A Book Review: Murder State: California's Native American Genocide, 1846-1873

Steven Newcomb

Once in a while a book comes along that is transformative. Murder State, by Brendan Lindsay, is such a book. Recently released by University of Nebraska Press, Murder State is heart- wrenching and deeply informative. I see it as one of the most important works ever published on the history of American Indians in California in the mid-nineteenth century. It ranks up there with David Stannard’s 1992 masterpiece American Holocaust, in the context of overall Indian history.

Lindsay uses the UN Genocide Convention, Rafael Lemkin (who coined the term “genocide”), and genocide studies as key aspects of his framework of analysis. He has provided a meticulously detailed and comprehensive account of the murderous treatment of the original peoples of California by Euro-Americans who poured onto Indian lands during the gold rush days. White citizen groups utilized democratic processes as a means of committing genocide against the original nations and peoples of California.

It was methodical, it was well-planned and it was well-executed—with lethal and ghastly results.

For the sake of dead cattle, sometimes killed by starving Indians, and often for the sake of dead cattle not killed by Indians at all, thousands of Indians were wantonly murdered. Vigilante groups were democratically formed, financed by local citizens, to hunt Indians down and kill them as if they were animals destined to be slaughtered. The lives of cattle were deemed much more valuable than the lives of Indians, who were considered to be a nuisance that needed to be removed permanently, “by death or deportation,” so the whites could help themselves to valuable Indian lands and resources.

It was all done in the spirit of Manifest Destiny, yet, ironically at times a few U.S. Army officers tried to defend Indian people, to no avail.

During that time, the kidnapping and rape of Indian women was treated as a sport or a readily available form of entertainment for white men who could not be punished for such egregious conduct under white laws. The kidnapping of surviving Indian children by whites was rampant. Forced Indian labor became a way of life to fuel the white economy.

In the chapter “Advertising Genocide,” Lindsay recounts the description of the Indian Island Massacre, as published in Northern Californian Union in 1860, by a twenty-four year old newspaper guest editor named Francis Bret Harte. Lindsay states that “Since the women and children were unarmed, the volunteers mostly saved their ammunition, instead hacking them to death with axes and knives.” Harte, the guest editor, explained what happened to Wiyot people under a doctrine of extermination:

Little children and old women were mercilessly stabbed and their skulls crushed with axes.... Old women wrinkled and decrepit lay weltering in their blood, their brains dashed out and dabbed with their long grey hair. Infants scarce a span long, with their faces cloven with hatchets and their bodies ghastly with wounds.... No resistance was made, it is said to the butchers who did the work, but as they ran or huddled together for protection like sheep, they were struck down with hatchets. Very little shooting was done, most of the bodies having wounds about the head.

Lindsay goes on to explain that because he “tried to demonstrate the monstrosity of Euro-American actions, Harte seemed to local people to be a traitor to his own race.” A grand jury convened to look into the matter ended its proceedings without concluding anything. “No evidence existed, the jurors claimed, to bring charges.” Lindsay explains that one editor of the Humboldt Times claimed that people who “lamented the massacre” and “‘shed crocodile tears over the poor Indians’” were “fools.”

In his preface, Lindsay explains that during his seven years of graduate work, and as a university lecturer, “I encountered many students colleagues, and faculty unwilling to accept the argument that genocide had been committed upon Native Americans in California and the United States during the nineteenth century.” Such people had the impression, he explains, “that the tremendous loss of lives was instead an unintended consequence or even a necessary evil of the advance of Western civilization or national progress.”

That the history of the treatment of Indian nations and peoples is a history of domination, dehumanization, and genocide is the inevitable conclusion to draw after reading Murder State. As Peter H. Burnett, governor of California put it in an 1852 “Address to the Legislature”:

That a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the two races until the Indian race becomes extinct, must be expected; while we cannot anticipate this result with but painful regret, the inevitable destiny of the race is beyond the power and wisdom of man to avert.

When the carnage was over, white Euro-Americans had successfully reduced the Indian population of California by some 90 percent.

Some scholars have brilliantly referred to history as “a history of the present.” The genocide unleashed on the Indians of California in the nineteenth century is a key aspect of that history of the present. One of the lessons we can bring away after reading Mr. Lindsay’s book is that genocide is the wider historical context of contemporary issues in California and elsewhere, issues such as Indian nation sovereignty, land into trust, water, and the taxation of Indian nations by two institutional perpetrators and beneficiaries of that genocide, the state of California, and the federal government of the United States.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee,Lenape) is the co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, and the Indigenous and Kumeyaay Research Coordinator for the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation.

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chumash1959's picture
The life of indigenous people, should be one of a gratuitous nature. Not a handout, but a required responsibility of this nation's government for the acceptance & perpetuated genocidal attitude and the acceptance of it by it's citizens, birthed out of this so called doctrine of discovery and it's continued enforcement through indian law.
michaelmack's picture
Today there are available copies of U.S. government documents that include letters from government agents and private citizens about this neglected history. Those documents include "Guide to American Indian Documents in the Congressional Serial Set: 1817-1899" and "Letters Received by the Office of Indian Affairs, California Superintendency, 1849-1880" and others. The communications contain first-hand accounts of the murderous acts done by white pioneers who rushed into California at the start of the "gold rush". Unfortunately, these well-documented historical sources remain largely ignored. And as Newcomb points out, the population of California Indians dropped drastically from an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 in 1850 to 15,000 in 1900 - well OVER 90%. Just image if one read that the population of England, or France, or Germany dropped over 90% within 50 years, people would be shocked and want to know WHAT HAPPENED? But American history, particularly in California, has shown that it seems that since these were just "Indians" an over 90% drop in their population is no big deal. This is not to mention the fact of the 1851 California treaties that were drafted but never became law because of the deals California's congressional lobbying did with U.S. lawmakers to make certain those treaties never saw the light of day, thereby leaving California tribes without any protection under U.S. law, and landless until decades later. Still, if I were a decision-maker in California tribal government, particularly those with compacts with the state, I would DEMAND that this history be mandatory on California's educational sytem, and also demand a public statement of apology. Perhaps then, we would hear less from ignorant or uninformed people like California's last governor preaching that California tribes should "pay their fair share" - I wrote to Schwarzenneger about this when he was governor telling him that California Indians had MORE than paid their fair share, and told him why, and I cc'd other California elected officials - but I never heard back from any of them. But I'm just a private citizen with no special political clout - that is why only those powerful individuals or groups (e.g. California gaming tribes) that DO have political clout, will have to press this message if they want to get it heard. Until this happens the people of California will remain ignorant of this history, and the real history of California Indians under U.S. control will remain largely ignored.
Anonymous's picture
Want to let Brendan Lindsey know how much we enjoyed his seminar at the Sycuan Theater Thursday. Brendan's compassionate spirit shines through as he talks about his experiences in writing Murder State. I hope he will know how much his humility, kindness, and gentle ways touched those of us in the audience, and thank you Brendan for devoting your time to telling this story. May God bless you greatly.
Anonymous's picture
I was born in California and lived there for forty years, and I never once heard of the State government acknowledging or apologizing for the mass murder of thousands of non-White California natives. These murders were not taught in public schools, and they probably still are not.