Read All About It with Items on Indian Slavery and a Military Execution from California in the “New York Illustrated News,” 2 April 1853

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Two of the most significant issues in California in its early years as an American possession and state had to do with the treatment of the indigenous people and the startling level of violence during the Gold Rush period. Both of these were covered in some detail in the 2 April 1853 edition of the New York Illustrated News, which was published by Henry and Alfred Beach, sons of New York Sun publisher Moses Beach (who also formed the Associated Press in 1846), with Alfred also the co-publisher of the still-in-existence journal Scientific American and inventor of an early subway prototype, and Phineas T. Barnum, the showman responsible for such “curiosities” as the exhibition of the dwarf “General Tom Thumb” (Charles Sherwood Stratton) as well as the promotion of the enormously popular and profitable tour of Jenny Lind, the famous “Swedish Nightingale.”

The Illustrated News, which featured an impressive title vignette of a busy New York Harbor with a variety of ships and a wealth of engravings accompanying its main features, only lasted through most of 1853 and was shuttered after just 48 issues were published, but it prefigured later successful illustrated newspaper like Leslie’s and Harper’s. Among the interesting articles were ones on General Antonio López de Santa Anna, the frequent president of México; Baltimore; the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day in America; gold mining in Brazil; and the remarkable story of Elizabeth Greenfield (1809-1876), the so-called “Black Swan,” who was born a slave in Mississippi but freed by her owner in Philadelphia when she was young and became a widely recognize singer of enormous ability.

The focus of this post is on Golden State material related to “Indian Slaves in California” and a “Military Execution in California.” The former relied heavily on reports from Edward F. Beale, a recent lieutenant in the Navy and federal Indian agent whose work was considered much more advanced for the time than the norm and who later was a co-owner of more than 5,000 acres of Rancho La Puente, and General Ethan Allen Hitchcock, grandson of the Revolutionary War hero and commander of the Army’s Pacific Division/Department of the Pacific.

The piece began with the observation that “we live in an age in which an unprecedented degree of light has been thrown, not only on the most recondite branches of physical science, but also on our natures, our minds, and ways of thinking.” It went on to suggest that, two decades prior, murder was so rare as to astonish people, but “now, alas! homicide, unless accompanied by the most aggravating and terrible details, hardly excited the slightest attention.” Yet, “a recent revelation, which has been made to the country through Congress, has inspired in us, and in all who have heard it, a degree of horror and disgust for which we vainly seek a parallel.”

This came from a report from Superintendent of Indian Affairs Beale to the Secretary of the Interior and which “bears on its face the imprint, not only of authenticity in every particular, but even of moderation” and led the Illustrated News to ask readers if “the present treatment of the unfortunate Indians of California do not far transcend in real diabolical wickedness anything which has ever been recorded in the bloody chronicles of Spanish conquerors.” It continued that the military men “misled by bloody fanaticism in religion” might be excused from those early years for “belonging to a race which has been proverbial for centuries for a disregard of their own and others[‘] lives.”

Yet, the article went on, “within the limits of the United States,” with all of its vaunted philanthropy, “inoffensive free men, women, and children, have bene for years past murdered, sold as slaves, and literally starved to death in troops and tribes.” This condition was, of course, in violation of law and policy as the natives of California “have been driven from their homes and deprived of their hunting grounds and fishing waters at the discretion of the whites” and then killed as trespassers when returning to these ancestral sources of their food and sustenance.

The idea of treaties was, ostensibly, to provide some relief through “compensation for the country taken from them,” but the reality was that “the Indians remain without practical protection from law or treaties.” Moreover, the few underpaid federal agents “have to do the best they can to save them from death, by massacre or starvation” while reserves were sought for natives to live on with cattle to be supplied to them so they had adequate food. The latter were subject to graft from contractors, so that, often, the indigenous people received nothing whatever.

These injustices, though, were “a trifle when compared with the darker scenes which Superintendent Beale has brought to light” including the report that “the Indians have been literally caught like cattle by Mexican kidnappers, made to work, without recompense, subjected to terrible treatment, and turned out to starve and die, when the work season was over.” In one case, this happened just a few miles from San Francisco at the Rancho San Pablo, where J.H. Jenkins wrote Beale that he found 90 natives “most of them sick, all without clothes, or any food, but the fruit of the buck-eye.”

