Calling massacres of scores of California Indian tribes by self-organized white militia groups “expeditions,” the state legislature figured that the U.S. federal government would eventually pay for rifles, food, wages and other expenses for the men of these deadly campaigns, going as far as to print bonds with George Washington’s portrait on them before officials in Washington D.C. even approved of the operations. Nevertheless, they figured right.
According to Indian-American historian and UCLA professor Benjamin Madley’s American Genocide: “On May 3, 1852–less than fifteen months after raising $500,000 for ranger militia expeditions against Indians–legislators passed a new $600,000 bond ‘for the payment of the expenses of the Mariposa, Second El Dorado, Utah, Los Angeles, Clear Lake, Klamath, and Trinity, and Monterey Expeditions against the Indians.‘” Madley adds: “The bond issue lured many Californians into financially supporting the [state] killing machine.”
Los Angeles was founded on lands of “otherized” native “Californians” over two centuries ago by people who themselves were “throwaways” for Spanish capital interests. And even before “La Reina…” was the San Gabriel Valley mission, where the Tongva woman Toypurina’s people were held captive. European-Spanish law ruled over L.A. with brute force for at least 50 years, after which Mexican Independence in 1821 wrested power away. The newly liberated Mexican government was supposed to change the mission system which held hostage many native people, but not so unlike today, change took time. Then, it actually wasn’t change.
As UC Merced professor Adam Torres-Rouff tells it in Before L.A.: “After a decade of debate, the territorial authorities, together with the Mexican government, ultimately closed the missions and secularized mission lands, between 1834 and 1836…Once approved, however, California officials failed to implement secularization as designed. Rather than equitably dividing mission property among the former neophytes, they engineered a bonanza for select Mexican Californians.” The select few were Californios, or native Californians of mostly old-world Spanish heritage.
This result was not good for native folks in the state, including in the Southern California area. As Torres-Rouff points out: “Rather than a liberal redistribution, secularization effectively dispossessed Indians from their ancestral and mission lands, and tens of thousands left California’s coastal areas for the less populated interior.” The process also centered them in Spanish towns just before another seismic power shift.
Mexican-Spanish state laws upon native folks were atrocious, though also not surprising given that the Atlantic slave trade to the American continent had been in place for over two centuries by the 1830s; it wasn’t the best of historical moments for universal human rights, one can say. Their laws would not last more than a decade, however, due to U.S. invasion, and in California, insurrection.
Once again from Benjamin Madley’s American Genocide, on the morning of June 14 , white Americans, egged on by rumors of the Mexican Californian state expelling them prior to the U.S.’ declaration of war on Mexico, seized and trapped key Mexican generals. These men also raised a flag that they’d had in mind, one “emblazoned with a star, a grizzly bear, and the words, ‘California Republic.’ ” The design is still the official state flag’s to this day. So violence along racial lines is not new but rather embedded in Los Angeles and California’s separate and interwoven creations.
But something else extraordinary–and arguably more consequential–happened after the U.S. wrested these areas from Mexican law. That is, violence against otherized people became written in; it became sanctioned. Nothing speaks to this like the California Act for the Governance and Protection of Indians (1850). The Act was a part of the first set of laws passed by California’s first ever legislature, modeled after those established in the earlier colonies turned U.S. territories. According to Madley: “In December 1849, a number of delegates met in Monterey, California to debate about whether or not California Indians should be granted citizenship and/or suffrage. Most of the delegates were against suffrage…”
Although a couple of delegates voiced support for legal rights to be granted to California native peoples, the overwhelming majority of their counterparts didn’t, and so in April 1850 the official dehumanization of others was placed into state law. These laws (or policies) had irreversible effects on the lives of the original stewards of California’s various lands, who were here thousands of years prior to European, Mexican, and American conquests. Madley the notes how: “…between 1850 and 1873 California state judges found whites guilty of very few crimes against California Indians and sentenced only a handful of whites for such crimes.”
Those same laws also likely played no small role in 1871, when both old “Californios,” along with recently arrived whites to Southern California, banded together for a mass lynching in then-L.A.’s Chinatown. In addition to the racial logic of the 1871 attack itself, however, it’s also true that then-L.A.’s Chinatown was not fundamentally different from other non-white areas in that the vicinity was already deeply neglected, which was another policy or design decision along racial lines.
As Torres-Rouff also shows in Before L.A.: “In a particularly malignant Chinatown expose, the [L.A.] Times described ‘long, dark and narrow halls, bare of every touch of civilization…where humanity stands on a level that is scarcely human’…public health [also] singled out Chinese and Chinatown as “human and spatial plagues blighting the city…[and cast blame on] owners for ‘being blind to the universal desire and demand of citizens for the removal of Chinatown…’ “
To some extent these neglected histories are reasonably esoteric to most of us, given that traditional education in the U.S. has buried them for centuries. As humans, we’re also (somewhat) known for our short attention spans. But the state, as the keeper of laws–including officialized or sanctioned violence–has to be held accountable as well. Our media coverage, or any official retelling of these facts, also plays an important role in our understanding–or lack thereof–of the places where we come from and how they’ve been made.