California Indians were nearly wiped out by Americans, not the Spanish

Gustavo Jaso

Unlike the Anglo-American frontier in North America, which largely excluded the natives [from their new communities and population centres], Spain sought to include them in the societies of its new world”. This statement by the American historian David J. Weber rightly points to an essential differentiating factor in the Spanish colonisation of many of the lands of present-day United States and, in particular, in the question of the historical evolution of the indigenous population in the lands of the present-day state of California. (The Spanish Frontier in North America. Brief Edition. David J. Weber. Yale University. 2009. P. 10)

Estimates of the total American Indian population in present-day California territory by American researchers show that it was in the short period of twenty years (from 1845 to 1865) – almost the entire time under American rule – that the greatest contraction in the number of Indians occurred: from about 150,000 to 27,500. That is, the decrease was about 6,125 persons per year.

By contrast, in the 51 years of Spanish rule (1770 to 1821) and the 24 years of Mexican rule (1821 to 1845 – taking into account available statistics), the population fell – over both periods – from about 300,000 people to half that, about 150,000. The annual rate of decline was about 2,000 people per year. Three times less than in the other period, under the US.

This can be clearly seen in the graph and table below.

The above phenomenon can also be expressed as follows. In the almost 20 years of US power, the total indigenous population contracted 5.45 times (from 150,000 to 27,500). During the much longer period of Hispanic and Mexican control (about 75 years), the decline was 2 times, i.e. by half – from 300,000 to 150,000.

California's indigenous population. Source: Own elaboration.

California’s indigenous population. Source: Own elaboration. Data: The Population of the California Indians. Brief Edition. 1769 – 1970. Sherburne F. Cook. Univ. of California Press. 1976

American historian Sherburne F. Cook (The Population of the California Indians. Univ. of California Press. 1976. P. 44), referring to the decennial sub-period 1845 – 1855, said that “seldom has a native population [anywhere else] been so catastrophically decimated”.

It is true that Mr. Cook was also of the opinion that “the Spanish-Mexican penetration … had brought calamity to all the [indigenous] inhabitants of the state, except those living in remote mountainous areas …” (p. 199).

If anyone harbours doubts as to which of the two influences Mr. Cook considered more noxious, he sets us straight. The [Spanish-Mexican] deterioration was greatly aggravated by the invasion of the Americans, that is, the United States (p. 199).

On the other hand, it should be borne in mind that it was primarily in the initial phase of the Spanish settlers’ contact with the natives of the California coast that the greatest mortality due to the transmission of infectious diseases from the Old World had to take place. When the influx of Americans intensified after 1848, many groups of Indians should have developed immunity to those diseases. That is, a higher percentage of their deaths in this second phase were due to causes other than disease.

Sherburne F. Cook’s book remains the basic work for the period.

The above-mentioned work by historian Sherburne F. Cook is still the main source on the indigenous population of the territory of the current state of California, referring to the years prior to the decennial Censuses that the Federal Administration has been carrying out in this state since 1860. This is despite the fact that the study was published almost half a century ago: 1976.

Based on census data, it can be seen that California’s Indian population continued to shrink in the years after 1865 – albeit very slowly – reaching a minimum in 1900, with only 15,377 people, i.e. only 5% of the number of Indians existing before the arrival of the white man, i.e. before 1769: some 300,000.

When Spain lost sovereignty over California in 1821 – to Mexico – the Indian population must have been well over 150,000.

Evolution of the Indian Population in California (1770-1970)

The reduction in the number of Indians under the Spanish. 1769 – 1821

It is a fact that the Californian Indian population in this first period of contact with Europeans experienced a very sharp reduction.

Sherburne Cook’s work concludes, taking into account several other earlier studies, that the pre-existing indigenous population prior to contact with Europeans – that is, those who existed in the decades and century before 1769 – must have been about 300,000. This is the starting value.

