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Smoothing the Pillow: The Christianizing of California

When English colonists met natives in the early colonial period, in the late 1640s, their reaction gives the game of civilization away. It's a shame the local tribes couldn't read the minutes, a shame there wasn't such a thing as a fax or a cell phone to communicate the following motion of one New England assembly:

1. The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof. Voted.

2. The Lord may give the earth or any part of it to his chosen people. Voted.

3. We are His chosen people. Voted.

The treatment of the native Americans by the government throughout our history has frequently been lamented. In Nevada and California, where "Who Have the Power" takes place, there were those who attempted to deal fairly with the displaced natives, and there were other, more callous attitudes. Indeed, the story of California's bias against the natives of that state, a phenomenon that flourished and was openly enforced in the nineteenth century, was supported by the government, the press, and the church. It was acknowledged by the dominant, wealthy policy-making class of that state who went to church, wrote the laws, imported ministers, donated to worthy causes, and looked the other way. This was particularly ironic in that these attitudes were being played out at the time of the abolitionist conflict and the US Civil War. Ardent Unionists sold native peoples as slaves and did not notice the contradiction. Why not? (Neither were such contradictions noticed - by the culture at large - in the case of women, either. Another essay.)

Why could most Christian Americans not see what was happening? And if they did see it, how could they rationalize what was happening? Or, if they tried to correct it, why couldn't it be corrected?

Another question is, Where does this ability to rationalize and transform reality come from? Where does it start? Why does it happen? And is it happening today?

Once aware of the "New World," Europeans naturally referred to their own wisdom, history, and Scriptures to define where they were, if only to make sense of how they perceived the newness, returning to their basics, so to speak. In addition to interpretations of Scripture, they remembered Augustine's fantastic monsters in "The City of God," just war theories and theories of natural slavery, all part of the cultural baggage that survived the journey of discovery. Of course, when baggage travels, it tends to get banged up and altered so that it's not the same as when it started out. (An argument for traveling light!) Indeed, in California, in the mid-nineteenth century,

Ministers forced Mexicans to play Canaanites in an American Protestant Israel. They ignored the fact of their continuing dispossession and the extermination of the Indian. They showed little concern for the foreign born flooding into California.


Metaphors to argue mission with were not lacking. San Francisco and California were the New Antioch, the New Eden, the New Jerusalem, the City on a Hill. Timothy Dwight Hunt told the New England Society of San Francisco on December 22, 1852:

You are the representatives of a land which is the model for Every other. You belong to a family whose dead are the pride Of the living. Preserve your birth-right! Here is our Colony. O higher ambition could urge us to noble deeds then, On the basis of the colony of Plymouth, to make California The Massachusetts of the Pacific.

Ministers such as Samuel Hopkins Willey, a Presbyterian, saw themselves as Paul crossing the sea to preach to the Galileans with their Unknown God, and yet he wasn't so much going to preach to the heathen natives as he was to the '49ers, who were more interested in bear and bull fights and gambling than in going to church on Sunday. Young missionaries, sent by the major denominations, withstood frontier rigors. Many were broken by them and died prematurely. People died in California without regard to race, nationality, creed, or gender. The California church cared for

Abandoned children, protected the troubled and insane, relieved the Destitute, and sponsored social agencies. In the miners' churches Doubled as hospitals, schools, lending libraries, community centers, Lyceums, and debating societies. Church sponsored newspapers fought a Continual battle for social reforms.

Within the Christian mission to California lodged a sense of the inevitability of success, for hadn't God held this land hidden for so long that a worthy people might possess it? The gold and silver discoveries were God's doing, God's way of bringing Christianity triumphantly to the westernmost frontier, a springboard to the pagan Orient. Joseph Augustine Benton of the First Church in Sacramento preached Deuteronomy 8:7-10 on Thanksgiving Day, 1850:

For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, A land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing Forth in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of Vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees And honey, a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, In which you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron, And out of whose hills you can dig copper.

