The text under scrutiny in this commentary will be the report of 1852 as produced by Benjamin Davis Wilson (1811-1878). The text comprises a report that identifies two major problems regarding Californian Native Americans. The issues addressed in the report included the future of the ranching business that had been compromised by raids at the hands of various Indian tribes, and the misfortunes of the mission Indians. Wilson’s recommendations point directly to the establishment of a reservations system for the Native Americans of California.
Reservation systems have been riddled with controversy since their inception around 1853. As was the case at Mendocino as early as 1858 when it was described as a place “where a very large amount of money was annually expended in feeding white men and starving Indians. “1 The history of federal policy toward Indians is one of great contention and over a hundred years later compensation is still being made to those who suffered from the apparent misguiding and unwillingness of the United States Senate.
Controversy surrounding the history of federal and state dealings with Native Americans has stimulated me to assess the proposals made in this report. A more profound reason for my study is to establish a comparison between the reports intended results and its actual achievements. At the age of thirty Benjamin married into the Yorba family, acquiring a vast property in the Southern part of California including a cattle ranch that spanned the area where present-day Riverside is situated.
He quickly made a name for himself among Californians, and soon became known as “Don Benito. He was appointed mayor of Los Angeles in 1851 and shortly after was made sub-agent of Indian affairs for Southern California. After marrying Dona Ramona Yorba he became a rancher, enjoyed great fame as a bear hunter and “showed a special flair for dealing with the Indians”2 according to John Walton Caughey. Many around him admired Wilson and Judge Benjamin Hayes, a close acquaintance of his, describes his understanding of Wilson’s demeanour in this extract: “Mr Wilson is a gentleman in every sense of the word….
He has been in some little campaigns formerly against portions of these Indians, and knows them, and they know him well. Before his appointment, their Chiefs visiting the City habitually came to see and talk with him about their business, as much as if he were there Agent. Notoriously he is a favourite with them, no stranger. His good sense, kindness of heart, knowledge of mountain life, familiarity with all the tribes, and reputation for integrity of purpose are difficult to combine in any one else that may be recommended from this quarter.
For a man that was allegedly a “favourite” with the Native Americans of California and the surrounding areas, it will be interesting to analyse his language and transactions with them and discover how Wilson dealt with and responded to his so called “special flair” for “dealing” with the Indians. Wilson was prompted to undertake this assignment after being named federal Indian agent in 1852. The years leading up to 1852 had seen various events resulting in the deaths of Indians and townspeople on a scale that could no longer be overlooked.
Besides the reputation of Indians that had been ‘secularised’ by the Franciscan missionaries and placed indiscriminately at the centre of numerous bar fights and murders in the 1830’s, the bulk of concern came primarily from those Indians who had rejected Spanish culture and returned to their native customs. Bands of Indians had been the culprits of various raids on ranches and the editor for the Los Angeles Star estimated the 1849-53 total losses “at not less than $300,000 in horses alone”4.
Transversely, various campaigns were organised and disgruntled ranchero’s and desperados, intent on avenging the deaths of their associates, were known to recruit newly arrived, often misinformed settlers in order to stage attacks on Indian tribes, more often than not for financial gain as Caughey implies. Growing concern regarding the future of the Indians began to influence federal policy and prior to 1852 Thomas Butler King and Adam Johnston had recognised this problem.
A US federal report to the Senate dated 1988 discusses the content of Johnston’s report and states that “Indian Sub-agent Adam Johnston wrote that white men had taken the Indians lands and resources, introduced strange diseases, and provoked violent confrontations. “5 Furthermore, Johnston’s report itself recognises that the Indians had “rights to the soil” and that “the ‘pale faces’ over-running their country and destroying their means of subsistence. ”
The L. A Star’s coverage of Wilson explains his rationale for accepting the office of sub-agent for Indian affairs as “a desire to secure peace and justice to the Indians,”7 and John Caughey renders this motive as “probably correct. ” Paradoxically though one could say that Wilson had a vested interest in solving the Indian problem as he himself was a rancher and sought security of his herds from raiders, one of the key components of the report was to achieve a solution that would ensure this.
Now that we have established the context in which the report was produced, relevant information regarding Benjamin Wilson’s persona, his relationship with the Indians and possible motivations for compiling it, we can begin to address the reliability of his report and assess its accuracy. The report assigns great length to the description of various tribes in Southern California and scrupulously identifies the factors that differentiate them from one another, for example “… istinct language, a strongly marked difference in their colour and physical appearance… “8 Wilson’s attention to detail regarding the different tribes is also present in his carefully calculated accounts of the whereabouts of their territories, “These six nations inhabit a territory between latitudes 32 degrees 30` and 35 degrees with an area of about 45,000 square miles”9 There are areas in the report where bias is apparent and Wilson’s use of emotive expression to sympathise with the Indians does, in some parts, distort and misinform the reader.
