Saturday, June 15, 2013


In my research for the book, THE FORTY-NINERS, many startling revelations about this historical event came to light—disturbing facts about the famous gold rush of which perhaps most of us are unaware. It is my intention to write three short pieces (to be published at three month intervals) outlining the events that took place in California regarding those people who will forever be known as the FORTY-NINERS. Also, at the end of this narrative is a short piece explaining how California gold was formed from the earth’s crust and then concentrated over millions of years of erosion.

(My book THE FORTY-NINERS is to be published for the West of the Big River series by Western Fictioneers. It is to come out sometime in the future in digital format and as a trade paperback book.)


Historians break down the history of California into three categories: The Exploratory Period between 1542 and 1769, where Native Americans were left relatively alone; the Spanish Colonial Period 1769 to 1821, which began the Mission System and virtual capture and slavery of Indians; followed by the Mexican Period, 1821-1848, which involved Spanish land grants and Californio ranchos, that essentially continued slavery and the harsh labor of Indians taken from the Missions.

Then came the gold rush starting in 1848, and the harsh treatment of California Native American Tribes continued. A few days before the end of the Mexican-American War, gold was discovered, the United States took over California and within two years, in 1850, California became a state.


To acquire any understanding of how Native American tribes were treated in California and their continued decimation, it is necessary to understand what happened to the Indians before the California Gold Rush started. Namely, it is important to give a brief history of what occurred while under the jurisdiction of the Spanish, and later the Mexicans, known as Californios.


In 1769, it was Father Junipero Serra with a Spanish army from Mexico that reached San Diego. The first California mission was built there, followed by twenty more reaching as far north as San Francisco.

Thousands of Indians were captured, pressed into blue uniforms, to become slaves, and work the missions. They were forced into farming, caring for livestock, making bricks, tiles, shoes, saddles, candles, hide tanning, laundry, cooking, etc. The Indians were held captive in unsanitary barracks and many suffered from malnutrition. Disease spread killing thousands, causing the ever pressing need to capture more and more slaves. Disease eventually spread to villages independent of the priests and such diseases as, smallpox, diphtheria, cholera, typhoid, measles, malaria, pneumonia, and venereal diseases, wiped out men, women, and children by the thousands. This was an introduction of European diseases that California Native Americans had no natural immunity against. Those surviving slaves that misbehaved were whipped, branded, mutilated, and executed. Mission records indicated over 87,000 Indian baptisms, and recorded 63,000 some deaths. Under the priests care, more than half of the Native American laborers died.

In 1821, Mexico gained independence from Spain. The Mission System replaced Spanish Priests with Mexican Priests, and with the escape or death of so many Indian laborers the Missions continued to decline. Mexico abolished the Mission System in 1834 and began to redistribute its land holdings. (It appears that Mission records were transferred to Santa Barbara, making Mission Santa Barbara the only Mission where Franciscan Priests have maintained an uninterrupted presence.) Promises to return Indian land to the Native American tribes were never kept. Mission lands went to friends and families of the Californios. Land grants gave away large tracks of land, Mexican ranchos were formed, and they absorbed the thousands of Indians slaves. Once again Native Americans were held captive, forced to labor without pay. They tended crops, cared for cattle, horses, cooking, cleaning, etc. While the Indians labored the Californios played. They rode their horses, had rodeos, roundups, fandangos, large weddings, and entertained each other lavishly by traveling from rancho to rancho. Again, diseases and harsh labor further decimated the declining Indian population.

Sources vary, but it is estimated the Native American population in California, before the Spanish arrived was above 300,000. After the introduction of the Mission System and ranchos, the California Indian population decreased by more than half to 130,000.


Then came the gold rush. By February 1848, the United States acquired California from Mexico a few days after discovering gold. Many scholars believe the practices and policies of the miners and the California State Government, to be a policy of genocide (Genocide defined as the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial group).

The Indian tribes that resided in California suffered the brunt of the sudden teaming influx of armed miners. Because there are so many different tribes in California, due to the rich environment for subsistence, bands of separate Indian villages proliferated most of California. Some villages numbered as high as one thousand members. The many California Native Americans remained independent of each other and these different Native American tribes and subgroups numbered over a hundred separate tribes. For an exact break-down, of California Native Americans go to:

The miners came to take what gold they could find. When they arrived by the thousands, they discovered limited resources for food or supplies and rising prices. They also encountered no rules for mining claims other than what the miners themselves agreed to. Pressure over time seemed to reduce the size of claims and disputes broke out, sometimes ending in death. This caused miners to turn to Indian land to explore and claim.

