It’s taken time for the recognition of genocide against the Indigenous people of California to enter American historical consciousness. This is in spite of the fact that it was criticized as a “relentless war of extermination” at its peak in 1859 and described by historian H. H. Bancroft in 1890 as “one of the last human hunts of civilization, and the basest and most brutal of them all.”
The extermination campaigns against Native Californians, sparked by the Gold Rush (1848) and statehood (1850), weren’t termed genocide until the mid 1970s, decades after the crime was defined in the aftermath of the Holocaust. When Governor Gavin Newsom apologized for “historical wrongdoings” in 2019, it was on the back of the growing awareness of the historical record as well as Indigenous demands for recognition of what happened.
Historian Benjamin Madley writes that few tribal-level analyses of this genocide have been explored. His detailing of what happened to the Yuki people in what’s now called Round Valley in Mendocino County makes for difficult reading.
“Like many California Indians,” Madley explains,
the Yuki suffered a cataclysmic population decline under United States rule. Between 1854 and 1864, settlement policies, murders, abductions, massacres, rape-induced venereal diseases, and willful neglect at Round Valley Reservation reduced them from perhaps twenty thousand to several hundred.
Outright murder and massacre by settlers, the enslavement of children and women, and the destruction of the Yuki way of life all played a role in this population eradication. The violence, as recognized even at the time, was “almost entirely one-sided.” There were some cases of Yuki self-defense against invasion and massacre: when a white settler was shot in early 1858, fourteen Indians were quickly killed in reprisal.
We know the names of the some of the genocidaires. H. L. Hall, described by a US Army lieutenant as “the monster Hall,” was personally credited with depopulating Round Valley. Hall and his riders “killed all the Indians [they] could find in the mountains” according to 1860 testimony. When he wasn’t leading massacres, Hall managed a ranch for the state’s Attorney General, Serranus C. Hastings.
Before becoming Attorney General, Hastings had been the first Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court. The University of California College of Law in San Fransisco was named after him. In 2021, publicity (including by Madley) about Hastings involvement in the Yuki genocide as an organizer and funder of death-squads caused the institution to drop his name in an act of “restorative justice.”
So the massacres occurred under the watch and active participation of state officials, including more than one governor. High officials encouraged policies they themselves welcomed as “extermination.” Another of the Hastings-associated murderers, William S. Jarboe, billed the state $11,143 for his work killing men, women, and children. State legislators “thus directly sanctioned Jarboe’s mass killings.” (Historian Brendan Lindsay bluntly entitled his 2012 book Murder State: California’s Native American Genocide 1846-1873.)
The federal government was of little help, through inaction, complacency, or outright support, as when the US Congress appropriated monies in 1854 and again in 1861 to help defray the costs of California’s killer-militias. While Secretary of War in 1855, future President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis refused to allow US soldiers to stop slave traders engaged in kidnapping thousands of Native children across the state, including in Round Valley. When federal dragoons were sent to stop wholesale massacres in the Valley in 1859, “commanders severely limited” the soldiers’ ability to protect the Yuki.
Then, after the years of massacre and slavery, starvation took a toll. By 1864, California’s Indian Affairs superintendent put the Yuki population in Round Valley at eighty-five men and 215 women.
Madley convincingly shows that the “the Yuki catastrophe” fits the legal definition of genocide set forth in the United Nations Genocide Convention of 1948. That convention defined genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.” Some historians have challenged the notion that Native Americans as a whole were decimated by intentional killing, but in the case of the Yuki, mass murder was the avowed intent and goal from the day white settlers invaded the valley.