by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Homestead volunteers Mary Lou and Wes Maury donated, the same day volunteer Sherri Salmans donated the Pacific Coast Architect magazine highlighted here over the week, a remarkable and massive 683-page report, cumbersomely titled as these are wont to be Report of Indians Taxed and Indians Not Taxed in the United States (Except Alaska) at the Eleventh Census: 1890 and which was published four years later by the Census Office of the Department of the Interior.
At this time, in 1893, is when historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared his frontier thesis, offering that “the existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward explain American development,” but, by 1890, Turner continued,” and now, four centuries from the discovery of America, at the end of a hundred years of life under the Constitution, the frontier has gone, and with its going has closed the first period of American history.”
Among historians since, there has been much debate about the frontier thesis and its viability, but one of the many points to highlight is the concept of “free land” with respect to the indigenous people of what became the United States and who, of course, were here for untold generations before the so-called “discovery of America.” The Turner thesis operated with the assumption that the native peoples were an irrelevancy and an inconvenience in the “American development” that rapidly moved from “sea to shining sea” during the first half of the century.
In 1890, it should also be pointed out, the horrific massacre of Sioux Indians at Wounded Knee took place and it was a terrible benchmark for the condition of the indigenous people, as was the previous year’s land rush of the “Sooners” in Oklahoma, which was supposed to be the last sovereign territory for the native peoples in the United States.
Locally, the Boom of the Eighties went bust by 1890 but its relentless push for development during the last half of the decade meant the further remaking of the regional landscape, though there was starting to be an interest, however romanticized, in the pre-American past. This was largely spurred by the 1884 publication of Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel Ramona, intended to be a statement on the treatment of the native people, but which was popular for the love story between the titular tragic heroine and her lover, Alessandro.
In this varied context, then, the appearance of the report has added interest, especially some of the historical material included within it. With California’s seizure from Mexico by the United States at the end of the 1840s came the first statistical efforts to determine indigenous population, though these were always rendered difficult by the limited resources of census takers, mobility of many of the native peoples, and other factors.
For example, Henry R. Schoolcraft, a pivotal figure within the federal government when it came to natives and whose wife was half-indigenous, conducted a census of Indians, submitted in July 1850, in which he estimate the population of natives in California as 32,231. Just as the federal census conducted that year (and, in greater Los Angeles early in 1851 because of the admission of California into the Union the prior September), however, that was a gross undercount.
In fact, the local enumerator, John R. Evertsen of the mission town of San Gabriel, only counted a few hundred natives, clearly only a fraction of the total. When the state of California commissioned its only census, taken in mid-1852, it was reported that the indigenous population was just under 4,000.
A statement by the national Commissioner of Indian Affairs, commenting on the 1850 census, but issued in November 1853, provided an estimate of three times Schoolcraft’s figure, roughly around 100,000 souls, though, as with the earlier amount, there was no delineation by tribe or even broad geographical areas. So, the 1852 state census is our best estimate for what the local Indian population was.
For the 1860 federal census, the state total was divided into “civilized” natives and those “retaining their tribal character.” So, those who were considered in the former category, presumably because they were trained as farmers, artisans and laborers and did not live in tribal units, was just shy of 18,000, while the latter were determined to be about 13,500. This is an enormous decline from ten years before, judging from the 1853 figure, comprising about a 70% loss in population.
In Los Angeles County, the enumeration of natives in the 1860 census tallied just over 2,015 persons, a decline of nearly one-half, though with these undertakings it is always problematic to know how many natives died, how many moved to reservations or other areas, how many were intermarried with others, principally Latinos, and were considered as other ethnic groups when counted, and so on.
When the next census was conducted in 1870, the state total was found to be just slightly less than ten years prior, but that leads to an obvious question about accuracy. In any case, the reported figures were 21,784 sustaining tribal relations and 7,241 who were out of such arrangements. This infers that some 10,000 natives abandoned “civilization” to return to tribal ways, but the other element that is hard to square is that the total decline was only between 6 and 7 percent.
For example, in greater Los Angeles, the reported population of native peoples in 1870 was only 215, a drop ninety percent from ten years before. Many of these could have been indigenous people living in the mountains north of Los Angeles that were residents of Kern County, created in the mid-Sixties. There were, however, smallpox epidemics that raged through the region during that decade and claimed many indigenous lives. Finally, there were likely other natives who were classified as other ethnicities (again, principally Latino) because of intermarriage.
