The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1995, Volume 41, Number 1
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

Indian Survival on the California Frontier.

By Albert L. Hurtado. (New Haven and Londo: Yale University Press, 1988). Maps. Tables. Illustrations. Bibliography. Index. xix + 246 pages. Hardcover $50; paperback 16.95 Buy this book.

Reviewed by Linda S. Parker, Associate Professor of American Indian Studies, San Diego State University, author of Native American Estate and several articles on ethnicity in California.

The dramatic decline in the number of native Californians, from 300,000 in 1769 to 30,000 ninety years later, represents one of the quickest and most complete reductions of an ethnic population in modern history. Disease, starvation and homicide contributed, and were most evident in the decade following the California gold rush.

This readable narrative documents the efforts of California’s northern interior tribes to remain intact in the wake of Spanish, Mexican and, particularly, American expansion. Emphasizing the impact of western modernization, labor practices, and economic pressures on the Indian family structure, the author contends that California Indians actively took part in and adapted to the new order rather than passively falling victim to “manifest destiny.” At first, tribal societies coped by “aiding and retarding white settlement as native needs and perceptions dictated” (pg. 10). But increasing Indian involvement in the capitalist economy, though aiding their immediate survival, ultimately weakened the family structure and further diminished an already low fertility rate.

The work offers insight into the fertility problem, noting the detrimental effects of venereal disease, the breakdown of the native family and co-habitation with non-Indians. The movement of male workers from villages to ranches and mines separated families and segregated sexes. Workers tended to live with other males, either in large groups or with Anglo families, but not with women of reproductive age. In some instances, ranchers such as John Setter directly interfered with marriage customs.

Whereas the Spanish government officially had incorporated Indians into Spanish society, the Americans segregated them. Hurtado argues convincingly that federal Indian policy in California was dictated by recent settlers who benefitted economically from the separate and subordinate legal status of the original inhabitants. The 1850 legislation (“An Act for the Government and Protection o£ the Indians”), outlining the legal treatment of Indians, resembled southern state laws that restricted free backs. The statute permitted the indenturing of labor, the virtual enslavement of children, the disenfranchisement of Indians and the limitation of civil rights. Indians were not allowed to testify in court against whites who committed criminal offenses against them. The author also discusses in detail the political maneuvering behind the 1851 treaties, which were never enacted. These agreements provided good land to be set aside for a system of reservations but failed ratification in the United States Senate because of the intense opposition from California agricultural and mining interests.

This book complements other California Indian histories, including those by James Rawls, George Phillips, Alfred Kroeber, Sherburne Cook, and Robert Heizer, with a study emphasizing survival strategies of the interior northern California tribes. The chapters on the gold rush, state and federal policy are familiar material, but breaking new ground are sections on the Indian work force, Indian women and family life. The work is amply supplemented with photos, illustrations, charts, tables, and index. Anyone interested in Indian or California history will find this well documented book enlightening.


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