He added that 18 others recently starved to death and added that the natives were taken to San Pablo from the Clear Lake region to the north. Five Spanish-speaking Californios were identified as culpable in the maltreatment of the Indians and Jenkins credited Beale with saving many lives through quick action. He ended by noting that food and clothing were distributed to the natives who, “even when starving, and surrounded with horses and cattle” did not resort to stealing animals and concluded that “these people could easily be made to support themselves, and their condition changed for the better.”

In his report, Beale stated that natives were hired out to farmers [presumably white] for a dollar a day “but that price was considered too high for beings so low in flesh and rather than lower the price they were allowed to starve as reported.” The Illustrated News, though went on state that there were “authentic instances of the most wanton and heart-sickening wholesale murders of friendly Indians, with whom no pretence [sic] of quarrel existed.” In this case, the perpetrators were “White Christian Americans” who were known to have engaged in sorties in which they “have blown out the brains of Indian women while the latter were kneeling and begging for life” and killed twenty natives in one instance.

Beale opined that:

The Indians in this country do not hold labor in disgrace, as those do who live on the Atlantic side of the continent. They labor freely, and in the time of the missions did nearly all the labor of the country, cultivating and building; and memory and tradition presents it as the happiest period of their lives. I know they would rejoice to get back into such a condition; and they hope to find it in the military reserves, if established. At a place where I have collected five or six hundred between the Mariposas and San Joaquin and where I make frequent visits and temporary abode, they are now working about twenty ploughs, and about one hundred acres will be cultivated this year. The ploughing is well done, and other Indians are begging the same privilege. The plan of military reservations which I have proposed to the government is eagerly embraced by the Indians, reminding them, as it does, of their peaceful and happy times at the missions . . .

While it should be pointed out that “memory and tradition” may be more of a comparison between the horrors of the recent American period and the mission era, the imposition of the mission system dating some 85 years prior wrested the indigenous people of California from those hunting grounds and fishing waters mentioned earlier. It seems clear, though, from Beale’s report and other sources that the years of forced labor in the missions was preferable to the far worse condition of the Gold Rush period.

As for General Hitchcock, he reported in communications that “in regard to the [white American and European] settlers, it is not to be denied that there is serious difficulty,” but he averred that the main question was their “in an unregulated matter, [choosing to] determine our intercourse with the Indians, inducing expensive wars, with other evils” and if the federal government should quickly impose “some limits or rules for this intercourse.”

The report ended with the concern that the Indians would be driven east past the Sierra Nevada mountain range and “carrying with them a leaven of bitterness among extensive tribes with which we have as yet had no intercourse.” With weapons, including guns, “and an instructed spirit of war hitherto unknown on this coast,” the consequence “could not fail to be the most savage and desperate warfare for an indefinite period, making a pacific transit over the continent next to impossible for a great many years.” The Illustrated News called the suggestions by Beale and Hitchcock “judicious and well intended” and hoped that Congress “will speedily take some efficient action in a matter which appeals with such force to every one gifted with the common feeling of humanity.”

The “Military Execution in California” feature concerned an incident in which two Army deserters, Corporal William Hayes and Private John Condon, were spotted by a United States-México boundary survey crew and confronted, in June 1852, by Lieutenant Colonel Louis G. Craig, who escorted the surveyors with an infantry detachment and attempted to convince them to surrender and return to their unit. Instead, Hayes and Condon shot and killed Craig and wounded another officer and fled northwest, but were captured in the mountains near Temecula by local Indian chief Pablo Apis, who turned them over to an Army unit at Mission San Diego.

Hayes, a 24-year old recent arrival from Ireland who enlisted at Boston, and Condon, also an Irish native who joined the Army in New York, were tried by a court-martial at the mission, found guilty and sentenced to hang. After some delay, an order came in mid-December from President Millard Fillmore and General Hitchcock soon followed with a direct order to carry out the execution, which was carried out on 31 January 1853 “on an ignominious scaffold, in the presence of their old companions and a multitude of citizens and Indian chieftains, who had assembled to witness their death.”

