The Spanish Empire first came into contact with Native American in Northern California in the 16thcentury – and that contact was to be the primary European contact for centuries. Here, Daniel L. Smith (site here)looks at early encounters between the Spanish and Native Americans – and considers how they impacted later 19thcentury settlers to the area.

You can read Daniel’s past articles on California in the US Civil War (here), Medieval jesters (here), and How American Colonial Law Justified the Settlement of Native American Territories (here).

Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, a 18th century Spanish naval officer who visited Northern California.

Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, a 18th century Spanish naval officer who visited Northern California.

Not So Positive of Encounters

Northern California is a scene of majestic redwood forests, beautiful rocky coastlines, and lush inner-landscapes that can only be imagined today. The land known to us today as Humboldt County, for example, had been home to indigenous peoples for some time prior to the arrival of Europeans.[1]In pristine Humboldt, over a dozen tribes made up the encompassed swath of land from Klamath to the Eel River on the coast, which ranged inland to include Weaverville and Shasta. All tribes of Northern California, like all civilizations, have cultural tendencies that are all based around religion, resources, customs, and family (religion and family – which surprisingly many intellectuals tend to leave out of contemporary texts in terms of historical importance to events).[2]

To understand California’s beginnings is to understand that according to Europe and the rest of the non-indigenous world, California was a Spanish territory.[3]It was in 1587 that Conquistador Pedro de Unamumo was given orders from the Spanish monarchy to explore the coasts of California. At the time, however, the Spanish crown believed that California was its own unique island.[4] Some centuries later, on June 11, 1775, two Spanish Naval conquistadors, Bruno de Heceta and Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, landed on Trinity Head Point where they placed the Catholic cross and immediately his landing party was rained on by native arrows.[5]

Back to Unamumo, who would end up pulling into the area of Morro Bay where he led an armed landing party of 12 men, accompanied by a priest. When attempted contact was made, the landing party was showered on with arrows and spears. Five of the men were wounded – two were killed.[6]It was at this point Spanish officials ordered explorers not to leave the safety of their ships, or cargo. Colonizing Spaniards were in California for economic as well as political and religious purposes; however, it seems that Spanish explorers at the time were there for the Spanish monarchy’s intentions.


Culture Shock

Leaders such as Christopher Columbus or William Bradford are a polarized example to the opposite of the Spanish conquistadors personal intentions at that time. There was a lot of complicated quasi-relationships between the Spanish and the indigenous natives of California. Due to policies implemented by Spanish authorities, the ultimate result of the Spanish Empire would be a general cultural oppressionto the indigenous tribes of California. This oppressionwas the result of the Jesuit Catholic missions, including political officers appointed by Spain and their policies towards the indigenous natives of California.[7]These natives were not asked to convert; they were forced into the Catholic mission system. 

Once on mission grounds, it became a cultural shock to the indigenous people who had the unfortunate chance of being pushed into this system. To get a better inside look at the reality of Spanish California missions is to understand their goals. It was to create temporary institutes to ‘civilize’ the natives by giving them a proper education, as well as providing experience in European skillsets of labor, and knowledge of their political and social customs. The next phase of the process was ‘gente du razon’or – a civilized people of mixed native and Spanish ethnicity. In the end, the Spanish would dissolve the missions after the natives were civilized, allowing the native converts to manage the mission lands. Further, the natives would become tax-paying Spanish citizens.[8]

The Spanish authorities would then secularize (remove the religious purposes of the institute) the lands the mission was on – ultimately forming a “vassaled-in,” but unincorporated part of Spanish-colonial society. The intended Spanish plan for the mission systemwould end up collapsing on itself. When the natives of the missions did not renounce their customs and traditions for strict Catholicism, they were punished with intensity. Anytime a native broke any religious, work, or fleshly rules laid out by the mission, Catholic authorities would administer punishment for even a minor incident. [9]


Just Before The Rush For Gold

Extra manual-labor, less food provisions… or worse: shackled in chains, whipped, and held in prison-like confinement. As time moved forward, the economic policies of the mission would etch out a permanent mark on the landscape of Northern California. This showed the threat of native defiance that would put a “brake” on further Spanish exploration… a certain evidence of substantial native hostility;both during Europeans’ first contact and during the American pioneer-renowned westward expansion. Indeed, the Catholic missions’ economic and religious purposes would serve to negatively affectthe early-settlers of Northern California from the mid-nineteenth century.[10]

Now, some historians would argue that because there was no “official” established Catholic mission in Northern California, that it did not affect the regional native populations. I claim to rebuke that theory with this theory: Native American tribes were notoriously quick to relay important societal events via intertribal communication; such as word of mouth and messages.Indigenous tribes had knowledge of Europeans and knew tribal events east of the Rocky Mountains, as well as in Southern California. 

