On This Day: In 1848 the California Gold Rush began. The gold rush started when James W. Marshall found gold at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California. Over the next two years, over 300,000 people arrived in California looking for gold. The human and environmental costs of the Gold Rush were substantial. Native Americans, dependent on traditional hunting, gathering and agriculture, became the victims of starvation and disease, as gravel, silt and toxic chemicals from prospecting operations killed fish and destroyed habitats and the surge in miners brought new diseases to the area. The surge in the mining population also resulted in the disappearance of game and food gathering locales as gold camps and other settlements were built amidst them. Later farming spread to supply the camps, taking more land from the use of Native Americans. To this day, Native peoples of California have never been compensated for the millions of dollars in gold taken from their lands.
This is from Indigenous Peoples Issues and Resources Facebook page and shared on The People’s Record Facebook page.
there’s no real way to do justice to the violence of the Gold Rush in one tumblr post, but I wanted to add a few things to this to hopefully give a better sense of the magnitude of the brutality of mining in Northern California (at this time):
Charlie Thom, a Karuk elder, recounts the Gold Rush as follows :
I’m telling you they really raped this land, and I am a full-blooded Indian from the Karuk tribe and it really disturbs me. How this thing came about I don’t know. Greed, a lot of blood shed, and I look at the country today. What it is. How can they turn the soil upside down and out and do nothing about it? Today we are living in a rock pile along the Klamath. We’re living in a rock pile. No more soil. The erosion came and hit. But what the miners did, what, you call them “human beings,” they were extra wrong taking everything. They are still taking, and know to take the gold, silver, nickel and coal, and they took the water and then they took the timber. Oh! Man, I’m telling you. We are all mad. I used to wonder who’s running the whole goddamn country and they are still taking. And so if you have any questions, come when I have more time. I have two days of information. I can tell you as far back as the 1300s.
As I have written before, in 1850 the state of California was accepted to the Union as a free state. The same year, they passed the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, which created a state-run market on Indian child slave labor—young boys were pegged at $60 each, while young women were sold on a sliding scale up to $200 based on their sexual desirability. In 1860, this legislation was amended to raise the age to which Indian children were permitted to be owned as slaves—up to 35 for men, and 25 for women. It was commonplace for “vigilantes” to murder adult Indians so the children would become “wards of the state,” and thus available for sale. This practice occurred well past the 1865 passage of the 13th Constitutional amendment banning slavery, and the Act itself was never formally repealed.
Massacres also grew to be quite common. For example, in 1860, 80 Wiyot women and children were murdered while performing ceremony at Tuluwat, and in 1863, 40 Wailaki men were shot and burned by the California military. The brutality of these events is nauseating; in the Squaw Creek massacre, for example, [TW: EXTREMELY GRAPHIC VIOLENCE] after all the adults had either fled or been killed, the men noticed two infants who had been left behind. A man named Theodore Aldrich picked the babies up by their feet and repeatedly smashed their heads into a nearby tree, saying “nits make lice” each time.
The same year, the state of California issued a paramilitary troop in Shasta County over $9,000 in compensation for their efforts to push Native groups off their lands—at that time, the price per scalp was $0.25. In 1865, this price was raised to $5.
As Charlie Thom noted, the mining industry ravaged the land, & Native communities are still living with the ramifications of such environmental destruction. I would like to add, moreover, that the social relations constructed via Gold Rush-related violence are still very much at work today and (re)producing additional violence against Native peoples—examples include the spraying of toxic herbicides on Karuk communities, and the continued damming and pollution of the Klamath River (which is in blatant treaty violation).
for more resources on this history, I’d suggest reading
- Americans in Bondage: Indian Slavery and Extermination and the Continuing Oppression of the Klamath River-Yurok Indians (Allan Morris & Bob Baker)
- Indian-White Relationships in Northern California 1849-1920 in the Congressional Set of United States Public Documents (Norris A. Bleyhl; approach with caution—this is dense but inside you’ll find pockets of really traumatic info, including the receipts proving the state was paying paramilitaries per Indian scalp)
- Northwest Indigenous Gold Rush History: the Indian Survivors of California’s Holocaust (Chag Lowry)
- Our Home Forever: A Hupa Tribal History (Byron Nelson Jr)
- A Teacher’s Source Book on Genocide: the Native Experience in Northern California (Jack & Jana Norton)
- When Our Worlds Cried: Genocide in Northwestern California (Jack Norton)
- Our People Speak: an Anthology of Indian Writing (various NorCal)
- Medicine Trails: a Life in Many Worlds (Mavis McCovey)