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The Spanish wanted to convert the local Indians, while the Russians chose to exploit the coastal marine life. Guess which Europeans the Indians preferred?

In October 1771, within a month of the founding of Mission San Gabriel Arcángel (in present-day Los Angeles County), a group of Indians attacked and wounded a soldier who had raped one of their women. A few days later a group of soldiers left the mission with the stated intent of rounding up stray cattle. Instead, they killed the principal local Indian chief, chopped off his head and proudly brought it back to the mission for display. In 1773 Father Junípero Serra, founder of the Spanish mission chain in Alta California, recorded in disgust that soldiers at Mission San Gabriel would regularly ride out together in groups of six or seven, lasso fleeing Indian women, bind them and rape them. At about the same time, at Mission San Diego de Alcalá, a soldier was accused of raping and killing an Indian girl. His superiors briefly detained him in Baja California, then “sentenced” him to remain in California as a settler. Historian James Sandos, who researched these examples of extreme cruelty against California Indians, also relates Serra’s shock and dismay at learning that soldiers had castrated, hanged, disemboweled and butchered Indians “indiscriminately for having eaten some mares that had strayed into their home.” Father President Fermín de Francisco Lasuén, however, justified allegations of excessive punishment, writing, “Here are aborigines, whom we are teaching to be men, people of vicious and ferocious habits who know no law but force, no superior but their own free will, and no reason but their own caprice.”

Spain had begun its colonial policy of Christianizing California Indians on July 16, 1769, with the founding of the Mission San Diego. Over the next six decades the Spanish would found 21 missions, stretching as far north as Sonoma. The Spanish decision to colonize Alta California, according to Sandos, resulted from the perceived “need to thwart Russian advancement down the California coast.”

Fur trapper–trader Grigory Shelikhov founded the first permanent Russian colony in Alaska in 1784, and the company he organized became the Russian-American Co. in 1799, with headquarters at New Archángel (present-day Sitka). Alexander Baranov, a successful Siberian merchant, became the company’s chief manager. American ship captains contracted with the Russians in a joint venture to gather sea otter pelts along the California coast. In April 1806 Nikolai Rezanov—Shelikhov’s son-in-law, protégé and successor—made first contact with the Spanish in California when he sailed his ship, Juno, into San Francisco Bay, even though Spanish colonies were forbidden from trading with foreign powers. The recently widowed aristocrat deftly skirted that problem by becoming betrothed to the beautiful 15-yearold Concepción Arguello, daughter of Spanish Commandant Don José Dario Arguello.

Less than a year after leaving San Francisco, Rezanov died of pneumonia. He’d become sick when, against all warnings, he crossed Siberia on horseback in winter to gain the tsar’s permission for the marriage. The heartbroken Concepción learned of his death five years later. She never married, becoming California’s first native-born Catholic nun and dedicating her life to charity. She died in 1857 at age 65.

Russian-American Co. officer Ivan Kuskov followed Rezanov’s lead, beginning in 1808 with the first of several expeditions to find a suitable place for a planned settlement. During these voyages the Russians, according to historian John Schubert, established “some sort of intercourse with the Miwoks or their neighbors to the north [the Kashaya Pomos].” In March 1812 Kuskov sailed into Bodega Bay and then went north some 15 miles to a place known as Me-te-ni by the Kashaya Pomos, who lived there seasonally. The colonizers (25 Russians and 80 Aleutian Islanders) acquired the land from the Indians for the price of “three blankets, three pairs of breeches, two axes, three hoes and some beads.”

Unlike Spain, which had a religious investment in California, Russia’s primary interest was commercial— acquiring sea otter and seal furs and developing an agricultural base from which to supply the Alaskan colonies. In short order the Russians, with Aleut assistance, built Fort Ross and then a few smaller settlements. The colonizers were outnumbered 10-to-1 by the Kashaya Pomos (an estimated 1,480 lived in the area at the time). Thus it was in the best interests of the Russian-American Co. to remain on good terms with them, as well as the nearby Southern Pomos and Coast Miwoks. For the next three decades, while having an uneasy relationship with the Spanish, the Russians got along reasonably well with the California Indians they encountered. Certainly the Russians’ relationship with the Indians was less intrusive than the Spanish-Indian relationship. After all, exploiting marine animals and growing a little food was a far cry from relocating “good” Indians to the missions, where they could be Christianized and for the most part kept away from the bad influence of wild Indians.