I know of no good estimate of the Indians living in the California territory around 1821 when Mexico took over California. Since some twenty-odd years later – in 1845 – the figure has been estimated at 150,000 individuals, it is clear that in 1821 the Indian population must have been considerably higher than that.

In fact, using backwards the rate of population decline mentioned above (about 2,000 persons per year), when Spain lost sovereignty over California in 1821, the population must have been about 195,000 Indians. This represents a reduction (105,000 people) of about 35% of the original indigenous population figure.

No one can deny that this was not a demographic (human) catastrophe, but equally, no one can deny that a 35 per cent drop (over the 50 years of Spanish rule) was far less than in almost all other parts of the Americas (north, central and south), where the population contraction was ultimately between 80 and 95 per cent (Sherburne F. Cook, p. xvi). These results were arrived at within a century or so of the arrival of Europeans in numbers of some significance. The Spanish presence in California was shorter, about half that period of time.

And, referring specifically to the areas of the new country – the USA – conquered by the Anglo-Saxons (the growing Atlantic coastal strip and, later, the centre of the country – the Midwest), the degree of contraction of the indigenous population was between 95% and 100%. In other words, they were virtually wiped out.

In fact, according to the 2010 National Population Census, American Indians and Alaska Natives accounted for only 0.95% of the US population (see Table 1).

By contrast, in neighbouring Mexico, where the Spanish ruled for 300 years (1521 – 1821) – but not the Anglo-Saxons – its current indigenous population is around 10 per cent of the total. In Peru, the percentage is almost 30%, according to the 2017 census. In Colombia, it was 3.4% in 2005.

Therefore, with some simplification, it can be said that wherever the Spanish ruled in the Americas, there remained a considerable population of indigenous origin (not counting those of African origin). Although it is true that one would have to consider the behaviour of the power of the Creoles, after the departure of the Spaniards, who at times extremely exploited the natives and may have reduced their numbers today.

Where it was the Anglo-Saxons who dominated a territory – as in the US – the natives were almost extinguished.

How dare Americans (from United Stataes) try to lecture us Spaniards on how to treat the indigenous?

The hypocrisy of American university professors and do-gooder journalists is intolerable. It is their ancestors who should be blamed for the intentional killings and near extermination of the Indians.

Even in the interior of the United States today (2010 Census), four of the five states with the most Indians are those where Spain was present between half and almost two centuries: California (362,800), Arizona (298,500), New Mexico (193,200) and Texas (171,000). The other state is Oklahoma, where Spain’s historical presence existed, but was very weak; its figure is 321,700 people.

Just for the record: the total number of indigenous people counted in 2010 in the US was 2.9 million, including Alaskans (105,000).

(Note: the above figures refer to those who claim to be of exclusively indigenous origin – “Alone” – in Table 2. But this classification does not change in order if one also takes into account those who claim to be of indigenous origin and of some other race or races: “Alone or in combination”).

Causes of the demographic contraction during the Spanish period

As I discussed at some length in an article in September 2018: “No one who has studied this phenomenon denies that unintentionally imported diseases [such as smallpox] were by far the main reason for the widespread deaths that occurred throughout the Americas when their original inhabitants came into contact with Europeans“.

It should be remembered that Spanish military personnel and colonists were not the only ones to transmit infectious diseases from Europe. Cattle and – above all – swine were major transmitters of such plagues: did they also intend to wipe out the Californian Indians?

Continuing with my article of September 2018: “Despite this, the goody-goodyism of professors, university students and journalists – above all, leftists – in the USA means that every 12th October “American genocide” or “Spanish genocide” continues to be invoked, which is a manipulation of the historical truth. Neither the Spanish, nor the British, nor the French intentionally spread those diseases, so the term “genocide” is totally inappropriate, a lie, in line with the Black Legend against Spain”.