God's people are those who will not want for anything, and, to give shape to the Israilite metaphor, there were some Canaanites living in the land. There was another idea about "inevitability" (a synonym for God's will) that lasted long enough to make it into a book by A. Grenfell Price in 1950, and an attitude that you can encounter while reading the history of California:

Spanish missionary enterprise smoothed the pillow of dying Races with greater efficiency than any other early palliative, And for this reason, apart from all others, it deserves sincere Respect.

In the metaphor of Canaanites and Israelites, the native Californians played Canaanites and were nearly made extinct in the process. It was inevitable. Where did this "inevitability" begin? With Joshua? With Aristotle? It was Aristotle whose hierarchical and dichotomized world view could place soul over body, rational thought over emotion, human over animal, male over female, and master over slave. Aristotle's writings were used to justify that one part of humanity was formed by nature to be slaves and serve superior masters who, by nature of their superiority, ought not to do manual labor. Is this what Aristotle wrote? Is this what he meant? And does it matter because that is how he was interpreted? Aristotle has been borrowed by tradition partly as an apologist for slavery and for just wars that generate slavery. The domination of a people can be justified by ascribing to it, with very little study, qualities deemed inferior: lack of soul and reasoning powers, biologically inferior, close to nature, filled with uncontrollable passions. But Aristotle's theory of natural slavery must have been controversial even in its own time, or at least debated. Aristotle is one person after all, who does not agree with Plato in many respects.

That "inevitability", that utilized the theory ascribed to Aristotle eventually found itself in sixteenth century Spain, which was in the process of colonizing a new hemisphere, an extraordinary mass of land filled with abundance and with people who had never heard of Aristotle, Jesus, or the Catholic Church. Sixteenth century Spain regarded all three as central to civilization. In 1550, King Charles V called a special council to decide the (extraordinarily phrased) question: "How can conquests be made to accord with justice and reason?" This council debated Aristotle's theory of natural slavery, the scale of justice and reason as established by tradition, and medieval philosophy inherited from Thomas Aquinas, who had developed the just war and other ideas from Augustine and the Greeks.

At this council, it was argued that it was legitimate to wage war against American natives because of 1) their idolatries and sins against nature, 2) their rude natures which obliged them to serve persons having a more refined nature, 3) to spread the faith by subjugation, which is easier, and 4) to protect the weak among the natives themselves. The jurist Sepulveda stated it this way:

The Indians are as inferior as children are to adults, as women are to men. Why, they do not even own private property.

Here is the subtle link of religion, class, and economic structure neatly linked together to justify inferiority and the inevitability of domination. Even if the Indians accepted Christianity, Sepulveda argued, they might not enjoy equal rights; according to Aristotle, unequal persons must not have equal rights.

Do we lay all this on Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas? Sepulveda and this Spanish council would. Should we? In 1550, those three men were dead. Why search for the dead among the living?

Do we continue to do that?

By the time California was populated by Europeans, there was no longer a frontier where the North American Indians could be pushed. The last bit of land had been reached, and when gold was discovered, the number of tribes (who, in California not as incidentally, were darker skinned than other American Indians) were perceived even more as obstacles to Inevitable Progress. What is interesting is that visiting Anglos to Spanish California defended the oppressed Indians, acknowledging their inferiority, however, as being the oppressed of Spanish Catholics. However, the basic exploitative approach taken by the Spanish toward the Indians of California in the missions and the rancheros prevailed with the Anglos who settled in Hispanic California and once the Spanish lost and California became United States territory and a state.

