1850 to 1860
What Was Life Like?
Native Americans of the East Bay After the Gold Rush

By Aimee Arrigoni

The Indians must fade away “like a dissipating mist before the morning sun from the presence of the Saxon.”
Alta California, 1850

If the building of the missions represented a trickle of Spanish clergy, soldiers, and adventurous civilians into the territory that would become California, the Gold Rush marked the beginning of a downpour of men and goods into the previously isolated outpost. Prior to 1848, portions of the land that had supported Indian communities in the East Bay had been devoted to rancho grazing land. But the population expansion marked by the rush for gold created a tide of change that proved impossible to reverse. Faced with a new set of immigrants who, unlike the Spanish and Mexicans, did not see Indians as a part of California's future, the native people were subjected to the everyday perils of an invading nation.

There were no "last stands" on the California frontier, although there were countless punitive expeditions and small skirmishes. Without a series of dramatic events to illustrate the Indians’ struggle, the story of change during the early years of American expansion has remained largely untold. What is dramatic, however, is the decrease in the California Indian population in only thirty years, from an estimated 100,000 in 1850 to 20,000 in 1880.

The Contra Costa County census of 1852 provides a microcosm of the changes brought by the new settlers. The limitations of census data are well known, but the 1852 census is the best single surviving document from the first decade of American occupation. It seems to have been taken at just the right time: after the forces of American immigration had been felt, but before the existing patterns of a previous era had been completely erased. The Daily Alta California published the county's census returns in the fall of 1852 and reported optimistically,

Families are arriving here from the Atlantic States every day or two, and settling in our towns and valleys, the old ranches of the Californians being subdivided into Yankee farms, and the natives becoming Americanized in spite of themselves.

When all was said and done, census taker Samuel Tennent documented 2,803 people living in the county (which included the entire East Bay in 1852). Along with the 1,666 people who came from places outside of California, Tennent recorded 776 people who had been born and raised within the state. That group of people included Indians, Californios, and children of both long-time residents and recent immigrants. Indians accounted for 268 people, or 9.6 percent of the total population.

Indians dancing at Mission Dolores by Louis Choris, 1816

Indians Rancherias in 1852
The 268 Indian people enumerated by Tennent precariously straddled the divide between a world in which they could live within their traditional groups of extended kin, and a world where that was no longer possible. At the time, 107 Indians, or 40 percent of the local Indian population still lived in traditional villages. Four villages, or rancherias, existed within the county. They were inhabited by people who had either continuously lived in the region, such as Bay Miwok, Costanoan, and Northern Valley Yokuts speakers, or those who had re-grouped in Contra Costa after the secularization of the missions in 1834.

At the beginning of 1849 the state's population, excluding Indian people, had been approximately 26,000. By the end of that year, however, the number had risen to 115,000, and by 1852 that number had skyrocketed to 225,000. Living in rancherias allowed Indians to maintain some of their traditional customs while at the same time adjusting to this massive wave of immigration. In a rancheria community children could be cared for while parents of working age left to earn food or money, and men and women could remain in groups where they were likely to find a suitable mate. In addition, all members of a rancheria benefited from the intangible but tremendously important emotional support network that was necessary during a time of such rapid change. As was likely the case throughout the state, the rancherias in Contra Costa existed on or near land owned by old Californio ranchers.

The largest rancheria in Contra Costa was home to forty-five people and was enumerated adjacent to or on the property of Martin Berellesa in Martinez. The second rancheria lay between the border of the Castro and Estudillo ranchos in San Lorenzo. This rancheria closest to Mission San Jose seems likely to have been a gathering place for missionized Indians and their families.

Tennent recorded the other two rancherias at Monte Diablo, both within land once occupied by the Chupcan people. Some Chupcan people went to Mission San Francisco in 1804 in mixed nuclear family groups with Carquins and Tatcans. According to Randall Milliken “The great majority of the 146 Chupcans who went to Mission San Francisco and Mission San Jose were baptized in 1810 and 1811. With them were the Suisuns, with whom they were heavily intermarried.”

Tennent's reference to "Monte Diablo" indicated Rancho Monte del Diablo and not the mountain itself. One rancheria was located along Willow Pass Road in what would be north Concord today; it was also one of the traditional village sites of the Chupcan people. With access to the Carquinez Strait and the slopes of Mount Diablo, the inhabitants of this rancheria had chosen well. The other rancheria was also on or near Rancho Monte del Diablo, on property inhabited by members of the Pacheco family.

Despite the fact that they would not be immune to the shifting dynamics within the county after the time of statehood, rancherias provided a viable option to a portion of the Indian population during the 1850s.

The remaining 60 percent of Indian people both worked for and lived with non-Indians. Unlike the rancheria communities that were clustered in two relatively small areas, San Lorenzo and the shores of the Carquinez Strait between Pacheco and Martinez, those Indians who both worked for and lived with non-Indian people were spread throughout the county: most of them worked for native-born Californians.

Kidnapping and Extermination
The Native American work force in the region was made up only partially of individuals who willingly sought employment. Many of the laborers were children who had been kidnapped from counties to the north and brought to the Bay Area to work as domestic servants. As early as the 1850 summer term, the Grand Jury of the Contra Costa County District Court was adjudicating cases involving Indians who had been forcibly removed from other areas. The first depositions were taken from witnesses in the case of the murder of Ramon Berellesa who had been stabbed to death on the road near Martinez. He had been stabbed by two Indian men he had kidnapped from Clear Lake; it was unlikely that this was the first time he had raided the tribes in that area.