In the following extract Wilson accounts for the progressive decay of the Indians as a consequence of the inevitable failure of the Mission system that was in place from 1769-1834: “In the fall of the missions, accomplished by private cupidity and political ambition, which too often have wielded the destinies of the poor aborigines, philanthropy laments the failure of one of the grandest experiments ever made for the elevation of this unfortunate race. “10 Wilson is quite clearly biased in this extract and he lambastes the failed missions, blaming “private cupidity and political ambition” for its ultimate breakdown.
His dislike of the Missions is apparent throughout the report and he describes them as places “where riot and debauchery reign supreme”11 concluding his point “the sooner they are removed, the better for all concerned. ” William Henry Hudson refutes this claim and states; “when we remember that had set their hands to an almost impossible task, we shall perhaps be inclined rather to acknowledge their partial success, than to deal harshly with them on the score of their manifest failure.
He continues to point out “it must be universally admitted that wrought always with the highest motives and the noblest intentions, and that their labours were really fruitful and of much good among the native tribes. ” Perhaps by placing the failure of the Missions at the hands of private interests, Wilson aimed to strengthen his argument that the State should play a more dynamic role in dealing with the Indians by supplying funding for reservations, which ironically was the main purpose of the report.
This bias should make us wary when reading the report, as the information seems on the whole to be informative and factual, however this is not the case in some respects and so one should address the entire content of the essay with a degree of suspicion. Wilson addresses numerous subjects in the report, and considering his alleged conviction he tackles some subjects with a hint of consideration for the Indians, of which he appears to sympathise with. Primarily he differentiates between the 6 major tribes of Southern California, or “six nations” as he refers to them.
He continues with great length discussing the different communities of Indians that had been influenced by the Missions, including the “Tulenrenos,” “Cahuillas,” “San Luisenos and Dieguinos” and describes in great detail some of the issues surrounding and concerning them. Wilson appears primarily concerned with the dilapidation of which many of the Indians he mentions suffered at the hands of those in pursuit of “private cupidity and political ambition.
” He rather confidently accounts for the decay of Indian behaviour in this extract: 18 years of neglect, misrule, oppression, slavery, and injustice and every opportunity and temptation to gratify their natural vices withal, should have given them a fatal tendency downward to the very lowest degradation” Wilson is eager to lay responsibility on those who controlled the Indians in the generation prior to the writing of his report and he commits a large portion of the report to condemning the “mal-administration” and mismanagement of those in control of Indian communities, his bold approach is reminiscent of a political maverick considering the mixed feelings associated with the Native Americans at the time.
As we know, vicious othering of the Native American was well entrenched in the 19th century United States and K. M Morin’s account documents various travel narratives written by women in the 1800’s, identifying numerous rather unsavoury representations of Native Americans. An example is Lady Theodora Guest’s depiction, as late as 1894, of the Natives who she depicts as having a “stupid, almost idiotic expression of countenance, which quite destroyed any image of chivalry about them. 13 There is no evidence of this very common and condescending representation of the “ugly commonplace individual”14 or the “dregs of the once noble braves”15 in Wilson’s account.
Instead Wilson appears to omit details of the very damaging raids that the Tularenos carried out, concluding the brief paragraph where he does address the matter in a particularly casual and dismissive manner; “With the exception of their frequent forays into the farming country of our lowest coast and the occasional restiveness they show along the emigrant and travelled route, they get along peacefully of late.
It appears very apparent why Wilson would portray the Indians in a favourable light throughout the report, as first and foremost he was allegedly a man hoping to “contribute to their future advancement. “16 By reporting the Natives in a compassionate manner that seems to promote sympathy, and moreover by omitting or playing down some of the more controversial antics of various Indian tribes, perhaps Wilson hoped to influence the mindset of Congress, the Senate and State policy and convince politicians of the need to apply a reservation system to settle the Indians.
Contrastingly Wilson’s perception of the Indians appears to some extent typical of common remarks made of the Native Americans in the 19th century by white Americans. Wilson seems to stereotype certain tribes as being more able to carry out certain tasks, for example “the San Luiseno is the most sprightly, skilful, and handy; the Cahuilla plodding, but strong, and very useful with instructions and watching. “17 Although his descriptions are positive, his generic categorisation of the San Luisenos and the Cahuillas seem somewhat condescending.