Why did the natives go to the missions? There were many reasons. One was a natural curiosity, simply that. Others were the depletion of food sources that had been either destroyed or coopted, protection for themselves and their families, or their children may have been seized. Once in the mission, and baptized, natives were not free to leave. Runaways were hunted down, brought back to the mission, and punished. Anglo observers, at the time biased against the Spanish, noticed differences between alert "primitive" Indians and dull mission Indians. According to historian James Rawls, during the mission period, the native population between San Francisco and San Diego dropped 75% due to new diseases from the Europeans, the crowding together of people in the mission compounds, changes in diet, poor sanitation, lack of medical care, forced unfamiliar labor, excessive punishments, and suppression of customs.

Despite their “good intensions” of winning souls (at the expense of bodies), the Franciscans were not interested in the native cultures. There was no sense of “sharing” or mutuality with regard to culture. The Franciscan mission was to civilize the Indian to be self sufficient in a European culture that was seen as inevitable. But even this mission failed utterly. For when the missions closed down in the early nineteenth century, the natives, who had not been thoroughly “Christianized” in the first place, and who often reverted back to “wild” ways, found work on rancheros where they were further exploited. (This is contradicted by other reports that “caught” children often ran back to their tribes, usually an argument that urged extinction of the natives.)

Such attitudes about the need to utilize the natives as laborers eventually made their way into California’s legislation as a state. In 1856, the Marysville Herald urged passage of a law requiring Indian parents to “bind out their children to farmers and others…so as to make them useful, and thus induct them to habits of cleanliness and industry.” This need for Indian labor diminished in the later 1850s and 1860s when, due to mining failures, there were displaced miners to do the work as well as “cheap Chinese labor.” Indians dispossessed of homelands, written off a transitory phases in evolutionary processes, were now further dispossessed of “usefulness” and grew to be familiar vagabonds on streets, begging, doing odd jobs, and being called lazy by town citizens. “Lucky” Indians obtained jobs in wealthy homes where white mistresses such as Jessie Benton Fremont taught them about the Savior. She called it “playing missionary.” People believed in this process: “The whites will be entirely free from annoyance by the Indians; the Indians will be transformed from a state of semibarbarism, intolerance, mental imbecility and moral debasement to a condition of civilization., Christianity, industry, virtue, frugality, social and domestic happiness, and public usefulness.

So spoke the San Francisco Alta in August 1853, linking civilization, Christianity, and public usefulness. Some people didn’t think it was possible at all: Bolivian historian Rene Moreno, a disciple of Darwin’s, claimed that Christianity was for whites only; inferiors could not understand it. (Where did that leave everyone?) Also, the idyllic vision of one neat world with everything in place contained an even more dreadful undertow, particularly if persons did not want to be so useful.

California’s statehood and the legislation around it, as well as the gold and silver discoveries (silver was discovered just over the mountains in Nevada in 1859) enveloped the Civil War years, packed with passion in the Far West, a passion that rode alongside industrial development. The larger question of Union or Confederacy, Slave or Free, most other questions were deferred: California and Nevada had particular economic importance and significance to the Union. To this economic factor must be added the larger philosophical predominance of progress and civilization linked with prosperity and religion. The native Americans and any other “inferiors” were going to have a difficult time finding the voice to plead their cause and even more difficulty voicing an argument that would be heard.

Consider some of the logic. Early travelers to California puzzled over how such a beautiful, fertile and rich land could produce an inferior people. Obviously, the land was wanting “a population worthy of developing it.” Richard Henry Dana wrote of California, “In the hands of an enterprising people, what a country this might Be!” Dana called the natives’ language “slabber” (ignoring even the fact that there were several languages and several tribes and several cultures). A German physician dubbed the Indians “California pigmies.”

