The Yuki Case, 1851–1910

Published on February 25, 2013 by Carol

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Yuki Indian Baskets

Extracted from Patterns of frontier genocide 1803–1910: the Aboriginal Tasmanians, the Yuki of California, and the Herero of Namibia; Journal of Genocide Research, June 2004
by Benjamin Madley

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On February 2, 1848 the United States took possession of California from Mexico. Ten months later, news of the gold found at Sutter’s Mill triggered a tidal wave of immigration into the new state. Between 1849 and 1851 alone nearly 250,000 settlers arrived (Cook, 1970, p 28). These immigrants needed food and triggered an agricultural explosion that in turn created shock waves of land grabbing. In 1851 the first white explorers visited the Yuki homeland, in northern California, and in 1854 settlers arrived to farm and ranch the area’s fertile valleys. Before whites arrived, the Yuki numbered between 5,000 and 20,000. By 1864, settlement policies and a war of genocide had reduced them to “85 male[s] and 215 female[s]” (Carranco and Beard, 1981, p 126). Genocidal policies then continued into the twentieth century, further reducing the population.

Like the Aboriginal Tasmanians, the Yuki came into conflict with settlers over natural resources, land, the abduction of their children, and the enslavement and mistreatment of their women. Likewise, the Yuki rose up only to be hunted nearly to extinction and incarcerated in lethal ethnic gulags. Indeed, these genocides demonstrate remarkable similarities.

Soon after white settlers arrived in 1854, their pastoral activities began to threaten the Yuki hunter/gatherer economy. The Yuki depended on hunting deer and birds, fishing for steelhead and salmon, and gathering insects, nuts, seeds, tubers, and wild plants for survival (Carranco and Beard, 1981, pp 18–19). The lush meadows and river valleys where these Yuki staples thrived were also the best places for building houses, tilling the earth, and grazing livestock. Settlers’ hogs, cattle, and horses set out to pasture in these areas consumed the core of the Yuki diet. Further, the settlers’ domesticated animals drove wild game away from prime grazing areas thus depriving the Yuki of meat.

As in Tasmania, competition for natural resources generated conflict. Settlers occupied traditional Yuki hunting, fishing, and gathering grounds, denying them to the Yuki and forcing the Yuki to the point of starvation. According to settler John Burgess, who lived in the Yuki homeland:

I saw a man driving some squaws from a clover field… they were picking clover or digging roots; he said he would be damned if he would allow them to dig roots or pick clover, as he wanted it for hay. (Carranco and Beard, 1981, p 68)

In the face of the sudden and intense competition for access to natural resources, many Yuki radically changed their lives in order to eat. They retreated into mountain areas where they faced the twin challenges of fewer food sources and violent encounters with hostile tribes.

Without access to productive land and fearful of the dangers associated with hunting and gathering on neighboring tribes’ lands, Yuki began killing settlers’ stock to survive (Miller, 1978, pp 249–254). The San Francisco Bulletin noted on January 21, 1860 that due to their “condition bordering on starvation … [the Yuki] are committing serious depredations on the stock” (San Francisco Bulletin, January 21, 1860).

A dearth of written records obscures Yuki thinking, but their attacks on settlers’ livestock were also likely intended to exact revenge for dispossession, loss of food, the enslavement of children and the abduction and mistreatment of women. As one settler noted, “the treatment received by the Indians from some of the white settlers has tended to exasperate them and cause them to destroy stock in a spirit of revenge” (Heizer and Almquist, 1971, p 39).

Forcibly indenturing Indians was legal in California from 1850 to 1863. On April 22, 1850, the state legislature passed “An Act for the Government and Protection of Indians” into law, providing for the indenture or apprenticeship of California Indians (Carranco and Beard, 1981, p 40; Castillo, 1978, p 109; Hurtado, 1988, pp 129–131). This legislation led to widespread kidnapping of Yuki children. When Indian Agent Simon Storms visited a Round Valley Yuki encampment in 1856 he found that “a number of squaws and children had been taken away by white men, which was the principal reason they were so much afraid of whites” (Carranco and Beard, 1981, p 40). Indian Agent Vincent Geiger reported in 1857 that “the Indians … have very few children, most of them doubtless having been stolen and sold” while in 1858 a settler noted what appeared to be kidnappings: “In coming into the valley, on the first occasion, I met a man with two Indian boys taking them off, and the third time I came on the trail, I met a man taking off a girl” (Carranco and Beard, 1981, p 61). There are no written records of stolen Yuki children ever returning to the tribe.

