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The Real Story of the 49ers

The reality of the early gold-rush prospectors was not nearly as benevolent as the mascot’s wide smile may suggest.

Over a period of 10 months in 1851, three agents of the Indian Affairs Office negotiated 18 treaties “of peace and friendship” with the Native Americans of California. Under the agreements, the Indians would retain about one-seventh of the state—about the size of West Virginia—in the form of discrete reservations.

When the white Californians heard the terms, they were outraged: Why reserve even a single acre for the Indians?

The treaty documents arrived in D.C. in early 1852. Lea noted, with some chagrin, that “there was violent opposition to [the California treaties] in the legislature of that State,” but he nonetheless requested their adoption by the U.S. Senate. Rejecting the treaties, Lea wrote, “would be hazardous and unwise.”

The protests of California’s white men, however, drowned out Lea’s tepid advocacy. What happened next would become one of the lowest moments of shameless treachery in the history of the U.S. Senate.

Meeting in a closed-door executive session on July 8, 1852, a majority of senators voted to reject all 18 treaties. They then took the extraordinary measure of ordering the treaties filed under an injunction of secrecy and transferred to an obscure federal archive, which held them for more than 50 years. The voided agreements would not see the light of day again until 1905.

Despite the Senate’s formal rejection, federal and state officials in California carried on as if the treaties were in force—and apparently nobody bothered to inform the tribes of their true status under the law.

President Millard Fillmore, Taylor’s successor, appointed a superintendent of Indian affairs for California, a man named Edward Beale, and charged him with moving the state’s remnant Native American population onto reservations that encompassed roughly one-one-hundredth of the state—not the one-seventh promised.

Only weeks into the job, a heartsick Beale wrote to Lea, his boss, describing the desperate situation. “The wretched remnant which escapes starvation on the one hand, and the relentless whites on the other, only do so to rot and die of a loathsome disease, the penalty of Indian association with frontier civilization,” Beale wrote. “I have seen it, and seeing all this, I cannot help them. I know they starve; I know they perish by hundreds … It is a crying sin that our government, so wealthy and so powerful, should shut its eyes to the miserable fate of these rightful owners of the soil.”

Through the indiscriminate use of terrorism and murder, California’s 49ers carried out one of the most successful—and, until recently, largely unacknowledged—campaigns of ethnic cleansing the world has ever seen.

Land losses were near total. Disease, malnutrition, and starvation—driven by exotic white pathogens and widespread environmental destruction—accounted for a significant reduction in the indigenous population. Murder did the rest.

The census of 1880 recorded just 16,277 Indians in California, a 90 percent decline from pre–Gold Rush days.