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The Mission Indians of California

c.August 25-31, 1887 — National Conference of Charities and Correction, Omaha NE


When the cruel wrongs inflicted on the Ponca tribe of Indians by their enforced removal, under particularly distressing circumstances, from their homes in Dakota to the Indian Territory, and their consequent sufferings, had become known to the people of the Eastern and Middle States, and while the hearts and minds of the people were thrilling with a sense of the wrong and devising means for its redress, Helen Jackson visited Boston, and heard the story as related by the Ponca chiefs. With the characteristic force of her nature, she repelled the accusations made against the government and its agents ; and, with a corresponding force, she set herself to the task of examining records and documents bearing on the relations of the United States Government to the Indians from the settlement of the country by the whites. The result of her study was embodied in her book, A Century of Dishonor, published in 1881. She wrote with the ardor of a woman who believed that the best interests of the world are held in the custody of women ; and the result of her study was a terse, clear, vivid, and most disheartening account of a century of governmental failures in its struggles with a subjugated people. In January, 1883, Mrs. Jackson and Abbott Kinney, Esq., were ap pointed special agents by the Interior Department to examine and report on the condition and needs of the mission Indians of California. This report was forwarded in July, 1883, to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. It was a comprehensive statement of the situation and condition of the tribes which had been Christianized in the missions, their legal rights to the lands on which they had lived, and their present needs. It bore no evidence to the tumult of feeling that was surging in the heart of Mrs. Jackson, nor to the painful sympathy which, aroused by the knowledge of the sufferings of the Indians east of the Rocky Mountains, had culminated here in a dis tress so acute as to undermine her health and hasten her death. But she lived to give to the world Ramona, a truthful picture of the sufferings of a gentle and peaceable people.

In 1767, Carlos III., King of Spain, ordered the Jesuits expelled from California, and granted their missions and property to the Franciscan order. The first Franciscan mission was founded in 1769 at San Diego. Within the next fifty years, on the coast between San Diego and Sonoma, twenty-seven missions were established ; and thirty thousand Indian neophytes were gathered into their folds. The missions had grown very rich in orchards and herds, and the value of their lands could scarcely have been computed. They had built churches, established various in-door and out-door industries, “were like Manchester and Lowell on a small scale.” The Indians were industrious, generally peaceable, and even enthusiastic in their new relations. They did all the work necessary in largecommu nities, filled all the laborious occupations known to civilized society. They were taught by the good Fathers the simplest and highest truth, — that God is love ; and they learned to love him in return.

I wish to speak concisely of the tenure, with a fourfold legal sanction, that these Indians had of their lands, of their dispossession, and of the disastrous results that followed their continual removals. The first holding was legal, but not necessarily a permanent right; nor was it a right which could be conveyed. Under the old Spanish law, if a man settled upon land, it was virtually his so long as he cultivated it thriftily, and kept in order whatever buildings he might have erected thereon. No one can claim that, under the missions, this had not been done. Consequently, their first holding was established.

But the Spanish king, fearing for the future welfare of these Indian neophytes, provided further for them by an edict which declared : “After distributing among the Indians whatever they may justly want to cultivate, sow, and raise cattle, confirming to them what they now hold, and granting what they may want besides, all the remaining land may be reserved to us [the king] clear of any encumbrance, for the purpose of being disposed of according to our pleasure.” Lands could not be granted without notice to the Indians, securing their share. Permits of settlement to retired soldiers will be found with the clause,” without prejudice to the Indians.” (Capt. Wilson’s Report.) The Spanish colonization plan had contemplated the conversion of the mission establishments into pueblos as soon as the Indians should become capable of managing their own affairs. In pursuance of this policy, Mexico passed in 1834 — California being then under Mexican rule — the Secularization Act, which provided “that the Indians should have assigned to them cattle, horses, and sheep from the mission lands, and lands for cultivation.” These were to be set apart for them, both in severalty, as heads of families, and in common for school and other purposes. But these wise and humane provisions were well-nigh disregarded. They were deprived of much of their land and of nearly all of their privileges. Laws were passed subjecting them to the most humiliating indignities. In most cases, their rights to their lands having been ignored, they were forced to labor like slaves. In many instances, they were hired in gangs to cruel masters. All Indians found without passes, either from an alcálde or from their “masters,” were to be treated as enemies.

