How the West Was Won – Big Sur After the Gold Rush

The California redwoods were legendary – another tall tale of The West – like Paul Bunyan, the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Yosemite Valley, and Death Valley.

They were, in fact, bigger than any trees still standing in post-Civil War America. Many were over 350-feet tall, hundreds of years old, and as big as twenty-five feet in diameter at the base.

The rugged mountains south of Carmel were then still considered too inhospitable and inaccessible for the average homesteader. The vast stands of virgin redwood trees in the Santa Lucia Mountains, perched on the western-most edge of the North American continent, attracted the attention of only the most ambitious pioneers.

It was a tall order just to get there.

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John L. O’Sullivan, American columnist and editor who used the term “manifest destiny” in 1845 to promote the annexation of Texas and the Oregon. Illustration from 1874

For centuries, the prospect of acquiring “free land” was a cornerstone of the American Dream. In response to the Homestead Act, Anglo settlement of the Big Sur region began after the Civil War.

In 1845, John O’Sullivan, editor of The United States Magazine and Democratic Review wrote:

“That claim is by the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federated self-government entrusted to us.”

Once the California Gold Rush ensued, Horace Greeley, the editor of the New York Tribune, Free-Soil Political Party candidates, and many labor leaders campaigned for legislation on behalf of homesteaders. It took fourteen years before Congress finally passed a Homestead Act, only to have Democratic President James Buchanan veto it in 1860. The new Republican Party’s platform for the 1860 election promised a new homestead bill if Abraham Lincoln was elected president.

The Homestead Act took effect on January 1, 1863, the same day the Emancipation Proclamation was issued. The act granted 160 acres (a quarter-mile square) of “unappropriated public lands” to anyone who could gain clear title to it, solely by their own physical effort and the payment of a filing fee of about $26. The homesteader had five years to work the land and improve it, and build a house, to acquire the deed to the land.

“Sodbusting” homesteading family poses before their house made of sod bricks

This landmark legislation motivated tens of thousands of American families to head west and take advantage of the so-called “free land.”But the land wasn’t really free. As homesteaders moved west, indigenous people were driven off their lands.

In The Laws the Shaped America, Dennis W. Johnson estimated that, “After 1862, between 100 and 125 million acres of Indian reservation land was also sold off to white settlers.”

Many would-be homesteaders discovered that five years of roughing it at a primitive campsite was more than they – or their wives or children – could endure.

As one homesteader put it, “Why, I’ve got a little bet with the Government – they’re bettin’ me that I can’t live here for five years, and I’m bettin’ them that I can!”

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The Bent County Bachelor is a satirical traditional folksong from this era, widespread in the United States and Canada since the turn of the century.

It’s sung to the familiar tune of an Irish jig called, The Irish Washerwoman:

Uncle Chris Boyd is my name, an old bachelor, I am, and I’m keeping “old batch” on an elegant plan,

And you’ll find me out west on the Colorado plain, starving to death on my government claim. 

My house it is built of the national soil and the walls are erected according to Hoyle,

The roof has no pitch, but is level and plain, and I always get wet if it happens to rain. 


So, hurrah for Bent County, the land of the free, the home of the grasshopper, bedbug, and flea,

There’s nothing to make a man hard and profane, like starving to death on a government claim.

In point of fact, most of the arable land was already occupied, consolidated into large holdings by wealthy real estate speculators. A lot of homesteaders tried (and failed) to support their family on the less desirable parts of the prairie. However, a quarter-section of sunbaked clay couldn’t really support a family. It became harder and harder for the homesteader to “win that bet” with the government.

Although its intent was to grant land for agricultural purposes, most of the elected officials in Washington DC who drafted the Homestead Act had never been west of the Missouri River. They had no inkling of how arid and inhospitable the lands were, east of the Rocky Mountains, where the dry and sunbaked earth was so poor, a family just couldn’t make it, even on 640-acres.

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Americans, by and large, don’t like to follow rules. Thus, in practice, the Homestead Act was widely abused.

It was a common charade for an individual representing a large cattle outfit to file for a homestead that completely surrounded a spring or water hole, under the pretense that the land was intended for “agricultural purposes.” After the deed was acquired, neighboring cattle ranchers discovered they no longer had access to that water source, ostensibly obliterating any possible competition for the adjacent public land.

The same fraudulent scheme was employed by big businesses and speculators to acquire large tracks of timber and oil-producing land.