The kidnapping continued until at least the fall of 1852, when four men were indicted for kidnapping Indians in Napa County and bringing them to Contra Costa. Directly following the indictment of the four men, the grand jury felt compelled to issue the following statement:

To the Honorable Court of Sessions: The Grand Jury having terminated their labors…We find also that a regular system of kidnapping Indians is carried and in many instances murder and extreme cruelty is exercised in their capture – and that the present laws in many cases are inadequate to the emergencies and fail to afford relief – all of which is submitted.

Indian children must have been brought into the county in large numbers during this period. The baptismal record from St. Mary’s Church in Oakland reveals that 57 Indian children were baptized in Contra Costa during the years 1850-1853. At the time, Father Agurto visited the rural population and performed rites of baptism throughout the county. Nearly all of the Indian children baptized were sponsored by Californio families and their birth parents were simply listed as “unknown.” Baptisms took place at the Chapel of the Temascal, located near the Peralta adobe in Oakland, in the Chapel of the Contra Costa, whose exact location is unknown, and on local ranches.

California was granted statehood as a free state, a significant choice in the fractious decades which preceded the Civil War. But almost immediately it became clear that Indians would be dealt with as if they were slaves. Instead of providing some protection from kidnapping and murder by the new settlers, the Act for the Government and Protection of the Indians was signed into law by the governor on April 22, 1850. First and foremost, the law gave justices of the peace authority over all Indians in their jurisdiction.

The important issue of Indian rights was relegated to the county level, subject to the whims of local officials. It also gave white landowners a means of removing Indian people from their newly acquired land by setting aside “sufficient” land elsewhere for their purposes. Indian hunting, fishing, and gathering sites were not protected. If tribal people were unhappy with the terms of these transactions, their only option was to appeal to the local county court. Although kidnapping was illegal, the legislation made it legal to indenture Indian children if they were orphans or with the consent of their parents.

Indian children were required to work for white families and receive nothing except food and clothing in return for their labor. Boys could be kept until they were eighteen and girls were to be released at the age of fifteen. Even if Indian children were released from their indenture when the law allowed, they had already been completely removed from their family groups and separated from their community’s traditions. Indenture was popular for economic reasons, but it destroyed the family bonds that kept the Indian population viable.

California lawmakers were somewhat more ambiguous when it came to native adults. Forcing Indians to leave their home or labor against their will was punishable by a fine of at least $50. On the other hand, any Indian found loitering was subject to arrest. Within twenty-four hours of their arrest, they were hired out to the highest bidder for a period of up to four months. Although their time of service was shorter than that determined for children, the end result was largely the same. Grown people could be purchased and forced to work for white settlers as they saw fit. Indian criminals convicted of crimes other than loitering, such as cattle theft, were treated in the same way. American citizens who paid the fines for the guilty party were entitled to that person’s labor for a period of time.

The Act for the Government and Protection of the Indians created a web of legal means by which Americans could gain control of Indian people and their land. To safeguard its citizens during the process, the law also included a provision stating that no white man could be convicted upon the testimony of an Indian. Any protections that had existed under the Spanish and Mexican governments were now completely gone. Americans freely talked about exterminating the Indians who stood in the way of westward expansion. Indian people had no rights under the new law. Interestingly, representative Elam Brown of present-day Lafayette was instrumental in the law’s passage in the State Assembly.

The twenty years following the Gold Rush became some of the most destructive for Indian communities both statewide and within Bay Miwok territory. The small group of missionaries and soldiers that once occupied the coast had been replaced by permanent residents interested in acquiring land. The four Contra Costa rancherias would not survive the decade. The inhabitants scattered to make their way on their own, and the Act for the Government and Protection of the Indians would remain law until the early 1860s. By 1860 the Native American population in Contra Costa was reduced to less than 100 people.

Despite the odds, individuals and family groups did survive. Like many Bay Area natives, they found refuge at the Alisal, a rancheria located near modern day Castlewood Country Club in Pleasanton that thrived in the final decades of the nineteenth century. It became both a real and spiritual home for Bay Miwok, Costanoan, and Northern Valley Yokuts people who came together to create their own community. Linguists and ethnographers who visited in the early twentieth century recorded dialects from all three language groups being spoken there.

In 1904, the Northern California Indian Association petitioned Congress on behalf of the Indians of California and attached to their document an enumeration of Indians and their current place of residence. For the East Bay they listed 70 people living at Pleasanton, 8 at Niles, 5 at Danville, and 20 at Byron. Those California Indians who survived the nineteenth century did not do so by luck, but through a combination of flexibility and resilience. For a time at the Alisal they found strength where they always had; in the voices, land, and traditions of their people.

Hurtado, Albert L., Indian Survival on the California Frontier. Yale University Press, New Haven, 1998, pp. 129-131.

Jackson, Robert H., Indian Population Decline: The Missions of Northwestern New Spain, 1687-1840. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1994.

Jelinek, Lawrence James, Property of Every Kind. In A Golden State: Mining & Economic Development in Gold Rush California, James J. Rawls & Richard J. Orsi, eds. University of California Press, Berkeley, California, 1999, p. 233.

Milliken, Randall, A Time of Little Choice: The Disintegration of Tribal Culture in the San Francisco Bay Area 1769-1810. Ballena Press, Novato, 1995, p. 214.

Rawls, James J., Indians of California: The Changing Image. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1984.

Secrest, William B., When the Great Spirit Died: The Destruction of the California Indians, 1850-1860. Word Dancer Press, Sanger, California, 2003.