Decline of the Indian Population

Indians cooking

The arrival of Europeans and Americans was a devastating, decades-long invasion suffered by the native California Indians, who had lived peacefully and profitably on the land for thousands of years. They had no wheel, no domesticated animals, nor any need for governing councils. Spain’s mission-building years forced thousands of them into servitude as laborers, while the well-meaning but dictatorial padres attempted to convert “the heathens” to the True Faith.  To people who had learned to live successfully within the framework of changing seasons in their rivers and mountains, and who worshiped their own gods, the white man’s ways were baffling and so was Christianity. Later the natives became peons on the huge rancheros owned by the Spanish and their Mexican descendants.  Quite a number of Indians ran away from both situations to hide in the hills, but they couldn’t outrun the white man’s diseases for which they had no immunity. Smallpox, syphilis, malaria and other fevers introduced by settlers, fur-trapping mountain men, and trading ships swiftly reduced their numbers from an estimated 310,000 at the time the Spanish Franciscan friars arrived in 1769, to 50,000 by 1846.  The gold discovery in January 1848 crushed any hope of resurrection. Overwhelmed by thousands of Euro-American gold-seekers who disdained the natives’ culture, appropriated whatever they wanted of Indian lands, or wantonly killed them, the Indian population dwindled to 20,000 by 1900.

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