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¡§When the Okies left Oklahoma and moved to California, it raised the I

California Indians                                               Matt Sommer


Albert L. Hurtado was born and raised in Sacramento and received his Ph. D. at UC Santa Barbara. He was the winner of the 1989 Ray Allen Billington Prize awarded by the Organization of American Historians for the best book in American frontier history. Albert L. Hurtado currently has the Paul H. and Doris Eaton Travis Chair in Modern American history at the University of Oklahoma.



When studying Indian life in California, the thing that is most amazing is the number of Indians that perish after contact with Europeans. The book Indian Survival on the California Frontier by Albert L. Hurtado is about Indian contact with Europeans and the effects of contact. In California in the late eighteenth century, when Hispanic settlement first began, the Native American population was estimated at around 300,000. By the 1850¡¦s that number had been reduced to around 30,000. In his book, Albert H. Hurtado wrote, ¡§these astonishing numbers represent the human cost of dispossessing California Indians and replacing them with a non-native population.¡¨ 1

The introduction of the book primarily concerns the mass number of Indians that died after contact with Europeans. However, the author also gives an overview of the ways in which Indians lived in northern California. Hurtado describes that survival was more difficult for Indians in California because there were many separate Indian cultures. Nevertheless, the small groups of Indians were often able to accommodate themselves to white invaders by either attempting to fight them off or integrating themselves into European culture. Chapters one and two deal with Indian family and culture and the ways the Indians clashed with the Europeans when they first met. Indians valued family above all else. The basic household unit for Native Americans in California consisted of a couple and their children. As typical of many families throughout history, the men would go out and hunt while the women took care of duties at home. The women worked very hard, perhaps even harder than most men. Upon the arrival of Europeans to California, Europeans established many missions to convert Indians and integrate them into Hispanic culture. At first, Indians were reluctant to go to the missions, but disease, death and hunger left them with no other option. Indian labor became a necessity in frontier life. Much of Spanish colonization would not have been possible ¡§without native workers to till the soil and work the mines.¡¨ 2 John Sutter was one example of a European who used Indian labor by using it to establish a settlement called New Helvetia.


Chapter three describes how Indians became a labor force in California. The Anglos used Indian labor just like the Spanish. Anglos used Indians for labor and to fit white needs. It was necessary for the Anglos to keep the Indians in fear to be able to keep the Indians disciplined. John Sutter managed to keep the Native Americans disciplined by alerting them with a bell when it was time to do something. Hurtado explains that ¡§the clang of Sutter¡¦s bell announced that time was money, that it marched onward, and that it waited for no man, including Indians in the 1840¡¦s.¡¨ 3 Furthermore, Sutter kept order by whipping, jailing, and executing rebels. Sutter¡¦s New Helvetia threatened Indian communities by draining them of able bodied men. When Indians were first instituted as a labor force, the overall Indian population declined. Chapter four centers around how the Indians were viewed and portrayed by the European invaders to California. The image of Indians as docile helped achieve Manifest Destiny. More Europeans moved to California when they learned that Indians were easy to control. Rather than trying to control the Indians, most Europeans preferred getting rid of the Indians altogether. However, in California, Indians were more beneficial to Europeans than in other areas in the United States. Chapter five deals with the different laws created to control the Indians and the different ways in which Indians in California were dealt with by the Europeans. Certain groups of Native Californians raided European settlements to steal horses. These raiders made travel dangerous, threatened livestock, and even killed whites who challenged them. As a result, Europeans made Indians carry passports to travel throughout California. Indians were even shot on the pretext of being a horse thief, with or without proof.

 Chapter six mainly concerns Indians during the Gold Rush. Before the Gold Rush, Indians outnumbered whites ten to one. During the 1850¡¦s, however, whites outnumbered Indians two to one. The mining districts were an especially dangerous place for Indians because there was little law and order. Indians were impoverished everywhere and risked infection and disease. In spite of this, Indian labor was more valuable than ever. Indians eventually learned that they could bargain gold for goods, which made surviving a little easier. Indians were only able to survive during the Gold rush by ¡§accommodating, working, fighting, and hiding out.¡¨ 4 Chapters seven and eight deal with how the Indians lived and what happened to them in the 1850¡¦s. After 1848, whites established reservations to exert more direct control over the Native Americans. Whites thought that by putting Indians in reservations they could keep Indians in check and also help them become members of European society. Europeans created five military reservations in 1853. Most Indians stayed in their areas of residencies rather than going to the reservations, but over the next decade federal and state troops forced Indians on to the reservations. Hurtado wrote that the reservations were hardly a safe place for the California Indians. Whites killed and kidnapped Indians on reservations throughout California. Warfare depleted much of the Indian population in the 1850¡¦s. Europeans outnumbered Indians and had better technology so Indians stood very little chance at defeating the Europeans. Reservations and ranchos, if properly established, would have saved many Indian lives. Indians wanted whites to leave them alone so they could live as their forefathers had. Hurtado states that ¡§most [Indians] wanted to live in their traditional territory,¡¨ so they could do just that. 5  Previously, John Sutter had employed many Native American workers, but during the 1850¡¦s he preferred to hire white workers because he thought they were more productive and cost effective.