As noted before, California Indians were darker than other natives in North America. Marsh, who had seen the Sioux, wrote that California natives had “nothing of the proud and lofty bearing or of the haughtiness or ferocity so often seen east of the mountains.” Yet, when there were Indian uprisings, these same people were termed beasts and savages. The perspective depended entirely on the perceived peril to the dominant class and was always a rationale for cultural domination or worse. The churches in California never changed this perspective, even when in a position to influence the political and social elite, for that is principally the class the ministers were from, and principally the class that supported them. An 1849 guide to California grouped the natives with “Hottentots, Patagonians, and the savages of Australia, as the lowest races of mankind.” Their dark color was associated with dirt; and as homeless beggars were forced to eat garbage, that attitude would of course deepen. The San Francisco Bulletin argued, in 1857, that the nudity of the Indians was a clear sign of their low intellect; but when natives began wearing castoff “white’ clothes, they were ridiculed. The annals of San Francisco in 1853 claimed the Indians had no conception of the supernatural. How could they when their chief characteristics were “stupidity and insensitivity?” In 1850, T. Butler King wrote in an official report to Washington, that Indians were “the lowest grade of human beings.” They were inferior to other redskins and on a level with Negroes. Whites considered the Indians dirty not only because of their darker complexions but because they lived in mounds of earth or wood; when mourning, some tribes covered their faces with black pitch. They were compared to beasts, pigs, baboons, orang-outangs, gorillas, and termed an intermediary species. Charles Loring Brace wrote they had an enlarged cerebellum “making the animal organs prominent.” Some people thought they had a mating season. These are not happy sentiments to write about or to read, but these were strong beliefs by many at the time, and not understanding this perspective can turn us blind toour own faults, should we have any.

Blind to any cultural integrity of the natives, the predominant view led straight to "justified" slavery which, in California, outlived the Civil War won by the Union in part with the wealthy of California and Nevada.

That slavery started with the establishment of constitutional government in 1849 where Indians were among those without political rights. The constitution prohibited slavery, a hot issue in California, but legislators had black slavery in mind. Suffrage was limited along racial, and sexual, lines. Only white male citizens could vote.

In 1850, an “Act of the Government and Protection of Indians” stated that “in no csse shall a white man be convicted of any offence upon the testimony of an Indian.” One creator of the 1850 act, named Bidwell, a Unionist and abolitionist, owned a ranch in northern California along with a large number of Indians he had bought. Apparently, he did not see the inconsistency.

Another 1850 law provided for a system of “apprenticeship” having to do with obtaining “care, custody, and control” of native children. Children could be sold for profit and so were frequently stolen (a practice deplored but nevertheless maintained); estimates run between three to four thousand children kidnapped and sold between 1852 to 1867. Indian boys in 1861 sold for fifty to one hundred dollars; young girls could bring twice that. Indian girls and women were held by their captors as sexual partners or sold. They were classified as “fair, middling, inferior, or refuse,” and priced accordingly.

Seen as a transitory phase of humanity, innocent but doomed before the Chosen of God and Progress, what happened to the natives ultimately had nothing to do with the larger historical scheme being played out “in the mind of God.” In the eyes of the Christian, civilized establishment, the mind of God did not encompasss the natives at all, not anymore.

The Spanish missionaries know that. A padre at San Jose believed that “they must and will die off and disappear before the morally educated white men.” In his second annual message in 1830, President Andrew Jackson asked, “What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranges by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms, embellished with all the improvements which act can devise or industry execute, occupied by more than 12 million happy people and filled with all the blessings of liberty, civilization and religion?”

The Indians were seen as obstacles in the path of that society. The metaphor most freuqntly used was of the advancing sun (white civilization) "melting" the dying race, an inevitable and natural process. "They must fade away," said the San Francisco Alta in 1850, "like a dissipating mist before the morning sun from the presence of the Saxon." Ten years later, the same paper's editorial policy had not changed: "as civilization advances, the aboriginal races must go down before its tread."

