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Who Were the Real 49ers?

San Francisco 49ers fans may feel like their team name is less racist than the “Chiefs,” but given the history of the Gold Rush, they shouldn’t be so smug.

The first Spanish mission in California, Mission San Diego de Alcalá, was built in 1769 and founded by a cruel, bloodthirsty priest named Junipero Serra who was infamous for kidnapping, beating, and whipping Indigenous women and children. He would later establish nine of the state’s 21 Spanish Catholic missions and was known to refer to the deaths of Indigenous children as a “harvest.”

Elias Castillo, the author of A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California’s Indians by the Spanish Missions, wrote that Serra would hold the women and children captive and subject them to an “unforgiving regimen that would ultimately claim the lives of 62,000 Indians and devastate their civilizations, including the extinction of a number of small tribes.”

Then, following the Catholic invasion, came the gold-hungry “pioneers.” These white, get-rich-quick prospectors were known as the “49ers,” and tens of thousands of them flooded into California after gold was found at Sutter’s Mill in 1848.

According to anthropologists, in 1769 that area of the Pacific Coast was populated with at least 350,000 Indigenous people. By 1849, following 80 years of massacres, battles, removal, and rampant European diseases unfamiliar to Indigenous immune systems, the number of Indigenous people fell to 150,000. And by 1879, according to The New York Times, the population had fallen to 30,000 people. In one generation, the Indigenous share of California’s population fell from 90 to 1 percent.

Indeed, while the state did essentially everything it could to realize the genocide of the state’s Indigenous peoples, so did the 49ers themselves. The white prospectors hunted, murdered, and enslaved Natives. They raided tribal outposts, scalped the men, women, and children, and were paid for all the scalps and horses they took.

Thousands of Indigenous children were bought and sold as slaves. California’s governor and the legislature coordinated this attempted extermination of Natives. The state spent millions on bounties and militias to annihilate the original peoples of California. And millions of dollars in the mid-19th century is no small amount. Just $2 million in 1848 is the equivalent of nearly $78 million today.