In 1880, the statewide count was again a reversal, in that those considered “civilized” totaled over 16,000, including a little over 300 deemed “Foreign Born Indians.” There was, however, no indicator of any natives living in tribal units. For the 1890 census, however, there was a reversion to the two divisions, with about 11,500 “living off reservations and counted in the general census,” while just above 5,100 were “living on reservations” or were “other Indians, not counted in the general census.” This latter constituted 43 male natives who were in prison at the time of the enumeration.
Much of the report is composed of sections detailing native populations, history and conditions by state and the California section also has some very interesting material. The section began by providing data on natives in the Golden State, but the tribal groups listed were in specific areas, mainly northwestern California and southeastern California from inland San Bernardino and Riverside counties south to the Mexican border.
Even the name “Mission Indians,” which applied to the latter area had changed over time, as the report noted that it covered “those Indians in California who lived under the charge of the Franciscan fathers at or near missions from and after 1769” and “is the name used to this day to designate the descendants of such Indians.” The discussion continued, “the United States authorities, however, use it or apply it to such Indians descended as above and living in the 3 southernmost counties of the state of California.”
These included the Coahuilas, Dieguenos, San Luisenos and Serranos, comprising some 3,000 persons and it was noted that there were 19 reservations totaling over 180,000 acres, but of which “only about 5,000 acres are tillable.” About a decade later, the Cupeño removal of indigenous people in the vicinity of Warner Hot Springs in northwestern San Diego County had the invidious distinction of being the last of the major “removals” of native peoples from their homelands to reservations.
A section titled “Indians in California, 1846-1890,” includes some remarkable material, beginning with the stunning statement that:
When the United States authorities took charge of California in 1846 the military officers were especially interested in the Indians and protected them where possible. The Spanish mission authorities lived at peace with them, forcing them to labor, and their land holdings, when given, were held sacred.
The natives and their descendants would disagree forcibly with most of this, while noting the contradiction of saying that, on one hand, the mission fathers were “at peace” with the indigenous while “forcing them to labor” on the other. The question, moreover, of American military officers “protecting” natives is also completely counter to, especially in the far northern part of the state, the extraordinarily violent campaigns launched against them.
Yet, the next paragraph allows that “the policy of the Mexican government in not recognizing the Indians’ right of occupancy to the lands seems to have been followed by the United States civil authorities, as no compensation has ever been made the California Indians for their lands except in the establishing and maintaining of certain reservations and agencies.” That policy, obviously, was not direct compensation, nor was it enacted with any involvement of the indigenous people whatsoever.
What followed was a quote from an 1849 report from an Interior department agent:
The have an indefinite idea of their right to the soil, and they complain that the pale faces are overrunning their country and destroying their means of subsistence. The immigrants are trampling down and feeding their grass, and the miners are destroying their fish dams. For this they claim some remuneration, not in money, for they know nothing of its value, but in the shape of clothing and food.
That “indefinite idea” seems to be about the question of whether any person or group owns any land, but the sad truth of the damage done by settlers, miners and others to the ecosystems on which the indigenous depended for subsistence is incontrovertible. Note, too, the question of compensation in everyday material, not abstract currency.
The report continued by noting the inadequacy of providing the resources for Indian agents to do their work, observing that natives fled to the mountains as settlers and miners poured in to California, and acknowledged that “the white people in pursuing the Indians burned and destroyed all that fell in their way.” Still, up to 90 tribal groups entered into treaties, of which none were ratified, and expected to live in reservations in the plains areas near mountain and hill ranges—this likely out of sheer desperation.
Reservations of 5-10,000 acres were “found too small,” but resources were so limited that the reservations were trimmed down to just five by 1857, including Tejon, the closest to this region and then still within Los Angeles County. A disturbing quote from an Indian agent in 1862 noted that settlers destroyed crops on a reservation and then told the natives they would be killed if they didn’t leave—it was not indicated where this occurred.
While conditions worsened as “serious disturbances occurred in various parts of the state consequent upon the unsettled status of Indians lands” and “the white man usually prevailed,” an act passed by Congress in 1864 sought a reorganization of Indian affairs in California. New reservations were established, so that there were almost two-dozen, though 19 were in the southern California “Mission Indian” areas. The claim in 1894 was that “the majority of the California Indians are practically self-sustaining, and rations were issued to only 175 poor and old Indians on reservations in 1890s.” How the “self-sustaining” status was determined, however, is not clear.
