What Happened During the California Genocide?


In 1851, California governor Peter Hardeman Burnett said “that a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races until the Indian race becomes extinct must be expected.”

In the late 1840s as the Gold Rush brought more settlers to California, treaties with the Native American people who lived in those areas were broken. The United States government not only encouraged it, but rewarded it. In California specifically, the legislature passed the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians in 1850. Rather than protect the Native Americans, as the name would imply, the government rewarded settlers per the amount of Native Americans they murdered and the horses they stole. An estimated 1.7 million dollars in rewards was handed out for the murder of around sixteen thousand people. The Act also included a long list of a variety of “crimes” a Native person could be found guilty of and the punishment was often forced servitude. 

See also: Indigenous History


The genocidal campaign resulted in an eighty percent reduction of the Native American people in the area over just twenty-four years. This time period is also when Native Americans saw the rise of “residential schools,” meant to erase their traditions and cultures and force assimilation to that of the white colonizers. Of the people who did not get murdered, the children were kidnapped and sent to the residential schools, while the adults were forced into physical ranch labor on the lands they used to call home.

In 1852, Senator John Weller stated “California Indians will be exterminated before the onward march of the white man.” Native Americans were not allowed to vote, hold office, or become lawyers, so they were entirely at the mercy of the colonizers and settlers.