After the Gold Rush

Jonathan Kirsch, a contributing writer to Book Review, is the author of, most recently, "The Woman Who Laughed at God: The Untold History of the Jewish People."

California, according to an ironic remark by the venerable historian Hubert H. Bancroft, “cannot grace her annals with a single Indian war bordering on respectability.” Still, the native population of California was cut in half in the two decades following the Gold Rush. The death toll was the result of disease, deprivation and what Bancroft calls “brutal butcherings on the part of our honest miners and brave pioneers.”

"[M]any California tribes were generally peaceful by nature, few having even a war club or a tomahawk as part of their culture,” explains historian William B. Secrest in “When the Great Spirit Died,” a haunting chronicle of the destruction of the original Californians. “Yet in California, the bloodiest drama in the settlement of the West took place, a brutal disruption and destruction so devastating that by the 1870s many native groups were extinct.”

Secrest reminds us that the California dream was a nightmare for its original inhabitants. The first Americans to reach California dismissed the native population as “root diggers” and called for a “war of extermination” against them. Indeed, the phrase was freely and openly invoked by politicians and editorialists: “That a war of extermination will continue to be waged ... [u]ntil the Indian becomes extinct must be expected,” declared Gov. Peter Burnett in 1851.

“When the Great Spirit Died” is an illuminating and even revelatory work of popular history and anthropology, richly illustrated with vintage prints and photographs, and full of extracts from eyewitness accounts. For anyone whose knowledge of California history derives from bland grade-school textbooks, Secrest’s book will be nothing less than shocking.


Secrest allows us to see the genocidal implications of Manifest Destiny in the most intimate and gruesome detail. Nancy Kelsey, for example, may be remembered as “the first white woman to cross the Sierra” and is reputed to have sewn the Bear Flag that was raised by a party of American adventurers at Sonoma in 1846, thus setting into motion the process that would turn California from a Mexican province into an American state. But there is another, seldom-told story about the Kelsey family. Nancy’s husband and brother-in-law, Ben and Andy Kelsey, so brutally exploited and tormented the Indians who lived and worked on their ranches around Clear Lake that they rose up in rebellion. Andy and another rancher were killed, and Ben vowed to take revenge. The resulting carnage, carried out first by Ben Kelsey’s vigilantes and later by a detachment of American soldiers, ended with the deaths of perhaps 100 innocent Indians who were punished for the murder of two American settlers.

“The route of the raiders could literally be traced by the bodies of dead Indians,” writes Secrest. “The battle at Bloody Island, as the Clear Lake fight came to be known, was little more than the slaughter of a people who wished merely to be left alone.”

Similar outrages were carried out all over California. “Yosemite,” we learn, was the name of a tribe before it became the name of a tourist attraction, and the first whites to officially report the existence of Yosemite Valley -- “a valley of surpassing beauty” -- were the members of an expedition whose mission was to round up and deport the entire tribe from its land. Those who resisted were killed, and those who survived were still at risk.

“Capt. [Boling] was made a present of a young Indian boy about 5 years old who has lost his parents,” wrote one man in his diary about the officer under whom he served. “He is handsome and smart.”


For those of us who cherish a book like Theodora Kroeber’s “Ishi in Two Worlds,” the poignant tale of the “the last wild Indian in North America,” Secrest’s work casts the life of Ishi in a new and disturbing light. To be sure, Ishi died in bed, a victim of tuberculosis. But, no less than the tens of thousands of men, women and children who died before him, he can also be seen as the victim of the willful and unrelenting “war of extermination” that came with the American conquest of California.

If the destruction of the California Indians has suffered from inattention, the adventures of Joaquin Murieta, the storied bandido of the Gold Rush era, may have suffered from an excess of attention, or so argues Bruce Thornton in his absorbing book, “Searching for Joaquin.”

"[P]owerful urges have quickened the legend to life and sustained it over the years,” writes Thornton. “The use of Joaquin in the histrionics of oppression has obscured the richer, deeper, more human reality of California then and now.”

Thornton starts with the facts as they have been embraced in conventional history: Murieta and his fellow bandidos were attacked by a mounted detachment of California Rangers on July 25, 1853, in an arroyo on the western edge of the San Joaquin Valley. Murieta was shot and killed, and his head was hacked off and preserved in a bottle. Thus ended the life of a man who came to be celebrated as a colorful bandit-hero. Or did it?

Not everyone believes that the head in the bottle belonged to the Joaquin Murieta. His ethnicity was called into question -- was he a Spanish guero, fair-haired and blue-eyed, or a Mayo Indian, or a mixture of both, a mestizo? And, above all, Thornton asks us to consider whether we should see him as romantic and heroic figure or a cold-blooded murderer.

"[T]he machinery of mythmaking ... initiated a process that over ensuing decades would increasingly obscure the truth,” insists Thornton. "[The] motif of Joaquin as a resister against Yankee tyranny recurs over and over, perhaps speaking to Americans’ ambivalence about their occupation of California and their relationship to Mexico.”

Thornton seeks to deconstruct and debunk more than one myth in “Searching for Joaquin.” Thus, for example, he characterizes Bancroft as “the bookstore owner and amateur historian who organized (and took credit for) a massive, best-selling history of the state actually written by committee.” Bancroft, he writes, was a victim of the “longings for a bygone world” that prompted the mythologizing of Joaquin Murieta. When it comes to Bancroft’s depiction of Murieta, he condemns the historian for giving “the stamp of scholarly veracity to outright wish-fulfilling fantasies.”

The reality, according to Thornton, is less stirring. California in the Gold Rush era, he points out, was a dangerous and violent place that lacked competent and effective civil institutions. Banditry in particular and lawlessness in general resulted in “a murder rate unmatched in American history,” he argues. As for the historical Murieta, he writes, “we must remember what he undeniably left behind him: the slit throats and bullet-ridden chests of his victims.”


Thornton frankly declares his intention to use the Murieta myth as a cudgel against what he calls “identity politics, which assigns individuals to stereotypical racial categories usually based on their being victims of historical oppression.” His argument will surely be off-putting to the scholars and activists whom he openly and hotly criticizes. But, entirely apart from the political stance that he strikes, “Searching for Joaquin” offers a fresh and fascinating take on California history.