The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873
Email this review


It was no accident that California’s Indians were slaughtered by the droves in the mid-19th century, writes UCLA historian Madley, but instead the product of design.

We know the heyday of genocide, from just before the Gold Rush until the early 1870s, almost only from the Anglo point of view. There’s good reason for that: as the author documents, very nearly killing by individual killing, the Native population of California fell from about 150,000 to about 30,000. The word “genocide” is used advisedly, even given such stark numbers, for, as Madley also observes, in many instances the indigenous people fought back, if never with the terrible effect of the Anglo invaders, who imported legal and political institutions that allowed them to justify the slaughter. (Pointedly, the author observes that the killings tapered off at just about the time Indians were allowed for the first time to serve as witnesses in murder trials.) Some of the killings that Madley documents were one-on-one murder; others, such as the spectacularly error-prone campaign against the Modoc that closed the period, involved huge numbers of men: “US Army soldiers, California volunteers, Oregon militiamen, and Indian scouts,” to say nothing of howitzers and other heavy weapons, arrayed against a badly outmatched band of Indians in the lava beds of northern California. Somehow, the American casualties were 10 times greater than their quarry’s. From massacre to judicial killing to hanging, Madley moves with a scholar’s care across a terrible landscape, and while his findings will surprise no student of Native American history or westward expansion, they amount to a depressing but wholly necessary litany. Much of the book—almost 200 pages—is given over to a series of appendices that detail incidents along with the number of people killed, the location, and the historical attestations for each.

Dispiriting but essential scholarly reading for students of early modern California.

Pub Date: May 24th, 2016
ISBN: 978-0-300-18136-4
Page count: 680pp
Publisher: Yale Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 2016


NonfictionOH WHAT A SLAUGHTER by Larry McMurtry
by Larry McMurtry
NonfictionSHADOWS AT DAWN by Karl Jacoby
by Karl Jacoby