“They Are as Helpless as Children in the Hands of Dishonest, Unscrupulous Men”: A Report on the “Mission Indians, State of California,’ 18 August 1888, Part Two

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In this second part of a post on a federal report about the Mission Indians of California filed with the Committee on Indian Affairs with the House of Representatives and ordered to be printed on 18 August 1888, we continue with the very interesting and informative report written five years earlier by tobacco manufacturer and founder of Venice, Abbot Kinney, and the famed author of the novel Ramona, Helen Hunt Jackson, concerning their recommendations for what to do to provide for a better environment for these indigenous peoples.

The first part of the post from yesterday mostly concerned the historical description, described by the pair as “brief and necessarily fragmentary,” of the interactions of the natives with the colonizers of California during the Spanish and Mexican eras and what was inherited in the American period with respect to the “legacy of a singularly hapless race in a singularly anomalous position.”

Los Angeles Times, 27 March 1883.

It is notable, however, that Jackson and Kinney ended their historical sketch with the American seizure of California and did not attempt to review the sordid and sad situation that took place in the preceding thirty-five or so years. This included the terrible treatment accorded to the Indians during the Gold Rush as they were forced off their lands and killed and wounded in large numbers, the continuing taking of land used by them in years following, the spread of alcohol and smallpox, the Modoc wars of the early 1870s, and others.

Instead, the authors wrote that “having thus given as brief a presentation as possible of the general situation and nature of these Indians,” it was time to lay out “the steps which ought to be taken by the United States Government in their behalf.” The first of the ten proposals was the most vital as “there is no possibility of protecting these Indians” without dealing with the incomplete legal descriptions of the established reservations. They continued that “the only way of having this done accurately and honestly is to have it done by a surveyor who is under the orders and constant supervision of an intelligent and honest commissioner.”

Los Angeles Herald, 23 May 1883.

Otherwise, if left to independent surveyors, what would result was the “floating” of boundary lines suited to that person and others with interests in taking these lands and “there have been too many surveys . . . of this sort.” An example was a survey made in 1876 on which boundaries were “by guess . . . on an imperfect county map” and, once this was completed, it was found “that in the majority of cases the Indian villages intended to be provided for were outside the reservation lines, and that the greater part of the lands set apart were wholly worthless.” Even in the filed final map, lines were added to show what should be added to include those villages and adjoining fields, but “so far as we could learn no action was taken” on that important revision.

Jackson and Kinney continued that

It was pathetic, in our visits to village after village, to hear the Indians’ request reiterated for this thing—”a paper to show to to the white men where their lands were.” Every fragment of writing they had ever received, which by any possibility bear on their title to their lands, they had carefully preserved; old tattered orders from Army officers thirty years back, others from justices of the peace, etc., all worthless of course, but brought forward with touching earnestness to show us. In no single instance had the reservation lines ever been pointed out to them.

As to instances where natives resided on government land that were not reservations, “these tracts should all be surveyed, their boundaries marked, and the lands withdrawn from market to be permanently set aside for the Indians’ use.” This included properties granted by the federal government to the Southern Pacific and Texas Pacific railroad companies, while other tracts were acquired by non-natives “before the reservations were set off,” but these claims “should be extinguished.”

Times, 26 May 1883.

The second point was simply stated: “all white settlers now on reservations should be removed.” In the four years before Jackson and Kinney wrote their report, “stray settlers have been going in upon reservation tracts” due to the problems with surveys noted above. With the uncertainty facing the indigenous about what to do or where to go, it was added that “there is not a single reservation of any size which is free from white settlers” and Indian agents were taken to task for failing to provide for conditions that would prohibit “squatters to settle on lands known to be within reservation lines, whether they were occupied by Indians or not.”

The authors noted that, while reservation lands looked to be significant in extent, “the proportion of it which is really available is very small,” given that San Diego County, then including what became Riverside (1893) and Imperial (1907) counties, “is four-fifths desert and mountain” and the percentage of reservation lands in these areas was even larger. Dealing with surveys “and freeing from white settlers the present reservations,” would, they asserted, provide “nearly land enough for the accommodation of all the Mission Indans except those whose settlements are on grants.”

