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: 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 between Euro-Americans and Indigenous people. Behind and beneath the war sits the reality of California’s genocide.
Week 2: The word genocide entered the public lexicon only in the 1940s, when Polish lawyer Raphaël 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, under different regimes and with varying names. Using the legal concept of genocide as a guiding light, we will set the stage by examining what occurred in California between the Spanish invasion of 1769 and American annexation in 1846.
Week 3: 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 attitudes against Natives imported by American emigrants, gave birth to laws that stripped Natives of legal and political rights, and led to Gov. Peter Burnett’s 1851 declaration of a war of extermination funded by $40+ million in state bonds.
Week 4: The California genocide operated through vigilante posses, state-funded militias, and Regular Army units that attacked Native settlements, then force-marched survivors to federal reservations featuring concentration-camp conditions. At the same time, mining, logging, farming, and ranching killed the game and fish, fouled the water, and altered the pastures and woodlands that had long supported Native communities. Imported diseases, too, took a toll. By 1900, approximately 90% of the original Indigenous population was wiped out.
Week 5: The genocide extended beyond physical extermination to erase 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 to renaming landscape features from Yosemite to Mt. Lassen and creating the public fallacy of the vanishing Native epitomized in the story of Ishi.
Week 6: Despite the genocide, California is now home to the largest Native population of any U.S. state or territory and is witnessing an Indigenous cultural, political, and economic renaissance. This course-concluding session looks at contemporary Native California and asks what non-Native people can do to make amends for the state’s past and to redeem its present and future.