Wilson’s usage of the word “plodding” would be more characteristic of the movement of an animal, and the context in which he uses the words “useful” and “handy” are more characteristic of a tool or piece of equipment, again, not commonly used to describe people. Of course we know today that one cannot merely group whole communities of people into specific categories, but Wilson’s analysis here seems to reflect paradoxically with the more common stereotype that all Indians are “savages. ”
In contrast to the earlier statement that Wilson used to wash over the dubious conduct of the Tularenos, a letter dated January 2nd 1851 written by Adam Johnston for Governor Peter Hardeman Burnett sheds more light on the “occasional restiveness” that Wilson describes. In the letter Johnston reports that, “thefts were continually being perpetrated by them”18 describing also an occasion where members of the Tularenos tribe “murdered the men on the Fresno, and robbed the camp. ”
A more telling extract from the letter, documents a conversation between the Indian Chief and John D. Savage, whereby the Chief “said to Savage he must no deceive the whites by telling them lies, he must not tell them that the Indians were friendly; they were not, but on the contrary were deadly enemies, and that they intended killing and plundering them so long as a white face was seen in the country. “20 Wilson’s failure to accurately document the “frequent forays and occasional restiveness” of the Tularenos and his disregard of the experiences reported by Johnston a year prior to the reports seem to imply that Wilson either misunderstood the Tularenos or deliberately left the true extent of their barbarism out of it.
Although we don’t knoe whether Wilson was misunderstood, or acting on a biased whim when describing the Tularenos, we can speculate as to why he possibly would leave certain details out of his report. After the California State Government was set up, in the winter of 1849-50, Governors deemed it necessary to address the Indian question and the approach that followed was, as Caughey describes “simple, direct and vigorous. “21 The general opinion among Californians at the time was that “destiny had awarded California to the Americans”22 and “wherever interfered with progress they should be pushed aside. 23 Indeed, the State Government took heed of this opinion and implemented a policy whereby military campaigns against “guilty” Indians were executed on what Caughey describes as “a completely indiscriminate basis. “24 The Los Angeles Star reported that “the whole course of legislation seem tending toward the extermination of the Indian race”25 in response to strong beliefs in the “manifest destiny” of which many Americans indulged in during the 19th century.
Wilson’s recommendations needed to influence the minds of many government officials if was to have any success of being implemented. We can speculate that he played down certain issues, significantly damaging to the Indians reputation, throughout the report in order to concentrate on the chief (pun intended) underlying theme he was trying to put across; “Humanity, not war is the true policy for them. This is the voice of all experience. 26 The United States Senate needed to be won over by Wilson’s report if there was to be any product of it and so he adopted a sympathetic tone towards the Indians, playing down and omitting some of the atrocities that the tribes he mentions were involved in, and exploiting the failed missions in order to strengthen his argument. The contents of this report were endorsed by major Newspapers throughout California and it acted as a catalyst that led to the debate of eighteen treaties “of friendship and peace”27 in the United States Senate on July 8th 1852.
All of the treaties failed to be ratified, however, convinced by Wilson’s report, Edward F. Beale, travelled to Washington on March 3rd 1853 and returned to California after witnessing Congress’s authorisation of five reservations for the State of California. $250,000 was allocated to its construction and although the results that followed were probably not how Wilson had envisaged, he did succeed and Caughey concludes, “The reservation system caught on. It became the key device for federal administration of Indian affairs. Whether “humanity,” as Wilson put it, prevailed with the beginnings of the reservation system is a strongly contested matter. The reservations set up in California were a mere shadow of what Wilson had pictured, and when subjected to numerous corruption scandals they progressively deteriorated. The Indian population of California decreased rapidly between 1853-58 and the reservation system subsequently became a considerably contentious and widely reviled policy of the Federal government. Was Wilson to blame for this?
No, it is increasingly apparent throughout the text that Wilson had a great deal of respect for Native Americans and his intentions seemed, for the most part, highly respectable. It is also apparent that a vast majority of what he had envisaged was not implemented and as a result his recommendations were never really tackled. Wilson, from what I gather, was a good man, intent on helping Indians and white settlers arrange a peaceful means of co-existence in the ‘New World,’ that included him as well.
Benjamin Wilson was an established rancher and was subjected to the damaging effects of Indian raids; he had also witnessed, first hand, the danger and counter-productivity of launching campaigns against Indian tribes that had seemingly interfered with progress. So with all due respect, Wilson did have a vested interest in settling the Indians in that his ranches would benefit from the added security that reservations would bring, but it is also important that we remember Wilson as a philanthropist, mainly concerned with securing an optimistic future for the Native Americans.