The federal government, perhaps intentionally, never instituted a system for evaluating claims under the Homestead Act. As a matter of policy, land offices simply accepted, on an honor system, the affidavits and attestations of witnesses that the claimant in question had, in fact, lived on the land for the required period, and had, in fact, made the required improvements.

At that time, one could claim 160 acres on a pre-emption, live on it six months, and then make a final “proof.” And later, one could take another 160 acres as a homestead, on which had to live for five years before one could get a government title.

As soon as children were old enough, their parents would help them make claims on all of the land surrounding the family homestead, as quickly as possible. Consequently, in a generation or two, a single family could acquire sizable real estate holdings. This practice was widespread among settlers on the coast between Carmel and San Simeon.

That’s how The West was won.

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Within a decade after establishment of the missions, the use of Indians as forced labor was so widespread in California that, in the 1780s, Governor Pedro Fages (who had marched with the Portola expedition in 1769) issued orders (albeit unenforced) to prevent a debt-peonage system by making it illegal to loan money to “non-commissioned people.”

Nevertheless, during the decades that the Spanish and Mexican governments ruled Alta California, it was common for Indians to be captured for use as personal slaves in someone’s home or rancho.

After the Americans took over, they turned the practice of Indian slavery into a profitable, calculated business, modeled on the “peculiar institution” widespread in the American south. Slave traders captured Indigenous people and sold them at slave markets at various locations in the California, including Monterey County.

Indian wage labor and debt peonage systems proliferated through the Spanish (1769-1821), Mexican (1822-1845), and American periods (1846 -). During the early days of the Gold Rush, Americans – like the Spanish and the Mexicans before them – looked upon the local Indigenous population a source of cheap labor. Once the Gold Rush ensued, some of the first prospectors in the Sierra Nevada Mountains were Californians and their Indian servants.

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Peter Hardeman Burnett, the first American governor of California, circa 1860

By the end of the Gold Rush, the Indigenous people of California had become persona non grata in the land of their great-grandparents.

Several methods were suggested for “removing” the remaining Indians from the state. One plan involved relocating all the Indians to one of the Channel Islands, west of Los Angeles. Another was to move them to the desert on the east side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. It seemed to make little difference to most white residents in California, where the Indians were relocated – reservations, islands, or cemeteries – as long as they were removed.

In an 1851 address to the state legislature, California’s first American governor, Peter Hardeman Burnett declared:

“A war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races until the Indian race becomes extinct.”

Within eighteen months, the state had paid out over one million dollars to reimburse unemployed miners, ranch hands, and volunteer militias for the outright murder of Indigenous people.

In 1861, George M. Hanson, the Northern California Indian Affairs Superintendent wrote:

“The fact is, kidnapping Indians has become quite a business of profit, and I have no doubt [it] is at the foundation of the so-called Indian wars. To counteract this unholy traffic in human blood and souls, I have appointed a number of special agents in the country through which the kidnappers pass.”

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Dr. Philip Blair Laverty wrote in his article, The Ohlone/Costanoan-Esselen Nation of Monterey, California: Dispossession, Federal Neglect, and the Bitter Irony of the Federal Acknowledgment Process, in the Wicazo Sa ReviewVol. 18, No.2, Autumn 2003, that according to 19th-century United States law, Indian people couldn’t legally own real estate. However, they could acquire land through marriage to non-Indians.

Luigi Aloysio Piazzoni was born in the village of Intragna, Ticino, Switzerland, in 1846. He and his three Swiss-Italian immigrants brothers, Paolo, Filippo, and Federico, were farmers and dairymen. The four brothers struck gold while mining in Australia and came to California in the 1870s. Settling in Salinas, they bought two-hundred cows and opened a dairy.

In 1884, Luigi Piazzoni and his brother Paolo, bought over 2,000 acres of land at $3 per acre east of Carmel Valley Village along Chupines Creek, between Toro Peak and Cachagua, just a couple miles northeast of the Berta Ranch.This land was formerly part of Julius Trescony’s El Rancho Los Tularcitos land grant, near the pre-contact village of Cachagua (or Capanay).

In the early 1880s, when Luigi had lived in Monterey, Maria Dolores Tomasa Manjarres, an Esselen woman, worked as his maid and housekeeper. In September of 1892, when she was thirty-one years old, Tomasa married Luigi. They raised nine children at their homestead, the Piazzoni Ranch, which they called. Los Chupines (literally, “The Suckers.”)

