Saturday marks the 140th anniversary of the Little Big Horn Battle, known as Custer’s Last Stand to Americans at the time and ever afterward. Remembered as the Battle of the Greasy Grass among the Lakota (Sioux), Cheyenne and Arapahoe, it’s hard to overstate how much the 7th Cavalry’s defeat in the hills of Montana that June day in 1876 affected the nation then and how it has shaped and reshaped subsequent views of both Custer and American Indians.
In the past couple of weeks, there have already been a few published commentaries about the battle and its impacts, including this fascinating New York Times piece: A Real War Story, in Drawings. It looks at colored pencil pictographs of the battle drawn five years after it occurred by Red Horse, a Mniconjou Lakota.
The books, old and new, scholarly and popular, about the battle and about Custer are far too numerous to count. A thousand, surely. The latest entry is T.J. Stiles’ Custer’s Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, which came out in December. And then there are the movies, more than 30 of them specifically about Custer or with him playing a large part. He has bit parts in other films and in episodes of television Westerns. There is also a boatload of alternative histories, video games, and music in which Custer plays a part.
It would be hard to find many Americans, even newer immigrants, who don’t have some notion of Custer and the battle that has captured so much attention over the decades. And there are thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of amateur experts who can recite minutiae of what happened when Custer and 267 of the 7th’s 700 cavalrymen met their deaths.
It was an immediate disaster for the Army, of course. And, going forward, a disaster for the Lakota, Cheyenne and handful of Arapahoe, who, though they only lost an estimated 36-50 warriors in the battle, subsequently lost huge portions of the lands they had been granted in perpetuity by treaty. Even today, they feel the effects of the government policies of the time.
The worst of that battle when Custer and his five companies of “pony soldiers” lost their lives lasted just an hour. And yet the stories of that singular fight have suffused America and too many people’s perceptions of both Indians and U.S. Indian policy.
Practically unknown, meanwhile, is the extended massacre of California Indians in which 100,000 of the state’s indigenous inhabitants died at the hands of vigilantes and militias in the first few years of statehood. Less than a handful of books have been written about that slaughter. And no movies.
This was on top of the slaughter wrought by the Mission system in which, starting in 1769, California Indians were pressed into service (of the Spanish friars who came to convert them to Catholicism), worked to death, recaptured or sometimes murdered when they ran away, raped by the Missions’ military squads, and killed off in great numbers by diseases they picked up from the invaders.
This was most assuredly, Rush Limbaugh to the contrary, a great genocide. And while every sixth-grader can probably tell you at least something about Custer, few know anything about what happened to the Indians after statehood, although California pupils do get taught a bit about the impact of the Missions, often far from accurately.
In the past two decades, three books have been written about the California genocide. In 1999, Clifford E. Trafzer and Joel R. Hyer edited Exterminate Them! Written Accounts of the Murder, Rape, and Enslavement of Native Americans during the California Gold Rush. Most of their accounts are taken from contemporary newspapers. Brendan Lindsay wrote Murder State: California's Native American Genocide, 1846-1873, published in 2012. And there is the latest, Benjamin Madley’s An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873, published last December.
They all take slightly different angles on the same story of rapine and murder.
In a recent Los Angeles Times Op-Ed, Madley wrote:
California’s Legislature first convened in 1850, and one of its initial orders of business was banning all Indians from voting, barring those with “one-half of Indian blood” or more from giving evidence for or against whites in criminal cases, and denying Indians the right to serve as jurors. California legislators later banned Indians from serving as attorneys. In combination, these laws largely shut Indians out of participation in and protection by the state legal system. This amounted to a virtual grant of impunity to those who attacked them.
That same year, state legislators endorsed unfree Indian labor by legalizing white custody of Indian minors and Indian prisoner leasing. In 1860, they extended the 1850 act to legalize “indenture” of “any Indian.” These laws triggered a boom in violent kidnappings while separating men and women during peak reproductive years, both of which accelerated the decline of the California Indian population. Some Indians were treated as disposable laborers. One lawyer recalled: “Los Angeles had its slave mart [and] thousands of honest, useful people were absolutely destroyed in this way.” Between 1850 and 1870, L.A.’s Indian population fell from 3,693 to 219.
Indian children were routinely kidnapped and either forced into service or sold.
Diarist gjohnsit wrote at Daily Kos in his well-crafted 2008 look into the California genocide:
"A war of extermination will continue to be waged between the two races until the Indian race becomes extinct." —California Governor Peter H. Burnett, January 1851 [...]
In 1840 only about 4,000 Europeans lived in California, only 400 of them were Americans. Now a [horde] of 100,000 adventurers, gold-seekers, and murderous thugs descended on California. The authorities were completely overwhelmed. The Indians faced a catastrophe of biblical proportions.
Numerous vigilante type paramilitary troops were established whose principal occupation seems to have been to kill Indians and kidnap their children. Groups such as the Humboldt Home Guard, the Eel River Minutemen and the Placer Blades among others terrorized local Indians and caused the premier 19th century historian Hubert Howe Bancroft to describe them as follows:
"The California valley cannot grace her annals with a single Indian war bordering on respectability. It can, however, boast a hundred or two of as brutal butchering, on the part of our honest miners and brave pioneers, as any area of equal extent in our republic......"