The third point concerned these latter natives and there were two options: “either to remove them and make other provision for them, or to uphold and defend their right to remain where they are.” Jackson and Kinney called for the second, adding “we have secured from one of the ablest [law] firms in southern California a written legal opinion,” from 12 May 1882 and addressed to Kinney and which was added as an exhibit to their report. The attorneys were Anson Brunson and G. Wiley Wells of Los Angeles and they looked to the general colonization law passed by the newly established Congress of the Mexican republic on 18 August 1824, followed by regulations ordered by that government four years later.

Herald, 9 October 1883.

The lawyers noted that, among the conditions created by these decrees, any grant “must be vacant land, and if occupied by Indians, then without prejudice to them” and “that such land as would be granted to the damage and injury of the Indians should be returned to the rightful owners.” It should be noted that this applied to such grants as that of Rancho La Puente to John Rowland in spring 1842 and then regranted and expanded three years later to Rowland and William Workman. Brunson and Wells added that “the Mexican Government reserved from private grant all lands occupied and possessed by the Indians” and that when the United States seized California, “the rights of property of its citizens remained unchanged.”

Even though there was a land claims act passed by the United States Congress in March 1851, this did not affect the question of basic rights inherent in the grants during the Mexican and Spanish eras. Any grant before the American conquest that was not in compliance with Spanish and Mexican land law “pased to the United States, which hold it subject to the trust imposed by the treaty and the equities of the grantee” so that “the execution of the trust is a political power.” Brunson and Wells noted that natives were frequent recipients of grants, as well.

The core question for them was, “can the Indians hold lands for which a United States patent has issued . . . provided no conditions or limitations are contained or expressed in the grant?” and the attorneys noted “this is a question beset and surrounded by many difficulties.” Again, the rights of the natives in lands they occupied could not be damaged or injured. When it came to the 1851 land claims act, they pointed out that the commission hearing claims was to report to the Interior Department “the tenure by which the Mission lands are held, and those held by civilized Indians, and those who are engaged in agriculture or labor of any kind, and also those which are occupied, and cultivated by Pueblos or Rancheros Indians.”


Not having access to any such report, if completed, made offering a conclusive view problematic, but Brunson and Wells stated there was a strong belief that there was “a right in the Indians to hold and occupy such lands against the confirmee or patentee” and that, if they continued to occupy those lands to the present, the law will entitle them to hold such land against all persons claiming under the patent.”

In deciding what to do with those natives living on confirmed grants, Jackson and Kinney called on the federal government to make the case because

It is impossible for these poverty-stricken and ignorant people to undertake on their own account and at their own expense the legal settlement of the matter. It would be foolish to advise it, inhuman to expect it. A test case could be made which would settle the question for all. In case the decision be favorable to the Indians remaining, the ranch owners should then be called on to mark off the boundaries of the Indians’ lands according to the California State law covering such cases.

The fourth recommendation was that reservation lands, whether existing or to be created (either of federal lands or those reclaimed from grants) be given by patent to the tribes and “the United States to hold the patent in trust for the period of twenty-five years” after which they were to be given to the indigenous people as was done with the Omaha Indians. The pressing matter here, also, was that reservations were considered “insecure.”


This was because, whatever orders for establishing reservations stated, “the moment it becomes the interest and purpose of white men . . . to have such reservation tracts restored to the public domain, the questions of its being done is only a question of influence and time. It is sure to be done.” Because of this certainty, witnessed time and again throughout the country, to the clear and obvious injury and detriment to the indigenous peoples, “the future of these industrious, peaceable, agricultural communities ought not to be left a single day longer than is necessary dependent on such chances; changes which are always against and never for Indians’ interests in the matter of holding lands.”

Jackson and Kinney opined that, when it came to receiving patents soon, “some of them are fit for it now and earnestly desire it, but the majority are not ready for it.” They added that “the communal system” employed by natives “is precisely the same system as than on which the pueblo lands were cultivated by the early Spanish settlers in southern California” and “it seems not to occur to these Indians that land is a thing to be quarreled over.”


The authors also called for creating more schools for the natives, while they hoped small bands would unite with larger ones for broader community reasons and for schooling, as well. They stated “these Indians are keenly alive to the value of education” and noted that, wherever they went, they were asked to petition the government for schools, which should also include an industrial boarding school akin to the Hampton Institute for Blacks and the Carlisle school for Indians.

