Native California Indians in the Annual Message and Reports of President Franklin Pierce, December 1853, Part One

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Yesterday’s post concerned references to California land claims for ranchos and other property granted under Spain and Mexico in the annual message and accompanying reports to Congress by President Franklin Pierce at the end of 1853, his first year in office.  Today and tomorrow, we look at the materials in the published document, which is in the Homestead’s collection, connected with California’s native aboriginal Indians.

While the treatment of natives under Spain and Mexico was far from benign, the sheer number of arrivals to California in the Gold Rush (roughly a quarter million in just a few years), the incentive of taking land for gold digging as well as for farming and other purposes, and the rampant racism that animated so many of the new residents led to often horrific conditions for the aboriginal Indians that could not have been imagined before the American seizure of California.

The situation was far worse in the north, where the value of mining, timber and farming lands was much higher, though the southern portions of the state were hardly immune from brutal treatment of Indians. Not surprisingly, many tribes and groups of natives revolted and defended themselves against the worst of the attacks on them.

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One statement in the report noted that

the present governor [John B. Weller] and superintendent [probably Oliver M. Wozencraft] suggests and recommends . . . that cessions [of land] be obtained from all the Indians in the territory of their lands in the vicinity of the white settlements, and annuities in money allowed them therefor, out of which payment shall regularly be made for the depredations which the Indians may commit.

It was stated, however, that this practice would be an incentive rather than restrain native attacks on whites by “the viciously inclined” among the aboriginal people and the entire tribe would suffer for the work of the guilty.  Congress did appropriate a quarter million dollars toward the creation of five military-run reservations of no more than 25,000 acres each for the removal and “subsistence” of the state’s native population and the plan was approved by the president.

Meanwhile, Pierce’s predecessor, Millard Fillmore, appointed Edward F. Beale, who had come to California during the Mexican-American War as an aide to Navy Commodore Robert F. Stockton, to oversee the federal government’s management of natives in California, a position he held for three years.  Beale arrived on the coast in 1846 and, among other notable events, escaped from the disastrous Battle of San Pasqual, where Californios led by Andrés Pico overwhelmed a poorly prepared and positioned American force, this being the sole victory in the field for the Californios.  Beale was sent to Washington to deliver messages from Stockton and remained there, serving as witness in the court-martial of John C. Frémont (and event mentioned here in a recent post.)

Beale resigned from the Navy in 1851 and managed property in California for Stockton and another man and was then appointed Superintendent of Indian Affairs for California and Nevada.  The reports at the end of this document encompass his early work in this position as he made his way from Washington in May via an overland route to the Pacific Coast, including following portions of the Old Spanish Trail as he arrived in Los Angeles in August 1853.

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A connection between the matter of land claims, discussed in yesterday’s post, and the allotment of the five reservations mentioned above, was that Beale found, on arriving in California and learning of the situation, that

it appears that suitable locations cannot be found or cannot properly be made in North California for the Indians in that quarter . . . [because of the] considerable expense in making extensive purchases of existing claims to lands, founded upon pre-emption rights and Spanish and Mexican grants.

Due to “the wonderful growth of the State, and the consequent rapidly-increasing necessity for agricultural lands,” any hope of domesticating the Indians would be dashed, even if possible, by further encroachments by whites, which would inevitably lead to natives being “ousted from their reservations.”

Yet, Beale was already making plans to acquire cattle, seed, tools and other material for the natives, pending his acquisition of reservation land for the estimated 100,000 natives still living in California.  The report noted that it was impossible for Beale to accomplish what was needed for natives in “considerations of economy and philanthropy.”

In a letter to Beale, dated 13 April 1853, Secretary of the Interior Robert McClelland, who resigned as governor of Michigan to take the post, wrote to inform the new superintendent of the president’s approval of the 3 March act of Congress on Indian appropriations creating the five reservations using the $250,000 appropriated for the purpose.  Beale’s trip west was to cost no more than $2,000 and, once in California, he was to work with the military commander in the state, in selecting reservation land and begin the process of removal and resettlement.

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Beale was to withdraw no more than $20,000 at a time from the federal revenue agent at San Francisco and only to work on this project.  Once sites were selected, surveys and plats were to be forwarded along with a full report of all Beale’s proceedings to the Interior department in Washington for archiving.  Finally, he was to notify existing Indian agents in the state that their agencies were terminated.

Nearly two weeks after Beale’s arrival at Los Angeles on 9 August, he penned a lengthy missive to the fabulously named George Washington Manypenny, director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  He stated he’d spent the interval inspecting lands between the city and the state line looking for a suitable reservation.  The high desert lands of the Mojave were clearly not acceptable, so Beale intended to head into the Tulare Valley of the Central Valley.

Beale’s biggest concern, having “been constantly in consultation with the most experienced men of the State in Indian matters,” was that the wording of the March act as in conflict with his plans.  Namely, in lieu of the three agencies abolished by the legislation, Beale wanted to establish a half-dozen sub-agencies, stating he and President Pierce discussed this with the chief executive’s agreement, but found that there was no provision for this in the act.  Without the assistance of that number of men, he argued, “it is impracticable for me to control the entire Indian policy of this State.”

The broader complication was how

to scheme, devise and arrange for, and to carry into execution an almost entire change in the hereditary mode of life of one hundred thousand persons, scattered over a distance of several hundred miles, and living, for the most part, in mountains difficult of access.

Writing of the difficulty of keeping proper accounts when he expected to be in the field most of the time, he also warned that “if I am allowed five years, without interference and with proper assistants, I shall not only be able to support the Indians by their own labor” but that what they produced would be enough to pay for the work of those hired “to aid and instruct them.”

He then referred to having to “issue the requisite notice to Mr. Wilson” about the abolition of the position of Indian agent, “though I shall be obliged to employ him in some other capacity.”  This was Benjamin D. Wilson, discussed in a recent post on this blog concerning a photo taken from his home quarter-century later.

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Wilson, who came to California with William Workman, John Rowland and others in late 1841, became quite knowledgeable about the local natives, both from his own observations and researches and those he inherited from his friend, Hugo Reid, a native of Scotland, who married Victoria Bartolomea, a native woman of high standing, and who published important notes on the region’s Indians before his death in 1852.  Reid and Workman were also grantees of the lands of the former Mission San Gabriel, which was the subject of a land claim just before Reid’s passing.

Beale wrote of Wilson, who’d recently been city clerk and mayor of Los Angeles,

He is perfectly indifferent as to holding office—a gentleman of great wealth and high standing here—and would only consent to serve from a sincere desire to benefit this portion of the country, in which a long residence has made his influence with the Indians extremely great.

Beale went on to note that Wilson did not seek the office of Indian agent, but was appointed by Wozencraft “without even knowing it until I sent him his commission.”  Bealr planned to have Wilson work as his assistant and help secure reservation land “his knowledge of the country being perfect.”  It was added that Wilson could “use his paramount influence to induce the Indians to remove in peace.”  Yet, he “will only consent to give his assistance in any capacity for a short time, not to exceed next spring.”

Tomorrow, we further examine the documents of Beale’s initial efforts as superintendent of Indian affairs in California, so check back for more.


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