by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Amid the tremendous transformation and turmoil that came with the seizure of California by the United States and then the Gold Rush very shortly afterward, there were enormous challenges faced by the indigenous people as gold-seekers and immigrants generally encroached on areas lived on and used by the natives for millenia.
Beyond this, attempts at establishing a reasonable form of government were rendered increadily difficult by the inability of Congress to decide on the status of the new American possession, which left the military responsible for administration for over three years while many soldiers simply went AWOL to search for gold. By the time statehood was finally granted in September 1850, the situation for the Indians was fraught with terrible treatment from all sides and matters worsened in subsequent years.
Federal attempts at managing the affairs of the indigenous were, of course, meager, at best, with barebones staffing and funding, aside from the imposition of attitudes and policies that did not reflect the interests and needs of the natives from their point of view. A previous two-part post here looked at reports from late 1853 by Superintendent Edward F. Beale (1822-1893) as published in the annual message and reports of President Franklin Pierce.
Tonight’s post takes us back about nine months prior to those reports, which led to appropriations by Congress in March 1853 which Beale then tried to implement for his recommendations on dealing with the indigenous. The report begins with a letter to William K. Sebastian, a Democrat from Arkansas and chair of the Committee on Indian Affairs in the United States Senate, from Secretary of the Interior Alexander H.H. Stuart, dated 3 March 1853, and which transmitted Beale’s report of 27 February. The same date of the 3rd was a short note from Luke Lea, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, to Stuart noting that “in view of its important character, and of the urgent neceesity for immediate legislation in regard to Indian affairs” in California, it was requested that the matter be laid before Congress for its consideration.
Bealr’s letter to Lee, in turn, reported that “on my arrival in California, inthe month of September last, I immediately entered on the discharge of my duties” which were defined as the responsibility to “exercise administrative examination overall all claims, and accounts, and vouchers or disbursements, connected with Indian affairs,” to oversee the “official conduct and accounts” of the agents working under him, and “to discharge the duties of superintendent in relation to the Indians themselves.”
There had been occasional communications by Beale to the national office, but the report was intended “to show, as nearly as possible, the condition of our Indian relations in California; and to suggest the measures which I deem necessary for the future well-being of the Indians, and the better management of the public service in relation to them.” There was, however, a clear and obvious problem, in
that our laws and policy with respect to indians have been neglected or violated in that State; that they are driven from their homes and deprived of their hunting-grounds and fishing-waters at the discretion of the whites; and when they come back to these grounds and water to get the means of subsistence, and also when they take cattle and stock from the inhabitants for good, they are often killed, this giving rise to retaliation and to wars; and in this way a state of things exists there which is not known in the other parts of the United States, where the Indian intercourse laws are enforced by the government, and Indian territorial possession is protected by the government.
An effott was made to establish treaties with the natives, but the Senate decided not to ratify them, “so that now the Indians remain without practical protection from law or treaties, and the government officers have to do the best they can to save them from death by massacre or starvation.” The attempted treaties were to establish “reserves” for Indians to reside on, as well as food, including cattle, the latter of which were to be purchased by contract. While some were delivered, there were instances in which “great irregularities occurred . . . to the great injury of the Indians and the government.”
To illustrate the problem, Beale forwarded a “memorandum of conversation” he had with agent Oliver M. Wozencraft (1814-1887), a gold seeker who served as a delegate to the constitutional convention of 1849, making forceful arguments against allowing Blacks in California. In early 1850, he was appointed an unpaid Indian agent, followed by paid service in trying to establish the aforementioned eighteen treaties with the indigeous people just before his commission was revoked by President Millard Fillmore at the end of August 1852.
A couple of weeks later, Beale spoke with Wozencraft and asked about beef contracts, with the latter telling the former that “traders appointed by myself” were to issue the food to natives. When Beale asked “what proof had you that they were issued to the Indians?”, Wozencraft replied that there was “no other proof than the word of the traders themselves.” As to the weight of the beef, this was done solely by asking anyone present “to say what they thought the average weight of the drove to be.” Wozencraft elaborated by noting “I generally saw the beef which was issued during the negotiation of the treaties. It was not weighed.”
In one specific instance, Beale asked detailed questions about the Four Creeks area, now Visalia, and the 1,500 head of cattle ordered for the natives there. Wozencraft answered that, while he did not go there, he did place the order and that his only proof of delivery was “that I was told so by the traders at the Fresno [River]. I have no proof of it.” Moreover, as Beale noted that sometimes the beef contractors were also the traders, Wozencraft acknowledged that he engaged in verbal, not written, contracts, and could not say with certainty that animals he saw being killed “was the beef furnished by me or not.”