Politically correct professors in the US occasionally cite, in a vague way, the “harsh living conditions” of the Indians in the missions as one of the causes of their high mortality. But they have never dared to make a systematic estimate. In the various writings that I have consulted, I have not found a single attempt to quantify the deaths due to the “cruelty” of the friars.

A very different matter, which I do not address in this article, are the corporal punishments (mainly whippings) applied to the Indians in the missions, a practice employed by all European and Muslim conquerors for centuries. However, there is no record of any deaths as a result, let alone a large number of deaths.

In any case, such an attempt to attribute a high death toll to Spanish brutality raises a central question: did the Spanish have the means to subdue the coastal Indians, which was the only area where the missions were established?

California Indians were nearly wiped out by Americans, not the Spaniards

California Indians were nearly wiped out by Americans, not the Spaniards

Did the Spanish forcibly subdue all the indigenous Californians?

As I explained in a previous article: “Sherburne F. Cook put the number of Indians living in 1769 in the coastal area between San Diego and San Francisco at about 60,000, that is, along almost 1,000 km of coastline. The number of warriors would be no less than 12,000. The figure he estimated for the indigenous population of the coastal area, prior to Spanish colonisation, appears on p. 42 of Sherburne Cook’s work cited above, and was actually 64,500,

Some 25 years later, “in 1794 … the total Spanish garrison (including officers) numbered only 218 in Alta California”.

And what was the number of friars in that year? About 35. A frightening figure! At the rate of two in each of the 14 missions set up up to 1794.

We must also take into account the Spanish colonists (or those from New Spain, now Mexico), who – as in all frontier areas – had weapons and were ready to use them in their defence. They numbered no more than 1,500, about 110 at each of the 14 missions founded. Of these, no more than 500 colonists were of arms age.

In short: 218 Spanish soldiers, 35 friars and about 500 settlers, compared to about 12,000 Indian warriors in 1794. That is, 753 Spaniards against 12,000: a ratio of 1 to 16 fighters.

What is the only conclusion that can be drawn? The possibility of overpowering them by force alone was nil.

Who overpowered the Indians of the interior and northern California by force?

The attempt to blame Spanish brutality – and not just disease – for the decline in the number of Indians in the entire (present-day) territory of California is totally untenable and scandalous.

It is more than amply documented that the establishment of Spanish installations, such as presidios (military forts) and missions, as well as villages formed by Spanish (and Mexican settlers from New Spain), was limited to the strip along the Pacific. This coastal strip almost never exceeded a width of 70 km, as between Mission San Gabriel and the coast at Santa Monica, next to Los Angeles.

But all along the state of California, its width is between 450 km and 600 km.

Terrain map of the state of California. Monterey Bay is adjacent to the city of Salinas.

Terrain map of the state of California. Monterey Bay is adjacent to the city of Salinas.

In addition, Spanish settlements barely extended north of the San Francisco Bay: a mission at Sonoma (Napa wine valley, south of the city of Santa Rosa) and another at San Rafael (north of today’s Golden Gate Bridge). But California stretches another 640 km north of the bay, something that often goes unnoticed.

Consequently, the territory settled by Spain was limited to less than 15% of the state’s total land area.

In terms of Native Indian population – prior to 1769 – only 22% inhabited the coastal strip no further north than San Francisco.

According to Sherburne Cook (pp. 42-43), of the 300,000 Indians living in present-day California, only 64,500 lived in the Franciscan mission area. Therefore, 235,500 Indians were outside the area of the missions and the presidios (the forts).

As can be easily seen from the map above, the main agricultural area of the state is located inland – away from the coast – in a north-south arrangement, along what is now called the Central Valley, some 700 km long and about 100 km wide. The entire valley is now farmed, but its outer edges still abound with oak trees, which the Indians used to gather acorns from.

Further east in the Valley, along the Sierra Nevada (now comprising Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks) and its foothills, the density of Indians was lower than in the Valley, but it was not uninhabited, with abundant small and big game and fishing in its rivers.

