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101 CHAPTER 7 Indians and the California Gold Rush JEAN M. O’BRIEN The California gold rush is stock-in-trade of U.S. history textbooks. And no wonder: It is a story packed with drama. It is also a story that fits into any number of common framing devices or narrative themes that authors of survey texts need to identify in order to sift through the vast available material and find coherence. It is easily leashed to the ongoing sectional struggle over abolition and slavery; to Manifest Destiny, westward expansion, and the Mexican War; to the outward reach of the United States to the Pacific and to the globe; to immigration history, especially Chinese immigration, and the production of a multicultural nation; to labor history, the history of business/capitalism, environmental history, and more. How do Indians, or, more broadly, indigenous peoples, fit into these themes? If the textbooks are to be taken as proof, then, it turns out, not very well, and in the case of California, almost not at all. (I would like to note that it need not be so for any of these themes/narrative strategies.) Indians are never a structural framing device in any U.S. history textbook, despite the many efforts many historians have made over the past several decades to incorporate Indians into their narratives, and perhaps they never can be given the inherently nationalistic project in which textbooks partake.1 I still think we should “call the question.” To truly center indigenous peoples in the U.S. history survey poses substantial threats to the ultimately celebratory nationalism inherent in the genre in multifaceted ways. The result is the continuing and virtually complete marginalization of Indian peoples in U.S. history (manifested in the textbook problem) despite the utter impossibility of the making of the United States without Indians. California Indian history has been the subject of a vast literature, including a great many monographs that have taken up the history, culture, and demography of California Indians in the pre-Hispanic, mission, and Mexican periods up to the present. As Albert Hurtado lays out in the introduction to his important book Indian Survival on the California Frontier, much of the literature on California Indians has focused on the “grisly statistics of population reduction” that followed the incursions of the 102 JEAN M. O’BRIEN Spanish, building on the important work of Sherburne F. Cook.2 Other important topics of consideration in this formidable body of work include the rich and path-breaking cultural anthropology of Alfred L. Kroeber and his students that reconstructed the complex cultural and linguistic terrain of indigenous California. Scholars have probed the intricate histories of California missions, the long history of indigenous labor, the complex workings of Indian policy, non-Indian attitudes about California Indians, and much more. Hurtado’s book is carefully situated in this much-larger historiography and provides a way of thinking about how the large body of scholarly literature on Indians has—and dramatically has not—influenced the presence of this complex story in the teaching of U.S. history. His signal contribution (in addition to synthesizing much of this important work) is to point out in no uncertain terms the ways in which California Indians survived this history despite what seem like insurmountable odds. Hurtado brings this story together in such a way that it ought to be able to influence the larger narrative about California Indians. How might Hurtado (and the larger scholarly literature on which he builds) provide a narrative of the California gold rush that places Indians at the center? Let’s start by how he narrates the triggering event: Development of the central district [of the mines] began when Indian and white workers discovered gold while building Sutter’s sawmill in Koloma Nisenan [i.e., Native] country. To start this project Sutter, who had recently been appointed federal subagent, drafted an indenture with the Yalisumni Nisenan that ostensibly granted him and his partner, James Marshall, a twenty year lease to the Nisenan property with the exclusive right to cultivate land, cut timber, and build a sawmill and “other necessary machinery for the purpose.” Since the Yalisumnis lived twenty miles downstream from the Kolomas, it appears that Sutter was using his reliable Yalisumni workers to colonize the mountain country for New Helvetia. After gold was found, Sutter sent the indenture to Governor Mason for approval. Without mentioning gold, he claimed that the new settlement would teach the Yalisumni habits of...


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