The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1974, Volume 20, Number 4

Book Reviews

David J. Weber, Book Review Editor

They Were Only Diggers: A Collection Of Articles From California Newspapers, 1851-1866, On Indian And White Relations. Edited by Robert F. Heizer. Ramona, Ca.: Ballena Press, 1974. 126 pages. Softbound. $4.95.

Reviewed by Richard N. Ellis, associate professor, University of New Mexico, author of General Pope and U.S. Indian Policy and editor of New Mexico, Past and Present and The Western American Indians.

In recent years anthropologist Robert Heizer, whose recent publications include The Destruction of the California Indians and The Other Californians, the latter written in collaboration with A. J. Almquist, has done more than any other scholar to illuminate the sordid treatment of California Indians by Americans. This collection of articles from California newspapers from 1851 to 1866 contributes additional material on the same topic.

They Were Only Diggers, a title taken from one of the newspaper accounts, is organized into eight topical sections with a brief preface stating the editor’s purpose and his hope that the present generation has learned from the past and has come to question the values of earlier generations. This “grab sample” of newspaper accounts, as Heizer describes it, is designed to provide the general public “with the story of what really happened to the California Indians during the twenty bloody years following the discovery of gold.”

The first section deals with the kidnapping and enslavement of Indians and indicates that Indians sold for $50 to $250 each and were often brutally treated. Others describe conditions on reservations (which were unquestionably bad), Indian-white conflict, Indian social events, editorials on the Indian problem, Indians vs. Chinese, and a general section on the conditions of the Indians. The newspaper articles, chosen largely from papers in Sacramento and San Francisco because of their large circulation and their practice of printing verbatim from other smaller papers, confirm the record of brutalization of Indians in this period in which the Indian population in the state dropped drastically.

The newspapers describe unprovoked attacks upon unsuspecting Indians and their property, which helps account for the decline of Indian population from some 100,000 in 1848 to about 50,000 in 1870, and often criticize the regular army for not killing more Indians. However, they also demonstrate that there were numerous critics of the treatment of California Indians, who, although shocked and outraged at what they saw, were unable to prevent such treatment. The dispossession of California Indians from their land base and the impact on social and economic life becomes obvious as does the absence of government aid and protection. By the 1870s those survivors of the first two decades of American control had lost their land and much of their culture. Even when they attempted to emulate whites they were subject to ridicule.

The volume that Heizer has compiled is useful and interesting, and Californians and Americans in general should unquestionably be aware of this aspect of their past, but it could have been made more effective. Heizer indicates that this collection “is not a selection of the best or most brutal, bloody, or perhaps even the most interesting” of available articles, and if this is the case, one wonders why he did not use the best and most interesting items. If this is aimed at the general public, the value of the collection could also have been enhanced by a more effective introduction with a brief history of the treatment of California Indians in this period and with some mention of major events. However, even though Heizer has not effectively set his material in perspective, this volume will have the desired effect of informing Californians of past wrongs.