The Real Story of the 49ers

The reality of the early gold-rush prospectors was not nearly as benevolent as the mascot’s wide smile may suggest.

Sourdough Sam, the mascot for the San Francisco 49ers
Jeff Haynes / Reuters

San Francisco’s professional football team, the 49ers, was named in honor of the men who came to California during the Gold Rush. The old 49er has long been a beloved figure in the state’s lore. He’s often portrayed as a grizzled prospector sporting a bushy beard, a floppy felt hat, a carefree smile, and a pickax on his shoulder. This version of the legend, Sourdough Sam, will be on full display in this year’s Super Bowl, when the San Francisco 49ers play the Kansas City Chiefs.

The team, of course, is not alone in casting the old gold miners in a friendly light. Yet the reality of the men behind the legend is not quite so lovable and comic. The original 49ers carried out one of the most horrific campaigns of genocide in the history of North America.

In January 1848, a group of Maidu Indians were helping James W. Marshall construct a sawmill on the property of the Swiss settler John Sutter. They were working along the American River near what is now Coloma, California, when they cracked open a vein of gold.

California, at this time, was still a part of Mexico, but in just a few days, the United States and Mexico would sign the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ending their two-year war and transferring a huge swath of territory—including present-day California—to the Americans. The area consisted of several hundred Americans; about 6,500 Californios (people of Spanish or Mexican descent); and roughly 150,000 Native Americans.

Sutter and others tried to keep the discovery a secret, but word spread quickly, and soon the population of California swelled. “Thousands of Americans, French, Germans, Italians, Chinese, Chileans, Englishmen, Australians, and Mexicans converged on the mines hoping to obtain wealth beyond their wildest dreams,” wrote the historians Clifford Trafzer and Joel Hyer. In 1849, more than 100,000 people, mostly men, traveled to the region. These prospectors were dubbed “the 49ers.”

The conditions in the mining camp were rough and crude. Alcohol and weapons were everywhere, and violence often erupted. No laws governed the growing population in the new territory.

In one of the earliest conflicts, a group of white miners from Oregon barged into the nearby Maidu hamlet, beat and shot the men, and savagely assaulted a number of the women. A party of Maidu men retaliated by killing five of the miners, who then recruited a posse of 20 armed white men and invaded another nearby village. The sleeping Indians weren’t even members of the same Maidu tribe, but to the miners, it didn’t matter: Indian was Indian. They murdered 12 tribe members and took eight hostages. A few days later, they killed the hostages too.

With each passing day, more and more miners came to the goldfields. On average, $50 million worth of gold was unearthed every year between 1849 and 1857. Yet as the gold became more difficult to find, the early prospectors looked for other means of support, and California offered a wealth of prime real estate. All the property acquisition required was a little terrorism practiced on the country’s original inhabitants.

Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., the Mexican-American War hero Zachary Taylor swept into the White House with fresh vigor. Having spent most of his military career fighting Indians, “Old Rough and Ready” Taylor declared himself keen to move the country into an era of peace and prosperity. Congress created a new omnibus federal agency—the Department of the Interior—and transferred Indian affairs to its care from the War Department.

Taylor and his Indian affairs advisers were excited to test an idea that had been attracting growing interest. Stephen A. Douglas, the Illinois senator whose seat would later be challenged by Abraham Lincoln, proposed extinguishing Indian land ownership in the far West by establishing expansive plots of land where “Indians may be permanently located and protected.” (This proposal was the beginning of today’s reservation system.) But first, Taylor had to bring civil order to California, and that meant statehood.

While local white settlers awaited the territory’s entry into the union, they pressed ahead with the formation of a state government. After a newly constituted legislature created the governor’s office, a judicial system, and penalties for cattle rustling, the 49er legislators turned to the business of installing the state-fortified foundations of white supremacy.

They first adopted statutes that forced people designated as “foreigners”—that is, anyone who was not an American of northern European ancestry—to pay a monthly $20 tax for the right to work in the goldfields. That levy produced its intended effect: an exodus of nonwhites from the mining region.

The 49ers then enacted the Act for the Government and Protection of Indians, also called Chapter 133, which, contrary to its name, stripped California’s Indians of nearly all legal protections.

Under Chapter 133, a white man desirous of Indian land needed only to present his request to the local justice of the peace, who would determine the minimum amount of land he reckoned a local tribe needed. After keeping a small portion for the Indians, the justice held the power to sell or grant the excess property to any chosen white man, who could, with the same magistrate’s permission, kidnap Indian children and “adopt” them—or keep the youths as unpaid houseworkers and field hands until they reached the age of majority.

Chapter 133’s most abhorrent clause stated, “In no case shall a white man be convicted of any offence upon the testimony of an Indian, or Indians.” With those 20 words, California effectively legalized the rape, robbery, and murder of any Native American within the boundaries of the state.

The white men of the Golden State exercised their homicidal liberty. The following year, The Sacramento Union published this news item:

An Indian was murdered in Santa Barbara recently under circumstances which call loudly for the establishment of a Vigilance Committee. He was called from his house by a [local white man], whose name we did not learn, and who without any provocation whatever, plunged a knife into his heart, killing him instantly.