The gallows was painted black and the battalion of soldiers were in a battle formation, while residents stood in a line perpendicular to the troops and, opposite of this, were the indigenous tribal leaders. Not long before 10 a.m., Hayes and Condon were led from their cells and, “habited in their grave clothes,” were “seated on their black coffins, in a cart drawn by a white horse.” Arriving at the scene of their hanging, the pair knelt before the ladder leading to the gallows and prayed while a Catholic priest blessed the condemned men. Allowed to address the assemblage, Hayes was quoted as saying

Fellow soldiers,— it is the will of God that I should suffer death; therefore, for the love of God, I forgive all my enemies, and ask their forgiveness in return. I hope God will forgive my having denied, in the court, that I was a soldier. I am, and was duly enlisted as such, but drew no pay. I shot Colonel Craig, I should not have done it—I should have obeyed his orders. Let no man pattern after me. Obey your orders; and let my melancholy example be a warning to you all. I return thanks for all the kindness shown me, and thank God for having had so much time to do penance in, and being permitted the consolations of a Catholic priest. I hope we will all meet before God. My love to all. Boys, good bye!

Condon’s last words were brief as he claimed “I have never wronged anybody in my life, and never injured anything, till I accidentally shot Sergeant Blaes [the other wounded man]. I never offered a word of insolence to Colonel Craig, my superior officer.” As they were prepared for death, Hayes dropped a prayer book and asked it be given to a soldier named Kelley. A white handkerchief was dropped as a signal and a sergeant of the guard’s axe cut through a rope that opened the trap “and both prisoners passed from time to eternity, with scarcely a struggle.” A half-hour passed before the bodies were cut down and taken for burial.

Hitchcock praised all those involved in the execution and noted “the absence of all noise, confusion, and sometimes error of some of the details of the execution” as well as “a proper solemnity of feeling” that was manifested “in the execution of a most just and righteous sentence—inflicted as a melancholy example, and in vindication of the rules and articles of war.”

Brevet Lieutenant Colonel John B. Magruder, later a Confederate major general of note, sent a report to Major Edward D. Townsend, assistant to the Adjutant General at San Francisco and later holding that rank himself, in which he stated that it was by his invitation that the native chiefs and leaders were present because they’d been ordered to find Hayes and Condon. Magruder stated that he’d done this so that the Indians would be witness to “an example to themselves of the efficacy of our laws, and an inducement to the prompt obedience, on their part, of any orders they might receive in future from the properly authorized officers of the government.”

He continued that “almost every tribe was represented—there being present nearly one hundred chiefs, captains and principal men” and beef and bread was provided as a further inducement.” It is important to note that the early years of the decade involved a brutal military campaign against native uprisings against the invasion of their territory. Civil leaders from the San Diego community were also invited to witness the ghastly spectacle, which Magruder, claimed, involving the condemned men “dying with a spirit worthy of a better cause.”

The lieutenant colonel observed that “as this is, I believe, the first case of a military execution, by hanging, in time of peace, which has occurred in the army,” he wanted to be sure that the hangings were conducted “with all due solemnity.” Yet, Magruder continued that “later in the afternoon, I caused some shot to be thrown at a target, prepared for the purpose, in order to show the Indians the effect of artillery. The shelling was very accurate, and they seemed much surprised and impressed with the result.”

Finally, he reported that Craig’s remains, having arrived from the desert where he was initially interred, were to “be buried to-morrow, with the honors of war, by the side of those of the gallant officers who fell at San Pasqual,” the battle won by the Californios under the command of General Andrés Pico over an Army force led by General Stephen Watts Kearny in December 1846 before the final seizure of Mexican California was effected nearly a month later at Los Angeles, ending the Mexican-American War in this area.

These reports are striking examples of some of the major events and issues that were manifested in early American-era California with respect to the shameful treatment of its indigenous people as well as violence that was endemic at the time. The fact that the military execution was a first is also remarkable, as was Magruder’s demonstration to seek to impress and intimidate Indian leaders in southern California.

One thought

  1. Edward F. Beale was an interesting fellow.

    May I suggest as a good resource for additional background of Indian slave trade “Gone the Way of the Earth – Indian Slave Trade in the old Southwest” by Clifford J. Walker, 3rd ed. 2009 – this deals primarily with the topic in the post-contact period, roughly 1830s forward. Prior to that period, the violence that accompanied slave trade among and between other southwestern Native Americans is told in “Ripped Flesh & Torn Souls”, Debra L. Martin.

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