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A White Californian Argues for Indian Indenture

White Californians complained that the new American government, which took over California after the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo in May 1848, was not doing enough to control and regulate Indian labor. In the chaos of the Mexican War, many Indian laborers had abandoned the farms and ranches where they worked as low-paid or unpaid “peons.” Newspapers called for “stable and reliable laws” to ensure cheap Indian labor and profitable ranching and farming. An anonymous letter-writer from Sonoma County wrote to the California Star in 1849 to propose an “Indian code,” paraphrased here by historian James J. Rawls. Laws very similar to those outlined by Pacific were passed in 1850 and 1860.

The letter included a long discussion of the status of the California Indians, offering observations on their past and present condition and on what policies should be adopted for the future. Pacific noted that under the Republic of Mexico the California natives “were aps de facto, slaves, and ruled and treated accordingly.” Most unwisely, Pacific believed, the United States had put an end to that useful system. “The drunken, roving, vagabond life most have led in California since our flag went up,” he commented, “…shows the impolicy of having removed all restraints, formerly held over them.” If it were possible that all masters were “just, mild and good,” he would favor restoration of Indian slavery in California. Recognizing that this was not the case, Pacific suggested an alternative system of reinstating certain restraints over the Indians so that they might continue to be “useful.” 

The Indians of California, he argued, “are, as we all know, mentally and morally, an inferior order of our own race; and are unit and incapable of being…governed by the same laws; and if retained among us, must necessarily have a code and treatment applicable to their peculiar character and condition.” Pacific’s proposed “Indian code” included the following features: 

1) adoption of a system of written labor contracts that would bind Indians to their employers for a set length of time, under which Indian workers would be compelled to serve out the full term of their obligation 

2) punishment of persons guilt of “enticing” Indians away from their masters by offering of “higher wages or other inducements” 

3) prohibition of Indians’ passing through areas inhabited by whites without special passes 

4) enactment of a system of Indian apprenticeship under which interested whites could legally obtain and control the labor of groups of Indians

Source | James J. Rawls, Indians of California: The Changing Image, (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1984), 83-84.
Creator | James J. Rawls
Item Type | Book (excerpt)
Cite This document | James J. Rawls, “A White Californian Argues for Indian Indenture,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed April 17, 2024,



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