American educators and the mainstream media have depicted the Native peoples of California—especially in the Central Valley—as passive, weak, and disinclined to defend their homelands. Americans tend to put the warrior Indians of the Great Plains on a pedestal, even though their cultures developed after Europeans reintroduced the horse to the New World. California Indians had developed much more sustainable cultures over more than ten thousand years. And they were by no means passive.
Any discussion of Native Californian resistance to the invading Europeans must start with the fact that the Spanish and others from the Old World brought a host of deadly diseases to which Native people had little immunity. The string of twenty-one Spanish missions along the California coast created conditions for devastating epidemics. Overall, about three-quarters of the Indians taken to the mission labor camps died there.
In spite of the staggering loss of Native population at and around the missions, the “mission” Indians did not meekly comply with the Spanish invaders. Even though the Indians were from many autonomous, sovereign nations and in many cases spoke completely different languages, the brutal conditions at the missions gave them a common enemy and they organized acts of resistance.
In 1775, Natives destroyed Mission San Diego. There were skirmishes and disruptions at all Bay Area missions from 1790 through 1800. Priest “witches” were poisoned at Missions San Miguel and San Antonio in 1801 and a priest murdered at Santa Cruz in 1812. The most well-known mission Indian revolt was in 1824, when two thousand Natives captured Mission La Purisma and almost took over Missions Santa Barbara, San Buenaventura, and San Gabriel. California Indians had learned the ways of the Hispanics and worked together in increasingly sophisticated acts of guerrilla warfare and homeland defense.
After Mexico gained its independence from Spain in the 1820s and broke up the missions, a Yokuts man from what is now southern San Joaquin County emerged as the leader of the most effective resistance to the Hispanic invaders. His name was Cucunuchi and he was christened Estanislao (after Polish Saint Stanislaus) at Mission San Jose. The Stanislaus River, County, and National Forest are named after this local patriot.
Estanislao led a multicultural, multi-language band of refugees that included people from various Miwok and Yokuts nations—even Chumash people from the Santa Barbara coast that had fled to the tulares of the San Joaquin Valley. They raided missions and Mexican land-grant ranchos that were still capturing Native peoples and making them slave laborers.
They amassed weapons and warriors. And they built European-style earthworks, trenches, and barricades on the lower Stanislaus River (perhaps in or near present-day Caswell Memorial State Park) to halt further intrusions of Mexicans into their ancestral homelands.
Soldiers from the presidio in San Francisco and mission Indian militia men attacked Estanislao’s stronghold, but after two days of fighting the Mexicans had to abandon the siege and withdraw. This was the first substantial California Indian military victory over the Hispanic invaders.
The Mexicans retaliated. They assembled 107 regular troops from the presidios at Monterey, San Jose, and San Francisco, plus at least 50 mission Indian militia men, 3,500 musket rounds, and cannon—all under the command of Mariano Vallejo. It was the largest army ever assembled in Northern California.
The massive Mexican force again attacked the freedom fighters on the lower Stanislaus River. Again the Native patriots fought the Mexicans to a standstill and declared that they would never surrender. Even though Vallejo set the dense riparian vegetation on fire and readied the cannon for the fleeing Indians, many of Estanislao’s fighters escaped upstream, where another battle occurred. The Mexican army captured only three Indian women—and gruesomely executed them—before they were forced to return to San Jose.
Estanislao went farther underground after these victories, but he may have continued raiding Mexican ranchos into the late 1830s. Legend has it that he carved an “S” with his sword at sites he raided, making him the original El Zorro. According to historical demographer Sherburne Cook, “Estanislao belongs with King Philip, Tecumseh, Pontiac, and Geronimo, as an outstanding Indian chief who fought the white man with persistence and daring. [Estanislao was] by far the most able military and political leader produced by the red man in California.”
We can only speculate what the outcome of additional Native resistance may have been had not other factors intervened. European diseases such as measles, pneumonia, diphtheria, smallpox, and venereal diseases continued to decimate Native peoples. In late 1832, Hudson’s Bay Company trappers from Oregon territory introduced malaria into the wetlands of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
By the late 1830s, the Bay Miwok nations had disappeared and the Plains Miwok nations in what is now northern San Joaquin County had lost 80 percent of their people to the epidemic. Trappers described abandoned Indian villages littered with skulls, bones, and funeral pyres all the way to present-day Fresno.
American Manifest Destiny arrived with the Bidwell-Bartleson party of settlers in 1841. By the mid-1840s Americans and Europeans had established ranchos throughout the Delta region, including Charles Weber’s forty-eight-thousand-acre land grant, Campo de los Franceses (French Camp), which encompassed much of current San Joaquin County.
Soon after, Weber’s inland port at Stockton became the gateway to the Southern Mines of the Sierra Nevada. The remaining Native people of this area were at “ground zero” of one of the largest onslaughts the world has known. Indians could not possibly resist the Gold Rush; they could only try to survive….
More on other Native stereotypes in a future installment.
David Stuart is the executive director and CEO of the San Joaquin County Historical Society and Museum.