‘The Indians of California’ Through the Eyes of an Irishman in the mid-1800s

The Indians of California does an excellent job of providing insight into the heinous acts of domination and dehumanization committed against Native peoples

I believe that English creates a false sense of disconnection between the present and the past. This article is an effort to point out that “the present” in the United States, as just one example, has historical continuity with a dark and bloody past. I believe it’s important for us to increase our awareness of the extent to which ideas and actions of domination and dehumanization committed against our indigenous ancestors continue to control our thoughts and behavior, and the thoughts and behaviors of the United States in the present. If we at this particular past-present lose sight of what led up to this moment, then we are likely to be blinded as to what needs to be addressed.

J. Ross Browne was born in Dublin, Ireland, and moved to the United States in 1833. In 1855, at the age of 34, he became a U.S. Customs’ agent and an Inspector of Indian Affairs on the Pacific Coast. His book The Indians of California, first published in New York in 1864, does an excellent job of providing insight into those heinous acts of domination and dehumanization committed against Native peoples to create present day “California.” Browne was noted for being “efficient and fearless in exposing serious frauds committed by agents in the use of governmental supplies; and in denouncing the outrageous treatment of the Indians on the reservations.” Browne’s writing style, which apparently influenced Mark Twain, is marked by sardonic and biting wit. A case in point: “An honest Indian Agent is the rarest work of God I know.”


I have spent a great deal of time writing about domination and dehumanization, which Browne wrote about quite artfully without once using either of those two words. By the time he arrived in California, the Spanish Mission system had only been ended some 20 years earlier. After the mission system was disbanded large numbers of the Indian people lived in abject conditions. “In the vine-growing districts,” wrote Browne, the Indians “were usually paid in native brandy every Saturday night, put in jail next morning for getting drunk, and bailed out on Monday to work out the fine imposed upon them by the local authorities.” Browne continued:

This system still prevails in Los Angeles, where I have often seen a dozen of these miserable wretches carried to jail roaring drunk on a Sunday morning. The inhabitants of Los Angeles are a moral and intelligent people, and many of them disapprove of the custom on principle, and hope it will be abolished as soon as the Indians are all killed off.

Browne is writing about a system of exploitation used for dominating and dehumanizing the original peoples of California to death. There were many methods for achieving the same end, which Browne called “encouraging the Indians to adopt the habits of civilization,” “which,” he wrote, “in the natural course of things, must kills Indians.” The whites would “engage” the Indians “at a fixed rate of wages to cultivate the ground, and during the season of labor fed them on beans, and gave them a blanket or a shirt each; after which, when the harvest was secured, the account was considered squared, and the Indians were driven off to forage in the woods for themselves and families during the winter.” The result?

Starvation usually wound up a considerable number of the old and decrepit ones every season; and of those that failed to perish from hunger or exposure, some were killed on the general principle that they must have subsisted by stealing cattle, for it was well known that cattle ranged in the vicinity, while others [other Indians] were not infrequently slaughtered by their employers for helping themselves to the refuse portions of the crop that had been left in the ground.

What happened when some of the Indians rallied and White men “were killed from time to time; cattle were driven off; horses were stolen, and various other iniquities were committed”? As Browne explained:

The federal government, as is usual in cases where the lives of valuable voters are at stake, was forced to interfere. Troops were sent out to aid the settlers in slaughtering the Indians. By means of mounted howitzers, muskets, Minie rifles, dragoon pistols, and sabres, a good many were cut to pieces.

Clearly, this is domination and dehumanization as official state and U.S. policy. “But on the whole,” wrote Browne, “the general policy of the government was pacific [peaceful].” Indeed, “It was not designed to kill any more Indians than might be necessary to secure the adhesion of the honest yeomanry of the state, and thus furnish an example of the practical working of our political system to the savages of the forest.” At one point, Browne recounted what happened to the Native people in Humboldt Bay when

a series of Indian massacres by white men continued for over two years. The citizens held public meetings and protested the action of the general government in leaving these Indians to prowl upon them for a support. It was alleged that the reservations cost two hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year, and yet nothing was done to relieve the [white] people of this burden. Petitions were finally sent to the state authorities asking for the removal of the Indians from that vicinity; and the state sent out its militia, killed a good many, and captured a good many others, who were finally carried down to the Mendocino reservation.

Browne explains what happened next:

The whites thought it was a favorable opportunity to get rid of them [the Indians] altogether. So they went in a body to the Indian camp, during the night when the poor wretches were asleep, shot all the men, women, and children they could at the first onslaught, and cut the throats of the remainder. Very few escaped. Next morning sixty bodies lay weltering in their blood—the old and the young, male and female—with every wound gaping a tale of horror to the civilized world. Children climbed on their mother’s breasts, and sought nourishment from the fountains that death had drained; girls and boys lay here and there with their throats cut from ear to ear; men and women, clinging to each other in their terror, were found perforated with bullets or cut to pieces with knives—all were cruelly murdered!

Such carnage committed against innocents provides an accurate context for Donald Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again.” The terrible nature of such genocidal actions is why many white people are so adamant when they say: “Can’t you just let it go?!” or “Get over it!”

What they are really telling us is that we ought to ignore the historical continuity between the present-day wealth of the state of California, including claiming all the territories of the Original Nations, as well as the rivers and the streams and other resources. That the state of California and the United States government the traditional territories of Original Nations “public lands” is a result of such heinous acts, and the heartless carnage committed against our Native ancestors in the course of building various states of domination accurately called the United States of “the Love of Riches and Wealth.”


Each of us at this very moment is a product of all our past experiences. So too, this present moment is, to a great extent, a direct result of what we call “the past.” Yet many people fail to understand the difference between history (stories about the past), and historical continuity between the present and the past. Just as the concepts of “space” and “time” became “space-time” as a result of the ideas of quantum mechanics, the separate concepts of “past” and “present” ought to be understood as a holistic “past-present.”

Oftentimes, what ends up being maintained in the present is the aftermath of horrific and unjust ideas or policies that others developed in the past, or the aftermath of heinous and murderous acts committed by others in the past. This is especially true when those ideas were created or such deeds were done under cover of “civilization” or “government,” and now continue to be maintained for the benefit of the present-day descendants of those who created those ideas or perpetrated those acts.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author ofPagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery(Fulcrum, 2008). He is a producer of the documentary movie,The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code, directed and produced by Sheldon Wolfchild (Dakota), with narration by Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree). The movie can be ordered from 38Plus2Productions.com.