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California's Native Americans

Living in the high Sierra Nevada, the California Native Americans that play a role in The House on Harrigan’s Hill are the Washo (Washoe) and the Paiute.

Estimates range from 130,000 to 700,00 Native Americans who inhabited the length and breadth of California long before the land was settled by Spanish and immigrants from all over the world. Those who swooped into California overwhelmed the native population. From the time of the Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, and English explorers until the Gold Rush and discovery of passes over the Sierra, California’s Native American population was doomed.

The Washo lived high in the Sierra with families from Honey Lake to the west fork of Walker River. Living away from the unhealthy immigrants, they were luckier than most, but by the time the transcontinental railroad was built even their population had declined. The Washo spent the seasons moving from the Lake Tahoe region over the mountains to the eastern side of the Sierra to gather piñon nuts which were a diet staple. Until the “white men” settled in Soda Springs, Boca, and Truckee, the families spent the snowy winter in sheltered valleys between Lake Tahoe and the eastern Sierra range. The Washo did not have armaments like the settlers and did not keep horses. Not fighters like the Plains tribes, only one “war” involving Washo occurred with American settlers. The Washo were starving in 1857 and stole potatoes from farmer’s fields which led to slaughter in the Potato War.

The Paiute were more wide-ranging and mostly lived on the Nevada side of the mountains in different territories near water such as those that called the Pyramid Lake their home. Although they hunted in the Sierra mountains claimed by California, the families roamed the Nevada desert, searching a good amount of time for food. They were called thieves and rustlers to emigrants plodding along the Humboldt River, crossing the dry alkali sinks, searching for the Truckee or Carson Rivers. The tribes rode horses they had appropriated from Plains tribes. Although the Paiute and Shoshone, another western tribe that roamed Nevada and Utah, were peaceful with each other, the Paiute and the Washo did not get along.

Recall that the news from the explorers proclaimed the beauty and fertility of the land. The indigenous peoples hunted herds of wild animals, such as elk, antelope, and deer. The variety of birds from plover to red-tail hawks astonished newcomers. The original peoples of the country gathered and ate plentiful fish from the rivers and the edible plants from the valleys. Nothing had to be sown and harvested which eventually led newcomers to label the natives by the derogatory term of “Diggers.” All of that abundance was gone with the influx of emigrants and hunger arrived.

By the late 1700s the Spanish missions were established up and down the coast to gain a foothold in the state and to Christianize the Native Americans. Then, the Spanish/Mexican Army set up presidios and the Indians were the servants and workers. Soon rancheros settled and Native Americans became the vaqueros (cowboys) for the vast herds of cattle, sheep, and horses raised on the grass hills which can still be found all around the cities of California. A few natives hid on their rancherías in gorges or mountains. By 1900 many had slipped into settlements to avoid the reservations.

Do not think that, like the vanquished Plains tribes, California Native Americans were only shot, murdered, or rounded up onto reservations. As in many parts of the world where Europeans seized the land, disease decimated the indigenous people who had no immunity. Think of the Russians at Fort Ross who first brought small pox to natives. Well before 1900, less than half of the California Native Americans remained, from the Klamath in the north, Washo in the east, Chumash on the coast, to Luiseño near the border with Mexico.

If one reads early logs, diaries, and memoirs of the strife while settling California, the indigenous people are often called renegades, savages, heathens, devils, and worse. Emigrant opinion was surly and vicious. Rarely were Americans jailed for killing Indians, nor were they tried even when witnesses admitted what had occurred. The U.S. army participated in some of the most well-known massacres of native tribes.

In a country that was beautiful, fertile, and big enough for millions of inhabitants, from the days of the Spanish missions, the natives were treated poorly, untrusted, abused, and by the 1870’s were nearly destroyed.

If you would like to read more detail about the treatment of the California Native Americans, read

Indians and Intruders in Central California by George Harwood Phillips, University of Oklahoma, vol. 207, 1993

When the Great Spirit Died by William B. Secrest, Word Dancer Press 2003

California Indians and the Gold Rush by Clifford Trafger, Sierra Oaks Publishing Co, 1989

-originally posted November 2014

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