The Piazzoni Ranch – Los Chupines is still owned by Luigi and Tomasa’s descendants. The ranch became a central gathering place for social activities, barbecues, hunting trips, and tribal rituals. Men and women of Esselen descent remembered stories told by firelight around the long kitchen table in the ranch house.

Tomasa Manjarres’ great-grandson, Rich Cominos is a retired police officer who taught criminology at the local junior college. A former member of the Esselen Nation Tribal Council, Cominos remembered that, in his childhood, each time he visited the Piazzoni Ranch in Carmel Valley, on the way there, his grandmother or one of his uncles, would show him the oak tree with a cross carved into the trunk, called the Hangman’s Tree:

Rich Cominos

“[S]upposedly there’s riches in the Carmel Valley hills up there where these atrocities took place. The landowners that got Native Americans to work for them, instead of paying them off, they would kill them. Well, the word finally got out, my grandmother explained to me, word got out that, ‘Hey, you do some work and get paid, the minute you get paid, you skedaddle and you hide it. And they will hunt you down on a ruse to get you to come back and work again, and they will kill you.’ So, the legend is that up in the Carmel hills somewhere, that there is a lot of gold that was paid to the Native Americans and they hid this gold for fear that they were going to get killed for it. But if they did get killed the settlers wouldn’t get it, or whoever it was that was killing them, wouldn’t get the gold. That’s the legend I have. That’s what my grandmother was telling me.”

Later in life, Cominos learned that Juan Tomás Parker (AKA John Thomas), Tomasa Manjarres’ son, born prior to her marriage to Luigi Piazzoni, was hanged from that very tree, in 1908, by a white rancher who stole his land. The entry in the death register at the Carmel Mission states that John Thomas “died” of wounds.

In 1898, Tomasa Manjarres uncle Ponciano was also murdered for his land in Carmel Valley.

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The Chapel at the Monterey Presido as seen from across the Plaza de Armas, illustration by José Cardero, 1791-92


In 1826, after the Mexicans won their war against Spain, they slowly took control of Alta California. The first of several emancipation decrees was issued, early in the mission secularization process, freeing a few missionized Indians from the Carmel Mission. Some of them settled in the growing community of Monterey.

According to Dr. Philip Blair Laverty, between 1827-1828, the Indian population at the Monterey Presidio nearly doubled, but didn’t reach the pre-secularization high of one-hundred and ten, until 1831. The Indians living at the Presidio were mostly adult males. With fewer and fewer Indigenous women of childbearing age, the natality of the Indian population steadily declined.

Beginning in 1834, the Mexican government started confiscating California mission properties from the Catholic church, stripping them of their wealth, vast real estate holdings, and industrial-scale cattle ranches. This was not an act of benevolence on behalf of the missionized Indians. Rather, this was done to enrich the elite private citizens of the newly founded Mexican California – mostly military officers and wealthy landowners. It had been mandated by the new Mexican government that mission lands be held in trust for Indigenous people, as they were required to revert to native ownership following secularization. Yet this mandate was categorically ignored.

For sixty-five years, the Spanish padres had been both judge and jury, subjugating missionized Indians, and wielding absolute power over the life of every “neophyte.” Now, the missions were no longer religious spaces, and the Spanish priests were gone.

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Steven W. Hackel reports in Children of Coyote, Missionaries of St. Francis: Indian-Spanish relations in Colonial California 1769-1850:

“[In 1833] only about 220 Indians lived in San Carlos [Carmel Mission]. The most skilled and independent had left or died. An untold number had never been born because of the sterility of many San Carlos residents. Of those at the mission, nearly half were under age 20 and one third we’re over age 40, leaving just about two dozen men between the ages of 20 and 39. Too small to be an economically productive community, the mission had become a decaying congregation of families and dependents, and increasingly dilapidated place where people often competed with one another for food.”

California Governor José Figueroa

On June 9, 1834, Governor José Figueroa decreed that freed missionized Indians would be assigned communal lands and that heads of households would receive 100 square varas (about a sixth of an acre) to 400 square varas (a little more than half an acre) of land, as well as livestock, seeds, and farm implements.

At least one ex-neophytes and several other formerly missionized Indians received these communal land grants, but few were able to keep them because secularization left them without legal or social protections.

By the mid-1830s, most indigenous people on the central California coast didn’t have any homelands left to which they could return.