Beale also provided an affidavit from early June 1852 in which two men alleged that Wozencraft demanded of one supplier that he be given “one-half the profits” but the trader refused, “but afterwards agreed to pay Wozencraft $25,000 for said contract.” Yet, when the contractor signed the document without reading it, he later learned that it did not include the lump sum, but the 50% profit clause and so did not comply with it, upon which “Wozencraft said he should consider the contract void, as he could do better” with another vendor.
In another instance, an Indian trader named, strikingly, James Savage kept most of the cattle he purchased from John C. Frémont, proprietor of the Rancho Mariposa and was to deliver to natives. Savage’s employee told Beale in September 1852 that “I was to take receipts for double the number actually delivered, and to make no second delivery in case any should return to the band; and when to Indians on the Fresno [River], to deliver one-third less than were receipted for.” The purloined beef was then sold to miners.
As for the actions of agent Redick McKee, Beale reported, “many certificates were presented to me, which he had given out in the name of the government, (believed to be about $32,000,) and that over and above the appropriation made by Congress.” The superintendent, then, refused to pay for these and a lengthy statement from an Army major noted that McKee’s son acted as “agent for the opwners of the cattle, and had entire control of the issues.” Moreover, he was said to be “a partner in the concern, or directly concern in the profits.” Lackadaiscal weighing of animals, beef not delivered to natives, and injured (and, therefore, unaccetable) animals were given to the indigenous people, were other aspects mentioned in this affidavit. The same officer wrote nine days later that “the system[,] I still maintain[,] is open to great abuse.”
Another Army officer wrote Beale that “in regard to agent McKee, I regret to day, but do so from a sense of duty, that his presence with the troops will not, in my opinion, be productive of any advantage to the public.” This officer and Beale himself also had less than flattering reports on sub-agent Adam Johnson, who presented certificates to the former for payment on cattle purchased but which were refused, while Beale wrote that Johnson tried to get paid for purchases made before his dismissal, but did not send them in correct form.
Having addressed the questionable behavior of agents, Beale returned to the natives, writing
Their condition is truly deplorable; driven from their hunting and fishing grounds, in danger of starving, many of them made to work entirely without compensation, and continual massacres going on. To give an account of all these is impossible . . . I give an instance of this new mode of oppression to the Indians, of catching them like cattle and making them work, and turning them out to starve and die when the work-season was over . . . these oppressed Indians, while actually starving to death, were only fifteen miles from San Francisco, surrounded by settlers and their stock, and took nothing.
Beale transmitted a copy of a letter from J.H. Jenkins, whom he sent to investigate the matter at the Rancho San Pablo in Contra Costa County, and it was asserted by Jenkins and the county district attorney that some 136 natives were taken from the Clear Lake area to the north and abused by Latinx with unpaid labor, a lack of decent food and clothing and then being released when work was done and left to shift for themselves. Apparently, Beale made provision for the survivors and Jenkins wrote that “these people could easily be made to support themselves, and their condition changed for the better” and the natives possessed “good character.” Beale continued by reporting that “it is a common practice, and I know it to be such, to catch Indian children when they are out gathering acorns, and take them and hold them as slaves.”
An April 1852 letter from McKee to Commissioner Lea concerned the massacre the prior month of up to 40 indigenous people by miners in the northwestern part of the state near Happy Camp along the Klamath River, while there were other attacks by whites on natives at nearby locales. McKee added “there are many right-thinking, considerate men in this country, who deeply deplore this savage spirit on the part of some of the settlers,” but living removed from officials and with “their own lives and property at risk, they are afraid to speak out.” He added that “there are many men from Missouri, Oregon, Texas, &c., who value the life of an Indian just as they do that of a cayota [coyote], or a wolf, and embrace every occasion to shoot them down.” McKee called for military protection of the Indians of this remote portion of the state.
Wozencraft wrote to Beale from San Francisco on 9 September, 1852, the second anniversary of California’s admission to the Union, reporting on a July massacre of natives in a reservation by whites near the Fresno River. Most of the men in the tribal group were working away from their families, so the several killed were women and children and the atrocity planned for weeks. He added that the indigenous people “appeared to be ignorant of a cause sufficient to incite and bring down on them such summary punishment” and it took an Army intervention to prevent a furtherance of violence by inflamed natives desiring retribution.
