California Native Peoples and the Advent of Europeans

Prior to the Gold Rush, the native peoples of California lived within an organic economy based on relations among Indians and fish, deer, bear, acorns, and other living things. Although California's Mediterranean climate was highly suited to agriculture, California natives west of the Sierras remained hunters, gatherers, and fishers, many living in the densely settled Central Valley. East of the Sierras, the Paiute practiced irrigated horticulture, but the corn, beans, and squash complex of the American Southwest was not established west of the mountains.

The staple food of the California Indians, especially those in the Central Valley, the Coast ranges, and the Sierra foothills, was the acorn. California contained many species of oak, and Indians ground the acorns into meal to make a variety of breads. They also harvested bulbs and seed-bearing plants that grew in the coastal chaparral, the Central Valley, and the Sierras. They set fire to the hillsides to clear the underbrush for better passage, to create browse areas for deer, to encourage the growth of edible plants, and to force out jackrabbits, a major source of food.

Indian life underwent a major transformation with the advent of European colonizers. Historian George Phillips states, "After 1769 and the establishment of permanent Spanish settlements, Indian culture came under enormous pressure. But the first Californians did not readily submit to for eign domination as is sometimes thought. Rather, they implemented strategies of evasion, selective acculturation, and military resistance."1

As Spanish, Mexicans, and Russians explored and settled California, ranching, trade, and missionary work ensued. Cattle released into the coastal valleys by the Spanish gave rise to a vigorous hide and tallow trade, colorfully described by Richard Henry Dana in Two Years Before the Mast (1840). Workers rounded up cattle, stripped their hides, and waded through water with the heavy layers on their heads to load them on boats waiting offshore. The hides were used for leather goods, while tallow made from cattle fat was needed for candles in an era before electricity. Trade also began with the Russians, in collaboration with fishermen from Boston, for otter pelts and whales.

A number of rationales existed for the settlement of California and the American West. America's "Manifest Destiny," proclaimed journalist John L. O'Sullivan, was for Anglo-Saxon America "to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence had given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty."2 Senator Thomas Hart Benton argued that the white race should expand its civilization to the West Coast and take over land occupied by the red race. Other rationales included the concept of "American Progress," depicted in an 1872 painting of that name by John Gast. Imbedded within the painting of settlers moving west is the ideal of transforming "wild" nature and "wild" Indians into "civilization." The painting represented an Enlightenment narrative of progress, the idea of bringing light to a dark land.

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