Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Gold Rush
Native Americans in the Gold Rush

The Value of Land | Violence and Sanctuary
Laws against Native Americans | The White Man's View

Laws against Native Americans

Quotes In 1850 the California legislature passed an Act for the Government and Protection of Indians that essentially forced many Native Americans into servitude. The law provided for the forced labor of loitering or orphaned Native Americans, regulated their employment, and defined a special class of Indian crimes with punishments.

James Rawls The name of the law sounds benign, but the effect was malign in the extreme degree. Any white person under this law could declare Indians who were simply strolling about, who were not gainfully employed, to be vagrants, and take that charge before a justice of the peace, and a justice of the peace would then have those Indians seized and sold at public auction. And the person who bought them would have their labor for four months without compensation.

James Rawls, historian

April Moore By the time that the Gold Rush and events afterwards had occurred, so much had happened, not just Sutter enslaving and terrorizing the native peoples, but an epidemic had erupted previous to this: smallpox, chicken pox, unusual diseases that they had no defenses. So their population had been decimated.

Then it became decimated again after the Gold Rush: because of their aboriginal rights as landowners they needed to be eradicated and removed. So a process went into motion to make it legal to kill Indian people.

And at one point it was something in the neighborhood of $25 for a male body part, whether it was a scalp, a hand, or the whole body; and then $5 for a child or a woman. In many cases, they only had to bring in the scalp. And in other cases, the whole body was brought in to prove that they had this individual, they'd killed this person, and receive their reward.

And it was well after 1900 when the law was repealed, that bounty hunting, or whatever you may want to call it, on the California Indians was repealed. It was shortly after the discovery of Ishi that the nation, or I should say the state, became aware of the fact that it was still legal to kill Indians. So that the law had to be changed.

April Moore, Nisenan Maidu, educator

Frank LaPena There was a person, up in Humboldt County, who was found with a small child, a young Indian child. And they ask him, "What are you doing with this child?" He said, "I am protecting him. He's an orphan." And they say, "Well, how do you know he's orphan?" He said, "I killed his parents."

Frank LaPena, professor, Native American studies

James Rawls In the early days of the Gold Rush, from the very beginning, frustrated Anglo American miners banded together to form groups of essentially vigilante or volunteer militia groups. They were ad hoc organizations, and their stated objective was to exterminate the "red devils," to eliminate the obstacles that the native Californians had become in their minds. And their modus operandi was to attack native villages wherever they might find them in the vicinity of their mining activities, to eliminate their presence utterly, killing the men, the women, and the children. And this was considered to be a necessity.

The only way we will be able to mine in security, if all of these people are exterminated." And the language that they used at the time, "extermination," was precisely describing what they were attempting to do.

The Native Americans in California of course attempted to resist the onslaughts onto their villages. They would fight back with whatever weapons they had at hand. But they were vastly outgunned and vastly outnumbered, and were very infrequently able to mount an effective defense. Usually it was more a matter of fleeing, trying to get away. We have accounts of the white vigilantes or rangers simply firing into the creek or going into the woods and using hatchets or other weapons, guns, to kill those. We have many descriptions of those when they're attacking on a stream or a river, and the natives are being shot as they're floating down, trying to escape from this terrible onslaught.

But we should also remember that those bands of Indian hunters could receive local compensation for their actions. Many communities through Gold Rush California offered bounties for Indian heads, Indian scalps, or Indian ears. And so the Indian raiders could bring the evidence of their kill in, and receive direct local compensation. Furthermore, the state of California passed legislation authorizing more than a million dollars for the reimbursement of additional expenses that the Indian hunters may have incurred. And then that was passed on eventually to the federal Congress, where Congress passed legislation also authorizing additional federal funds for this purpose. So what we have here in California during the Gold Rush, quite clearly, was a case of genocide, mass murder that was legalized and publicly subsidized.

James Rawls, historian

back to top page created on 9.13.2006

Gold Rush American Experience

Exclusive Corporate Funding is provided by: