Cave J. Couts
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  • “Between Mission and Reservation: The Experiences of San Diego Indians, 1833-1880"

The History of San Diego County, California, written in 1888, claims that “1833-1850 may be set down as the golden age of the native Californians.... Never before and never since did a people settle down under the blessings of more diverse advantages.” Julie Christin Edson’s thesis looks beyond this sunlit rhetoric and sees a different picture.

When the missions became secularized, the Indians dispersed. Some went inland, to the mountains and valleys. Others stayed in the pueblos, looking for work. Others became laborers on the ranchos. Those going inland could preserve native traditions and culture for a longer period of time. Those who stayed near the coast worked for below-average wages and experienced “rapid integration with Anglos and Mexicans.”

The men became vaqueros; the women, domestic servants. Work was so scarce that “urban Indians throughout the region emerged as the poorest segment of society,” earning at best two or three bullock hides per month.

Low wages put the Indians in an “ongoing cycle of debt.” Rancheros would lend them food, then required work to repay the “loan.” The cost of food was so inflated, the Indians owed weeks of labor for the donation (one Indian worked one month to pay off a two-dollar debt). An Anglo traveler, in 1834, observed that, on the ranchos, “the stock was herded by the Indians, who cost them but a trifle more than they eat; in fact, they always contrived to keep the poor Indian in debt, or at least to make the poor devil think so.”

They ate “a pittance of food, boiled wheat or something of the kind, is fed to them in troughs, and this is the only compensation allowed them for their services.”

Treatment of Indian laborers — who worked “under the worst circumstances for the slightest compensation” — became California’s version of slavery. In 1853, Father Narcisco Duran described the Indians living on the outskirts of Los Angeles: “All in reality are slaves, or servants of the white men who know well the manner of securing their services by binding them for a whole year for an advanced trifle. An Indian who tries to flee experiences the full rigor of the law.”

The Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, passed by the California legislature in 1850, demonstrates this “full rigor.” For example, any Indian found loitering or “strolling about, or frequenting public places where liquors are sold” could be arrested by “any resident citizen of the county.” If the court found the Indian guilty, he received a $20 fine and/or five days, minimum, in jail. “Because most Indians had no money...they were sold at public auction and forced to pay off the debt through work. As a result, Indians had no choice but to bind themselves to the ranchos.”


  1. In 1852 an observer wrote that the Indians... are a miserable and squalid-looking set, squatting or lying about the corners of the streets, without occupation.... No care seems to be taken of them by the Americans; on the contrary, the effort seems to be to exterminate them as soon as possible.”
  2. Occasionally hungry Indians killed horses, sheep, and cattle, after which the robbed rancher organized a party to hunt down the guilty Indians. This typically resulted in the killing of a number of Indians and the “taking of women and children as ‘prisoners of war’ to be sold as ‘apprentices.’ ”
  3. Some estimates put the legal sale of Indian minors in California at 10,000. The illegal sale of Indian minors occurred at least as frequently, which places the figure at roughly 20,000. Furthermore, the sale of minors did not end in 1863 but continued into the 20th Century.
  4. Indian women had no rights or privileges under law. In April of 1872, the San Diego Union reported that an Indian woman who had charged her husband, William Cant, with threatening to kill her was not permitted to testify because of her race.

Edson notes that, between 1874 and 1885, 69 whites got arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct as opposed to only 19 Indians. The Anglos got a night in the hoosegow; 19 Indians got sold, in effect, as “indentured servants” — i.e., as slaves.

The Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, which made it legal to indenture Indian minors, also prevented Indians any recourse against abusive white owners. Section 6 provided that “complaints may be made before a Justice of the Peace by white persons or Indians; but in no case shall a white man be convicted of any offense upon the testimony of an Indian.”

San Diego ranchero Cave J. Couts, in a letter dated July 7,1856, painted a stereotype. Indians, he said, “live principally by cattle stealing and on acorns.” Edson responds, “The 1860 census...revealed Indians employed as vaqueros, farmers, servants, cooks, whalers, laborers, shepherds, and miners. If employment could not be found in San Diego, some Indians migrated north to Los Angeles to work in the vineyards, stockyards, and in the commercial district.”

In 1873, Special Indian Agent John G. Ames revealed that “the law of chastity is most frequently violated through the persuasions of corrupt white men, who look upon the Indian as the defenseless victim of their lusts.” Edson comments: “Rape and forced concubinage were accompanied by incidents of voluntary cohabitation and occasionally marriage of Indian women to white men. Desperate economic circumstances typically defined the foundation for these unions.” In Diegueno Indian society, for example, women enjoyed “equality and autonomy” in marriage. And while slavery was a part of Indian culture (“tribes throughout California captured individuals from enemy Indian groups and used them to cultivate crops”), most ethnographers agree that “prostitution did not exist in California aboriginal societies prior to European contact.”

Many Indian women worked as prostitutes as a means of economic survival. Because of the women’s exposure to abuse, venereal disease, alcoholism, and homicide, prostitution “dealt a devastating blow to Indian rates of reproduction.” When the missionaries came, the Indians lost not only their claim to the land but also their “control over the availability of food sources.” Whites like Cave J. Couts accused the Indians of stealing cattle and of living in San Diego by “scavenging and beggary.” By 1860, however, most had moved out. They lived on the fringes — “on the mesas, near the settled portions of town”—in camps. In time the government would round up many and put them in camps of a different order: reservations.

“Most Indians lost their lands, but not all ended up on the reservations, which represented little more than concentration camps, into which as many Indians were herded as could be caught and transported.”

Constance Du Bois, who toured local reservations in 1901, noted: “The slow but certain processes of degradation... are already at work; but so far they have resisted them. [The Indians) still care, they still struggle, they still beg for land not for charity; for work and not for food.”

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