)
Posters/Visuals (PDF) (Source: Bringing History Home)
Written Documents (PDF) (Source: NARA)
Primary Source Activity (PDF) (Source: Library of Congress)

What is a stereoscopic view?

a stereoscopic viewer

Stereoscopic views were a new form of entertainment in the mid-1800s. These photographs of people and places, which appeared three-dimensional when viewed, offered viewers a way to "travel" without leaving home. The technology is fairly simple: two nearly identical photos offering slightly different views of the same scene are printed next to each other on a card. When seen through a stereo viewer (a simple handheld device), they create a 3D effect.