James Marshall discovered gold on the morning of January 24, 1848 as he was building a saw mill for Johann Sutter. In the following years over 100 thousand Euro-Americans would make their way to the golden state in search of fame and fortune. The indigenous population faced a new wave of settlers that not only threatened their territories but also their lives. By the end of the Gold Rush period California’s indigenous population laid at the brink of extinction. Legislation with roots in Manifest Destiny and dehumanization helped lead Euro-Americans to commit the greatest act of genocide in American history.
Two years after gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, California’s first governor Peter Hardenman Burnett allocated state funding for local militias’ to “protect” Euro-American gold mining settlements. That legislation offered militia members incentives in the form of individual payments for proof of dead California Indians. In 1851 Burnett made his second address to the California state legislature which made his agenda clear. “A war of extermination will continue to be waged between the two races until the Indian race becomes extinct, must be expected.”
“In 1850, California’s first governor, Peter Burnett, announced the state’s official position of genocide, ‘as the only solution to the Indian problem.’ The state funded both the bullets for the voluntary militia, and $10 to $25 for proof of executed Indians – scalps, heads, hands, or bodies.”
“California’s first bond of $400,000 was issued in 1854, to fund the bounty on dead Indians and the costs of extermination. Also in 1850, the state passed a law, ironically named the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, giving the state authority over Indians, including land settlements and denying even the federal government any trust role or authority to negotiate treaties” (Pico 2007).
1850-1860 offered great sorrow and hardship for the indigenous peoples of California. Adults were outright murdered for profit and their children were taken as slaves. Militias and bounty hunters grew in numbers due to a lack of production through prospecting. It seemed one way or another Euro-American settlers were going to make a living in their new homes. They performed their tasks of elimination with deadly efficiently. “Between 1850 and 1860, the state of California paid around 1.5 million dollars. Some $250,000 of which was reimbursed by the federal government” (Johnston-Dodds, 2002).
“Numerous vigilante type paramilitary troops were established whose principal occupation seems to have been to kill Indians and kidnap their children. Groups such as the Humbolt Home Guard, the Eel River Minutemen and the Placer Blades among others terrorized local Indians and caused the premier 19th century historian Hubert Howe Bancroft to describe them as follows…
“The California valley cannot grace her annals with a single Indian war bordering on respectability. It can, however, boast a hundred or two of as brutal butchering, on the part of our honest miners and brave pioneers, as any area of equal extent in our republic.”
“The handiwork of these well-armed death squads combined with the widespread random killing of Indians by individual miners resulted in the death of 100,000 Indians in the first two years of the gold rush. A staggering loss of two thirds of the population. Nothing in American Indian history is even remotely comparable to this massive orgy of theft and mass murder. Stunned survivors now perhaps numbering fewer than 70,000 teetered near the brink of total annihilation” (Gjohnsit, 2014).