Villains at the gates of gold

Contested Eden
June 5, 1998

California has been the scene of some of the human race's most remarkable demographic experiences. Perhaps best known is the stunning population explosion that followed the discovery of gold in the Sacramento Valley in 1848. A non-Indian population of 10,000 or 15,000 had multiplied to 100,000 by the end of 1849. A little over a century later, if less precipitously, California surged into first place as the country's most populous American state, displacing New York. Less conspicuous but more disastrous was an earlier demographic convulsion. Before the coming of Europeans, California was one of the most densely populated parts of North America, with a native population of more than 300,000. By 1860 only 30,000 of these peoples survived.

Paralleling the almost wholesale replacement of New World peoples by Old was the replacement of the region's fauna and flora. Rather as their isolation over many centuries had rendered Native Americans vulnerable to imported disease, so indigenous animals and plants could not easily withstand the organisms and practices introduced by the Europeans. Native grasses were almost overwhelmed by European grasses, such as wild oats. This floral invasion seems to have begun even before the first Spanish mission was established at San Diego in 1769, but colonisation accelerated the process, not least because the settlers also introduced their own livestock. By the 1840s, the presence of hundreds of thousands of cattle was transforming many of the region's ecosystems. The extinction of 48 native species on Santa Catalina Island alone has been credited to the introduction of goats there in 18. Even the landscape that mesmerised American pioneers in the mid-19th century was not quite the one that Native Americans had known for millennia.

Much of this story is told in this initial volume of a four-volume study to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the state. Three of the volumes, their titles suggest, are to examine California in the gold rush and immediate post-gold rush eras. This first ambitious publication, however, encompasses a far longer period - that of the centuries before the almost simultaneous discovery of gold and the acquisition of California by the United States. The greater part of the book is devoted to the Spanish and Mexican periods between 1769 and 1848, for which records are most abundant, but imaginative attempts are made to recapture something of the people and ecology of pre-colonial California. An alluring picture emerges of hundreds of Native American communities living in harmony with the land and its varied life forms. Understanding the landscape, these peoples "managed" or "domesticated" it, so that their habitat was no wilderness but a complex ecological system that they turned to their own purposes while sensitively preserving it. Against this background, Europeans are cast as destroyers, ignorant of the balance that can be struck with the natural world and intent only on exploiting it. Given the necessarily limited nature of the evidence, this view of Native American history may seem somewhat romanticised. But in the California Eden, perhaps, human beings should be presumed innocent until they are proven guilty.

The impact of what has become known as the "new western history", as illustrated in the emphasis on the constructive role of Native Americans, is also evident in other parts of this collection, one object of which is to disseminate the findings of modern scholarship. An imaginative essay on gender, for example, explores such matters as the Franciscans' attempts to remake Native American sexuality, the promotion of the patriarchal family in the Spanish and Mexican periods, and the strategies of resistance by Native American and Hispanic women. Other essays probe such topics as the extraordinary dependence of the early Californian economy on Native American labour, the competition between the ecclesiastical and the civil authorities over the position of Native Americans in the colony, and the creation by (mainly) Mexican settlers of a distinctive Californio society in the decades before US acquisition (and its sometimes fanciful re-creation in later narratives). Dozens of black-and-white and colour illustrations neatly point up these tales. Ram"n Gutierrez raises expectations in an introduction that among other things makes reference to the "heightened body ethic" of recent scholarship, that is the attention given to the connections between the physical aspects of the human body and the gender, racial and ethnic distinctions in society, and if the imaginations of the editors are not always matched by those of the contributors, all succeed in demonstrating their competence.

As a collection of essays, this volume does not pretend to provide a full history of early California, and it seems a little curmudgeonly to complain of omissions. The approach that it offers - essays on specialised topics by leading academics - enables students, scholars and lay readers to be kept abreast of recent scholarship, but it also allows certain questions to be raised. The central role of the Franciscan missions, for example, arguably merits more direct treatment. Native Americans may have been tempted by European goods and intimidated by European fire-power, but a non-specialist reader will still remain bemused at the way in which so very many people were subjugated by so very few. Similarly, while the appalling devastation wrought by the micro-organisms introduced by the Europeans is clear enough, such a massive demographic disaster surely warrants more detailed and systematic exposition. The villains in this "contested Eden" seem mainly to have been white European males (and their germs), but some of them at least may feel that the charge-sheet could have been more precisely focused and their conviction less subject to changing values.

Michael Heale is professor of American history, University of Lancaster.

Contested Eden: California before the Gold Rush

Editor - Ramón A. Gutiérrez and Richard J. Orsi
ISBN - 0 520 213 8 and 214 6
Publisher - University of California Press
Price - £45.00 and £19.95
Pages - 396

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