Portrait Gallery: California Indian Mother and Child, ca. 1860s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

“Portrait Gallery” is another new series of posts highlighting great photos from the Homestead’s collection of portraits, including a great deal of diversity from individuals to families to groups of friends to mug shots.

This inaugural offering is particularly compelling, consisting of a carte de visite image titled “Digger Indians” and showing a mother and child.  What makes this photo so notable is both the personal nature of it, reflected in the bond that seems remarkably strong between the two, as well as the context.

This larger perspective is one that entails both extreme stress on the indigenous peoples of California and their extraordinary resilience.  Much has been written about the calamitous effects of European and American contact that took place after 1769, whether this involved the mission system during the Spanish and Mexican eras or the Gold Rush and later period.

Digger Indians 2009.72.1.1
This original circa 1860s carte de visite portrait from the Homestead’s collection shows two indigenous females, probably a mother and child, pejoratively labeled “Digger Indians,” from somewhere in California.

Wars, disease, alcohol and personal and community violence took devastating tolls on native peoples, whose cultural practices were systematically dismantled at the behest of the power groups that maintained control of California.

Yet, the resilience was shown through those native peoples who persevered and survived despite all that they were subjected to by Spanish, Mexican and American authorities.

The photo above does not indicate in which part of California these women lived.  The term “Digger Indians” was a pejorative that denigrated native peoples who were hunters and gatherers for millenia before the arrival of Europeans in the late 18th century.  The term allowed many Europeans and Americans to justify words and deeds that defined Indians as a people not quite as human.

This image belies such views and radiates humanity, especially in the plaintive look, at least to this observer, of the girl, who was perhaps twelve years of age or so, and in the hand placed on her by the woman we can assume to be her mother, whose appearance seems hardened by the turmoil and travails of native life in a particularly difficult time..

There is also something striking about the contrast between the studio setting with the painted garden backdrop, the carpet and the “westernized” clothing worn by the two and the fact that these are Indians “negotiating” their way as best they can in that hostile environment, while maintaining a sense of dignity that reflects in the photo.

Again, these are views expressed by this observer and each viewer can have a different interpretation.  But, this striking photograph does seem to be a window into an especially powerful time when conflicting forces affecting California’s indigenous people were probably at their strongest.

Who knows what happened to the subjects?  Did they succumb to smallpox, violence or other traumas or did they survive?  What was survival like in a particularly challenging time?  What stories could they tell had their been a way for them to express them?

There is a distinct power to photographs that other historic artifacts just don’t generally possess and this image is especially powerful.  Check back here for more portraits from the Homestead’s collection that show the broad range of people in our region and state as captured on film.

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