Few white women migrated to California with the Gold Rush. To obtain sex and labor, white settlers abducted and enslaved Indian women, including the Yuki. According to genocide scholars Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn, stolen Yuki women became “temporary harvest hands, household servants, and camp wives” (Chalk and Jonassohn, 1990, p 197). Written evidence of Yuki reactions to these kidnappings are not extant, but Sherburne Cook suggests that abduction and abuse of Yuki women were causes of violent conflict between the Yuki and settlers (Cooke, 1976, p 278).

Between 1856 and 1859 the Yuki began attacking first livestock, and then both stock and a limited number of settlers. The conflict was always asymmetrical. California Indians were prohibited from owning guns and records suggest that the Yuki primarily relied on bows and arrows. Despite the disparity in firepower and the fact that the Yuki rarely killed whites, settlers responded with massacres of increasing scale (Heizer, 1974, p 11). Farmer John Lawson explained, in 1856, that when “I lost twenty hogs … [I] went after the Indians … shot three [and] five … were tried at the reservation, found guilty and hanged” (Carranco and Beard, 1981, p 59). Settler Dryden Lawson stated in 1860 that:

… in 1856 the first expedition by the whites against the Indians was made … these expeditions were formed by gathering together a few white men whenever the Indians committed depredations on their stock; there were so many expeditions that I cannot recollect the number…we would kill on average fifty or sixty Indians on a trip …frequently we would have to turn out two or three times a week. (Carranco and Beard, 1981, p 40)

Between 1857 and 1858 the Yuki killed four white men in attacks that appear to have motivated settlers to perpetrate increasingly large massacres. In May 1859, Round Valley settlers avenged the killing of a single prize stallion with the slaughter of 240 Yuki (Carranco and Beard, 1981, pp 64–65, 82). Responding to the increasing violence of the summer of 1859, the editor of the Sacramento Union wrote: “The aborigines are melting away as the snows of the mountains in June … they are doomed to steady extirpation” (Sacramento Union, August 22, 1859).

On September 6, 1859 California Governor John Weller intervened to sanction genocide by granting a state commission to Walter Jarboe, a notorious Indian killer whose “Eel River Rangers” had already murdered 62 Yuki men, women and children that year (Carranco and Beard, 1981, pp 90–91, 89). Despite these killings, Weller considered the Yuki a threat requiring even more extreme measures. A San Francisco Bulletin editorial even suggested, “Extermination is the quickest and cheapest remedy, and effectually prevents all other difficulties when an outbreak [of Indian violence] occurs” (San Francisco Bulletin, September 1, 1856). When US Army generals refused to order their troops to join the war against the Yuki, Weller hired Jarboe and his “Rangers.”

Five months later, in January 1860, Weller disbanded the “Eel River Rangers” and Jarboe presented his final report to the new Governor of California, John Downey: “from … [September 20] to the 24th of January[1860], I have fought them twenty-three times, killed 283 warriors, the number of wounded was not known, took 292 prisoners, sent them to the Reservation” (Carranco and Beard, 1981, pp 95–96). Jarboe then presented the state with a $11,143 bill for his expeditions (San Francisco Bulletin, February 24, 1860). Given his previous record for killing scores of women and children, Jarboe’s official account cannot be trusted. He lists only men killed. Yet, if his previous activities are any indicator, he and his death squad did not discriminate between men, women, and children. All were likely targeted.

Governor Weller understood that Jarboe would kill women and children as well as the California press did. By February 1860, despite its earlier editorial, the San Francisco Bulletin was shocked and criticized Jarboe’s actions as a “Deliberate, cowardly, brutal massacre of defenseless men, women, and children …” (San Francisco Bulletin, February 24, 1860). In March of the same year, San Francisco Herald editor John Nugent attacked the government’s genocide with biting wit:

I propose to the legislature to create the office of Indian Butcher with the princely salary conferred upon the man who has killed the most Indians in a given time provided it is
satisfactorily shown that the Indians were unarmed at the time and the greater of them were squaws and papooses [women and children]. (San Francisco Herald, March 5, 1860)

Governor Weller had officially sanctioned genocide. He understood that by commissioning Jarboe he would unleash a force with a proven record of killing women and children and that it would annihilate most, if not all, Yukis. The government of California sanctioned and paid for Weller’s genocide policy and Jarboe’s execution of it. On April 12, 1860 the California state legislature appropriated $9,347.39 for “payment of the indebtedness incurred by the expedition against the Indians in the county of Mendocino organized under the
command of Captain W.S. Jarboe in the year 1859” (Carranco and Beard, 1981, p 97). Jarboe’s 292 prisoners then joined other Yuki at the Round Valley Reservation.