The central idea of chapter nine is the Indian women in the 1850¡¦s and their lives. The population of Indian women, like that of Native Americans in California as a whole, decreased significantly after contact with the Europeans. The Indian frontier in California was interesting because it was a sexual frontier. There were many interracial sexual encounters throughout California since the arrival of the Spaniards. The Spanish were fairly open about sexual encounters with the Indians and as a result the Spanish and Indians created a mixed race, called mestizos. The Anglo men were different from the Spanish because they refrained from encounters with the Indians. However, there are several instances and records of Anglo men mixing with Indian women. Anglo men would disrupt Indians¡¦ communities when they had relations with Indian women. One explanation for why Anglo men mixed with Indian women, despite the fact that this was often frowned upon, was because they had to satisfy their needs for sex and companionship in a world where the only available women are Indian. Hurtado wrote that some Native American women resorted to prostitution because of hunger and privation. Various diseases transmitted through the contact of these two cultures only made Indian survival more difficult. Syphilis made it difficult for Native Americans to recover losses in their declining population. In the mining districts where there was little law and order, there were common cases of Indian women being raped and molested. Indians increased abortions and infanticide to kill undesirable children fathered by whites. High death rates offset healthy birthrates in even the best of Indian communities. Chapter ten, Indian Survival on the California Frontier, is about Indian survival in the 1860¡¦s. As the 1860¡¦s wore on, it became increasingly difficult for Native Californians to find work, especially from employers who would treat them well. In Monterey, Indian men were mostly unskilled laborers on ranchos while women were often domestics in Anglo and Spanish homes. The Monterey population, although it lived in peace, lived in poverty and could not sustain itself. A census taken in Butte in 1960 showed no identifiable conjugal Indian couples. Butte rancho owners at that same time segregated sexes and discouraged marriage and child rearing. Native Americans in California became reliant on white economy and federal assistance for survival. Throughout California, Indian men outnumbered Indian women. In addition, some potentially fertile Indian women lived with white men, creating a shortage of women available to Indian men. Hurtado describes the irony in the integration of Indians into white society when he says that ¡§economic and social integration created conditions that permitted individual Indians to survive, but also contributed to an overall decrease in native numbers.¡¨ 6 In Anglo and Hispanic California, the transformation of native Californians from a racial and cultural majority into a working class minority contributed to a drastic and tragic population decline. The conclusion of the book deals with the overall population decline of native Californians and sums up the book. In the conclusion Hurtado writes about how people of color throughout history were prime candidates for labor exploitation. He also describes how the reservation system failed because it was ill conceived. Disease, starvation, and violence, along with infertility, contributed to thousands of deaths. Indian labor served only to help individuals survive and not the entire Native American population. Paradoxically, segregation was the only way to protect Indian populations and yet not enough land could be set aside to do so. Indians in different regions throughout California fought and accommodated according to their needs and local conditions. Simple survival required flexibility, tenacity, and heroism. However, no matter what Indians attempted, they had their lands stripped from them. 

Hurtado¡¦s thesis is that Indians in California were unique because they were able to accommodate themselves to white incursions, whether through warfare or obedience. Hurtado effectively supports his thesis. For example, the Indian horse raiders in California were able to survive as a culture by fighting white expansion through the theft of the whites¡¦ horses. Also many Indians were able to survive through obedience by becoming laborers on white farms and servants in whites¡¦ households. Although it seemed less noble to serve whites rather than fight them with pride, it was a more effective survival strategy. Although Hurtado was spot on in some aspects of his thesis, he was also wrong in many ways. Hurtado states that Indians accommodated themselves to the Europeans, but Indians, for the most part, were not able to ¡§persist in a hostile world.¡¨7 Indian population significantly decreased after contact with the Europeans. This shows that Indians were unsuccessful at integrating into European society.