The pair also urged that only women be employed as teachers as “there is a great laxity of morals among these Indians” and “the post of teacher in these schools is one full of temptatations [sic] and dangers to a man.” Additionally, “women have more courage and self-denying missionary spirit . . . in a way which is not within the power of any man, however earnest and devoted he may be. Religion was also stipulated as essential as “a fervent, religious, and practical teacher . . . would sow seeds which would not cease to grow” but this, apparently, would be a man “of sound commonsense and knowledge of [the] laws of life, fitted to instruct the Indians in matters of hygience, cleanliness, ventilation, etc.” Combining these with teaching in “the simple mechanical arts,” the result “would do more for the real good of these people at present than can be accomplished by schools.”


Any Indian agent employed by the federal government should be required to visit villages twice a year as this “would have a salutary moral effect not only on the Indians, but on the white settlers in their neighborhood,” as these latter “feel themselves safe in trespassing on Indians’ property or persons.” Those squatters on native lands in the preceding four years would have been forestalled had such an agent been present and engaged in protecting the indigenous. Moreover, there “should be a young, strong, energetic man, who is both able and willing to make at least four circuits a year through the villages” as an agency doctor, stationed within a day’s ride from agency headquarters to minister to the health of his charges. These physicians needed to be paid a necessary salary, because “anything less than this is a farce and a fraud.”

Recommending Brunson and Wells for the job, Jackson and Kinney also suggested that an attorney or law firm from Los Angeles be designated “to act as special United States attorney in all cases affecting the interests of these Indians” who

have been so long without any protection from the law that outrages and depredations upon them have become the practice in all white communities near which they live. Indians’ stock is seized, corraled, and held for fines, sometimes short, even on the Indian’s own reservation, or in the public domain. In seasons of death roving stockmen and shepherds drive their herds and flocks into the Indians’ grain fields, destroying their subsistence for a whole year. . . The Indians’ own lives are in continual danger, it being a safe thing to shoot an Indian at any time when only Indian witnesses are present.

Because agents could only act on order of the Interior Department in far-flung Washington, D.C., there was little he could do for the natives, who “are as helpless as children in the hands of a dishonest, unscrupulous men. Having nearby legal representation would, they argued, “do away with the greater portion of the troubles demanding legal interference,” especially the question of land as noted above.


Writing that “it is surprising to see what some of these villages have accomplished with next to no implements” in farming their lands, Jackson and Kinney called for “a judicious distribution of agricultural implements,” including plows, spades, hoes, and wagons and harnesses. For those villages that had received little help, “there is at present much, and not unfounded, sore feeling.” In a related recommendation, the authors suggested “a small fund for the purchase of food and clothing for the very old and sick in times of especial destitution.” The pair added that,

The Mission Indians as a class do not beg. They are proud spirited, and choose to earn their living. They will endure a great deal before they will ask for help. But in seasons of drought or when their little crops have, for any cause, failed, there is sometimes great distress in the villages.

Finally, Jackson and Kinney were instructed to suggest any government lands in southern California that could be made into reservations and they responded that there was none because all the suitable tracts were taken up, though there were two possibilities that could be purchased, including the Pauma, then owned by the Roman Catholic Bishop Francisco Mora and situated between the Rincon and Pala reservations, east of the Mission San Luis Rey. If these three could be combined, it would “make comfortable provision for all the Indians.”


Then, there was the nearly 18,000-acre Rancho Santa Ysabel, to the southeast, the acquisition of which was previously recommended and which was on offer for $95,000. This was an area “to which the greater proportion of Indians are warmly attached” with a large native village already on the ranch. A San Diego priest stated, “it is the only tract to which human power can force these Indians to remove” and the authors “recommend this purchase only as a last resort in the event of the Department’s being compelled to provide new homes for all the Indians now living witin the boundaries of confirmed grants.

In concluding, Jackson and Kinney called upon the government to aid Indians in central and northern California, including the San Carlos at Monterey, “very destitute Indians living in the neighborhood of the San Antonio Mission,” and tribes living near the missions San Miguel and Santa Inez, the latter near Santa Barbara. They implored that “these Indians should not be overlooked in arrangements made for the final establishing of the Mission Indians in southern California.”


Tomorrow, we’ll conclude this post with a third part examining contents of exhibits submitted by Jackson and Kinney and focusing on specific tribes and tribal areas, most near San Diego and areas to the north, but some going as far as San Gorgonio Pass near modern Palm Springs, so check back in for that.

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