Prior to the discovery of gold dust by James W. Marshall on January 24, 1848, there was minimum contact between indigenous Northern Californians and peoples of Anglo-Saxon, Celtic, or Caucasian ethnicities.[11]They say first impressions are important; it seems the Spanish Monarchy laid out a poor impression and welcoming mat for the incoming settlers of the mid-1800s of European descent. American settlers pioneering to the West had information on what to prepare for and how to do it – and a lot of them barely had enough money to afford the wagon by itself. Being knowledgeable to surviving what was to inevitably come in their travels was the key to a successful arrival.


What do you think of the author’s arguments? Let us know below.

Finally, Daniel Smith writes at

[1]Ziegler, Herbert, and Jerry Bentley. Bentley, Traditions & Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past, 6th ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2014. p. 34.

[2]Smith, Daniel L. Our America: Our Life & Our Culture. Eureka, CA.: Independent, 2018. p. 48.

[3]Ellison, William H. "Indian Policy in California." 21, no. 1 (Fall ), 2-3.

[4]Sedler, Kathy. "History of Humboldt County, California." Historic Record Co., Los Angeles, 1915. Ch. 5, Para. 1.

[5]Tovell, Freeman M. (2008). At the Far Reaches of Empire: The Life of Juan Francisco De La Bodega Y Quadra. University of British Columbia Press. pp. 22–23. ISBN 978-0-7748-1367-9.

[6]Sedler, K. "History of Humboldt County, California”  Ch. 5, Para. 6.

[7]Ellison, William H. "The Federal Indian Policy in California, 1846-1860." The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 9, no. 1 (1922): p. 33.

[8]Olson-Raymer, Geyle. “The Discovery, Exploration, and Founding of Spanish California.” HSU – Dept. of History. Last modified Dec. 31, 2014. Print – p. 1-2.

[9]Ibid. p. 3.

[10]Hittell, Theodore Henry (1898). History of California; Vol. 3, Book X, Chap XII – Treatment of Indians (cont.)San Francisco, CA: J.N. Stone. Pp. 912-17.

[11]Sedler, K. "History of Humboldt County, California” Ch. 5, Para. 9

AuthorGeorge Levrier-Jones
CategoriesBlog Post

California is not talked about too much in the context of the American Civil War (1861-65). It had only joined the Union in 1850 and was far from the main action in the east of the USA. However, California did have a part to play during the US Civil War. Daniel L. Smith explains.

An Independent gold hunter on his way to California, circa 1850. California’s gold helped to fund military activities during the US Civil War.

An Independent gold hunter on his way to California, circa 1850. California’s gold helped to fund military activities during the US Civil War.

California and Statehood

It was prior to 1850 that the true nature of the Wild West existed in California, this pristine region of the country. Ideology was split, and even within the split, there was further fracturing due to cultural differences as well as consistent fighting for property rights. The discovery of gold exacerbated the issue of regional turmoil as California was pulled into the US Civil War. This is just the tip of the iceberg on how California existed during this era. Many, or almost all people, are not aware of how truly important California as a region was during the Civil War.

California and Californians themselves endured in its struggle and existence. California had essentially wrapped itself in the American Civil War in politics, finances, and culture. California ethos (or ideology) was absolutely split politically. In hindsight, it was seemingly more than “Blue & Grey” ideology in a state that was overwhelmingly Native American. California had always been home to a Native American and slave population well before being “settled” by Americans East of the Mississippi.

It all started when California made statehood in 1850. Soon thereafter in 1859, the legislature of California was split into two states – Northern California and Southern California (as Colorado Territory). Even though Southern California was part of the Union, it had strong Confederate sympathies. These Confederate ties were due to the large number of Southerners who had transplanted to the Southern California area during the famous Gold Rush. This mass-relocation showed its evidence in the 1860 presidential elections. Lincoln had received only 25% of the Los Angeles vote. 

On the brink of the Civil War California chose the Union, abandoning three other choices: secession, neutrality, and independence. Arguments and counterarguments were made from every political and civic level of the community. It seemed as though some people were in doubt and tossed about in which decision it should have been. Although California was isolated from the conflict in the East and despite the diversified political beliefs of her people, a feeling of loyalty to the United States and federal government was overwhelming. California Republican and Union-Democratic leaders expressed an unwavering loyalty in a multitude of ways.  

Ultimately, the Unionist political candidates took over two-thirds of the votes for state government. Various estimates have been guessed regarding the number of pro-Confederates in the population in California. Indeed, although the loyalty of the state appeared evident, militias were activated. 


Revenue and Turmoil

Oaths of loyalty were required for certain groups and individuals, and of course occasional military arrests were made to solidify loyalty. Regardless, California would end up being a major financial contributor to the federal government during the Civil War, because the gold deposits were direct revenue to pay for war costs. In fact, quite a large portion of the federal government’s war budget was reinforced by new gold from California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range. General Grant, in fact, said, "I do not know what we could do in this great national emergency, were it not for the gold sent from California.” 

