Indians' misfortune was stamped in gold

By Stephen Magagnini
Bee Staff Writer
Published Jan. 18, 1998
Gold had probably been discovered centuries earlier by California's Indians, who considered it worthless compared to flint, salt, obsidian, turquoise and slate.
But gold was to cost Indians nearly everything -- their streams, their land, their game, their freedom, their lives.
In a sense, Indians signed their own death warrant when they went to work for Marshall's boss, John Sutter, who could never have made a go of it in New Helvetia (Sacramento) without them.
Within a decade, as many as 100,000 of the 170,000 Indians living in California had died, "the majority from violence, the rest from disease and starvation," said Dr. Edward Castillo, a Cahuilla Indian who teaches at Sonoma State University.
"The spirit that owns the yellow metal is a bad spirit," a Nisenan chief supposedly said. "It will drive you crazy if you possess it."
But in those euphoric first months of 1848, Indians were among the first to catch gold fever. About 1,000 Indians panned for gold with baskets and wooden bowls at Dry Diggings (Placerville).
That summer, Indians struck gold on creeks in Stanislaus and Calaveras counties, and the rush to the Southern Mines was on. By year's end, 4,000 Indians were working the gold fields, compared with 2,000 whites.
In 1849, Indians invented the "Long Tom" (later known as a "sluice box"), an oblong box that caught gold particles.
A Miwok found a five-pound nugget at Murphy's Camp, and many Indians earned food, clothes and blankets for their families. But elders feared that Indians would forsake their traditional lifestyle, which generally placed community welfare over individual enrichment and relied on the earth's bounty -- not gold or money -- for survival […]
By 1850 California, once a relative paradise, had become purgatory for many Indians. About 100,000 gold-seekers swarmed over every mountain range, stream and hill from Keysville to the Trinity Alps, Castillo said. "Most were unmarried men who may have started out with the best intentions but ended up being crazed vagabonds with no females. This is an absolute formula for disaster."
Between 1850 and 1863, Indians and other non-whites could not testify against whites in California courts, thereby subjecting them "to the worst and most brutal treatment," wrote U.S. Indian agent E.A. Stevenson in an 1853 letter from El Dorado County.
"The poverty and misery that now exists is beyond description and is driving the squaws to the most open and disgusting acts of prostitution, thereby engendering diseases," Stevenson wrote. Two Indians who tried to reclaim their brides from miners near Buckeye Flat were shot, one fatally, "yet there was nothing but Indian evidence that could be obtained to punish these villains ... they could not be convicted."
More than 3,000 Indian children were captured in Northern California and sold into slavery for $50 to $200 apiece. California's legal "apprentice" system allowed settlers to keep homeless or jobless Indians indentured until they were 30. […]
In 1851, Congress ordered three federal Indian agents to negotiate 18 treaties of "peace and friendship" with 402 California tribal leaders. The Indians were promised 8.5 million acres on 10 reservations in exchange for the rest of California.
Shasta and Wintu oral historians tell of hundreds of Indians being poisoned at a banquet in November 1851 after signing a peace treaty with white settlers.
Ironically, Congress -- under pressure from California legislators who feared the promised lands still held riches -- never ratified the treaties.
After the 18 treaties were "lost," an 1852 California Assembly report proposed that Indians be removed "beyond the limits of the state in which they are found with all practicable dispatch." Suggestions included Oklahoma, Oregon, New Mexico, Utah and Catalina Island.
State Sen. J.J. Warner went even further: " ... there is no place within the territory of the United States in which to locate them ... .better, far better, to drive them at once into the ocean, or bury them in the land of their birth." […]
Even Indian gold-seekers from other states looked down on the "diggers."
John Rollin Ridge, a self-described "wild half-breed" Cherokee Argonaut, called California Indians "a peculiar and strange race ... illustrating the absolute primitive state of mankind ... peaceable, friendly, kind-hearted, not brave but timid and yielding... (they) permit themselves to be slaughtered like sheep in a shambles."
Indians worked as carpenters, farmers, ranch hands and servants during the Gold Rush, but few prospered. By 1900, fewer than 16,000 remained.
"It has been the melancholy fate of California Indians to be more vilified and less understood than any other of the American aborigines," said Stephen Powers in his 1877 book Tribes of California.
"They were once probably the most contented and happy race on the continent ... and they have been more miserably corrupted and destroyed than any other tribes within the Union.
"They were certainly the most populous, and dwelt beneath the most genial heavens, amidst the most abundant natural productions, and they were swept away with the most swift and cruel extermination."