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Gold Rush
Native Americans in the Gold Rush

Violence and Sanctuary

Quotes The U.S. policies of removal of native people as Europeans pioneered further west was bound to the tragic cry of extermination as the settlements reached the west coast. Sanctuary of a sort was provided through reservations, which gave the natives refuge from the threats of the new invaders.

However, the conditions at reservations were less than satisfactory.


April Moore There was what we called a roundup. It's a very sad story. They went along the foothill areas, especially above Sacramento and all along this ridge, gathering up all these native peoples, mostly Maidu people, and forcing them to march down through the valley, over by the Sutter Butte, but first they had to cross the Sacramento River.

And very few Indian people knew how to swim, because they had no need to swim. They didn't take those chances by crossing rivers. If they knew how, they would do it in reed boats. But they were forced to cross the river, so there was a large percentage of these Maidu people who actually drowned, including the children and the infants.

And then whoever survived the crossing of the Sacramento River were taken over to the Round Valley Reservation and forced to live there. Those that escaped, hid. And they stayed hidden for quite some time. They took on Hispanic or Mexican surnames and melted into the community not as natives, but as Mexican Americans. They could pass. They'd just say they were, and most people didn't pay attention and believed them.

April Moore, Nisenan Maidu, educator

James Rawls I had the occasion of visiting with an elderly Pomo woman several years ago, who shared with me a story from her family history. She said her village was attacked somewhere along the Navarro River, by a group of white raiders. She thought perhaps they were trying to seize children for the Indian slave trade at the time. She wasn't sure. But she knew that they were under attack.

And so a native woman fled with her family, trying to get her children away. She left her smallest child, which was still in a cradleboard, under some brush, and got away across the river. After the whites had left, she returned, trying to find her family. And she could see that her smallest child was still apparently safely there, under this brush. But when she lifted it up, she found that the child had been pinned to the earth with a knife, that the raiders apparently had regarded that child as too small to worry with, but they managed to kill the child instead.

And as this woman told me that story, the tears came down her cheeks as if this had just happened. And that made me realize that even though these events we're talking about occurred 150 years or more ago, they still are living memories of native people in California. There are wounds that are still unhealed and are very tender and very deep.

James Rawls, historian

Frank LaPena The Gold Rush forced people out of their traditional regions, and it made some of the rules and laws of the new state, the white state, and these rules and laws made the Indians change. People would say "Well, you know, what we're going to do is, we're going to give you these sanctuary areas, and we're going to give you food and that, and we're going to provide things for you that you didn't have before."

And all of that sounds good, but in fact what happened is, when people were on reservations, for instance, the food that was supposed to go to them, and the cattle that was supposed to be herded to them, and things that were supposed to be provided to them were never done.

Frank LaPena, professor, Native American studies

April Moore One of [my grandmother's] stories that really stuck with me, it was so emotional, the way she portrayed it. It was an event that happened to her aunt and her two great-aunts. It was some time during the early part of the morning. These aunts, two aunts and this baby and other family members were living out in this small village site, and they'd heard this noise, and it had woken them up. They weren't quite sure what it was.

And suddenly all this noise started up -- the gunfire, the screaming, the shouting -- and then they heard all these different people screaming and shouting. So they ran out to look, to see what was going on, and had seen these soldiers on horses who were taking people and killing them, slamming children against rocks and trees, and just running down men and shooting them. And they were violating the bodies by cutting them up. So these two aunts grabbed the baby because they couldn't find their sister, the mother of the baby, because she'd fled in fear, apparently.

So they grabbed this infant and ran as far as they could go, and hid.

And in order to keep the baby from crying and drawing attention to them, they would put their hand over her nose and her mouth, like that, to stop the baby from crying but not cut off her air, just long enough to keep her quiet.

And eventually the sun rose. And they stayed hidden until it was mid-morning and they couldn't hear anything. And they went back and found just all this carnage. So they gathered what they could find, which wasn't much because they basically burned this whole village site down, and walked to the nearest village that they knew of, and informed this group of people, who were actually their relatives also, that this had happened, to beware.

And from that point on, they had runners in this community. And these runners would go from village to village, and inform all these other villages that people were coming and they were going to get killed. So they more or less kind of had a little telegraph system, but it was a physical one, by running. And they spread the word so a lot of the Maidu people had to get up and move and get out of the way. And they had sentries posted all along the main routes. And whenever they saw dust coming up the path or a trail, they knew that it wasn't other Indian people; it had to be these people on horses. So they'd send someone down to the village site and warn everybody, and they'd just take off and hide.

April Moore, Nisenan Maidu, educator

Frank LaPena What you can sense is that there is a sanctuary that is provided for them. Even though they might be eating out of troughs, even though they might be overworked, they have some sense of security there. And we see this taking place as we look at some of the things that happened with statehood. And we also see that in many cases where the people were given this sanctuary, they are protected from some of the kinds of killings and hunting down and herding off people to imprison them in the reservation areas. We see that they do have a protection there.

Frank LaPena, professor, Native American studies

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Gold Rush American Experience

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