This was the condition of these inoffensive people, when by the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo they were transferred to the governance of the United States. In 1851, March 3, Congress passed an act entitled “An Act to ascertain and settle the private land claims in California.” By that statute, it was enacted “that the commission should report the tenure by which the mission lands are held; and those held by civilized Indians ; and those cultivated by Pueblos or Rancheros Indians.” (U.S. Statutes at Large, vol. ix., p. 634). Capt. B. D. Wilson, in a Report to the Interior Department made in 1852, pointed clearly to the forcible laws of Spain, and to the similar Mexican laws, which secured to the Indians their cultivated lands. And, in relation to these laws, the words of the Supreme Court of the United States are: “There can be no doubt, then, that under the Spanish laws these Indians of whom we treat have a right to their villages and pasture lands, to the extent of their wants, by a perpetual right of possession; a possession considered with reference to Indian habits and modes of life.” (Peters, U.S. Reportsm p. 711). And Messrs. Brunson and Wells, attorneys at law at Los Angeles, in 1883, gave as their opinion “that, if conclusive evidence can be furnished, proving that these Indians were in possession of these lands at the time these grants were made by the Mexican authorities, that they continued in possession, and were in possession at the date of the treaty, and have since continued in possession, the law will entitle them to hold such land against all persons claiming under the patent.” Referring to the laws of Mexico, which sanctioned and held in force the Spanish laws, they stated: ” If such lands were granted by a Mexican official, and the authorities omitted to recite the limitations required by law (which secured to the Indians their lands) and reserve from the operation such lands as the law conditioned could not be conveyed, such a grant could not take it out of the operation of the law. The courts cannot shield those claiming under such title from the consequence of ignorance, or arbitrary assumption of power.” (Mrs. Jackson’s Report.) Having secured this legal opinion, Mrs. Jackson says, “For those whose villages are now within the boundaries of confirmed grants, the government has to choose between two courses of action, — either to remove them and make other provision for them or to uphold and defend their right to remain where they are. In support of the latter course, we believe a strong case could be made out.”

When, by the United States, reservations were established, it was intended that villages then occupied by Indians should be included within reservation limits. But the lines were fixed by interested par ties, or else they were guessed at ; and the villages were left mostly outside the lines. When a real survey was made, ” the surveyor marked in color, showing what tracts would include the villages ; but, so far as we could learn, no action has been taken in regard to these additions ” (Report of Mrs. Jackson and McKinney). On every reservation, excepting very small ones, whites have settled, often driving the Indians from their cultivated fields by showing a patent for the land; suing them for trespass, should their cattle stray into their unenclosed grain, and obtaining redress by keeping the cattle; appropriating the water privileges ; and finally have succeeded in obtaining, if not the whole, at least the most valuable portion of the reservations. Land syndicates not only have secured patents to lands on the reservations, but have purchased large tracts on which Indians have been settled under the grants; and in most instances the Indians have been forced to leave. If they have formed little settlements, they have in turn been driven from them until they are disheartened and discouraged. They have tried in vain to appeal to the government for land for homes of which they could not be dispossessed.

In the spring of 1886, I visited one reservation on which a company of Eastern capitalists had settled and made extensive improvements. In a long conversation held with the president and superintendent of the company, I found they laid far greater stress on their ability to dispossess the Indians than on the validity of their own claim. The courts in California had decided against their claim, and in favor of the Indians; the Land Commissioner at Washington had supported the decision of the courts ; and at that time it rested with the Secretary of the Interior. Assured, officially, that these Indians were destitute, homeless, and landless, I went to Washington, and presented the case anew to the Interior Department. Finding my representation to be correct, it was placed as ” Special ” on the calendar. “This,” said the Secretary, ” will bring it up for adjudication in about eight months.”

I presented to Commissioner Atkins at the same time the case of an Indian from whom a white man had rented land one year, then had claimed it under a patent, refusing to leave: and because the Indian did not remove his sheep (three hundred in number) had driven them among his own flock and kept them. This case had been decided by the courts in favor of the Indian. But the Indian had no friends, and the white man retained possession. The Com missioner was well acquainted with the case, and ordered that it be attended to. But there is much work to be done in Washington; and the white man still holds both sheep and land, so far as I have been able to ascertain. In the settlement on the reservation the church spires still point toward a just heaven, and the Indians still starve on the desert. I cite these, not as isolated, but as illustrative cases.

What can the people of the United States do for these Indians? They can instruct their representatives to have them protected on their reservations; they can employ an attorney to contest the validity of their claims under the “grants,” both for those who have been removed and for the few who are yet in homes thereon, and who will be wholly unable to protect themselves when their turn shall come to be ordered away.


Source: Proceedings of the National Conference of Charities and Correction, Edited by Isabel C. Barrows, (Boston, Geo. H. Ellis), 1887, pp. 187-191.