Benjamin Madley Lecture (Summary)

Mon, 10/31/2016 - 1:09pm

Benjamin Madley, PhD (University of California, Los Angeles)
“An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873​”
October 11, 2016

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Benjamin Madley's Lecture on Genocide of California Native Americans

On October 11, 2016, Dr. Benjamin Madley presented a lecture detailing just some of his exhaustive research on the systematic extermination of California’s indigenous population from the first wave of gold rush settlers to the beginning of California’s third decade as an American state. The result of that research is his book An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873.

Benjamin Madley is Assistant Professor of History at UCLA, where he specializes in Native America, the United States, and genocide in world history. He received his Ph.D. at Yale and was an Andrew Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at Dartmouth.

Professor Benjamin Madley began his public lecture at the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research by reminding the audience that sitting on the campus of the University of Southern California, the audience is sitting in Indian country. Commuting home from campus after the lecture, everyone will travel across land that is someone’s ancestral home. He then turned to an evocative description of a massacre committed by 116 volunteer state militia members against the Tolowa Indians on the last day of 1854. The conflict resulted in one casualty on the militia’s side and in hundreds of Indian deaths.

Between 1846 and 1873, the California Indian population plunged from 150,000 to 30,000. Professor Madley described that while the Indians died from diseases, exposure, starvation, and dislocation, there was much more at play, including systematic killings, abductions, forced labor, and other practices that constitute what we now call genocide. To ascribe the powerful term “genocide” to an event or a series of events, Professor Madley explained, the UN convention that defines the term provides an evaluative rubric. For something to constitute genocide, the intent to destroy a group (in whole or in part) must be evident, as well as the commitment of one of five genocidal acts described in the definition.

Professor Madley’s new book, An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873, is the first book to provide a year-by-year, month-by-month, week-by-week recounting of the decimation of the California Indian population. He described that his aim with the book is to bring genocide studies into conversation with the Native American experience. (In genocide studies, he pointed out, the Native American genocide has received little attention compared to the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, or the Rwandan genocide.) By analyzing the roles the government and private individuals played in the genocide, who ordered the killings, who carried them out, what catalyzed them, and why we do not know more, Professor Madley argued, we can reach a broader understanding of the role of genocide in the making of states in the Western Hemisphere, as well as challenge conventional wisdom about the massive number of deaths of California Indians.

Throughout his lecture, which was punctuated with descriptions of atrocities like the massacre he described at the beginning of his talk, Professor Madley offered evidence that the deaths of California Indians were the result of deliberate, direct, and intentional strategies to eliminate them. State and federal officials supported these efforts, providing legal protection, financial support, material incentives, weapons and ammunition, and manpower to the killing campaigns.

Before the Gold Strike in 1848, indigenous people played a myriad of roles in California -- as fieldworkers, cowboys, wives, politicians. When the Gold Strike happened, Oregon men came south looking for gold. And by 1849, the annihilation of California Indians had begun with massacres, scalpings, and beheadings in the Central Californian mines. Professor Madley described how the killing of two white ranchers in Kelseyville in Northern California became the turning point towards a statewide genocide. In retaliation, vigilantes and US Army soldiers killed 1,000 Indians or more between December 1849 and May 1850. They started with murdering Indians working as farm and ranch workers in Napa and Sonoma Valleys. Eight vigilantes were arrested, and the California Supreme Court let them go on bail and never pursued prosecution. To avenge the deaths of these ranchers, the US Army committed a massacre at Clear Lake in which 800 Indians may have been killed in one day. Army officers involved in massacres were rewarded with promotions, later becoming US Army generals or even governors of the state. Most state and federal authorities supported the killing campaigns by vigilantes and the US Army. 

Before gold was discovered in California, there were 13,000 to 14,000 non-Indians living in the state. By 1860, there were over 360,000 newcomers. This was the single largest mass migration in the United States up until that time. The pressure on the indigenous people created by this huge influx was immense, as was the newcomers’ search for wealth, labor, clothing, food, and housing. 

In 1850, California’s first elected legislature banned Indians from voting, serving as jurors or attorneys, or testifying in court. California Indians were no longer able to participate in or be protected by the state’s legal system. As they lost their protections, abductions of Indians increased in frequency, forcing them into unpaid work based on trumped-up charges. In 1860, California’s legislature legalized the indenture of Indians. Slave raids became legal. In Los Angeles alone, according to census takers, the Indian population plummeted from 3,669 people in 1850 to 219 people in 1870.

In 1851, the first elected governor of California had declared in his State of the State address that the “war of extermination will continue to be waged” until Indians are extinct. Professor Madley pointed out that the genocidal intent here is evident. State legislators voted to take out a loan to pay for militia operations. The state started amassing ammunitions that they got from the US Army. The state passed bond measures to fund further “expeditions against the Indians.” 

Not only the state government endorsed the murder of Indians, the federal government also made California Indians vulnerable, denying military protection to five temporary military reservations they had set aside for California Indians, meaning that outsiders could enter and kidnap Indians from these reservations. Militia manuals were distributed from the Department of War. And in 1861, Congress paid the expenses of Indian operations.

Professor Madley described large removal operations, in which Indians were forcibly transferred to the reservations on land set aside by the US Congress. Malnutrition and starvation on these reservations were common. By 1860, at the Round Valley Reservation, Native American workers were expected to subsist on 480 to 910 calories per day. By 1860, the calorie count for workers dropped to between 160 and 390 per day. These reservations possessed hundreds of cattle, but the California Indians were not allowed to eat meat. Malnutrition lowered their immune systems, rendering them more susceptible to disease. Miscarriages and stillbirths increased. Lethal starvation was common. 

During the Civil War, tens of thousands of California men enlisted in the Union Army but remained in the state. Army campaigns against Indians increased. It was at this time that genocide became a federal project. 

Professor Madley summarized that between 1846 and 1873, there were 370 separate massacres and hundreds of individual executions and homicides. Vigilantes, militiamen, and soldiers killed between 9,492 and 16,094 California Indians and probably more. California Indians killed fewer than 1,500 non-Indians during the same period. He argued that elected state officials in California were the primary architects of the annihilation of California Indians. The US Army played a crucial role. Federal officials ultimately paid for most of it and took over the operations themselves. 

Returning to the UN definition of genocide, Professor Madley enumerated how in addition to the killings, there is ample evidence that the other genocidal acts in the definition were committed as well, and he described some of that evidence, including the forcible transfer of 3,000 to 4,000 California Indian children between 1850 and 1868. 

The lengthy and animated Q&A that followed Professor Madley’s lecture included a discussion of his methodology, which involved traveling to California Indian communities to share his findings, often leading to more discoveries. During the Q&A, he also discussed the motivations of perpetrators; whether the California case is representative or typical or whether it is unique; why it is important to use the term “genocide”; avenues for future research; why he chose 1873 as the end date for his study; and the resistance that exists to bringing this chapter of history into full consciousness. Professor Madley argued that even now, issues related to Indian country continue to be underrecognized and underpublicized, as exemplified by the current conflict at Standing Rock. He reiterated that the scope and manner of the Native American genocide in California raise fundamental issues that force us to examine who we are, what we are doing, where we stand, and that make us think about the origins and foundations of our state. 


Summary by Martha Stroud