The next section, “Indians in California in 1890,” retraces some of the history after the American conquest, although it is very sketchy in terms of identifying the diversity of tribal groups. For example, it was observed that, the Coast Range area “was thickly peopled with many tribes, small or otherwise, along streams or on hunting grounds, which had no linguistic affinities.” Some hunted and fished and other gathered nuts and dug for roots (the term “Digger Indian” came from this last group, but was often broadcast generally in a highly derogatory fashion.)
A clear distinction between north and south was made in the statement that “the Indians of California to the north of the Mission country during the early mining days of California were sometimes most brutally treated by the white people, and there were frequent murders without cause of provocation.”
It was added that “they [the indigenous] retaliated in kind, and many bloody and cruel affrays took place between them and the white people. These wars are still well remembered.” The use of the phrase “in kind” is notable here, though, as natives had nowhere near the firepower and other resources of whites and there was no way they could successfully defend themselves over the long haul.
The remainder of the section discussed specific tribal groups within the reservation system and the “Mission Indian” portion stated that Kate Foote, a rare female special agent, went to the 19 reservations said to be in San Diego and Los Angeles counties, though there were, in fact, no such entities in the latter. These natives were all categorized as “Digger Indians” who “planted nothing, and lived on roots, seeds, and maggots.”
Further, it was stated that there were many small tribal groups but all were later divided into two larger tribes, the Coahuilas and Diegueños. There was an allowance that the “Digger” is naturally clever with his hands in terms of making dwellings, nets, mats, sea craft and baskets. There was some discussion about diverse food sources, but also an anecdote in which a young indigenous girl shyly told a friend of Foote’s that “you think this bad, but he very good; better than oyster” as she ate “something rather odd,” meaning a maggot from the inside bark of a tree. The friend told Foote that “if I had seen it without knowing what it was I could truly have said that it looked good enough to eat.”
Spiritual practices, the marking of puberty, cremation rites, marriage customs, games, clothing, and medicine were also given some attention in Foote’s report and she went into some detail about Mission Indian villages. This was prefaced by the statement that “they are more improvident than the white race around them, which is saying much” and that “they have fewer wants and take life more easily than the Anglo-Saxon,” an observation made in many places on the planet.
She added that the “Anglo-Saxon” who hailed from a cold climate “which which he has to wrestle to gain a living” and regarded the easy ways of the indigenous with “astonishment and a large amount of mingled pity, indignation, and contempt” with the latter two reflected in the removal of natives from their land and “killing him when he becomes too troublesome and resists robbery of his lands.”
Foote spent much time discussing the “condition” of the Mission Indians and observed that “the mixture of white blood among them is large,” again principally through intermarriage with Latinos. She stated that “they are honest in their own way and will carry out a contract,” though on their own schedule, “but they are not addicted to thieving.” Does this last statement, however, really differ from that of many non-Indians?
There is a further reference to a lack of foresight as “he always has a serene, contented air, if he only has bread enough for the day. To teach him care is one of the lessons the whites have striven to instill without much success.” This aspect is very telling about the question of cultural difference and a lack of understanding of one society about another.
While white people were treated “with ease and dignity in their little huts,” older members of native society, Foote claimed, were regarded with “indifference, and yet they were never treated with actual cruelty.” Old women “sat about in the sun, often very dirty,” were “dull and torpid” and “probably [a key word] were indifferent to the comfort of cleanliness.” Notably, she added, “Indians permit individual freedom in each other to a greater degree than is found among white people.”
When it came to government assistance, Foote observed that “a few wagons, plows and other implements” were distributed “and that is all the help they have had,” The natives, she continued, “have always been treated as aliens and as people who had no rights on their own soil.”
There is, of course, more to the Foote report, but the gist is a fascinating mixture of matter-of-fact observation, sometimes critical and occasional respectful judgments about the nature of natives, and rare mild rebukes of the lack of government assistance and support. Coming toward the end of the 19th century, the wider report is an important, if sketchy, look at the state of the indigenous people of America through the somewhat clouded lens of a bureaucratic element of the national government reflecting general attitudes.