The Round Valley Reservation was established in 1854 as a collection point for the Yuki as well as a number of other northern California tribes. In 1857 Special Indian Agent Browne reported that “some 3,000 Indians” were living on the reservation (Carranco and Beard, 1981, p 58). No records exist to show exactly how many Yuki died there. However, it is clear that even as Indians were continually brought to the reservation in the hundreds, the population steadily declined as a result of malnutrition, the abduction of women and children, rape and consequent venereal disease, and constant settler attacks. Although ostensibly created to protect the Yuki, in practice Round Valley bore striking resemblances to the Tasmanian ethnic gulag on Flinders Island. Inadequate rations led to malnutrition, disease, and subsequent death. In 1858 a reporter from the San Francisco Alta California visited the reservation and gushed:

There is …an abundance of food …to supply the immediate wants of a vast multitude of Indians, and in a short time, their labor might produce an adequate supply of grain and vegetables for the entire aboriginal population of this State. (Steamer Edition, San Francisco Alta California, May 27, p 1858)

But those Yuki working on the reservation farm were provided only a starvation diet. Rations consisted of six ears of corn per worker per day or flour with which to bake bread; those who did not work were not given food (Carranco and Beard, 1981, p 68; Heizer, 1974, p 106). To supplement these insufficient rations, the Yuki turned to foraging and hunting on the reservation (Heizer, 1974, p 106). Here too they confronted a penal system designed to destroy them: ranchers were allowed to graze their livestock on the reservation, thus destroying the seeds, plants, tubers, and acorns the Yuki were foraging for. Without sufficient nutrition immune systems weakened and many Yuki succumbed to disease.

The abduction and rape of Yuki women increased the reservation mortality rate. Despite US Army soldiers stationed on the reservation to protect the Yuki, Round Valley was no safe haven. Lieutenant Edward Dillon, based on the reservation, reported “It is a common occurrence to have squaws taken by force from the place” (Carranco and Beard, 1981, p 61). Frequent rapes brought death by spreading venereal diseases through the Yuki reservation community. According to an 1859 petition sent by Tehama County settlers to the US Secretary of the Interior, the agent in charge of the reservation was “compelling the squaws, even in the presence of their Indian husbands to submit to (he and his cronies’) lecherous and beastly desires,” thus introducing “among them diseases of the most loathsome character” (Heizer, 1974, p 139). When Simon Storms entered Round Valley in June 1856 he noted that not a single Indian was “affected with the venereal,” but by August 1858 he reported “about one-fifth are now diseased” (Carranco and Beard, 1981, p 61).

The reservation even became a shooting gallery for white settlers. Without the authority to arrest white men beyond the reservation, US Army soldiers had little ability to pursue and punish whites that attacked the Yuki. Settlers would commit a crime on the reservation and slip over the line of safety. Moreover, because the California legislature excluded Indians from serving as witnesses “for or against any white” in the California court system, it was virtually impossible to charge those suspected of victimizing Yuki on the reservation (Heizer, 1974, p 5). With little fear of consequences, whites killed those incarcerated on the reservation with impunity. As Captain Johnson, charged with protecting the reservation, explained of the Yuki, “they had always been told by the white man ‘come on the reservation; we do not want to kill you,’ but they had been invariably deceived and killed, and now they did not know whom to believe” (Tassin, 1887, p 29). In 1859 Captain Johnson warned, “I believe it to be the settled determination of many of the [white] inhabitants to exterminate the Indians,” but given the laws he could “see no way of preventing it …” (Carranco and Beard, 1981, p 90).

Long after the war was over, reservation policies continued to destroy the Yuki. According to Sherburne Cook, starvation and sickness combined with settler encroachment and attacks to destroy 80% of the Yuki on the reservation between 1873 and 1910 (Cook, 1976, p 238). Thus, the reservation system continued the genocide into the twentieth century. As on Flinders Island, there was a clearly discernible record of steadily declining population at Round Valley. The US and California governments may not have set out to destroy the
Yuki at Round Valley, but they, like the colonial government of Tasmania, did little or nothing to correct this process despite years of evidence indicating that extermination was under way and that official policies contributed to it.

Today approximately 100 Yuki live in Mendocino County on the Round Valley Indian Reservation together with members of five other California Indian nations. Fewer than a dozen native Yuki speakers remain.

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