The U.S Army built and operated many fortifications along frontier trails in the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California. What people do not know is that although California leaned towards the Union, they were so wrapped up in their own civil discord at home they were not able to send organized regiments east. In late 1861, a Confederate Brigadier General Henry Sibley was allowed to open up an easier route into California through northern Arizona Territory, with further instruction to capture the gold fields in San Francisco by Confederate President Jefferson Davis. This instruction would be for the purpose of a preemptive strike against the Unionist state and in turn show how significant California really was in the Civil War.

Little did both sides realize, California was in regional turmoil on its own accord without the help of a formal war. Now, aside from the status quo bleeding “Blue & Grey,” some non-traditional elements to the war are that the settlers who had come to California were still dealing with the effects of settling tribal lands, adding negative social, criminal, and economic dilemmas between the local Native American tribes, settlers, and the U.S. government.[1]For example, in Humboldt County (approximately 271 miles north of San Francisco) on March 29, 1862, a Humboldt Times headline read, “Horrible Indian Outrages!—The Savages Become Bolder!”  

In this letter submitted to the paper’s editors on March 27, 1862, the citizens of Arcata were “really alarmed at the extent of their (the Native America) evil deeds and the increased boldness and daring… “.  The letter states that local natives shot Mr. Zehendner and burned his home, burnt Goodman’s house and the next day, Mrs. Brehmer’s. On Friday, March 28, Augustus Bates was shot and killed. The natives burned his house. The letter ends, “What a sudden reverse - peace and fancied security one day - death and destruction the next. Surely human life is mutable and occurrences like this bring the fact impressively to our mind. This is a gloomy letter, and ours is a gloomy town.  I can think and write of nothing else.” 


Still The Wild West

On April 2, 1862, many of the citizens of Arcata signed a petition asking the military to remove all the Native Americans from the county completely and push them far away. They went on to state that they didn’t want them in Mendocino County or Crescent City – as it was too easy to get back.[2]  This shows that California was essentially dealing with its own problems, as well as the internal war. With a combination of civic non-cohesion of indigenous native populations, the settlers of the newly established towns, and with the two warring governments remaining active in the state, it appears as though both the centralized governments failed to see the deeper issue residing in California.[3]

Overall, there were handfuls of land skirmishes in California. Within the timeline of the war, California seemed to be most concerned with keeping political tension at a minimum. A further example of the civil issues that California would have to navigate would be the Bullion Bend Robbery.Two stagecoaches were robbed of their silver and gold near Placerville. A letter was left for authorities explaining that they were not committed criminals but carrying out a subversive operation to funnel money to the Confederacy.[4]

In 1864, a magistrate and handful of men became known as the Partisan Rangers.They sacked the property of Union-loyal civilians in the rural and outlying areas around Stockton. For the next two years they posed as “Confederate Partisan Rangers” but acted out criminally. They were found committing robberies, thefts, and murders located in the counties of San Joaquin Valley, Santa Cruz, Monterey, Santa Clara, and a few other counties located in Southern California.[5]

A final notable incident required a superb show of force by the Federal Cavalry in the streets of San Bernardino at the end of election day in September of 1864. They quelled a Confederate political demonstration during the gubernatorial elections in San Bernardino County.[6]


California’s Permanent Divide

After the Civil War ended in California the state took greater control and quickly began to integrate the counties of what would end up being on today’s political boundary maps. With the last of the Pacific coast Native Americans being rounded up to be placed on reservations and the fizzling out of what would come to be known as Westward Expansion, the state would start to consolidate its power as the new and now truly established authority in the West.[7]

It was now no longer considered the Wild West – as you would see on old black and white Western movies. Even so, the Union won the Civil War and California adopted the Union’s policies, there would always be a permanently heavy Democratic and Republican divide that would simmer beneath the voting cracks.


What do you think of the role of California in the US Civil War? Let us know below.

Finally, Daniel Smith writes at

[1]Charles B. Turrill."San Francisco and the Civil War." Museum of the City of San Francisco. Last modified 1876.

[2]“Horrible Indian Outrages! - The Savages Become Bolder!”The Humboldt Times, March 29th, 1862. p.3 col. 1.

[3]Brian McGinty. "I Will Call a Traitor a Traitor: Albert Sidney Johnston." Civil War Times Illustrated, 1981.

[4]John Boessenecker (1993). Badge and Buckshot: Lawlessness in Old California.Norman: University of Oklahoma Press. pp. 133–157. ISBN 0806125101. Retrieved 21 October 2018.

[5]William B. Secrest, (2007). California Badmen: Mean Men with Guns.Sanger, Calif.: Word Dancer Press. pp. 143–147. ISBN 1884995519. Retrieved 21 October 2018.

[6]Henry Martyn Lazelle; Leslie J. Perry (1897). The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies.U.S. Government Printing Office. Retrieved 21 October 2018.

[7]Kevin Starr. California: A History. New York: Modern Library, 2015