California’s forgotten investor-backed genocide squads

Mass murder pitched as an investment opportunity, backed by the power of the U.S. government. What a perfect encapsulation of the American Way.

“A war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races, until the Indian race becomes extinct.”

— Peter H. Burnett, the first governor of California, 1851


We’ve been working on a historical segment of our water oligarch doc, trying to trace California’s transformation into an industrial society dominated by forty million people, freeways, suburbs, and giant farms — all of it underpinned by over a thousand dams and the biggest aqueduct system in the world. So I’ve reading up on California’s early history — particularly about the genocide of California’s Indian tribes.

Having grown up in San Francisco, I must say that I’m a bit embarrassed by how little I know — or knew — about it. Seems ridiculous that I’ve been more familiar with something like the Armenian Genocide, which took place on the other side of the world, than with the genocide that happened right under my feet, in a place where I have lived on and off since my family moved here from the Soviet Union in 1990. But I know I’m not alone here. Lots of people in America are more familiar with atrocities committed in far-away places than those that took place right outside their door. I guess it’s always easier to project outward than it is to look at the horrors of your own society — horrors that can’t be easily unwound or separated from your own life, and which go against notions of your own cultural superiority.

One thing I didn’t realize was in what short a time frame the genocide happened here, with most of it occurring in the span of a decade — starting in around 1850, when the region was flooded by a locust-horde of crazed settlers looking for gold.

True, the locals began to be decimated long before the Gold Rush. The Spanish — with their germs and their forced enslavement — did a lot of the early work. And Russia’s fur trappers didn’t do anyone any favors, either. But the “real” genocide started with the Gold Rush — when a population of about 150,000 California Indians was reduced to somewhere between 15,000 and 30,000 in the span of several decades. That’s an impressive rate, considering how big and spread out California was, and how primitive the methods: shooting, stabbing, slow starvation, and slave death labor camps.

Why did the genocide happen? Well, after the Gold Rush, California experienced the biggest, fastest human migration in probably all of human history. And California’s Indian tribes occupied all the good land — land that the settlers needed for livestock, farming, and gold mining. The locals weren’t seen as truly human, so it was open hunting season on them. As historian Hubert Howe Bancroft quipped, “The savages were in the way; the miners and settlers were arrogant and impatient…It was one of the last human hunts of civilization, and the basest and most brutal of them all.”

There’s a great, brutal book that chronicles in painstaking detail the genocide that took place here following the Gold Rush and sets the political context in which it happened. It’s called An American Genocide and it’s written by a Benjamin Madley, who grew up in Northern California in the Shasta area. I highly recommend it.

As gruesome and sad as the book is, one detail in particular knocked me off the couch. Turns out that California ran its own investor-backed genocide squads — with 7 percent annual returns guaranteed by the state. That’s right, genocide pitched as an investment opportunity, backed by the almighty power of the U.S. government. A fine example of California’s genocidal settler-democracy in action…

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—Yasha Levine