In the Spanish plan, confiscated Indian lands would become mission lands held in trust by the priests while the neophytes were Christianized and taught European ways and morals. After a decade of such forced assimilation, the mission was to be secularized. The Indian lands would be transferred back in deeded plots to the converted Indians. The mission would then be reduced to a parish. In this way Spain intended to form towns throughout California. The Indians—trained and converted at the missions— would be granted Spanish citizenship.

The padres regulated and regimented the Indians’ life at the missions. In 1786 French explorer Jean-François de la Pérouse shared his recollections after an eight-day visit to Monterrey. “The Indians,” he wrote, “became like students in a school, monks in a cloister, prisoners in a penitentiary; they were now wards of the church—their lives, their bodies, even their thoughts no longer their own.”

La Pérouse’s journal also describes the corporal punishment missionaries meted out to their wards. Disobedient Indians might find themselves in irons or the stocks or subjected to “the sound of the whip.” The public floggings were painful but short; offending Indians had it worse when they landed in the stocks and pillories for days without water. Once baptized, an Indian was obligated to stay at the mission—presumably for life. If he escaped, he would be summoned three times to return. If he refused, soldiers were sent to seize him and, according to La Pérouse, “conduct him [back] to the mission, where he was condemned to receive a certain number of lashes with the whip.” Punishable crimes for mission Indians included insolence, tardiness, skipping Mass, failure to learn catechism, spousal bickering, gambling, laziness, fornication, adultery, homosexuality, bisexuality and abortion. Abortion (which included miscarriage) was considered so serious that the offending woman was subjected to having her head shaved, 15 days of flogging and up to three months in leg shackles. Additionally, she was forced to wear sackcloth, rub her face with ashes and carry with her for several months a painted red wooden doll representing the lost child. Epidemic venereal disease made carrying to full term problematic.

In his 2004 book Converting California, Sandos shares other examples of extreme punishment. One Indian was whipped for crying over the death of his wife and child, while another was flogged after abandoning his wife who had committed adultery with a Spaniard. Yet another was flogged for clam digging, even though he was seeking to feed his starving family. In at least one instance a cruel padre had half of an Indian’s foot cut off to prevent desertion. Ultimately, La Pérouse concluded, the missions resembled nothing more than a slave plantation.

California Indian scholar Malcolm Margolin opined that California Indians under Spanish control were “lifeless, robbed of spirit, a people traumatized, exhibiting what today would be characterized as a psychotic level of depression.” Periodically the priests allowed “tame” Indians to visit their “heathen” relatives, those who hadn’t volunteered for mission life and continued to enjoy tribal freedom. Father Fermín Francisco de Lasuén, who replaced Serra as president of the missions, didn’t like what he saw. “The majority of our neophytes,” he wrote to his superiors, “have not acquired much love for our way of life; and they see and meet their pagan relatives in the forest, fat and robust and enjoying complete liberty.”

The Russian-American Co.’s system of enterprise was dramatically different from the Spanish mission system. The mercantile monopoly chartered by the Russian tsar had no interest in converting local Indians, and Kodiak Islanders did most of the actual hunting for sea otters. The company shipped the pelts to China (via American ships—the Russians were not welcome in China) to meet the market demands of Manchu elites who trimmed their clothing with the fine fur. With its profits the company purchased Chinese goods—tea, silk, linen, porcelain, candy, rhubarb, etc.—that it then sold in Europe at an even greater profit.

The incorporating articles of the Russian-American Co. specified that whenever it was to the company’s advantage to establish settlements along the American coast, it “must proceed by the consent of the natives…trying to avoid anything which might arouse their suspicion of any intention to infringe upon their independence.” The Indians continued to live in their tribal villages. “No level of religious persecution takes place,” wrote French naval explorer Cyrille Pierre Théodore Laplace after a visit to Fort Ross.

