Bitterest Crop: Genocide in California
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Bitterest Crop:
Genocide in California
Primary books discussed, in order of appearance:
Brendan C. Lindsay. Murder State: California’s Native American Genocide, 1846–1873. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012. 456pp. Tables, notes, bibliography, and index. $70.00 (cloth); $35.00 (paper).
Benjamin Madley. An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846–1873. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2016. 682pp. Appendices, notes, bibliography, and index. $38.00 (cloth).
Gary Clayton Anderson. Ethnic Cleansing and the Indian: The Crime That Should Haunt America. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2014. ix + 462 pp. Notes, bibliography, and index. $29.95 (cloth); $19.95 (paper).

California is like America, only more so, Wallace Stegner has often been paraphrased as saying. His actual words: “Like the rest of America, California is unformed, innovative, ahistorical, hedonistic, acquisitive, and energetic—only more so.”1 Placed in the past tense, Stegner’s statement demands an adverb: only more violently so. During its formative period of “innovation,” the Golden State witnessed the most deplorable violence in U.S. history. Too often, the “American genocide debate” has been presented in yes-or-no format: Did the U.S. ever commit genocide? Bad questions produce stale arguments. Better to ask: Where and why did “normal” anti-Indian violence—that is, American settler colonialism—become genocidal?

The fact of asymmetric mass atrocities in frontier California has never been secret. In 1935, before Congress, John Collier summarized the record: “The world’s annals contain few comparable instances of swift depopulation—practically, of racial massacre—at the hands of a conquering race.”2 Since the 1970s, historians of California have produced a series of local case studies on “genocide,” using the term invented by Raphael Lemkin after WWII and codified by the United Nations in 1948. Significantly, a Native activist—Hupa historian [End Page 187] Jack Norton, writing for the Indian Historian Press—first conjoined “California” and “genocide” in a book title (Genocide in Northwestern California, 1979). Two textbooks associated with the New Western History—Richard White’s It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own (1991) and John Mack Faragher’s The American West (2000)—judged anti-Indian violence in frontier California to be genocidal. Ken Burns included a section on this “war of extermination” in episode three of The West (1996). And, as Holocaust and Genocide Studies became institutionalized, survey authors turned 1630s New England and 1850s California into textbook American examples, as seen in Ben Kiernan’s Blood and Soil (2007).

However, most U.S. historians have been hesitant to refer to the California catastrophe as “state-assisted” or “state-supported.” This will—this must— change after Brendan C. Lindsay’s Murder State (2012) and Benjamin Madley’s An American Genocide (2016). Both books present irrefutable proof that Californians of high station and office, including governor Leland Stanford and chief justice Serranus Hastings, actively supported the intentional mass destruction of Natives. In horrifying detail, they reinforce Patricia Nelson Limerick’s comment to the New York Times upon the Gold Rush sesquicentennial: “I would never use the word genocide in the rest of the West, because you needed a state policy. But in California you had that.”3 Whether this brutal episode in Golden State history should be called a state-directed and/or a federal genocide remains disputable.

Murder State advances a thesis that borrows from Michael Mann’s The Dark Side of Democracy (2005), which portrayed post-Gold Rush California as a “genocidal democracy.” After the state entered the Union, argues Lindsay, landed interests used democratic processes and institutions to create a political culture organized around the dispossession and murder of Indians. “Rather than a government orchestrating a population to bring about the genocide of a group,” he writes, “the population orchestrated a government to destroy a group” (Lindsay, p. 22). Murder State explains how a minority perverted a majority, and how vigilantes committed massacre after massacre while the larger public responded with inaction, apathy, or tacit support. Murder State places more emphasis on Sacramento than D.C., but Lindsay demonstrates how this “genocide organized from the periphery” (p. 14) succeeded in capturing certain kinds of federal assistance—namely, militia reimbursements...