The Indians of California

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The Indians of California are among the least known groups of natives of North America.

Those along the coast south of San Francisco were brought under Spanish missionary influence in the latter part of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries. Some tribes, however, were not known even by name until after the discovery of gold and the settlement of the country in 1849 and subsequently. The Californians were among the least warlike tribes of the continent and offered but little resistance, and that always ineffectual, to the seizure of their territory by the whites. Comparatively few of them are now on reservations. The majority live as squatters on the land of white owners or of the Government, or in some cases on land allotted them by the Government or even bought by themselves from white owners. Their number has de creased very rapidly and is now probably about 15,000, as compared with perhaps 150,000 before the arrival of the whites.

Physically, the California Indians, like other tribes of the Pacific coast, are rather shorter than the majority of those in eastern North America. In many cases they incline to he stout. Along the coast, and especially in the s. they are unusually dark. The most southern tribes approximate those of the Colorado r. in physical type and are tall arid short-headed. The native population of California was broken up into a great number of small groups. These were often somewhat unsettled in habitation, but always within very limited territories, and were never nomadic. The dialects of almost all of these groups were different and belonged to as many as 21 distinct linguistic families, being a fourth of the total number found in all North America, and, as compared with the area of the state, so large that California must probably be regarded as the region of the greatest aboriginal linguistic diversity in the world. Three larger stocks have found their way into California: the Athapascan in the N. and the Shoshonean and Yuman in the south. The remainder are all small and purely Californian.

This diversity is accompanied by a corresponding stability of population. While there have undoubtedly been shifting of tribes within the. state, they do not appear to have extended very far territorially. The Indians themselves in no part of the state except the extreme s. have any tradition of migrations and uniformly believe themselves to have originated at the spot where they live. The groups in which they live are very loose, being defined and held together by language and the topography of the country much more than by any political or social organization; distinct tribes, as they occur in many other parts of America, do not really exist. The small village is the most common unit of organization among these people.

Culturally, the California Indians are probably as simple and rude as any large group of Indians in North America. Their arts (excepting that of basket making, which they possessed in a high form) were undeveloped; pottery was practically unknown, and in the greater part of the state the carving or working of wood was carried on only to a limited extent. Houses were often of grass, tule, or brush, or of bark, sometimes covered with earth. Only in the x. w. part of the state were small houses of planks in use. In this region, as well as on the Santa Barbara ids., wooden canoes were also made, but over the greater part of the state a raft of tules was the only means of navigation. Agriculture was nowhere practiced. Deer and small game were hunted, and there was considerable fishing; but the bulk of the food was vegetable. The main reliance was placed on numerous varieties of acorns, and next to these, on seeds, especially of grasses and herbs. Roots and berries were less used.

Both totemism and a true gentile organization were totally lacking in all parts of the state. The mythology of the Californians was characterized by unusually well developed and consistent creation myths, and by the complete lack not only of migration but of ancestor traditions. Their ceremonies were numerous and elaborate as compared with the prevailing simplicity of life, but they lacked almost totally the rigid ritualism and extensive symbolism that pervade the ceremonies of most of America. One set of ceremonies was usually connected with a secret religious society; another, often spectacular, was held in remembrance of the dead.

With constant differences from group to group, these characteristics held with a general underlying uniformity over the greater part of California. In the extreme northwest portion of the state, however, a somewhat more highly developed and specialized culture existed, which showed in several respects similarities to that of the N. Pacific coast, as is indicated by a greater advance in technology, a social organization largely upon a property basis, and a system of mythology that is suggestive of those farther north. The Santa Barbara islanders, now extinct, appear also to have been considerably specialized from the great body of Californian tribes, both in their arts and their mode of life. The Indians of south California, finally, especially those of the interior, living under geographic conditions very different from those of the main portion of the state, resemble in certain respects of culture the Indians of Arizona and New Mexico. See Mission Indians. (A. L. K.)

California Missions

The first settlements in California were not made until more than a century after the earliest colonization of the peninsula of Lower California. The mission of San Diego, founded in 1769, was the first permanent white settlement within the limits of the present state; it was followed by 20 other Franciscan missions, founded at intervals until the year 1823 in the region between San Diego and San Francisco bay and just north of the latter. With very few exceptions the Indians of this territory were brought under the influence of the missionaries with comparatively little difficulty, and more by persuasion than by the use of force. There is scarcely a record of any resistance or rebellion on the part of the natives resulting in the loss of life of even a single Spaniard at any of the missions except at San Diego, where there occurred an insignificant outbreak a few years after the foundation.

The influence of the missions was probably greater temporally than spiritually. The Indians were taught and compelled to work at agricultural pursuits and to some extent even at trades. Discipline, while not severe, was rigid; refusal to work was met by deprivation of food, and absence from church or tardiness there, by corporal punishments and confinement. Consequently the Indians, while often displaying touch personal affection for the missionaries themselves, were always inclined to be recalcitrant toward the system, which amounted to little else than beneficent servitude. There were many attempts at escape from the missions. Generally these were fruitless, both on account of the presence of a few soldiers at each mission and through the aid given these by other Indians more under the fathers’ influence. The Indians at each mission lived at and about it, often in houses of native type and construction, but were dependent for most of their food directly on the authorities. They consisted of the tribes of the region in which the mission was founded and of more distant tribes, generally from the interior. In some cases these were easily induced to settle at the mission and to subject themselves to its discipline and routine, the neophytes afterward acting as agents to bring in their wilder brethren.

The number of Indians at each mission varied from a few hundred to two or three thousand. There were thus in many cases settlements of considerable size; they possessed large herds of cattle and sheep and controlled many square miles of land. Theoretically this wealth was all the property of the Indians, held in trust for then by the Franciscan fathers. In 1834 the Mexican government, against the protests of the missionaries, secularized the missions. By this step the property of the missions was divided among the Indians, and they were free from the restraint and authority of their former masters. In a very few years, as might have been expected and as was predicted by the fathers, the Indians had been either deprived of their lands and property or had squandered them, and were living in a hopeless condition. Their numbers decreased rapidly, so that today in the region between San Francisco and Santa Barbara there are probably fewer than 50 Indians. In southern California the decrease has been less rapid, and there are still about 3,000 of what are known as Mission Indians; these are, however, all of Shoshonean or Yuman stock. The decrease of population began even during the mission period, and it is probable that the deaths exceeded the births at the missions from the first, though during the earlier years the population was maintained or even increased by accessions from unconverted tribes. At the time of secularization, in 1834, the population of many missions was less than a decade earlier. The total number of baptisms during the 65 years of mission activity was about 90,000, and the population in the territory subject to mission influence may be estimated as having been at any one time from 35,000 to 45,000. At this proportion the population of the entire state, before settlement by the whites, would have been at least 100,000, and was probably much greater. See California, Indians of, with accompanying map, also Missions; Population



MLA Source Citation:

Hodge, Frederick Webb, Compiler. The Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico. Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office. 1906. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 28 July 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/native/california-indiantribes-history.htm - Last updated on Oct 14th, 2013


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