The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1984, Volume 30, Number 4
Thomas L. Scarf, Managing Editor

Book Reviews

Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor

Indians of California: The Changing Image. By James J. Rawls. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Maps. Notes. 293 Pages. $19.95.

Reviewed by Richard H. Peterson, Professor of California History at San Diego State University, and author of Manifest Destiny in the Mines (1975), The Bonanza Kings (1977), and numerous articles on western America.

This scholarly book demonstrates how Anglo images of the California Indians shifted according to the changing economic needs of the American population. During the Spanish and early Mexican eras, American fur trappers and hide traders, like contemporary European travelers to California, regarded the Indians as primitive but tragic victims of the indolent exploitive Hispanos. According to Rawls, this description helped to discredit Hispanic claims to such a potentially rich land as California. Although Rawls argues that the writings of Anglo-American visitors were influenced by the expansionist spirit of the day and the legacy of the Black Legend, he does not come to terms with David Langum’s thesis that such anti-Hispanic reports probably owed something to the industrial bias of Europeans and Americans viewing a pre-industrial society.

As Americans began to settle permanently in California in the 1830s and 1840s, their attitude towards the Indians began to change. They now saw them as a useful class of laborers for their own ranchos, farms, and mining activities, thereby adopting the Hispanic model of labor exploitation that they had earlier criticized. After the American conquest of California, Indians were denied basic rights of citizenship, victimized by vagrancy and apprenticeship laws, and subjected to kidnapping and the sale of their labor. The author emphasizes that “although forced recruitment and Indian peonage were part of life at the missions and ranchos, the actual buying and selling of California Indians was an American innovation.” (p. 96) Although essentially true, this generalization could have acknowledged the Indian slave trading activities of Johann A. Sutter during the Mexican era. Yet, Rawls effectively demonstrates the basic continuity of Indian labor exploitation between the Hispanic and American periods, while at the same time providing insight into the de jure and de facto nature of Indian “slavery” under American rule.

By the early 1850s, Indian-white hostilities, the changing economy, and the decline in the numbers of available Indian workers had forced a reappraisal of the California tribes. No longer seen primarily as valuable laborers, they were increasingly perceived as savage obstacles to a higher American civilization and the settlement and economic development of the state. When the modern reservation system, which was inaugurated in California, proved an unworkable solution to the so-called Indian problem, extermination became the final tragic answer. Homicide financially supported by local, state and federal governments and the ravages of disease reduced the Indian population from an estimated 150,000 in 1845 to less than 30,000 in 1870. Negative stereotyping of the Indians as beasts in the popular American mind facilitated the genocide by providing a necessary precondition to their extermination.

Rawls has written a clear, carefully researched account of the interaction between ideology and policy which never loses sight of the larger context of Spanish colonial and American policy regarding the native peoples. Although references to San Diego area Indians appear on occasion, the work draws its evidence from many areas of the state and thus presents in a well-balanced manner a thorough analysis of attitudinal and policy change towards the California tribes. Parts of this story are familiar and portions of one chapter previously appeared in print. However, the emphasis on the impact of stereotypes and images on Indian-white relations makes this book a valuable contribution to California and Native American history.