Calling massacres of scores of California Indian tribes by self-organized white militia groups “expeditions,” the state legislature figured that the U.S. federal government would eventually pay for rifles, food, wages and other expenses for the men of these deadly campaigns, going as far as to print bonds with George Washington’s portrait on them before officials in Washington D.C. even approved of the operations. Their assumption ultimately proved to be correct.
According to Indian-American historian and UCLA professor Benjamin Madley’s American Genocide: “On May 3, 1852–less than fifteen months after raising $500,000 for ranger militia expeditions against Indians–legislators passed a new $600,000 bond ‘for the payment of the expenses of the Mariposa, Second El Dorado, Utah, Los Angeles, Clear Lake, Klamath, and Trinity, and Monterey Expeditions against the Indians.‘” Madley adds: “The bond issue lured many Californians into financially supporting the [state] killing machine.”
Los Angeles itself was founded on the land of native Californians by people who themselves were also “throwaways” for the Spanish crown. And even before “La Reina del Pueblo de Los Angeles…” was born, there was the San Gabriel Valley mission, established in 1769, where the Tongva woman Toypurina’s people were held captive. European-Spanish law ruled over this proto-version of L.A. for at least 50 years, after which Mexican Independence in 1821 wrested power away. The new Mexican government was supposed to change the mission system which held hostage many native people, but not so unlike today, change took time. Then, it actually wasn’t change anymore.
As UC Merced professor Adam Torres-Rouff tells it in Before L.A.: “After a decade of debate, the territorial authorities, together with the Mexican government, ultimately closed the missions and secularized mission lands, between 1834 and 1836…Once approved, however, California officials failed to implement secularization as designed. Rather than equitably dividing mission property among the former neophytes, they engineered a bonanza for select Mexican Californians.” The select few were Californios, or Californians of mostly old-world Spanish heritage.
This result was not good for native folks in the state, including in the Southern California area. As Torres-Rouff points out: “Rather than a liberal redistribution, secularization effectively dispossessed Indians from their ancestral and mission lands, and tens of thousands left California’s coastal areas for the less populated interior.” This process had the effect of centering many Native Californians in Spanish towns just before another seismic power shift.
Mexican state laws thus did virtually nothing to return land to native peoples in states like California, but this is also not surprising given that the Atlantic slave trade to the American continent had been in place for over two centuries by the 1830s; moreover, these laws would not last more than a decade due to the U.S. invasion of Mexico, and in California, an insurrection.
Once again from Benjamin Madley’s American Genocide, on the morning of June 14 , white Americans, egged on by rumors of the Mexican Californian state expelling them prior to the U.S.’ declaration of war on Mexico, seized and trapped key Mexican generals. These men also raised a flag that they’d had in mind, one “emblazoned with a star, a grizzly bear, and the words, ‘California Republic.’ ” The design is still the official state flag’s to this day, making a strong case that violence along racial lines is actually embedded in L.A. and California history.
But something else extraordinary–and arguably more consequential–happened after the U.S. forced these areas away from Mexican law. That is, violence against otherized people became sanctioned by the state. Nothing speaks to this like the California Act for the Governance and Protection of Indians (1850), which was part of the first set of laws passed by California’s first legislature, and modeled after those established in earlier colonies turned U.S. territories. According to Madley: “In December 1849, a number of delegates met in Monterey, California to debate about whether or not California Indians should be granted citizenship and/or suffrage. Most of the delegates were against suffrage…”
Although a couple of delegates voiced support for legal rights to be granted to California native peoples, the overwhelming majority of their counterparts did not, and so in April 1850 the official dehumanization of others–most of all, Native Californians–was written into state law. These laws (or policies) had irreversible effects on the lives of the original stewards of “The Golden State’s” lands, whose cultures were here thousands of years prior to European, Mexican, and American conquests. According to Madley: “…between 1850 and 1873 California state judges found whites guilty of very few crimes against California Indians and sentenced only a handful of whites for such crimes.”
As recently as the late 1970s, the L.A. Times also noted the change in attitude and policy in California’s shift from Mexican to U.S. law, when Bill Boyarski wrote: “In the city’s earliest years, when Spaniards and Mexicans ran things, California society was open. Blacks, descendants of Spanish slaves, helped found Los Angeles. Indians were subjected to the strict, paternalistic control of the Franciscan fathers. But at least the priests never engaged in the Indian slaughter favored by Americans who came West during the Gold Rush.”
Those same laws also likely played no small role in 1871, when both old “Californios,” along with recently arrived whites to Southern California, banded together for a mass lynching in then-L.A.’s Chinatown. In addition to the racial logic of the 1871 attack itself, however, it’s also true that then-L.A.’s Chinatown was not fundamentally different from other non-white areas in that it was a deeply neglected area, which was another policy or design decision based on race.
As Torres-Rouff remarks in Before L.A.: “In a particularly malignant Chinatown expose, the [L.A.] Times described ‘long, dark and narrow halls, bare of every touch of civilization…where humanity stands on a level that is scarcely human’…public health [also] singled out Chinese and Chinatown as “human and spatial plagues blighting the city…[and cast blame on] owners for ‘being blind to the universal desire and demand of citizens for the removal of Chinatown…’ “
To some extent these neglected histories are reasonably esoteric to most of us, given that traditional education in the U.S. has buried them for centuries. As Californians, we’re also not frequently known for expertise in our own state’s history. But the state, as the keeper of laws–including officialized or sanctioned violence–has to be held accountable as well. Our media coverage, or any official retelling of these facts, also plays an important role in our understanding–or lack thereof–of the places we come from, how they’ve been made, and how they might be remade.