The estimated pre-contact Shasta population in California was approximately 6,000 people. The first population decline occurred from 1830-1833, when fur trappers spread a malaria epidemic. By 1851, the adverse effects of the disease reduced the Shasta population to 3,000 in Scott Valley, Shasta Valley, and along the Klamath River. Only two years later, military officers estimated that there were only three hundred Shasta people still living in the same valleys. This overwhelming reduction was the direct result of the bloodshed endemic to the Klamath-Trinity mines.
For Shasta Indian people, cultural change was the consequence of the settlement in the American West. The lives of the Shasta Indian tribes of northern California and southern Oregon were altered forever by the discovery of gold along the tributaries of the Klamath River in 1850. From 1850 to 1860, during the height of Gold Rush fervor, Shasta people faced encroaching settlers, endemic violence, and the loss of their native lands. Beginning in 1850, small prospecting parties ventured into northern California in present-day Siskiyou County. Shasta people immediately reacted to the violence accompanying the decade following 1850.
The conflict between Shasta people and the Gold Rush settlers stemmed from competing claims to the same land resources for different purposes. Shasta people completed their seasonal harvesting cycle in the same places that the arriving settlers intended to work.
The close proximity of Shasta villages to the mining camps promoted fears that starving Native American people would steal livestock out of hunger. The resulting physical brutality took two forms against Shasta people. The settlers enacted violence en masse as a public display of power. At the same time, some individuals and small groups practiced cruelty that was likely to remain unseen and unknown to the population at large. Together, the violence and cruelty worked to terrorize Shasta people. While any Shasta man, woman, or child could be the victims of physical assault and murder, settlers practiced a particular form of gender-specific terror against Native American women. During the Gold Rush, Euro-American men sought sexual access to Shasta women. Frequently, interracial sex amounted to forced coercion. A military officer observed that Shasta women were “constantly run down, sometimes by men on horses, and raped.” The cruelty and violence to Shasta people resulted in a rapid decrease in the aboriginal population.
Consequently, Shasta people used forms of temporary residence in marginal land areas for new, permanent residences. In these areas, Shasta people were less likely to come into direct contact with settlers. Tyee Bill, a Shasta headman along the Klamath River, selected one particularly large cave because it provided a comfortable and secure winter quarters and was seemingly impregnable. About fifty people gathered in the cave and Tyee Bill sent out small hunting parties to provide food. This group of Shasta lived in the cave until at least the late spring of 1856. However, according to one U.S. Army officer, men in Cottonwood “who styled themselves squaw hunters, whose avowed purpose was to get squaws by force if necessary,” ultimately detected the hidden refuge. In their first attempt to raid the cave, they killed three men—one of them a brother to Tyee Bill, two women, and two children.
Out of concern for the atrocities reportedly committed by both settlers and Native American people, Congress passed legislation authorizing the commissions of Redick McKee, George Barbour, and Oliver Wozencraft to seek peace with the tribes in California.
Redick McKee received the task of negotiating with the Shasta tribes in the northern district. The obstacles he faced for completing this particular treaty were greater than among any of the tribes he had previously visited. The problem, according to McKee’s translator, was that there were more settlers and Native American people in the area, they had come into conflict more often, and the “whites . . . had determined to on the setting of winter to wage a war of extermination against the Indians.” Twelve Shasta headmen signed “Treaty R” on November 4, 1851.
The treaties faced stiff local opposition from settlers and from the legislature who accused the commissioners of setting aside valuable lands for Native American people. Both houses of the California state legislature agreed on an Assembly resolution calling for California’s “Senators in Congress [to] be instructed . . . to use all proper means to prevent Congress from confirming the Indian reservations made within this State, [and] to insist that the same policy be adopted, with regard to the Indian tribes in California, which has been adopted in other new States.”
Acting largely on local complaints in California, the U.S. Senate rejected the treaties on July 8, 1852, and placed them under an injunction of secrecy, which was not removed until January 18, 1905. Ultimately, the California state government sponsored a war against the Native American tribes within its borders and drafted a $500,000 wartime loan to cover the expenses. Between the years of 1852-1856, both official and non-official militias spent approximately $214,000 in their actions against the tribes in Siskiyou, Modoc, and Shasta counties.
For Shasta people, the period after the Gold Rush was marked by uncertainty. They recognized that their way of life was at risk. They had been militarily defeated, suppressed, and driven from their native villages to the extreme margins of their homelands. Many turned to the prospect of a hopeful future promised by the 1870 Ghost Dance, which was a utopian vision of a social world in which Native American would regain control of their homelands through the assistance of their deceased ancestors. Dancing, painting the body in certain colors, and ritual cleansing would facilitate the coming of the dead. The Ghost Dance spread among each Shasta tribe after it was adopted by a local headman who thereafter served as its disciple. In 1871, Jake Smith (Moffett Creek Jake) and a friend became the first Shasta people to experience the Ghost Dance after attending one of the gatherings at Tule Lake. The Tule River Modoc band came to Bogus Creek where Bogus Tom’s Shasta band lived and held the dance. This event converted many Shasta people and the dance spread quickly throughout Shasta territory.
The Ghost Dance helped to revitalize Shasta communities by bringing the people together around a shared experience and common set of beliefs. This process was affirming. This community rebuilding was the subject one of Jake Smith’s songs: “taka taka um aka” (friend, friend up above). Both in daily experience and in a spiritual sense, the ancestors helped to remake Shasta society after the Gold Rush.
Alfred L. Kroeber, An Anthropologist Looks at History, ed. Theodora Kroeber (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963), 183-184
Brian I. Daniels, Resilience of the Shasta Indian Community, 1850-1900, (San Francisco State University, May 2003)
William C. Sturtevant, “Anthropology, History, and Ethnohistory,” Ethnohistory 13, no. 1-2 (1966): 6-7
Roland B. Dixon, “The Shasta,” Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History 17, no. 5 (1907): 381-498
Catharine Holt, “Shasta Ethnography,” University of California Anthropological Records 3, no. 4 (1946): 299-350
Shirley Silver, “Shastan Peoples,” in Handbook of North American Indians