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The Gold Rush | Article

The White Man's View

A woman with three men panning for gold during the California Gold Rush, Date 9 July 1850, PD

By 1850 the idea that the extermination of the native population of California was inevitable had been firmly settled in the minds of many white Californians. Through this lens, many of the newcomers judged the native people harshly.

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Frank La Pena, professor, Native American studies

Frank La Pena, professor, Native American studies
When we have people passing on, the way that we show our grief: cut the hair and blacken the face with pitch. And so you see people around like that. They're suffering. They're expressing their grief in their traditional way. So you can imagine some people coming in, seeing that. They would say, "Hey," you know, "this reaffirms the fact that they are savages and they're less than human." I think that's part of the things that the newcomers didn't understand. And, perhaps with time and looking back at history, they will in fact understand. If they can keep their minds open, they'll see what was taking place at that time. It was a devastating course of events that were coming on to the people.

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April Moore, Nisenan Maidu, educator

April Moore, Nisenan Maidum educator
I wasn't very trusting of a lot of white people, as a little child. Wasn't until I got into maybe sixth or seventh grade, where I was exposed to more people who had true interests in our Native American culture, who showed respect to us.

One of the reasons that we were told over and over again as little kids and as we got older, that you're thankful for who you are and that you were able to be alive today. Because there weren't too many people that survived, and that those that did were to carry on the traditions and practice as much as you could your culture. But you still had to have two feet in each world. So we've learned to live in both worlds without rocking the boat too much, but at the same time teaching other people who we are, why we're still here.

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James Rawls, historian

James Rawls, historian
I first became interested in California Indian history because I was trying to figure out how could it be that men from the eastern part of the United States who had lived lives presumably as upright citizens, could come into California and commit such acts of unconscionable cruelty.

Men, who had never seen an Indian before in their lives, record in their diaries how anxious they are to shoot one. And sometimes finding one to shoot just for the fun of it, so they can write back a letter that they had done so. How could this be? And how could men engage in these acts of mass extermination?

And I came to realize two things. One, that this was a product of their own greed; that they came to California with great avarice. Of course, they were coming here to get rich quick. And they were frustrated men, because they were not getting rich quick, and they're looking for someone to blame. What is the cause of my own failure? It's not me. It's someone else's fault. And usually that blame fell with lightning speed on the native people. They were in the way. They were blocking my success.

And that other quality, that sense of utter dehumanization, of regarding these people as being barely human beings, or in some cases not human beings at all. Their diaries are filled with references to the Indians of California as snakes and toads and skunks and lice and vermin, always trying to communicate -- to convince themselves, perhaps -- that these were not truly their brothers and sisters.

April Moore, Nisenan Maidum educator
Of the Gold Rush miners, the business people were more educated individuals. They were able to read and write, obviously. But your general miners in most cases were not educated. They were looking to make money, to be able to strike it rich and live a financially free life eventually, but that just wasn't the case for most miners, you know. It was really hard work for them.

But at the same time, they saw us as a hindrance and a road block to their fortunes. And we just tolerated them after a point because we couldn't do anything about it. We weren't a large group of people anymore. We had no say. We were not citizens of this country. We were considered aliens in our own homeland. And for the most part, it was ignorance, pure out ignorance. Most of these gold miners didn't have an education. And a lot of them were felons, rapists, murderers, thieves. They were running from one unfortunate experience to another one, until they ended up here. So they brought with them that horrible legacy of their own, and just took it out on the native peoples.

Frank La Pena, professor, Native American studies
California was the largest diversity, the most of different tribal groups, which was the greatest of cultural diversity and expression of their lifestyles, than anyplace in the United States. But the Europeans have this myth that they've established, and they come in here and say, "Oh, these are the 'digger' Indians."

James Rawls, historian
The animosity between whites and Indians in California was extremely deep seated. And I would attribute it to a couple of basic factors. One was the utter disregard that the average Anglo American miner or settler or interloper in California had for the native people of California. The term that was used was: These are digger Indians. And the term "digger" was a term of great insult. It implied that these people were living lives of no value, of no worth whatsoever. They were the lowest of the low, in the eyes of the Anglo miners who were coming into California. So there was this utter contempt or dehumanization of the native people in the minds of these outsiders who were coming in. And secondly, the Indians were now being perceived as an obstacle. Their presence on the land, their raiding of white mining camps, their seizure of horses, were interfering with the success of those miners. They were here to get rich quick, and the Indians were an obstacle. They were in the way. They were blocking their success. And as long as they were there, my success is being impeded. They are worthless creatures. They should be exterminated. And that was the cry of the day: Exterminate the diggers.

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