Genocide on the California Frontier

Wikimedia The Modocs, who lived in the borderlands of northeast California and south-central Oregon, numbered between 1,000 and 2,000 people in 1850. Over the next 10 years, extermination raids whittled this indigenous nation down to no more than 300. They moved to the Klamath Reservation, but food and shelter were scarce, so they tried to return to their homelands, but the cavalry came to drive them back to the reservation, which escalated into the Modoc War in late 1872. Modocs are seen here in the lava bed. This illustration was done by William Simpson (1823-1899) and it appeared in the London Illustrated News

Scholars argue how to label the atrocities inflicted on Native Americans

No responsible historian would argue that what was done to the Native peoples of this continent after the arrival of European settlers was anything less than horrid. Scholars do conflict, however, on how to label it. Did the many atrocities, massacres, forced removals, and brutal reservation conditions add up to genocide—the intentional physical destruction of a people? Or was it a crime of a lesser order, more what we now call ethnic cleansing—creating a homogeneous homeland by forcing out peoples of different identity?

This debate informs a series of sometimes-contentious scholarly articles in the latest Western Historical Quarterly. Gary Clayton Anderson of the University of Oklahoma argues that the wide variety of Indian experiences and the lack of a clear, public intention to destroy Indigenous Peoples belong under the label of ethnic cleansing. Walter L. Hixson of the University of Akron lines up against Anderson, maintaining that the history of the American West is “colonial genocide.” Margaret Jacobs of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln argues for a wider choice than either/or. In her view, settler colonialism unleashed crimes germane to both ethnic cleansing and genocide that deserve closer examination on their own.

Benjamin Madley of UCLA offers up just such an examination. In an article that covers the conceptual core of his recent and monumental book, An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, Madley examines what happened in the Golden State between 1846, when California became American territory, and 1873, when the end of the Modoc War concluded large-scale operations against Natives. It’s not a pretty picture.

The word genocide came into the language in 1944, when Polish lawyer Raphaël Lemkin combined the Greek root genos, meaning race or tribe, with the Latin cide, meaning killing. Lemkin went on to lay the international legal foundation for the 1948 United Nations General Assembly resolution defining the crime: “… any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical [sic], racial or religious group, as such: a) Killing members of the group; b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction; d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”

A prosecutor seeking a genocide conviction has to prove not only that the accused committed genocidal acts, but also intended to help destroy the targeted group. In the case of 19th-century California, that was clear. The state’s first civilian governor, Peter Burnett, announced to the legislature in January 1851, “The two races … must ever remain at enmity…. a war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races until the Indian race becomes extinct….” The state’s lawmakers then authorized $500,000 to pay local militias for obliterating Indians. Five years later, the federal government added another $800,000.

The well-funded effort paid off. At the beginning of the American period, California’s Indians numbered approximately 150,000. By 1873, the Native population had fallen to 30,000.

That’s the big picture. Drill down to individual tribes, and the intended destruction emerges in specific detail.

As an example, the Modocs, who lived in the borderlands of northeast California and south-central Oregon, numbered between 1,000 and 2,000 people in 1850. Over the next 10 years, extermination raids whittled this indigenous nation down to no more than 300.

Recognizing that the rising settler tide was unstoppable, the desperate Modocs signed away their land and went onto the Klamath Reservation. Food proved scarce and shelter minimal, however, and half the Modocs bolted, returning to their ancestral range in the hope of finding enough to eat. When the cavalry showed up to drive them back onto the reservation in late 1872, a gunfight escalated into the Modoc War. Although the Native fighting force never numbered more than 60 and was hobbled by about 100 noncombatant women, children, and elders, the Indians kept up the struggle until June 1873. In the months following, four leaders were hanged for war crimes, and the 153 surviving insurgents were exiled to Oklahoma.

The killing, though, did not end with the Modocs’ removal. Poor nutrition and nonexistent medical care slashed their numbers in Oklahoma to 99 by 1878 and just 88 by 1889.

In the end, the question of genocide versus ethnic cleansing versus settler colonialism moves out of history and into our own time. That’s how Boyd Cothran, an historian at Canada’s York University, concludes his article in the Western Historical Quarterly: “… Indigenous Californians suffered tremendous loss. The American people were responsible. It is the crime that should haunt America. But what are we going to do about it now?”

A fair question, indeed, the one we should both be asking and working hard to answer.

For Further Reading

Anderson, Gary Clayton, “The Native Peoples of the American West: Genocide or Ethnic Cleansing”; Boyd Cothran, “Melancholia and the Infinite Debate”; Walter L. Hixon, “Policing the Past: Indian Removal and Genocide Studies”; Margaret D. Jacobs, “Genocide or Ethnic Cleansing? Are These Our Only Choices?”; and Benjamin Madley, “Understanding Genocide in California under United States Rule, 1846–1873,” The Western Historical Quarterly, vol. 47 no. 4 (winter 2016);

Cothran, Boyd. Remembering the Modoc War: Redemptive Violence and the Making of American Innocence. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2014.

Lemkin, Raphaël. Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government, Proposals for Redress. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Division of International Law, 1944.

Madley, Benjamin. An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe. New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2016.

Nabokov, Peter. “Indians, Slaves, and Mass Murder: The Hidden History.” New York Review of Books, November 24, 2016.

“Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.” General Assembly Resolution 260 (III) of 9 December 1948.

Robert Aquinas McNally is a writer and poet whose “The Modoc War: A Story of Genocide at the Dawn of America’s Gilded Age” will be published by Bison Books/University of Nebraska Press in October 2017. Find out more about his work at