Miners realized there were few laws and no one to enforce them. Men brought their own moral code and prejudices. Indians were seen as an encumbrance and to be treated as miners saw fit. Indiscriminately they pushed Native Americans off their land, took their food sources, and if the Indians resisted they were killed. Encountering slavery of Indians by the Californios, some miners began the practice of enslaving women and children as workers, and killing off the Native American men that resisted. Some women were captured and used as sexual slaves.

California’s first governor, Peter Burnett publicly called for a war of extermination and suggested conflict would not end until the entire Indian race of California was exterminated. Newspapers of the time heralded the war of extermination calling for the death of every ‘redskin’ and of all the tribes. Newspapers extolled death and declared any man who called for treaty or peace, a traitor.

In 1850, the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, virtually assured the continued slavery of California Indians. This was followed by the California Legislature in 1851-52, granting $1,500,000 in payments for the suppression of Indian hostilities. This prompted the formation of volunteer militias that traversed the land, seeking to wipe out Native Americans wherever found. Militias put in lists of expenses and were reimbursed thousands of dollars. Severed heads and scalps were brought in as a means of collecting bounties, and depending on the county, five dollars down to twenty-five cents was paid. These laws further encouraged the killing of males, and the capture of women and children as slaves. This also prompted some to make a profession of capturing Indians to sell into slavery for profit. Many such captives remained slaves their entire lives.

The story of the persecution of the Native American tribes in California is a long and complicated one. It began with the Spanish and continued with the Mexican Californios, through the gold rush into the twenty-first century. The many legal disputes with the United States over stolen land and discrimination of Native Americans continue to this very day.

Research varies as to Native American populations throughout the invasion of the Spanish and before and after the great American California Gold Rush. The Indian population at the time of the arrival of the Spanish in 1545 was estimated at 300,000-350,000 Indians. After the advent of the Spanish Mission system and the Spanish land grants resulting in the great ranchos, Indian populations are said to have declined to 150,000 to 130,00 Native Americans. After the California Gold Rush, Native American populations are believed to have further declined to 30,000, nearly another 100,000 California Native Americans disappeared.

In January 1851, in an effort to stop the genocidal killings and conflict with California Indian Tribes (those still remaining), the US Government sent three commissioners to negotiate treaties. This was a monumental task given that over one hundred tribes and sub-tribes existed. Consequently many were never contacted. Nevertheless, eventually the three commissioners negotiated eighteen treaties, with many promises of protection, and 7.5 million acres to be granted to the Indians. The U.S. Senate did not ratify the treaties as the people of California refused to allow the Native American population any compromise. They simply wanted them exterminated or totally removed from the state.

Eventually those who could be found, were rounded up and the remainder of Native Americans were forced onto tiny reservations. Life for California Indians was tenuous at best, treaties and promises were never ratified and the land promised to the Indians never materialized. Consequently, those remaining Native Americans did their best to hide their presence, and whether on small reservations or not, they continued to suffer further starvation and deprivation. It is believed eventually the California Native American population, after the Gold Rush, further declined to 16,000.


The gold fields were a dangerous, chaotic place, and violence prevailed. There were no laws or anyone to enforce them. Forty-niners faced a perilous journey to the gold fields, (whether by ship or by land) thievery, claim jumping, murders, angry Native Americans, heat and cold, starvation, diseases such as venereal disease, cholera, typhus, pneumonia, and all types of accidents, endangered miners. Death confronted miners daily and it is estimated one in twelve died. The history of the California Gold Rush is a violent and disturbing one.

In the pursuit of wealth, in part, the story of the gold rush is one of genocide of Native Americans, the taking of Mexican and Indian land, suppression of minorities, and a bloody story of greed and violence. Only a few men and companies such as Wells Fargo became truly wealthy. Most of the Forty-niners did well to keep their lives and many benefited most, by settling in the more moderate climes of California and eking out a meager living. Any romantic notion about the Forty-niners and the great California Gold Rush of 1849 is certainly in part, a myth. This is not only a story about pioneers and risk-takers who sought wealth for a better life, but also a story of discrimination and death to Native Americans, Mexicans, Chinese, and other non-European immigrants.

