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  • A Hidden Truth
  • Duane Niatum (bio)
An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe
Benjamin Madley
Yale University Press
712 Pages; Print, $38.00

Benjamin Madley's book about the destruction and murder of American Indians in California was admittedly one of the most difficult books I have ever read. This book details year by year and incident by incident the murders of California Indians by Americans, how many died, by what means, and the locations where each massacre occurred. Each incident is supported by documented evidence, and the cumulative effect of reading them is overwhelming. This reason alone supports why it is so important for as many Americans as possible to read it.

Madley narrates events in the period of 1846 to 1873, and points out that there existed an earlier California Indian population catastrophe. During the Russo-Hispanic period of seventy-seven years, (1769-1846), Indians suffered a horrendous demographic decline. This was "when the Spaniards, Russians, and Mexicans colonized the coastal region between San Diego and Fort Ross. California's Indian population fell from perhaps 310,000 to 150,000. Some 62,600 of these deaths occurred at or near California's coastal region missions," and, in 1946, journalist Carey McWilliams denounced the Franciscan missionaries as holding large numbers of California Indians as slaves. So Russo-Hispanic colonization caused the deaths of tens of thousands of California Indian people.

Under US rule, California Indians died at a worse rate. Between 1846-1870, California Indian populations plunged from perhaps 150,000 to 30,000. By 1880, census takers recorded just 16,277 California Indians. Along with systematic murder and extermination, diseases, dislocation, and starvation were also important causes of these deaths. As the historical demographer Sherburne Cook pointed out, "a complete lack of any legal control" helped create the context in which all of this tragedy this happened.

This destruction was not a guarded secret. Mid-nineteenth century California newspapers frequently addressed, and often encouraged, what we would now call genocide, as did some state and federal employees at the time. Thus it is not surprising that in 1935, US Indian Affairs commissioner John Collier said, "The world's annals contain few comparable instances of swift depopulation—practically, of racial massacre—at the hands of a conquering race."

Sherburne Cook wrote the first major study on the subject of the violent killing of 4,556 California Indians between 1847 and 1865, and concluded, "since the quickest and easiest way to get rid of (the Northern California Indian) was to kill him off, this procedure was adopted as a standard for some years."

Genocide is a crime defined by an international legal treaty and subsequent case law. On December 9, 1948, the UN General Assembly adopted the UN Genocide Convention and it is the only authoritative international legal definition. And fortunately, it has teeth and a growing body of case law.

Scholar Van H. Garner said in 1982 that "Federal Indian policy in California was genocidal in practice." Then historian James Rawls added to the discussion when he argued some whites openly "advocated and carried out a program of genocide that was popularly called 'extermination.'"

Anthropologist Russell Thornton took it further in 1987. Thornton argued, "The largest, most blatant, deliberate killings of North American Indians by non-Indians surely occurred in California." And several other historians made similar claims.

Madley says that his book is the first one to describe the extensively societal, judicial, and political support for the genocide as well as how it unfolded. It shows the causes of the genocide, state and federal government decision-makers' roles, the organization and funding of the killing, and the vigilantes, volunteer state militiamen, and US soldiers who did the killing and how they did it. Furthermore, it details public support for the genocide, the number of California Indians killed, the nature of indigenous resistance, the changes in genocidal patterns over time, and the end of genocide in California.

He offers a significant irony in writing his book in that he relied primarily on non-Indian perpetrators and bystander accounts because in establishing...


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