This essay is too short to document any but general attitudes or to provide other primary sources from the period (newspaper writers, diarists, etc.) whose writings and attitudes echo this "inevitability", this grouping of civilization and Christianity with economic progress. It also can't explore the native American side, or spirituality, as it is focused on the attitudes of the "conquerer." But it must be noted that the tribes of California and Nevada often rebelled, rose up, and fought. Jack Forbes, a historian of these tribes, documents such uprisings as constant, often led by religious leaders both male and female. Many battles in fact ended in draws but there were reasons why the Indians were "fated to lose" unless the opposing side would change its ways. That wasn't, according to Forbes, because it was "inevitable" or that God was on any side, but because the tribes' loose, democratic organizations were not sufficiently mobilized, there were cultural differences among tribes, and the tribes tended to move around as whole peoples with women and children and old people along with the warriors. In the end, the natives were overwhelmed by numbers (Washington wanted that gold and silver) and power. But they kept fighting. What is amazing is that any natives endured at all.

With their food resources depleted or polluted by industrializtion, bands made raids on cattle for which there was always retaliation. Crimes would often be blamed on Indians, prompting whites to attack, and leading to further native retaliations. Often, white men would rape Indian women, which would lead to further uprisings. In August 1853, the Yreka Herald called for a "war of extermination until the last Redskin has been killed...let the first man that says treaty or peace be regarded as a traitor." Atrocities were outlined graphically in newspapers with emphasis on the outrages done to white women and children. Reading these, who would not have fallen into a "kill the savages" mode; your life or mine is the ultimate dichotomy. White women faced a peculiar dilemma. In a close battle that could bring defeat, white men would kill their wives and daughters so as not to let them be taken captive by Indians.

"It is a mercy to the red devils to exterminate them," wrote the Chico Courant in 1866.

If not dull, or useful, or beast-like, if they rebelled the fate dictated them, if they defended their own, they were called savages, "murdering, house burning, women and children butchering fiendish devils" by the press. There was no alternative "mythology" to help anyone come to grips with what was happening. This was something the churches might have been able to provide, but they did not. Where this help did come from, in scattered places, were with those early settlers who had made it their business to befriend the natives - some of whom became Indian agents - and who fought and lost many political battles.

Pushed onto reservations, natives were further victimized by poverty and inattention, not to mention cosmic psychological trauma. Disease was at times simply handed to them, often deliberately, in infected blankets by government appointed agents, who felt their oats of power. Food was withheld, and cheap liquor substituted. And by 1873, the Indians in California were no longer perceived as serious threats. It was also about this timem that many whites began to recognize their plight.

It was about that time that visionaries arose in the northern Paiute tribe, ultimately giving rise to Wovoka, whose visions brought about the Ghost Dance. It was also at this time that white humanitarians, such as Helen Hunt Jackson, espoused the plight of the native.

It might also be mentioned that many women took pains to influence legislatures to help the Indians start schools. Sarah Winnemucca, a Paiute raised in the white world, made several influential friends who tried to help her begin bi-cultural schools, but these women friends could only help so much. Yet, it must be noted that in any culture, there are many voices, some of which are not as strong as the prevailing chorus that survives most loudly in official documents, books, and newspapers. It is these voices that often attempted to surmount the larger chorus of "inevitable progress" that need more study. Such voices, many of them women's, who were also supporters of churches, have not been well documented.

In between the lines of history lie clues to those "other voices" that fought "inevitability." References to another way of looking at this history lie scattered and need to be pieced together. Like the women in Who Have the Power, we know that there is another story that lies beneath the fiction we were told.

The Christianizing of the Indians was always viewed in economic/colonial/cultural/racial terms, never on a basis of mutuality between cultures. For the moment, it is all we can do to look, with horror, at the "civilizing views" toward the native American in California and Nevada. Focusing, they believed, on "transformation and redemption," the established churches did very little but look the other way. Timothy Dwight Hunt reported to the American Home Mimssionary Society in 1857: "I have come from the frontier, and were I asked, 'Wathchman, what of the night?' I would reply at once, "The morning cometh.'"

copyright 2005 Mary Sheeran

Who Have the Power
364 pages
Bookshelf Press/WingSpan imprint
ISBN 1-59594-039-1
For information: contact