Throughout the book Hurtado asserts that Indians persisted even in the face of adversity. However, Hurtado contradicted himself by providing statistics that shows this is largely untrue, as 90 percent of the population of Native Americans disappeared within the first hundred years of contact with Europeans. Hurtado describes the situation as not being chaotic but ¡§a catastrophe for the Indians.¡¨ 8 Also throughout the book the author¡¦s point of view seems to be unwaveringly on the side of Native Americans. Any time Indians are mentioned in the book, they are mentioned as victims. However, Hurtado is correct in this assumption of native Californians being the victim. Whether in California or the United States in general, Native Americans were constantly victimized and pushed out of their land by Europeans. Hurtado¡¦s assumptions about Native Americans as victims are because Hurtado is a New Left historian. Hurtado grew up in the modern age and was taught in school that the Indians were pushed out of their land. If Hurtado had written this book a hundred years earlier, he would see the Indians as undesirable rather than as victims of European expansion.

Raymond Starr, a book reviewer, describes Hurtado¡¦s book as ¡§a useful synthesis of the adaptation and survival of California Indians in the period from about 1819 to 1860.¡¨ 9 Starr also says the author focuses on several important themes, including the evolution of the Indian labor force, the consequences of Indian integration into the market economy, and the continued collapse of the Indian population. Also, Roger Nichols describes Hurtado¡¦s book, in a review, as having ¡§a wide-ranging and imaginative discussion of significant issues.¡¨ 10 Starr also says that Hurtado¡¦s book has many flaws. For example, Starr states that Hurtado was wrong when he used modern psychological literature to discuss the rape of Indian women because Hurtado did not indicate the extent of sexual assault that occurred when he used such literature. In addition, he states that Hurtado could have gained more insight into the family structure and the causes of Indian demographic collapse if he had investigated the demographic standards on missions. Starr also states that, despite a few flaws, Hurtado¡¦s book is worth reading and is a significant contribution to history. 

 Starr and Nichols are correct when they state the book is an insightful look at the lives of native Californians in the mid nineteenth century. Hurtado¡¦s book provides a lot of information about Indian and European encounters, Indians as a labor force, and the causes of demographic decline. However, Hurtado is incorrect when he states that ¡§Indians had adapted to successive changes in white society.¡¨ 11 Although some Indians were able to survive, ninety percent of the California Indian population did not survive. Despite any false assumptions that Hurtado makes, the book is worth reading because of the quality of information contained in it about the lives of California Indians and their struggle for survival.


California life during the mid eighteenth century was very similar to the antebellum south in the way whites dealt with the colored members of their communities. After the Civil War, southern blacks, although technically free, had as little freedom as before the war. The United States restricted blacks from traveling about without a pass with laws called black codes. Indians in California were treated in much the same way.  Hurtado states that ¡§as in the south... Anglo Americans deemed it necessary to assert control over numerous nonwhite people whose economic, social, and political places were racially defined.¡¨12 Indians were also similar to southern blacks because they were used as a labor force to fit white demands for agriculture.

Despite similarities with blacks, Hurtado sees California Indians as unique from other Indians and also as important to the rest of the country. Hurtado believes that Indians in California were unique from others in the ways in which they adapted to white incursions. He states that Indians knew when it was necessary to fight for their survival and also when it was necessary to be submissive to white invaders. California Indians were also unique because their agricultural and labor contributions helped advance some European colonies in California. As Hurtado states, ¡§Indians were saved so much as possible for labor.¡¨ 13 Furthermore, although the Indian reservation system set up in California failed, it set an example for the rest of the country of how to deal with the Native Americans.

In conclusion, disease, starvation, and violence were the main causes of Indian population decline. Although Indian labor was highly valued, especially during the Gold Rush, it was not the salvation of California Indians. The federal government also played a role in the decline of Indians because it took many steps to establish dominance over the Indians, but few steps to insure their survival. However, some Indians were able to survive through many difficulties despite the fact that ¡§they had fewer options than whites who faced radical change.¡¨ 14 The fact that any Indians survived is a tribute to their strength and courage in horrific times.


1. Hurtado, Albert L. Indian Survival on the California Frontier. New Haven: Yale   University Press, 1988  1.

2. Hurtado, Albert L. 24.

3. Hurtado, Albert L. 57.

4. Hurtado, Albert L. 124.

5. Hurtado, Albert L. 153.

6. Hurtado, Albert L. 209.

7. Hurtado, Albert L. 1.

8. Hurtado, Albert L. 1.

9. Starr, Raymond. ¡§Book Review.¡¨ The Journal of San Diego History Fall 1989. 31 May   2008 < http://www.sandiegohistory.org/journal/89fall/br-indian.htm>.

10. Nichols, Roger. ¡§Indian Survival on the California Frontier.¡¨ Yale University Press September 1990. 31 May 2008 <http://yalepress.yale.edu/book.asp?isbn=9780300047981>

11. Hurtado, Albert L. 123.

12. Hurtado, Albert L. 92.

13. Hurtado, Albert L. 55.

14. Hurtado, Albert L. 218.