"We Feel the Want of Protection": The Politics of Law and Race in California, 1848-1878

Article excerpt

California's history has been entangled in romanticized accounts of the daring Spanish conquest of savage but pliant Indians, of tradition-bound California stewards, and of hard-driving, entrepreneurial Yankee Argonauts. (1) These fictions were promulgated and abetted by influential early historians such as Hubert Howe Bancroft, who contended that California's passage from Spanish and Mexican rule to Anglo-American hegemony represented the triumph of superior racial, political, and cultural forces over the "descendants of the people of Montezuma." (2) This school also held that conquest and admission of California to the Union was the "Manifest Destiny" of white, Christian Americans. (3) Bancroft, acknowledging that crimes and brutalities abounded in the European settlement of California, nevertheless concluded:

The idea of conquest in the American mind has never been associated with tyranny. On the contrary, such is the national trust in its own superiority and beneficence, that either as a government or as individuals we have believed ourselves bestowing a precious boon upon whomsoever we could confer in a brotherly spirit our institutions. And down to the present time the other nations of the earth have not been able to prove us far in the wrong in indulging this patriotic self-esteem. (4)

However, in the past two decades historians have begun to reassess California's history, probing the notions of inevitability, progress, race, gender, and politics to reveal a context far more complex, dynamic, and nuanced than was once believed. (5) From the beginning, racial and ethnic conflict have been embedded in the matrix of California's development. The pre-statehood invasion of an army of Anglo-American and European immigrant entrepreneurs and gold seekers overwhelmed, supplanted, and eventually delegitimated Indians, Californios, African Americans, Asians, and other people of color. The influx of white Americans gave rise to "Anglo" domination and established a society that severely marginalized California's other populations. The politics of race and law in California has been contextualized recently in what historian Quintard Taylor has called "multiracial [and] multiethnic" communities in which "Anglos" not only interacted with people of color, but people of color interacted with one another and with "Anglos in varied ways over the centuries and throughout the region." Moreover, Anglo sociopolitical domination displaced the earlier culturally and racially based hegemony of Spanish and Mexican political rule. In 1850, when California entered the Union as a free state, the nature and scope of freedom and equality continued to be hotly contested. (6)


Decades before California became a state, race and ethnicity shaped the development of the region. The Spanish and Mexican colonists who inhabited California enjoyed vast landholdings, economic success, and autonomy that made the region prosperous. This prosperity would make the territory ripe for American exploitation and conquest, but even before the full-scale Yankee invasion, Spanish and Mexican settlers pursued a policy of exploitation, conversion, and subordination of Indian populations that eventually led to the decimation of indigenous peoples and the suppression of their traditional ways of life. Spanish missionaries, aided by military force, embarked on a campaign of religious conversion and colonization. Recalling the alarm that the presence of missionaries often inspired among indigenous peoples, mission-born, Franciscan-educated Pablo Tac noted that his people, the Quechnajuichom, initially attempted to bar the Franciscans from their southern California lands. When the foreigners approached, "the chief stood up... and met them," demanding, "what are you looking for? Leave our country!" (7)

The establishment of the mission system resulted in the foreigners' claiming native lands in the name of the church and compelling Indian "neophytes" to live and work in conditions that often were tantamount to slavery. …