However, it could be argued there were positives. With the large amount of gold discovered, and the sudden increase in populace, California quickly became a state. The American Pacific Navy became an increased presence. The Gold Rush itself stimulated the American and worldwide economy. Large amounts of supplies, food, goods and services were purchased by the miners from everywhere in the world. The increase in population and wealth caused a building boom, of businesses, houses, churches, towns, farms, bridges, increased shipping, etc. Bringing in California as a free state helped the Union during the Civil War. Such growth and wealth on the Pacific side caused the need for a transcontinental railroad. The Homestead Act was brought about by this expansionism. Finally, the Gold Rush caused a varied group of people from all over the world to settle in California, forming a rich culture of new ideas and thoughts that would have far reaching consequences to its future. The discovery of gold made Americans forever believe that California was the Golden State, the place of dreams, the land of promise, where any man could rise out of poverty into fame and fortune.


Without large concentrations of gold, the great California Gold Rush of 1849 would not have been possible. To better understand what occurred geologically speaking, enclosed is a brief explanation of what caused the large concentration of gold in California.

Gold is everywhere on planet earth. In minute proportions it permeates the earth and floats in its oceans. It is not economically viable to mine gold unless it is concentrated by nature. What draws in and concentrates this rare metal in larger proportions is heat and volcanic action. Everyone knows that California is setting on an active tectonic plate known as the St. Andreas
Fault. In the process of collecting gold, as the magma cools, solidifies, comes in contact with water, minerals having the same melting point form together. The minute particles of gold are concentrated and deposited in veins, along with quartz, that has a similar melting point. With tectonic movement of the plates, the minerals and rock were raised to the surface, mountains were formed and eventually the hydrological cycle began to take place. Wind, rain, ice, and snow began to wear away rock and gold, the denser material begins to further concentrate. Gold then gathers in the gravel along rivers and streams. Over time, many streams dry up and leave rich deposits. Over hundreds of millions of years newer rivers and streams form and wear away at these gold deposits creating even more concentrated gold, and over millions of years this process repeats itself over and over. In the beginning of the Gold Rush, this is what the Forty-niners labored at, gathering gold from these rich concentrations deposited on the earth’s surface.

There are essentially four types of gold mining, placer and hard rock mining being the most well known and first used. It was placer mining that forty-niners first applied on the surface, near rivers and streams, and on the earth itself. Gold nuggets were found lying on the ground, and by washing gravel and gold bearing earth, nuggets and gold dust were found in its streams. It was only after the first year or two, when most of the surface gold was washed and taken, that large mining operations began, and hard rock mining took place. Tunnels were dug, and large amounts of ore were placed in rock crushers or stamping mills, where machinery, water, and chemicals removed gold from earth and crushed rock. California also invented in its rich gold fields, hydraulic mining, using high pressure hoses to wash away gold bearing gravel beds that passed over sluice boxes and was collected. Lastly, dredging technology developed, recovering many more millions of ounces of gold. With these four combined techniques of mining, in total, so far, California took an estimated 118 million ounces of gold worth $130 billion at 2001 prices.

In 1849, gold went for $18 to $21 per troy ounce. As of the date of this finished article, (3-19-2013) gold is valued at $1611.30 per troy ounce. The upsurge in the value of gold has caused many of the mines in California to reopen and to again move large amounts of earth and rock for the precious metal. All over the United States and around the world, due to the high price of an ounce of the yellow metal, increasing numbers of modern day prospectors as well as professional miners are once again searching for gold. Mining companies are expanding and developing new techniques to finding and processing large amounts of earth and rock into gold. This has already led to a large increase in pollution as well. In anticipation of a further rise in the price of the rare metal, mining companies are buying up land and filing claims on large tracks of land that contain different amounts of gold within its soil. Some companies in the future anticipate processing tons of low grade ore daily, planning to sift miles of land, to process and collect fine particles of gold. Investors in gold have been leery (2013) and stocks have declined, however, today, gold mining has increased and is far from an extinct activity.

Those interested might look into trying their own prospecting. There are many mining clubs and associations throughout the United States that can be easily found by a search on the Internet.

Charlie Steel, PhD

A list of SOURCES for further examination of the history of the California Gold Rush of 1849

Access Genealogy, Retrieved March 10, 2013, a free on-line source for genealogy, funded by Ancestry and Footnote and other contributions of its users.

