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  • An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846–1873 by Benjamin Madley
  • Brendan Lindsay (bio)
An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846–1873. By Benjamin Madley. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016. Pp. 712. Cloth, $38.00.)

Benjamin Madley's impressive An American Genocide advances genocide studies and California history significantly. In this chronologically organized, painstakingly researched, impeccably documented monograph, Madley sets goals he achieves admirably. Key among these is making the case that genocide was committed against California Indian peoples by the state of California and the United States government through direct [End Page 195] and indirect policies and laws, financial sponsorship, neglect, and massacres committed by state militia and U.S. Army units.

The core of Madley's argument focuses on the intentionality of government-sponsored genocide in California. Madley assembled a massive data set of the violent killings taking place in California using letters, government reports, newspaper articles, and other archival sources, which he then organized chronologically, and set about looking for patterns. This method applied to a mass of evidence clearly produced results. Most important among them is what timing in policy decisions can tell us about genocidal intent.

Madley shows a vicious cycle of state and federal action and inaction intended to bring about genocide. California created laws removing legal protections and denying rights to Indians, prevented them from sustaining themselves as cohesive groups, and sanctioned militia and volunteer campaigns to physically exterminate Native peoples or deliver them into conditions producing similarly mortal results. The timing and context of these genocidal policies and actions encouraged non-Native Californians to commit acts of unsanctioned genocide. By the 1860s, non-Native Californians were killing Indian people with impunity, adding to the violent death tolls Madley estimates at 9,000–16,000 murdered between 1846 and 1873. Madley's method reveals another important conclusion: Over time, operations designed to annihilate California Indians became smaller, yet more effective in terms of body counts and expense. The patterns also reveal how vigilante, state militia, and army units destroyed village sites and resources stores, oftentimes as Native communities were about to face the brutal winters of the mountains into which they had been driven. The state then billed the national government. The United States repaid much of the cost incurred, meanwhile adopting federal policies best described as malevolent neglect. Lawmakers cut funding for Indian affairs when needed most, refused to ratify treaties, directed federal agents and army officers not to interfere in stemming violence, ignored public and intragovernmental reports of atrocities and unlivable reservation conditions, ceded Native land bases to the state, and ordered troops to carry out the murder or removal of Indian peoples. The consequence of state and federal action and inaction, Madley argues, was the creation of a "killing machine" (173) clearly intended—in whole or in part—to exterminate California Indians as a group.

Madley employs the definitions set forth in the 1948 UN Genocide Convention. As with other scholars adopting this standard, much [End Page 196] depends on a reader's acceptance or rejection of this document as defining authority. It is a third-party standard, conceived neither by Native peoples nor the United States government, and serves perhaps as the most neutral arbiter possible in such a debate. Nonetheless, it is an attractive target for naysayers; it is relatively broad in its categorizations, open to interpretation, and seems to favor the rights of victims rather than err on the side of perpetrators. It seems an appropriate choice, given the hesitancy of many Americans to even consider the possibility of an American genocidal past.

The work is not without some weaknesses and potential disappointments. Madley well places himself in the historiography of American Indian genocide in the text, but is less successful when it comes to California history. There is a rich literature on atrocities committed against Native people in California—dozens of books and articles have commented on the slaughter of California Indians—yet one must consult the endnotes to really get such a sense. Indeed, Madley's front cover flap claims that he is the "first historian to uncover the full extent...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1553-0620
Print ISSN
0275-1275
Pages
pp. 195-198
Launched on MUSE
2018-03-03
Open Access
No
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