How do American indigenists explain the demographic decline among that approximately 80% of the indigenous population – beyond the control of the Spanish – other than disease from Europe? They do not.

Reasons for the most rapid decline under US power.

Researcher Sherburne Cook focused on the quantification of Indians in each period of California’s history (before the censuses), but did not address the question of the factors that caused their sharp decline.

Inevitably, however, he mentioned the catastrophic incidence of contagious diseases that travelled to the New World with the Spanish discoverers (and in their domesticated animals) and then entered with the French, British, and Dutch.

The effect of these diseases, as we have already said, does not usually wear off in just 50 years (those of Spanish rule); it usually takes longer to fully immunise a large population. In all likelihood, deaths from disease continued to occur with intensity in the Mexican twenties and also under US power from 1848 onwards.

But the crucial question is, why did the rate of mortality accelerate so much from about 1845 onwards?

In the absence of a systematic treatment of the factors that determined the very sharp fall in the number of Indians between 1845 and 1865 – the numerical reality of which Sherburne Cook has specified – since I do not know if a systematic study exists, I will have to refer to partial aspects.

  1. Legal consideration of the Indians, in Spanish and American law.
  2. Practice – not universal, we suppose – by American settlers of the murder of Indians and the kidnapping and enslavement of their children.
  3. Impact of the Gold Rush on the sharp decline in the number of Indians.

1.- The Ordenanzas (Laws) of Burgos, dated as early as 1512 (twenty years after Christopher Columbus’ first voyage), “were the first laws that the Hispanic Monarchy dictated for application in the Indies or the New World or America in which it abolished Indian slavery and organised its conquest … for the government of the natives, Indians or Indians and which were the result of the first meeting of theologians and jurists … [proclaiming] that the Indian had the legal nature of a free man with all the rights of property, that he could not be exploited but as a subject he had to work for the crown”. The Ordinances “are regarded as the [first] forerunner of the [1948] Declaration of Human Rights and international law”.

No amount of rummaging through the British legislation of the time and, later, that of the independent Netherlands, would ever find any provision even remotely approaching that of Spain in relation to indigenous people. To fill this shameful gap, Britain and the Netherlands invented the Black Legend against Spain, which was one of the first great successes of political propaganda, understood as manipulation of the truth.

Going back to my article at the beginning of this section, we will see the contrast with American legal formulations. The Founding Fathers of the United States [of the late 18th century!], George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and the others, if only by omission, took for granted the westward expansion that the [American] colonists had already accomplished motu proprio”.

“As for the future, the Founding Fathers treated the Indians in their founding documents as ‘foreign nations’, who did not need to be compensated for lands taken from them, by hook or by crook.”

In short, the legal norms of the USA (despite referring to some 3 centuries after the first Ordinances of the Crown of Spain) did not provide a significant mechanism that could curb with any effectiveness the cruelty of the colonists towards the Indians.

Enslavement by Anglo-Saxon settlers

2.- For lack of better references, I will use a libel by a journalist of Mexican origin – Elias Castillo – who in 2015 published in the USA the book A Cross of Thorns (Craven Street Books), who keeps repeating that the Spanish committed genocide and other similar fallacies. Above all, I will refer to the bibliography he cites.

Despite his obvious anti-Spanish historical misrepresentation, when he comes to discuss the entry of US settlers on the West Coast, he is obliged to state the following: “During the 1850s, with California now a state of the Union, the treatment of Indians reached its lowest level” (pp. 197-198). Those Indians “were kidnapped and sold as slaves, just as African slaves were on the plantations of the South”.

Evidently, not even a slanderer like Elias Castillo could mention in his pasquin a single case in which Franciscan friars or other Spaniards sold California Indians into slavery. But this did not prevent him from giving the following subtitle to his writing: “The enslavement of the California Indians by the Spanish Missions”.

