San Francisco, California During the Gold Rush of the 19th century, groups of state-sanctioned settlers massacred thousands of Native Americans in Northern California, in what both historians and descendants of the original victims described as genocide.
Last month, after years of pressure from Indigenous groups and media reports of historical injustice, the California Law School founded by Serranos Hastings, who began hundreds of killings, agreed to change its name. Now, native Californians are demanding broader accountability from state and federal governments.
These were not battles, but massacres. “We had no weapons to fight back,” Deep Hat, a descendant of a Californian indigenous group that was hunted down, told Al Jazeera. “Who is responsible? The entire state of California? The federal government that has already repaid the state of California for these killers?”
During the Gold Rush era in the 1840s, several hundred thousand settlers traveled to California, bringing herds of cattle and horses to the fertile valleys where indigenous people lived for thousands of years, according to historian Brendan Lindsay, author of Killing State: The Native Americans of California. Genocide, 1846-1873.
Lindsey told Al Jazeera that animals graze and farm owners cut grass for hay, reducing food available for elk and deer, which are starved or hunted by farm owners.
Faced with famine, the indigenous population, who relied on elk and deer as a source of food, resorted to stealing and killing the settlers’ livestock. In response, settlers formed volunteer groups to hunt down and kill the natives, Lindsey said.
“The massacres were caused by people who starved to death and needed to kill a horse or a cow and eat it to survive,” he said. Then the owners of those cows and horses come out and meet that theft with murder. This is the course. It is one of the rarest things in which an Indian from California has killed a white man.”
While Californians know these events as the “Indian Wars,” they weren’t wars at all, as Lindsay said: “They are massacres. They are one-sided in nature. They are usually unexplained.” It is believed that the events fit the United Nations definition of genocide.
The encroachment of settlers wiped out the indigenous population of the area; According to one estimate, the population declined to 18,000 from 150,000 during the 19th century.
“An evil of this magnitude”
California permitted these massacres under an 1850 law that enabled volunteer militias to deal with crises when state forces were unavailable. Lindsay said the law allowed the governor to certify settler groups and pay for their travel and food: “It’s like when you go on a business trip and your company reimburses you for all your expenses.”
Amid reports of certified settler groups killing Natives, the California legislature in 1860 launched an investigation, and the report that followed noted that settlers did not deny slaughtering Natives.
The report stated that “the Indians continue to kill cattle as a means of subsistence, and the settlers are punished with death in retaliation,” noting that within four months, “more Indians were killed by our people than during the Spanish century. Mexican domination. For an evil of this magnitude, there is a person responsible. Falls Blame it on our government, our citizens, or both.”
In 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order formally apologizing to Native Americans for historical abuse and violence. He later signed a bill recognizing California’s role in paying for massacres of indigenous people, and agreed to work cooperatively with tribes that had ancestral lands within state lands to return the land to them.
Lindsey said the federal government repaid California millions of dollars for Indian affairs, including the costs of volunteer companies that massacred Native Americans—and, by creating reservations, encouraged settlers to massacre Native Americans who were outside those boundaries. In 2000, the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs issued a public apology for the “legacy of racism and brutality,” including massacres and forced deportations.
Benjamin Madeley, a history professor at the University of California, told the New York Times that Hastings, who founded the California Law School, orchestrated the killings of at least 283 Native Americans in the Round Valley, in the deadliest massacre by the state.
In 1878, Hastings reportedly donated $100,000 in gold coins to start the University of California Hastings Law School in San Francisco. In 2017, the school’s professor, John Briscoe, wrote an article arguing that the college should change its name: “Our heightened sensitivity is canceling out the names of those who sought to enslave or discriminate against people. How should we treat the names of those who sought to exterminate a people?”
In November, after years of dialogue with indigenous people, the law school’s board of directors voted to officially change its name. The decision came after a report was issued by a committee tasked with examining history and issuing recommendations.
The board said the operation raised his awareness of “the mistakes made by the college of the same name and the constant pain they cause, and it is our decision that we can no longer associate our great institution with his name.”
Throughout history, Hutt said, massacres, disease, famine, and government-run Indigenous boarding schools have taken over the language, culture, and land of the native Californians. “Everything was taken from us,” she said.
When it came to the role of state and federal governments, Mona Wandasan, a descendant of indigenous tribes killed by settlers in Round Valley, Long Valley and Eden Valley, told Al Jazeera that apologies weren’t enough. “We have discussed contacting various government officials down to the federal level,” she said in her community’s pursuit of justice.
Hatt said the state should include real history in school curricula to educate young people about the region’s dark past. The California Department of Education did not immediately respond to an inquiry regarding the matter. Hutt said the federal government should also be held accountable for its role in financing the massacres.
Today, she wants to know where the remains of her ancestors are, so that they can be returned to her community. “We like the bones of our ancestors,” she says.
Hutt also believes that the land that was taken from them should be returned to its people. “I hope and dream that maybe we will get some kind of settlement like [Indigenous people in] Nunavut, in Canada,” referring to the land claims agreement that allowed the Inuit people to rule their lands independently.
“We’re here, we’re human, and we’re still alive.”