Expeditions Against the Central Valley Indians

by Gary S. Breschini, Ph.D.

After about 1820 the character of the expeditions to the interior changed. Under Spanish rule most expeditions were exploratory, or to bring Indians to the coastal missions for conversion. Under Mexican rule the motive was purely military or retaliatory.

The shift in emphasis was due to several factors, including:

1) The number of runaway Indians from the northern missions was very high. These Indians carried their mission experience and knowledge of Spanish/Mexican technology and psychology to unconquered tribes on the interior.

2) Both the runaways and the unconquered tribes now had access to the horse, increasing their mobility and military power.

3) The increasing number of civilians in Alta California, the decrease in the moderating influence of the missionaries, and the limited ability of the government to prevent horse raiding and other Indian attacks on ranches and farms led to unsanctioned "vigilante" expeditions, many led by retired soldiers. On these expeditions, hundreds of Central Valley Indians were slaughtered.

4) The Indians of the interior valley formed a hard core of resistance to further encroachment on their lands, and even mounted a vigorous counteroffensive against the coastal settlements and the many expeditions to the interior. Indian horse raiding was also a serious problem, and a number of the settlers were killed.

The Mexican government attempted to limit and moderate the punitive expeditions. For example, a letter from Governor Figueroa in Monterey to the Alcalde of San José, dated January 24, 1835, stated:
...the last expedition which the citizens of this town made to the tulares [Central Valley] they committed various atrocities against the heathen Indians without distinguishing between the innocent and the guilty. In addition to stealing their ornaments and personal effects they took away seven small boys to serve them and act as slaves, without informing this government of the occurrences.

In order to eliminate such extreme abuses I have prohibited these civilians from entering the tulares. They shall pursue only veritable thieves when they are stealing livestock. However the necessity having been made clear to me of pursuing the latter into the interior to their actual villages, I have permitted this to be done with the proviso that those who are defenseless shall not be molested, nor shall weapons be used against those who offer no resistance. At the moment these provisions have been violated, and in order that the offenses shall not be repeated I adjure you, under your responsibility, to see that Indians are pursued only when they come to rob and that no other expedition is undertaken without permission of this government. Those Indians mentioned who were brought in shall be gathered together and placed at the disposition of the Father Minister of Santa Clara so that they may be educated there or returned to their parents as may seem appropriate [Cook 1962:189].

The largely civilian punitive expeditions continued. One described by Cook (1962:198) and Heizer and Almquist (1977:13) is confused, and probably exaggerated and distorted. It was recounted to one of Bancroft's researchers forty years after the fact, but gives some idea of what occurred during the Mexican period. (Because this was not an official expedition there does not seem to be an official record of these events.) The date was most likely 1837, and the expedition is in retaliation for Indian raiding in the San Ramon area. The author is Jose Maria Amador (for whom Amador County was named).
We descended upon the Stanislaus River with 70 men, soldiers and civilians, and 200 Indian auxiliaries. On the hostile Indians, 200 or more between heathen and Christian fugitives, we attempted a strategem. First our Indian auxiliaries were to buy all the arrows of the other party, even if it cost them their shirts to do it. Actually the purchase was completed. Then we invited the wild Indians and their Christian companions to come and have a feast of pinole and dried meat. They all came over to our side of the river. As soon as they reached our shore the troops, the civilians and the auxiliaries surrounded them and tied them all up. I was second in command of this expedition, the chief was Prado Mesa.

We marched with our prisoners to the mountains in a pouring rain.... [Later] the Ensign [Prado Mesa] and I returned to the camp. We separated 100 Christians. At every half mile or mile we put six of them on their knees to say their prayers, making them understand that they were about to die. Each one was shot with four arrows, two in front and two in the back. Those who refused to die immediately were killed with spears. The Ensign did not want to carry out this execution because he had no desire for it, but I told him that if my own father stood before me I would kill him. On the road were killed in this manner the 100 Christians.

We arrived at the camp where the 100 heathen were confined. There, before dark in the pouring rain, I suggested to the Ensign that he take under his immediate charge the crowd of prisoners, because during the night there might well occur incidents between the auxiliaries and our people. ...The ensign told me to do what ever I thought best. I answered that I thought all the prisoners should be shot, having previously made Christians of them. They should be told they were going to die and they should be asked if they wanted to be made Christians. I ordered Nazario Galindo to take a bottle of water and I took another. He began at one part of the crowd of captives and I at another. We baptized all the Indians and afterwards they were shot in the back.

In the afternoon of the following day the Indian auxiliaries forced me to go across the river and capture the village of the 200 Indians and take possession of the women and children. ...Then I broke camp with Ensign Prado Mesa and we went to Mission San José where all the women and children whom we brought in were baptized. The Indian auxiliaries told me that they had killed about 24 men in that village... [Cook 1962:197-198].

Again, it must be remembered that this account was recorded forty years after the fact, and is not a part of the official records. It is a confused account, and undoubtedly exaggerated. It is likely that of the two accounts recorded here, the one detailing Governor Figueroa's moderate policy more accurately reflects the way things happened, while Amador's story exaggerated and self-serving account of a massacre reflects a less frequent occurrence.

The three works by Cook, cited below, provide a much more detailed and accurate view of Mexican California than will a few isolated accounts such as Amador's.

The Indians of the Monterey Bay area were not a significant factor in the uprisings of the 1830s. Although a few escaped to the Central Valley or hid in the rugged interior mountains southeast of Monterey, by the 1830s an estimated 80% to 90% of the Monterey Bay area's aboriginal population was gone (see Cook 1976).

Copyright 1996 by G.S. Breschini


MCHS Home Page

History Home Page

Main Index

Name Index