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The 19th Century

In the 19th century, native Californians struggled to preserve traditional ways--and their lives--in the face of disease, displacement, and violence.
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The Mission System and Spanish Rule

By 1823, Spaniards had founded 21 missions from San Diego to Sonoma. The mission system was Spain's centuries-old method of advancing and securing its colonial frontiers. Spain used natives to colonize new lands and provide a labor force to sustain its colonies. Two lithographs show European impressions of native Californian dancers in missions in San Francisco and San Jose.

The mission padres used force to obtain converts and labor. For example, the Spanish friars would allow Native Americans to escape or "visit" their homes, with the intention of following them and capturing other indigenous people. Motivated by curiosity and self-interest, many native Californians joined Spanish missions and villages, only to discover they were not permitted to leave.

Native Americans were pressed into labor, working all day, serving as farm labor and domestic servants. The lithograph Vue du Presidio de San Francisco shows native people doing work under the supervision of Spaniards in the Presidio of San Francisco.

Native women were often raped by Spanish soldiers and other settlers. The natives were severely disciplined for not working, but most often for attempting escape.

Life on the Ranchos

Secularization began in 1834, with half of all mission lands to be turned over to local native groups. But native Californians were often never told that they owned land, and many drifted away, strangers in their own ancestral homelands.

Native Californians provided most of the labor for the emergent Spanish ranching economy. Some worked as vaqueros herding cattle. The lithograph California Vaqueros, Home from the Chase pictures these is Spanish cowboys, some of whom may be of natives. Others processed tallow in huge iron pots, tended gardens, and harvested crops.

Laborers were bound to their ranches in a state of perpetual peonage, with difficult working conditions and few alternatives. In response, some natives fled inland, joining mountain or desert groups and using their ranching knowledge to organize raids on livestock.

Displacement and depopulation contributed to an intense process of what anthropologists call “ethnogenesis,” the creation of new ethnicities and identities. Native groups combined, split apart, and recombined in new ways in response to perilous times. Spanish-speaking natives intermarried with working-class Mexicans, further blurring racial categories.

The Gold Rush Era and Beyond

The Gold Rush further devastated California's native groups. The state's native population dropped from about 150,000 in 1848 to 30,000 just 12 years later. Miners and other newcomers methodically mined, hunted, and logged native groups' most remote hiding places. The print A Road Scene in California depicts European American miners moving into an area, as a native group walks the other direction. The photograph of a "mining scene with flume and miners" seems to show an Indian in the foreground.

Although the lithograph of "California gold diggers" shows Indians and white miners coexisting, these were not peaceful times. In response to the invasion of their territory, natives began raiding mining camps for subsistence. American miners — supported by the state government — organized war parties and sometimes slaughtered entire native groups.

Even as the native populations dwindled, paintings such as Carl Wimar's Indian Campfire continued to idealize a life that had almost disappeared. Photographs from this time, such as "Group of Digger Indian Squaws," "Washoe Indians — Valley of Lake Tahoe," and "Washoe Indians — The Chief’s Family," show Indians in Western dress, their traditional way of life disrupted.

The Act for the Government and Protection of Indians was passed by the state legislature in 1850. It denied native Californians the right to testify in court and allowed white Americans and Californios to keep natives as indentured servants. According to the National Park Service, an 1862 issue of the Alta California reported: "Little more than a hundred miles from San Francisco, in Mendocino County, the practice of Indian stealing is still extensively carried out. Only recently, George H. Woodman was caught near Ukiah with sixteen Indian children, as he was about to take them out of the county for sale."

The Late 19th Century

"I do not like the white man because he is a liar and a thief," Isidora Filomena de Solano, a Patwin-speaking woman from the Bay Area, told an interviewer in 1874. She echoed the sentiments of many native Californians struggling to preserve traditional ways in the midst of holocaust. Indeed, under American rule Native Americans basically had no legal recourse to fight discrimination or the dispossession of their lands.

During the 1870s, two significant events occurred. One was the Ghost Dance movement, which sought to restore native traditions. The other was the Modoc War of 1872-73, a series of battles between US soldiers and Modoc Indians near Tule Lake. These hard fought battles, which the Modoc eventually lost, were the last known time Indians in California resisted government authorities. The US Army asked photographer Eadward Muybridge to document the wars. His stereoscopic views purport to show both sides of the battle: "A Modoc Brave on the Warpath" on the native side, and "Warm Spring Indian Scouts on Picket Duty" under the Army's command.

Some native people, such as the "Indian Family at Santa Rosa Rancheria near Lemoor," shown here, lived in rancherias — a word that originally meant the workers' quarters on a rancho, and later came to refer to Indian settlements that were less formal than reservations. The print Yosemite Rancheria shows one such community of Indians camped near a river in 1878, six years after Yosemite had become a national park. Many rancherias still exist in California today.

By the end of the 19th century, the native Californian population had dropped to less than 20,000 as a result of disease, malnourishment, and violence. Less than half lived on reservations — most found work in California cities or in migratory agriculture (many found seasonal work in Southern California’s wine industry.) There were few jobs open in the cities, and Native Americans often were not paid honestly. The cover of an 1895 issue of The Wasp, a satirical magazine of the time, illustrates some attitudes towards "Uncle Sam's Indian Policy," which the magazine's editors considered ineffectual.

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Note about picture captions

The original captions on some of the historical photographs may include racial terms that were commonplace at the time, but considered to be derogatory today.

Definition: stereoscopic view

Stereoscopic views were a new form of entertainment in the mid-1800s. These photographs of people and places, which appeared three-dimensional when viewed, offered viewers a way to "travel" without leaving home. The technology is fairly simple: two nearly identical photos offering slightly different views of the same scene are printed next to each other on a card. When seen through a stereo viewer (a simple handheld device), they create a 3D effect.


"Native Americans: The 19th Century" was curated and written by the University of California in 2005 as part of the California Cultures project.

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The text of this exhibition is available under a Creative Commons CC-BY license. You are free to share and adapt it however you like, provided you provide attribution as follows:

Native Americans: The 19th Century curated by University of California staff, available under a CC BY 4.0 license. © 2005, Regents of the University of California.