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Indian abducted into slavery

The 1836 census of the Monterey Municipality found just fifty-nine “ex-neophytes” and four “non-Christians” (including many Esselen people) living in Indian villages called rancherias on nine Mexican ranchos in the Pajaro and Salinas Valleys. Migrant Indians from the distant missions in Santa Clara, La Purisima, Santa Inés, San Fernando, and San Gabriel, were also living on these ranchos.

In his article, The Ohlone/Costanoan-Esselen Nation of Monterey, California: Dispossession, Federal Neglect, and the Bitter Irony of the Federal Acknowledgment Process, in the Wicazo Sa ReviewVol. 18, No.2, Autumn 2003, Dr. Philip Blair Laverty explained that as more and more Americans arrived in the Mexican territory of Alta California, violence against Indians increased. In 1843, William Henry Thomas wrote of throwing lit firecrackers at local Indians in Monterey. He described tricking one drunken man into accepting a lit firecracker as a cigarette.

Time-honored American prejudices were soon incorporated into California coastal society and Indians increasingly became targets of cruelty and racism. According to Benjamin Madley’s Unholy Traffic in Human Blood and Souls: Systems of California Indian Servitude under U.S. Rule:

“Thus, multiple forms of California Indian servitude—as well as the profound racism that made unfree California Indian labor ideologically acceptable—existed on the eve of the Mexican-American War, setting important local precedents to which U.S. citizens and administrations grafted their own racist traditions and unfree labor systems even as they undid Mexican rule.

General Ethan Allan Hitchcock

“With the Stars and Stripes cracking in the Pacific breeze, the Army and Navy officers governing California faced a choice. They could continue Mexico’s California Indian policies or chart a new course. The officers soon discovered that—due to a shortage of non-Indian laborers – California’s cattle, grain, and grape economy depended upon Indian labor. In order not to disrupt this economy, they maintained existing labor relations. Doing so was a choice – an expression of political will – driven by notions of Native American racial inferiority that allowed for treating California Indians as unfree laborers. Yet given the politically vexed nature of slavery in antebellum United States territories, an issue that increasingly polarized the nation, the officers tried to strike a balance between maintainting the Mexican system and overtly legalizing California Indian slavery.”

Colonel Ethan Allen Hitchcock, an aide to the commander of the United States forces General Zachary Taylor wrote in his journal about the origins of America’s war against Mexico:

“As to the right of this movement, I have said from the first that the United States are the aggressors. We have outraged the Mexican government and people by an arrogance and presumption that deserves to be punished…

“We have not one particle of right to be here … It looks as if the government sent a small force on purpose to bring on a war, so as to have a pretext for taking California and as much of this country as it chooses…”

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David Spence

Starving Indians sometimes resorted to raiding a rancher’s stockyard, which often ended ironically, with vengeful ranchers taking the would-be raiders as slaves, or later, taking Indian slaves in retribution. When Indians began resisting the occupation of their lands, Americans began to see them as an obstacle to “Manifest Destiny.” Soon violence against Indians became commonplace. Indigenous men, women, children, and elders ­were simply exterminated.

In 1857, Theodore Johnson remarked on the by-gone days of cheap Indian labor:

“Their Labor was once very useful, and, in fact, indispensable in a country where no other species of laborers were to be obtained at any price, and which might now be rendered of immense value by pursuing a judicious policy, has been utterly sacrificed by this extensive system of indiscriminate revenge.”

As in other parts of California, Indians in Monterey County, like immigrants, found work at the bottom of the food chain, filling the ranks of the laboring class during the Gold Rush.

Indian men usually worked as ranch or farm hands. Women and young girls worked as domestic servants in the homes of more affluent Anglo or Hispano families. These domestic workers passed on both their occupations and low social status to their children.

David Spence, a wealthy merchant and landowner in Monterey, lived with his wife, son and daughter-in-law, two grandchildren, and three female Indian servants, ages twenty-five, twelve, and eight.

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On January 11, 1847, the Monterey Star newspaper published a letter issued by the chief magistrate of Monterey, Reverend Walter Colton, titled, “An Ordinance Respecting the Employment of Indians,” prohibiting further “enticement” of Indians away from their masters without obtaining a certificate that the former master has no further claims on the Indian.