Rush for Riches: Gold Fever and the Making of California, J. S. Holiday, University of California Press, (1999)

A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn, Harper and Row, (1980)

Gold, Greed and Genocide, Unmasking the Myth of the 49ers, Project Underground pamphlet, (1998)

A Golden State: Mining and the Development of California, James J. Rawls, and Richard J. Orsi, Editors, University of California Press, (1999)

Americans and the California Dream: 1850-1915 Kevin Starr, Oxford University Press (1973)

Rooted in Barbarous Soil: People, Culture, and Community in Gold Rush California, Starr, Kevin and Orsi, Richard J., Editors, University of California Press. (2000)

Hausel, Dan. California-Gold Geology & Prospecting: Retrieved March 18, 2013

California: A History, (Modern Library Chronicles) Kevin Starr, Random House (2005)

The Destruction of California Indians, University of Nebraska Press, Robert F. Heizer, (1974)

Genocide in Northwestern California: When our world cried, Indian Historian Press, Jack Norton (1979)

The California Indians: A Source Book, Robert F. Heizer (Editor) M. A. Whipple (Editor) (1971)

The Annals of San Francisco: Containing a Summary of the History of…California, John H. Gihon (Author), Frank Soule’ (Author), Jim Nisbet (Author), (2010) (Copy of D. Appleton & Co. New York and San Francisco 1855)

Seventy-five Years in San Francisco, William Heath Davis, (Author) Douglas S. Watson, (Editor), Published by John Howell,434 Post Street, San Francisco, (1929) (Retrieved March 10, 2013)

Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America, Walter R. Borneman, Random House Trade Paperback (2009)


  1. Fascinating blog, Charlie. Those statistics are horrifying. They certainly paint the picture of what has happened over the years. A chilling history.

    Thank you for the information on gold mining, that was really interesting.


  2. Thank you, Keith.

    Treatment of the Indians was actually worse than described. I could not bring myself to write down what the militias, formed to kill California Indians, actually did to children and infants.

    It was a very sad and chilling time in our history.

    Charlie S.

  3. Charlie, I always appreciate your blogs so much--always so informative and interesting. You have done a ton of research, and it's very evident. This subject is a labor of love for you. I can't wait to read The Forty-Niners when it comes out.

  4. Thanks, Cheryl.

    As I said before, I did not pack my book THE FORTY-NINERS with historical data, but let the characters reveal their circumstances in a natural way, as they found themselves becoming Forty-Niners traveling to California.

    The research I did screamed to be revealed and asked to be written in an understandable way. It did take a lot of work to put these three articles together.

    Unfortunately, the gruesome circumstances of how the California Indians were treated, is a most horrific event in our countries history. To this day, California Indians have never been fairly treated or given fair compensation for their harsh treatment and stolen land.

    As an aside, the 14th Amendment to the Constitution was adopted July 9, 1868 as a Reconstruction Amendment. Most relevant, is that it stated no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law. Unfortunately this act excluded Indians. To this very day, it appears that American Indians were never granted due process of law regarding fair reparations for stolen land or for genocide and murder systematically committed against them by other individuals and the United States Government.

    Charlie S.

  5. Charlie- that is a very detailed, accurate, and good account of the hardships California Indians faced. My students are always shocked at the numbers of Indian women and children died from sexually transmitted diseases due to sexual slavery. Well done, sir, bringing this to people's attention.

  6. Thank you, Dr. Troy.

    I respect and most appreciate your comments.

    I was especially looking for a favorable response from you.

    I appreciate it.

    Charlie S.

  7. The depth and extent of human cruelty never ceases to amaze me.

    And I am one who searches for the good in others.

    Thank you for bringing this to light, Charlie. People need to know the truth.

  8. Laurean,

    It amazes me, with the amount of evidence and new research, that many still discredit the poor treatment of American Indians.

    Someday, the American Government and the individual states need to make fair reparations for what they have done.

    Cruelty indeed.

    Charlie S.

  9. Here's what James White, a forty-niner, said on June 2, 1850, He was camped in Shasta City near Redding:

    Last night a man was shot by arrows by the Indians in the night in his tent on the outskirts of the town. They have committed several such crimes before & everyone has been on the lookout for them. Cattle & mules they had shot and stolen many times.

    We had news from Cottonwood of 15 men begin driven off by the Indians & 5 horses stolen, the party being poorly armed. This news gave me fears of our party. The inhabitants of this place have been in constant alarm of the Indians.

    I do not think the poor Indians are to blame. Many of them have been shot & driven from there homes by the miserable ignorance & ? by ? of whites. I mean Oregonians & Western men, men who I have heard boast of killing them & shooting harmless squaws & burning their camps, but these men are to be pitted being brought up in ignorance. Many of them can not read nor write. But after all they are worse than the savages.

    From my ebook, The Journal of James White, on Kindle and iBooks.

    Carl A. Carlson