The handiwork of these well armed death squads combined with the widespread random killing of Indians by individual miners resulted in the death of 100,000 Indians in the first two years of the gold rush. A staggering loss of two thirds of the population. Nothing in American Indian history is even remotely comparable to this massive orgy of theft and mass murder. Stunned survivors now perhaps numbering fewer than 70,000 teetered near the brink of total annihilation.
That state treasury provided cash for this war of extermination. In 1851 and 1852, militias were funded to the tune of $1.1 million to kill Indians. Another $410,000 was appropriated for more of the same in 1857. And in 1856, the first scalp bounty was passed, a quarter for each Indian scalp—man, woman or child. In 1860 the scalp bounty was boosted to $5. Many local communities had their own scalp bounties.
With some few exceptions, California newspapers up and down the state promoted the extermination. Here’s the Yreka Herald in 1853:
We hope that the Government will render such aid as will enable the citizens of the north to carry on a war of extermination until the last redskin of these tribes has been killed. Extermination is no longer a question of time—the time has arrived, the work has commenced, and let the first man that says treaty or peace be regarded as a traitor.
One of the exceptions was the San Francisco Bulletin. Here is an excerpt from the June 18, 1860, edition, as cited by Trafzer and Hyer:
We have been informed through the papers, of the murderous outrages committed on the aboriginal inhabitants of California by men with white skins. We regret to say that there is no exaggeration in these accounts. On the contrary, on conversing with a number of individuals who, to some extent, witnessed the transactions, we can bring to light no circumstance to palliate or extenuate them in the slightest degree. In the Atlantic and Western States, the Indians have suffered wrongs and cruelties at the hands of the stronger race. But history has no parallel to the recent atrocities perpetrated in California. Even the record of Spanish butcheries in Mexico and Peru has nothing so diabolical.
Humboldt County, in the northern section of the State has been the secne of a great portion of these outrages. The perpetrators seem to have acted with a deliberate design to exterminate the Indian race. Their butchery was confined to women and children, the men being absent at that time.
Mendocino County, within a few days’ travel of San Francisco, has been the theatre of atrocities nearly parallel under cover of martial authority. Regularly organized bodies of armed men attacked the settlements of friendly Indians charged with stealing cattle, and murdered them in like manner, except that fire-arms were used and not hatchets. In this case, men, as well as women and children, were massacred. To defray the expenses of this heroic work enormous claims were presented to the Legislature.
Their book is filled with page after page of such grim barbarism being carried out by the people who dared to call themselves civilized and those they murdered bestial.
Many Indians managed to escape the depredations of the vigilantes, militias and U.S. Army that worked to confine those Indians who weren’t massacred onto reservations. To avoid either fate, many Indians blended themselves into the Spanish-speaking population, adopting Spanish names and customs. Thus did they lose their Indian identity to save their lives.
Old stuff, you say? It’s the 21st Century, after all. Other than providing another example of that so-called American exceptionalism known then and for decades afterward as “Manifest Destiny,” why raise the matter at all?
Professor Madley summed it up:
Will state officials tender public apologies, as Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush did in the 1980s for the relocation and internment of some 120,000 Japanese Americans during World War II? Should state officials offer compensation, along the lines of the more than $1.6 billion Congress paid to 82,210 of these Japanese Americans and their heirs? Might California officials decrease or altogether eliminate their cut of California Indians’ annual gaming revenueas a way of paying reparations? Should the state return control to California Indian communities of state lands where genocidal events took place? Should the state stop commemorating the supporters and perpetrators of this genocide, including Burnett, Kit Carson and John C. Frémont? Will the genocide against California Indians join the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust in public school curricula and public discourse? [...]
Decency demands that even long after the deaths of the victims, we preserve the truth of what befell them, so that their memory can be honored and the repetition of similar crimes deterred. Justice demands that even long after the perpetrators have vanished, we document the crimes that they and their advocates have too often concealed or denied. Finally, historical veracity demands that we acknowledge this state-sponsored catastrophe in all its varied aspects and causes, in order to better understand formative events in both California Indian and California state history.
There is no doubt that what occurred in California was a genocide, before that was even a word. The bloody consequences continue to have an effect today, with many tribes—like the surviving Ohlone of the San Francisco Bay Area—unable to gain federal recognition as tribes and the advantages to their people that this would convey.
The typical American knows at least the outlines of the Little Big Horn story, with its dramatic but relatively small loss of life. Few know of the 140,000 or so Indians who died at the hands of less colorful and renowned men who flowed into California with the 49ers and afterward. There was one massacre after another after another after another, in each of which more California Indians were killed than were soldiers of Custer’s regiment in Montana. White Californians, the vast majority of them newcomers, had reduced the California Indian population to about 30,000 by 1873.
That genocide does not make for a pretty story. But it ought to be told often enough to make it as familiar to us as Custer’s story.