Not that the Russians didn’t at times feel a need to deal with troublesome Indians and punish them. Kuskov, administrator at Fort Ross from 1812 to 1821, recorded in a census he kept his last year that eight Indians were working at the fort as punishment. Five had been convicted of murder, three of horse theft and butchery. The Russians ultimately shipped four of the eight to headquarters at New Archángel, their fate unrecorded. There is no evidence, however, the Russians killed or maimed Indians for horse stealing—in direct contrast to such executions by the Spanish. Further, in crime and punishment the Russians apparently did not discriminate. Herman James, the grandson of a Kashaya Pomo woman who had lived at Fort Ross, shared his grandmother’s memories in the 1964 book Kashaya Texts. In one account an angry Russian man at the fort told his Indian wife to be gone by the time he returned from work that evening. Distraught, she jumped off a cliff and died. Russian officials put the husband in jail for a week and then whipped him steadily until he fainted and died. In another account a Russian husband at the fort struck his wife over the head with an ax. She didn’t die, but officials had him whipped for half a day. He also survived.

While the Russians punished Indians who did wrong, Kuskov also gave out medals and presents to the Indians. The Russians did not concern themselves with Indians’ sexual proclivities, such as those observed by Laplace concerning “certain young men [who served for] the pleasure of their fellow citizens who, considering them like the other sex, heap presents on them and take pleasure in adoring them.”

“The local Indians actually welcomed having the Russians settle in their midst, as a safeguard against the Spanish,” writes historian Schubert. “One Indian chief raised the Russian flag over his possessions as a measure of protection from the Spaniards.” After 1812, according to historian Erik Hirshman, the Spanish “pursued an aggressive missionary policy north of San Francisco Bay, hunting Miwoks and Pomos down and putting them in irons for their missions.”

The Spanish were constantly on guard against the Indians, who sometimes rebelled violently against the system—ambushing troops, burning missions, and killing soldiers and priests. By contrast, the Russians moved freely and without fear within Indian villages. Russian managers worked at maintaining harmonious relationships, which meant treating the Indians decently, though not as equals. Typical of the times, the Russians embraced a hierarchical class system: in descending order, Russian managers, Russian soldiers and clerks, Russian and Creole craftsmen, Aleut workers and, finally, California Indians. Like the Spanish and Americans of that period, the Russians believed that people of color existed to serve the white race.

Kashaya Pomo tribal leaders offered their daughters as mates to company employees, usually as a calculated action to extend kinship relations among the foreign colonists. Aleut workers routinely paired with Pomo and Miwok women, as did some of the Russian men, since so few Aleut or Russian women ever moved to the fort. Otto von Kotzebue, who led a Russian naval expedition that visited California in 1816, noted that such marriages helped foster “good understanding” between the Russians and local Indians. These pairings also promoted monogamy, which became Russian-American Co. policy as a means of stemming the rampant spread of venereal disease. Technically, the Russians didn’t consider most of these sexual alliances marriages—only marriages blessed by sacrament in the Russian Orthodox Church were considered valid, and indeed, many Russian, Aleut and Creole men had valid marriages back home. They instead perceived them as mere conveniences. Spanish padres also encouraged interracial marriages between Spanish men and Indian women, but in contrast to the Russians, they punished sexual relations between unmarried Indians. For the most part both Spanish and Russian civil and military authorities pursued and punished soldiers who raped Indian women.

By 1817 sea otters had all but vanished from the region. The Russian-American Co. continued to carry out farming and some manufacturing. The Russians employed Kashaya Pomos and Miwoks, who had not been involved in the fur trading business, as paid labor ers. They also taught Indian men and women various crafts, including carpentry, weaving and blacksmithing. In 1836 Russian Orthodox Priest Ioann Veniaminov (later Saint Innocent) visited Fort Ross and recorded in his journal that 39 Indians lived in a compound just outside the stockade on a continuing basis. Veniaminov “sacramentally blessed” 14 marriages and christened “a Catholic Indian woman” and several other adult Indians.

For mutual protection various indigenous people fled the Spanish, and later the Mexicans, to a large refugee village near Fort Ross. Baron Ferdinand Petrovich von Wrangell, manager of the Russian-American Co. in the early 1830s, noted that the refugees were from different tribes and spoke different languages. Indians encamped along California’s Russian River, he said, were terrified of possible Mexican raids, and many free Indians worried about the Mexican ranchos established in certain areas to isolate the Russian colony. In her doctoral dissertation, historian Mary Kennedy claims there is “evidence” that Ivan Kuskov “supplied firearms to the Indians.”