Some four or five Indians were present, witnesses to the transaction, and they pursued the murderer, caught him and carried him before a magistrate. Will it be believed that he was almost immediately released from custody, because our laws will not allow an Indian to testify against a white man?

The Indians in this part of the State, in the main a harmless race, are left entirely at the mercy of every ruffian in the country, and if something is not done for their protection, the race will shortly become extinct.

Nov. 14, 1851

The law’s final section established a form of state-sponsored slavery. Any able-bodied Indian “who shall be found loitering and strolling about,” the law decreed, “shall be liable to be arrested on the complaint of any resident citizen of the county.” Once arrested, the Indian would be brought before a mayor, magistrate, or county clerk and put up for auction. “Such vagrant,” as the law described the Indian, would be hired out for four months “for the highest price that can be had.”

The idea of the Indian reservation continued to evolve in the nation’s capital. Zachary Taylor’s Indian affairs commissioner embraced reservations as the answer to the Indian problem in the West. “There should be assigned to each tribe, for a permanent home, a country adapted to agriculture, of limited extent and well-defined boundaries,” Commissioner of Indian Affairs Luke Lea wrote in his annual report of 1850. The federal government, Lea added, should supply Indians there with farming tools, cloth, and livestock; assist them with housing; and secure for them intellectual, moral, and religious education.

Over a period of 10 months in 1851, three agents of the Indian Affairs Office negotiated 18 treaties “of peace and friendship” with the Native Americans of California. Under the agreements, the Indians would retain about one-seventh of the state—about the size of West Virginia—in the form of discrete reservations.

When the white Californians heard the terms, they were outraged: Why reserve even a single acre for the Indians?

The treaty documents arrived in D.C. in early 1852. Lea noted, with some chagrin, that “there was violent opposition to [the California treaties] in the legislature of that State,” but he nonetheless requested their adoption by the U.S. Senate. Rejecting the treaties, Lea wrote, “would be hazardous and unwise.”

The protests of California’s white men, however, drowned out Lea’s tepid advocacy. What happened next would become one of the lowest moments of shameless treachery in the history of the U.S. Senate.

Meeting in a closed-door executive session on July 8, 1852, a majority of senators voted to reject all 18 treaties. They then took the extraordinary measure of ordering the treaties filed under an injunction of secrecy and transferred to an obscure federal archive, which held them for more than 50 years. The voided agreements would not see the light of day again until 1905.

Despite the Senate’s formal rejection, federal and state officials in California carried on as if the treaties were in force—and apparently nobody bothered to inform the tribes of their true status under the law.

President Millard Fillmore, Taylor’s successor, appointed a superintendent of Indian affairs for California, a man named Edward Beale, and charged him with moving the state’s remnant Native American population onto reservations that encompassed roughly one-one-hundredth of the state—not the one-seventh promised.

Only weeks into the job, a heartsick Beale wrote to Lea, his boss, describing the desperate situation. “The wretched remnant which escapes starvation on the one hand, and the relentless whites on the other, only do so to rot and die of a loathsome disease, the penalty of Indian association with frontier civilization,” Beale wrote. “I have seen it, and seeing all this, I cannot help them. I know they starve; I know they perish by hundreds … It is a crying sin that our government, so wealthy and so powerful, should shut its eyes to the miserable fate of these rightful owners of the soil.”

Through the indiscriminate use of terrorism and murder, California’s 49ers carried out one of the most successful—and, until recently, largely unacknowledged—campaigns of ethnic cleansing the world has ever seen.

Land losses were near total. Disease, malnutrition, and starvation—driven by exotic white pathogens and widespread environmental destruction—accounted for a significant reduction in the indigenous population. Murder did the rest.

The census of 1880 recorded just 16,277 Indians in California, a 90 percent decline from pre–Gold Rush days.

To his credit, current California Governor Gavin Newsom recently took one of the first steps to acknowledge the facts of history by issuing a formal apology to the state’s Native American tribes.

“It’s called a genocide,” Newsom said. “That’s what it was: a genocide. No other way to describe it. And that’s the way it needs to be described in the history books.”

Newsom will no doubt be donning San Francisco 49ers gear and posing with Sourdough Sam, the team’s mascot, at the many Super Bowl festivities this weekend. Political reality demands it. He is, after all, not just the governor but the city’s former mayor. And the 49ers are certainly not the only professional team to use a historically problematic or controversial figure as a mascot. (The Kansas City Chiefs may have changed their mascot from an Indian to a Wolf decades ago, but the name, chants, and symbolism are still offensive to many Native Americans.)

Come game time, an expected global audience of 100 million people will tune in to see the 49ers take on the Chiefs. Half of them will be rooting for a team represented by a genocidal land thief known as Sourdough Sam. You’ll see the colorful old coot prowling the sidelines, striking poses for the television cameras and exhorting the fans to cheer.