Communications revealed the view of a federal district attorney “that he was not aware of the existence of any law that would apply in the case, the federal court having no jurisdiction in cases where life was taken.” It was added that the leader of the party committing the outrage “was soon after elected county judge” and so Wozencraft wrote “I did not think it worth while to prosecute him in his own county.” He added that “there are from 75,000 to 100,000 Indians in that country, and probably not a week passes in which some are not killed, or worked and starved to death.
There were other reports of heinous massacres, and scalpings, of natives by whites near the Trinity River, at Marysville, and another unnamed northern California locale, with the losses of life being 180 or so, most at the first of the trio, and many of them women and children. This led Governor John Bigler and Lieutenant Governor Samuel Purdy to write to President Fillmore, albeit a month before he left office to be replaced by Pierce, that they recommended an adoption of the proposals developed by Beale. They wrote that “the Indian policy for this State should be carefully devised and rigidly enforced” and that Beale was highly qualified “to submit some feasible plan” that would safeguard the indigenous people “at a greatly reduced tax on the general and on our State government.”
Beale followed this by writing that “the Indians of this country do not hold labor in disgrace, as those do who live on the Atlantic side of the continent.” He added that they “did nearly all the labor of the country, cultivating and building” under the mission system during the Spanish and Mexican periods. He went on to suggest that “they would rejoince to get back into such a condition; and they hope to find it in the military reserves.” He established a place in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and claimed success and felt that such reservations were “eagerly embraced by the Indians, reminding them, as it does, of their peaceful and happy times at the missions,” though this was a characterization that might have only seemed so in comparison to current circumstances.
Army General Ethan Allen Hitchcock wrote in late November 1852 of his approbation of Beale’s plan saying starkly “that the choice of the government lies necessarily between accepting the plan and giving the Indians over to rapid extermination or expulsion from the State.” Acknowledging the problem of trying to rein in white settlers, the general wrote that “the real question is, whether they shall, in an unregulated manner, determine our intercourse with the Indians, inducing expensive wars, with other evils, or whether the government shall establish some limits and rules for this intercourse.”
Hitchcock approved of having military-guarded reservations near the mountains “leaving the latter for the range of the Indians extending [into the] interior without limit.” Notably, he claimed that, if the situation was not changed, natives “in a very few years will be driven beyond the Sierra Nevada, carrying with them a leaven of bitterness among extensive tribes” that would then lead to “an instructed spirit of war hitherto unknown on this coast” and resulting in “the most savage and desperate warfare for an indefinite period.” Hitchcock added that he was prepared to work closely with Beale to achieve the objective proposed and he lauded the superintendent as possessing “an earnest zeal, a humane spirit, an untiring perseverence, and an honest independence.”
In his brief conclusion, Beale called for $500,000 “for the immediate subsistence and support of the Indians;” military reserves with a few soldiers at each “for their permanent support and protection” and “where they will support themselves by labor;” that all officers “in the Indian service” shuld live on the reserves or with natives; and “that the Indian agencies shall be abolished, and six sub agents appointed, at about $1,500 each [salary per year]” and to live with the indigenous people “and assist them with cultivation, as well as discharging other duties.”
As that previous two-part post covered, there was a March 1853 appropriation and Beale was able to carry out at least a localized portion of his plan with the Tejon reservation north of Los Angeles and south of what became Bakersfield. Though his tenure ended three years later, a suggestion of his to establish a fort at Tejon was adopted and he later purchased the famous Rancho El Tejon, which was half-owned by Jonathan Temple from 1857 until the sale in 1864, and which he and partner Robert S. Baker operated.
The two men also bought land on the coast west of Los Angeles and Beale planned a town named for his son Truxtun—when Baker partnered later with Nevada Senator John P. Jones this became Santa Monica and the Los Angeles and Independence Railroad, whose first president was F.P.F. Temple (he became treasurer when Jones assumed the presidency) built a line there from Los Angeles.
Finally, Beale and Baker, in 1872, bought 5,000 acres of Rancho La Puente from William Workman and Peregrine Fitzhugh, who purchased the tract from Workman three years before but sold it to the former in conjunction with Workman. Located in present West Covina and Walnut, this land was grazed by Beale and Baker until it was sold after the two died in the first half of the 1890s.
Though this report does not address the Indians of greater Los Angeles, who went through their own terrible trials including abusive labor practices on ranchos and in private homes, a vicious circle of forced labor after arrests for public drunkenness, disease, violence, and other tribulations, it does provide the context for a statewide situation that was increasingly dire for California’s indigenous people.