Most Californians are unaware that in the second half of the 19th century their state sponsored and funded a campaign to exterminate its Indigenous population — a mass atrocity known under contemporary international law as genocide. This course explores what happened in California between 1846 and 1900 and examines how a democracy orchestrated a crime typically associated with dictatorship. It also connects California’s story with the larger United States narrative of conquest, and lays out the ways that the genocide continues to affect California society, culture, and politics.
Week 1: The Genocidal Backstory to California’s Only Indian War
Largely forgotten these days, the Modoc War of 1872–73 occupied the American public mind of the time, as it rattled the second Grant Administration, claimed the life of the only general officer to fall in a Western Indian war, and embarrassed the military with one stinging defeat after another. Yet, for all its drama, this fight was more than a strategic and tactical engagement. Behind and beneath the war sits the reality of California’s genocide.
Week 2: From Raphaël Lemkin to Spanish, Mexican, and American California
The word genocide entered the public lexicon only in the 1940s, when Polish lawyer Lemkin created the term to cover the particular variety of mass atrocity Nazi Germany was visiting upon Europe. Genocide, though, has happened many times before and since, under different regimes and varying names. Using the international legal concept of genocide as the frame, we will set the stage by examining what occurred in California between the Spanish colonial invasion of 1769 and the United States’ annexation in 1846.
Week 3: Laying the Foundation
Genocides do not roll out full-blown. Rather, they move through stages that escalate from bigotry, dehumanization, and discrimination to mass murder and, ultimately, denial. California’s extermination campaign developed from racist and pseudoscientific ideas about Natives imported by Euro-American emigrants, gave birth to laws that stripped Natives of legal and political rights, and led to Gov. Peter Burnett’s declaration of a war of extermination funded by $45 million in state bonds.
Week 4: Death by a Thousand Massacres
The California genocide operated through vigilante posses, state-funded militias, and Regular Army units that attacked Native villages, then force- marched survivors to federal reservations featuring concentration-camp
conditions. At the same time, mining, logging, farming, and ranching killed game and fish, fouled rivers, and altered the pastures and woodlands that supported Native communities. Inescapable poverty added sickness and the diseases of despair to this lethal mix. By 1900, approximately 90% of the original Indigenous population had been wiped out.
Week 5: Erasure, from Yosemite Valley to Modoc Skulls and Ishi
The genocide extended beyond physical extermination to eliminate the cultural evidence and memory of California’s original inhabitants. This effort included displaying the remains of dead Natives as “specimens of natural history” in museums, renaming landscape features from Yosemite to Mt. Lassen, and creating the public fallacy of vanishing Natives and empty, pristine wilderness.
Week 6: Rebound, Resilience, Amends, Alliance
Despite the genocide, California is now home to the largest Native population in the United States and witness to an Indigenous cultural, political, and economic renaissance. This course-concluding session looks at what’s happening in contemporary Native California, with a focus on the Bay Area, and asks what non-Native people can do to address the state’s shameful past and redeem its present and future.
The last class features special guest Gregg Castro, cofounder of the Association of Ramaytush Ohlone, the Indigenous people of San Francisco. Gregg will talk about the current status of the Ramaytush and the challenges facing them in the context of contemporary Native California’s rising visibility and political power.
*Before each week’s class, suggested readings that will frame and deepen our sessions will be uploaded to the course’s Google Drive folder. Should you wish to obtain books on your own, key sources will be my book, The Modoc War (Nebraska, 2017); Benjamin Madley, An American Genocide (Oxford, 2016); and Brendan Lindsay, Murder State (Nebraska, 2012). Also, after each class, a PDF of my presentation will be uploaded to Google Drive to make note-taking less of a chore and to track what we’ve covered.