Prokhor Egorov, a Russian who had deserted Fort Ross, is said to have been behind the unsuccessful 1824 Chumash Revolt in southern California against three missions. The same band of rebellious Indians eventually killed Egorov. Also in 1824 Spanish troops reportedly killed another Russian who was teaching Indians to use firearms. But these two supporters of insurrection against the Spanish must have been unauthorized, says Sandos, because the administrators at Fort Ross “clandestinely supplied” muskets to the Spanish to help suppress the Indian rebellion. Indeed, a number of disenchanted Russians and Aleut workers deserted Fort Ross over the years.

During times of hardship the Russians, in their own self-interest, could be every bit as brutal to Indians as the Spanish or Mexicans. Several epidemic diseases spread through northern California in the 1830s, and spikes in the death rate resulted in a shortage of workers. Needing harvesttime labor, the Russians resorted to armed raids to capture Indian workers. In his journal Wrangell describes one raid “in which the Russians drove Indian men, women and children [about 50 miles] like cattle with their hands tied.” The Russians made these Indians work without pay for about 45 days before allowing them to return home. In retaliation for the Russian enslavement raids between 1833 and 1838, the affected tribes sometimes formed their own raiding parties to destroy Russian crops, farm buildings and livestock. The Russians finally resolved the problem by agreeing to properly feed, clothe and pay the harvest laborers.

European diseases posed a bigger problem for the Indians. Both the Russians and Spaniards brought diseases against which California’s Indians had no immunity—primarily measles, mumps, smallpox, influenza and syphilis. Measles epidemics in 1828 and 1833 killed substantial numbers of North Coast Indians. Between 1836 and 1839 measles, chickenpox, whooping cough and smallpox epidemics decimated the Russian-American colonies from the Aleutian Islands and Kodiak Island to California. When the Spanish first arrived in California in 1769, there were an estimated 300,000 resident Indians. By 1821, when Spanish sovereignty ended, the California’s Indian population had dwindled to 200,000. By 1842 only 150,000 Indians remained in the territory.

The Russians, on the other hand, vanished from California by choice. The Russian-American Co. made a deal in 1839 with the British-owned Hudson’s Bay Co. to supply the Russian colonies in Alaska. That nullified the Fort Ross agricultural efforts. In December 1841 the company sold Fort Ross to John Sutter, the Mexican citizen from Switzerland better known for his Sutter’s Fort in the SacramentoValley and his gold connection.

With Russia gone, Mexico had little time to enjoy it. Seven years later, with the end of the Mexican War and the beginning of the California Gold Rush (triggered by a strike at Sutter’s Mill), Mexico was also out of the picture. Most Americans wanted neither to save the Indian population nor see them working (especially not in the goldfields). In the state of California, formed in 1850, the Indian population continued its rapid decline due to disease, starvation, homicide and a falling birthrate (in part due to epidemic venereal disease).

One cannot fairly write about the California Indians’ experience with the Spanish, Mexicans and Russians without placing those experiences in the context of the times. Neither the Spanish nor Russians intended through their colonial policies to wipe out the Indians through disease. The concept of inoculation and vaccination was in its infancy in Europe, and that was a long way from the North American frontier—although the Russians did purchase vaccines from a visiting Boston ship in 1833, using them with some success at Fort Ross. Nevertheless, more than 30 people died in a three-week period.

Mexican civil authorities ultimately secularized the missions and liberated the Indians. But like their Spanish counterparts, Mexican religious authorities inflicted their share of extreme and cruel punishment on the Indians. Not that it was so unusual for the times. In Colonial America stocks, pillories, whipping posts and ducking stools were common means of punishment. In England judges handed out death sentences for such relatively minor crimes as stealing clothing. Societies around the world devised all manner of tortures, mutilations and punishments by which to terrify their citizenry into civil and religious obedience.

That said, what happened to the California Indians is hard to justify in any age. The Russian colonizers, motivated by simple commercial exploitation (belligerent and rebellious workers could be costly), generally treated the Indians better than the Spanish missionaries or Mexican authorities that followed. But then came the Americans, motivated largely by greed, and they made life in California even more of a hell for not only most of the Indian residents but also many of the Mexican citizens. Heck, some of those Indians and Mexicans probably longed for the good old days when all they had to worry about was the Russians.


Daniel J. Demers [], of Guerneville, Calif., is a semiretired businessman with a love for history. Suggested reading: Converting California, by James A. Sandos; Kashaya Texts, by Robert L. Oswalt, as told by Herman James; Indian Survival on the California Frontier, by Albert L. Hurtado; and Life in a California Mission, by Jean-François de la Pérouse.

Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.