Native American Encounters

Native Americans in the California region had been in near-constant contact with people of European descent from the time of the first Spanish missions in the 1760's.[1] Some scholars have estimated that the Native American population in California was close to 300,000 in that time, and have estimated that by 1860 that population had decreased 90% to about 30,000.[2]

From the Gold Rush diaries of Amos Bargdoll and William Murray, we recognize a general fear of Native Americans that probably stemmed from a lack of experience therewith. This is the case with nearly all cases of xenophobia, but when these men actually encountered Native Americans they were evidently taken aback by the lack of agression and ill-will displayed by the Natives. 

William Murray writes early in his journey that he encounters several travellers heading back saying they have given up on the trip. He writes of them that they are "selling out and backing out, some buying out and going out, auctioneering off, buying horses mules, ponies, and oxen;" and all of this he attributes to the trip being "full of sickness, bad roads, Indian murders..." Nevertheless, he resolves, "we prefer going on to see the balance and the Elephant."[3] 

Bargdoll's attitude toward Native Americans can be traced throughout his journey. Shortly after embarking, he comments that he sees "Hundreds of Sioux Indians encamped on both sides of the [Platte] river, begging provisions."[4] It is highly unlikely that the Native Americans that he saw were actually begging for anything. According to John Bowes, Professor of Native American history, it is much more likely that the Natives had recognized the path on which Gold Rush travellers journeyed, and began to utilize the path as a gauranteed trade opportunity. The Natives that Bargdoll saw here were likely not "begging" but rather inviting to trade goods, says Bowes. This idea is supported in that Bargdoll, barely a week later, accounts that a group of "Wigwams" had set up a tent offering horse shoeing for $12 per horse.[5] Murray also details that "Rubidu" had different prices based on the currency that white people would use (dollars and cents) as compared to the currency that Native Americans would use (pelts). There is also a note that would indicate some sense of recognized commonality with Native Americans in Murray's account, as he refers to Rubidu's bacon as of such a rate that an "Indian wouldn't eat it and a white man would throw it away."[6]

The arc of Amos Bargdoll's perspective can be more clearly seen through his later dictations. Encounters with Natives become so normal and unnoteworthy that Bargdoll begins only writing of encounters if different tribes are recognized, as a month later he quickly pens, "At 3 oclock crossed a small creek with the finest grass we have seen. Saw some Snake Indians," and moves on to detail other things.[7] Seeing Native Americans was, then, hardly as noteworthy as seeing a creek or a field of healthy grass. The threat of dying by thirst or the death of cattle by starvation was greater than any threat posed by Native Americans in his estimation. 

This perspective can likewise be recognized in Murray's diary, as he continually speaks of the harshness of the journey in terms of a lack of food and water. Late in his journey he quickly pens, "Started at 7am and at the Soda Springs tasted them and passed on -- pow-wow'd and talked shop with Snake Indians, nooned on Bear River..."[8] This would be a rather odd thing to do if one actually feared or thought the Native Americans meant harm, as had previously been recorded in his diary. His opinion had either grown to a point of respect for those that survived in this terraine, or of outright reliance on them to find clean water to survive on.

The reality of the increasingly desperate situation of the Native Americans appears to set in for Bargdoll, as he details one account in which some of his neighbors "found some digger Indians hid in the willows. They brought one old man into camp. He appears to be about 50 years of age and is the worst looking being I ever beheld. He has a kind of vacant look."[9] Again later he goes on, "Saw some Indians gathering grass seed to make bread. Some were naked (a squaw) with the exception of a breech clout."[10] 

This lack of clothing, whether by choice or a lack thereof, moved and bothered the two men on separate occasions. Murray, in one instance, required the help of about 20 Native Americans to cross over a river. Murray makes note of the fact that these Natives were in some way reliant on a man named Cooper, most likely having been taken as his slaves given the verbiage used. Constantly maintaining that these were "Cooper's Indians" whom he could seemingly send or command at will, Murray called them to his camp the next day to pay them for their help. He gave them "a shirt a piece." He goes on to say, "they were very much pleased and so were we."[11]

This example leads into a reality of the Gold Rush that goes oftentimes undiscussed. Despite Bargdoll's and Murray's evident shows of tolerance and momentary appreciation of Native Americans, one should not begin to believe that many Gold Rush journeyers developed a relationship that was peaceful or tolerant with Native Americans. History shows that was certainly not the case. The maltreatment of Native Americans in California during the Gold Rush cannot be overstated, as it is one of the most heinous examples of inhumane treatment in American history. Some scholars estimate that the population of Californian Native Americans decreased by around 90% between 1848 and 1900 as a result of disease, murder, a lack of arable land, potable water, the decrease of wild game, and a myriad of other changes brought about by the influx of American immigrants to the region. Many sources indicate that the Californian attitude towards Native Americans was one of outright extermination.[12]

However, there are in these two journals specifically, examples of men who evidently changed their perspective in relation to Native Americans because of the journey that they made and the experiences that they had with Natives along the way. Eastern Kentucky University can then be proud that it holds the diaries of two men, unique in their time in terms of treatment of the native people. While plagued by the typical xenophobic predispositions of the era, Amos Bargdoll and William Murray appear to have been more accepting of Native Americans than their contemporaries.

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[1] Robert F. Heizer, ed. The Destruction of California Indians (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1974), v.

[2] Sherburne F. Cook. The Population of the California Indians, 1769-1970 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1976), 1-43.

[3] William Murray Diary, Tuesday May 22.

[4] "Amos Bargdoll Diary," Saturday June 8. 

[5] Ibid., Friday June 14.

[6] Murray Diary, Monday June 25.

[7] Bargdoll Diary, Wednesday July 10.

[8] Murray Diary, Thursday August 9.

[9] Bargdoll Diary, Tuesday August 6.

[10] Ibid., Saturday August 17.

[11] Murray Diary, 16-17 December.

[12] "Militia and Indians" militarymuseum.org.; Joel Hyer, editor. Exterminate Them: Written Accounts of the Murder, Rape, and Enslavement of Native Americans during the California Gold Rush (Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1999); Benjamin Madley. American Genocide: The California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012).