Illustration of the city of Monterey, California, from William Redmond Ryan’s Personal Adventures in Upper and Lower California (1852)


“Protecting the Settlers” illustration by J. B. Browne 1861. From a Harper’s magazine article about the mass murder of Yuki people at Round Valley

Like Southern Black codes, the Monterey town ordinance was written to mitigate conflicts between employers over control of Indians employees, and to limit an Indian’s freedom to work. Dishonest employers would simply claim that an Indian owed them labor “for wages advanced,” and hold them in debt peonage, indefinitely. Without the aforementioned certificate an Indian couldn’t be legally hired. Employers who violated the ordinance were supposed to be fined.

In 1847, California Governor Stephen Watts Kearney received an urgent report about Indian raids in Monterey – and each such subsequent report resulted in increased violence against the local Indigenous people.

William Redmond Ryan, the English-born author of Personal Adventures in Upper and Lower California (1852), who arrived in Monterey in 1848, wrote an unfavorable description of the local Indians, which was representative of Anglo-Americans attitudes towards Indians in California at that time:

“They are the most hideous looking creatures that it is possible to imagine. They are very dark, indeed I may almost say black, with a slight tinge of copper color, the features are, in all other respects, purely African in their cast, the nose being large and flat, the cheekbones salient, the lips thick and wide, and the forehead as low as is consistent with a fair supposition of a brain, which their pretensions are miserably small.”

One of Ryan’s traveling companions approached an Indian man in Monterey, calling him “you ugly-looking naygur [nigger],” and shot him dead.

Incidents of this kind became commonplace in the West, foreshadowing a pattern of violence that flourished during the California Gold Rush.

That’s how The West was won.

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Attorney Charles Edwin Kelsey

Charles Edwin Kelsey, a San Jose, California, attorney, is the author of Indian Rights and Wrongs (1907). He served as and a director of the Northern California Indian Association of San Jose, and later as president of the Conservation Association of Southern California.

On April 10, 1905, Kelsey wrote to President Theodore Roosevelt about the circumstances of the California Indians:

“If any tract has escaped the Anglo-Saxon hunger for land, if any quarter section has not been included in any Spanish or Mexican grant, homestead, preemption, railway-land grant, mining claim, stone claim, desert land claim … You may be perfectly sure that it is because the land is supposed to be valueless for any purpose.”

Through an act of Congress, in 1906, Charles Kelsey was appointed Bureau of Indian Affairs Special Agent to investigate the condition of the California Indians. He “visited and personally inspected almost every Indian settlement between the Oregon line and the Mexican border,” before filing his report to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, dated March 21, 1906:

“Your special agent finds an Indian population in California of a little more than 17,000, of which 5,200 are reported as living upon reservations … The Indian population of California a century ago [is best estimated at] 260,000 … a decrease in Indian population of 94% in a single century, and mostly within 40 or 50 years, is certainly exceptional it would seem to be a fact in which we can neither take pride nor escape responsibility…

Newspaper illustration of Trinity County, California miners attacking local Indians, 1852

“In 1849 the great Gold Rush began. Within a year or two a considerable portion of the state was overrun by probably 200,000 miners … A majority of them had inherited the prejudices and the stories of 200 years of border warfare with Indians … Opposed to the miners was practically defenseless people [California Indians had no firearms] … Under the circumstances, it is not strange that one of the most shameful chapters in American history ensued … The Indian camp would be surrounded and rushed, usually at dawn, men in ambush would shoot every Indian who appeared. At first few were spared, but as no one wished to kill the children, they were usually sold into slavery.


Wooden Indian in front of the University Cigar Emporium, on University Place, between 11th and 12th Streets in New York City, 1895

“But neither the open slaughter of the California Indians … Nor the ravages of disease, or the effect of drunkenness … can explain the decrease of 94% in the number of California Indians in a little more than one generation … The first effect of the occupation of the land by the miners was the muddying of the streams by mining operations and the killing or frightening away of the game. The mining population soon needed gardens, and about the only land suitable was where edible roots grew. The stock industry followed very soon and even the oak trees were fenced in and forbidden to the Indians, as the acorns [a nutritious staple of the Indian diet] were needed for hogs. Later, the era of wheat came, and arable land passed into private ownership. The Indians were thus reduced from a state of comparative comfort to one of destitution.

“No amount of money can repay these Indians for the years of misery, despair, and death which the governmental policy has inflicted upon them … your special agent would recommend that the unexpected portion of the appropriation [$10,000] be reappropriated in such form that can be applied to the purchase of land but not to establishing more reservations. Some of the past Reservation experience in California has been so harrowing that the Indians fear reservations above all things.”

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Categories: California History.