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Footprints: Early law eliminated Indian rights

The first recorded contact between Indians who lived in what is now known as Del Norte County and white men was June 9, 1828. On that day, the Jedediah Smith party met the Tolowa. There was some previous contact with Russian and Hudson Bay fur traders.

However, contact between white men and the Indians of present day Del Norte County was very limited until 1852.

The events leading to that extensive contact have their roots five years before.

On May 13, 1847, the United States declared war on Mexico. On Jan. 13,1848, California was militarily taken from Mexico. On Feb. 2, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, officially giving title of California to the United States.

The California Gold Rush began in 1848 and coincided with the takeover of California from Mexico.

With the discovery of gold by Major Pierson B. Redding in the upper Trinity River area, conditions for the Indian peoples of Northern California changed drastically. The discovery of gold triggered a mass immigration of miners and traders into Northern California.

In 1850 California was admitted to the Union. That year the first State Constitutional Convention was held. At that convention the California Legislature was formed. The new Legislature established Trinity County, which encompassed present day Del Norte, Siskiyou, and Trinity Counties.

At the first legislative session, legislators voted to eliminate the right of Indians to vote because they feared the control the Indian peoples might exercise. The Legislature also enacted the Act For the Government and Protection of Indians. This law set the tone of Indian-white relations for many years. The act provided the following:

•The Justice of the Peace exercised jurisdiction over all complaints between Indians and whites, "But in no case shall a white man be convicted of any offense upon the testimony of an Indian or Indians."

•Landowners would permit Indians who were peaceably residing on their land to continue to do so.

•Whites could obtain control of Indian children.

•If any Indian was convicted of a crime, any white person could come before the court and contract for the Indian's services and in return pay the Indian's fine.

•It was illegal to sell or administer alcohol to Indians.

•Indians convicted of stealing a horse, mule, cow, or any other valuable could receive any number of lashes up to 25, and a fine not to exceed $200. The law also provide that the abuse of an Indian child was to be punished by no more than a $10 fine.

•An Indian found strolling or loitering where alcohol was sold, begging or leading a profligate life was liable to be arrested. The justice of the peace, mayor or recorder would make out a warrant. Within 24 hours the services of the Indian could be sold to the highest bidder. The term of service would not exceed four months. This law was widely abused with regard to the use of Indians as laborers. It eventually was used to justify and provide for Indian slavery.

Reach David Gray, a Del Norte Historical Society volunteer, at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

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