Hastings Law Grapples With Its Founder’s Involvement in Native Massacres

A reporter dives into California’s disturbing history of state-sponsored killings of Indians.,


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ImageThe university, in San Francisco, is the alma mater of several prominent lawyers and politicians, including Vice President Kamala Harris.
The university, in San Francisco, is the alma mater of several prominent lawyers and politicians, including Vice President Kamala Harris.Credit…Mike Kai Chen for The New York Times

SAN FRANCISCO — It’s not often that research for an article begins with my daughter’s elementary school textbook, but for an article published this week it was appropriate. Earlier this year I was alerted to a controversy at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law about the role of its founder in Gold Rush-era massacres. I wanted to see what California schoolchildren were taught about that period.

“The large numbers of people who immigrated and migrated to California led to more problems for California Indians,” the textbook said, adding that “settlers often moved onto Indian lands, and many Indians were killed in conflicts.”

What I learned from subsequently reading a dozen books on the subject, interviewing leading historians who study that era and poring through documents at the California state archives was how understated the textbook was.

The men who killed thousands of Indians from the 1840s to the 1870s were paid by the state of California and the federal government. Like modern-day corporate travelers, they filed expenses and were reimbursed. The massacres masterminded by Serranus Hastings, the founder of the law school, were just a part of the state-sponsored killings carried out across the state.

During the course of my reporting I learned about “Indian baby hunters” who roamed what is now Mendocino, Humboldt and Del Norte Counties with the express purpose of killing Indians to take their children captive and sell them.

I heard from Kevin Waite, a historian, that at the site of present-day Los Angeles City Hall, the city held a weekly “slave mart,” where Native labor was sold to the highest bidder.

And I read about a handful of legislators who in 1860 objected that the massacres of Yuki Indians were referred to as the Mendocino Indian War. To use the term “war,” they said, would be to dignify what was in fact a slaughter.

The Indians, they said, “make no resistance, and make no attacks, either on the person or residence of the citizen.”

(The Legislature ignored their objections and voted to pay the killers $9,347.39 for expenses incurred.)

I have the good fortune to hold a job that takes me past the natural splendors of California, up and down the Pacific Coast, through thick stands of redwoods, into the pastels of the high desert and around the hairpin turns of the Sierra. But reporting this story was a personal reckoning. I could not disconnect the massacres I was studying with the places I drove past: the banks of the Russian River, Clear Lake, the islands off of Eureka, each location with its own dark and grisly past.

In 1850 a U.S. Army captain, Nathaniel Lyon, wrote to his superiors about the “most gratifying results” of an expedition that trapped and killed Native Americans along the Russian River. Captain Lyon, a West Point graduate, wrote that an island in the river the Native Americans could not escape from “soon became a perfect slaughter pen.” He estimated the number of people killed at “not less than 75” and probably double that number.

Some of the documents I found at the California state archives were written in an elegant calligraphy that belied their searing content.

Walter Jarboe, a militia leader who worked for Hastings, wrote Gov. John Weller in 1859 about the pursuit of Yuki tribespeople through Mendocino County.

“The fight lasted two hours,” he wrote matter-of-factly. “Killed 23 Indians.”

I felt that I was reporting from a haunted land. It reminded me of walking through prewar Jewish cemeteries in parts of Eastern Europe where Jews had been driven out. Or reporting from Cambodian villages and realizing that anyone with an education who was over a certain age had been purged by the Khmer Rouge.

The knowledge of the massacres came with a heaviness.

“People want and like positive histories,” said William Bauer, a historian who grew up in Round Valley, Calif., and is a member of the Wailacki and Concow Tribes. “It’s easier and much more enjoyable to think about the past being this kind of rugged individualism coming to California, participating in the Gold Rush and ignoring the violence that attended that event.”

Bauer told me he had visited Sutter’s Fort, the Sacramento Gold Rush landmark, when he was in high school. He noted that Indians were barely mentioned during the tour. He and many other historians believe that the way California history is taught needs to be changed to include more of the dark realities of what happened to Native peoples.

“I think it’s getting people to reckon with the fact that the history of the United States is built on the dispossession of Indigenous peoples from their land,” Bauer said. “And that the dispossession occurred violently.”

Greg Sarris, the chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, a Northern California confederation of tribes, has contributed profits from a tribal casino to a project at the Smithsonian to teach Native history.

“The American Indian is a prick in the American conscience,” Sarris told me. “The real question is how do you ensure that the story gets told.”

Thomas Fuller is the San Francisco bureau chief for The New York Times.


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Soumya Karlamangla, Mariel Wamsley, Miles McKinley and Jordan Allen contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at CAtoday@nytimes.com.

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