At the same time, as a sign of his consistency, Elias Castillo has not made the terms “slave” or “slavery” appear in the subject index of his booklet; what would he write about them? He only makes it appear on the cover, in the subtitle, as an indigenist proclamation, so fashionable among professors at progressive Californian universities (Berkeley, etc.), as one more face of political correctness in the academic and media world.

The American writer James J. Rawles, on p. 95 of his book Indians of California. The Changing Image (Univ. of Oklahoma Press.1984) states the following:

“Under cover of the apprenticeship provisions of the 1850 and 1860 laws [for the administration and protection of Indians], the kidnapping and sale of Indians – particularly young women and childrenwas being carried on as a regular business in California.” These Indians were “sold as ‘apprentices’ to white farmers, ranchers and miners”. “George M. Hanson, Superintendent of Indian Affairs in California, in his 1861 report reported that groups of men … were kidnapping Indian children in the frontier areas … virtually selling them into slavery”.

Mexican-born indigenist Elias Castillo adds (p. 199): That law allowed “children [Indians] to be ceded by their parents for training as ‘apprentices’, with their consent”. But, in practice, “it served as a licence for the kidnappers to first murder the [Indian] parents, take the children and pretend to have obtained the parents’ consent”.

In all fairness, it must be said that in 1863 the apprenticeship provisions of that law, which had allowed so many outrages, were repealed.

The aftermath of the Gold Rush

3.-  The American historian Sherbune F. Cook himself (in his work cited above), although he does not elaborate on the reasons for the near disappearance of the Indians in California in the period 1845 – 1865, does refer to the fact that these years coincide to a large extent with those of the strong migratory phenomenon of fortune miners to the mountains of California, which is often referred to as the Gold Rush.

Recall that between approximately 1845 and 1865, the indigenous population in California was decimated from about 150,000 to about 27,500.

There are documents from the mid-19th century that testify to the more or less spontaneous organisation of popular militias that carried out the persecution and execution of natives. The state authorities, who should have known about these events, did little to prevent them.

Other testimonies from that time show that the California state powers almost always favoured the interests of American miners and ranchers over those of the Indians, making their living conditions more difficult.

The first Governor of California

The first Governor of California, Peter H. Burnett (1849-1851), days before leaving office on January 9, 1851, stated that it is foreseeable that a war of extermination will continue between the two races [Indians and whites] until the Indian race is extinct. Though we can only contemplate that result with painful regret, the inevitable fate of that race is beyond the reach of human power and wisdom”.

From such a frame of mind or background position, it is not difficult to imagine the decisions that this and subsequent governors of the state of California might have made.

Whoever finds an analogous speech by any of the Spanish governors of Alta California or any other territory then colonised by the Crown of Spain, please let me know and make it public. It would be a first. Mr. Burnett’s sincerity is to be welcomed.


This post was translated from:

Jaso, G. (2019) ‘Los indígenas de California casi fueron exterminados por los estadounidenses, no por los españoles’, 22 August. Available at: (Accessed: 5 September 2021).

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1511 Royal decree of Fernando, the Catholic King, creating the Audiencia (Court) of Santo Domingo, the first in the New World.
1550 Pedro de Valdivia founds the town of Concepción del Nuevo Extremo (Chile) in the viceroyalty of Peru.
1581 Spaniard Gonzalo Ronquillo founds the town of Iloilo (Philippines).
1582 The Gregorian calendar was introduced in Spain, replacing the Julian calendar. As a result, the days between 5 and 14 October 1582 never existed!
1713 Denis Diderot, French encyclopaedist, is born.
1762 The British take Manila in the Pacific War against Spain.
1827 Capitulation of the Malcontents thanks to the action of the Count of Spain. On 7 November, the ringleaders Rafi Vidal and Olivas are shot.
1864 Louis Lumiére, one of the fathers of the cinematograph, is born.
1889 The town of Iloilo (Philippines) obtains the title of city, granted by Queen Mª Cristina de Habsburg.

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