Ambiguous Justice

Ambiguous Justice: Native Americans and the Law in Southern California, 1848-1890

Vanessa Ann Gunther
Copyright Date: 2006
Pages: 191
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.14321/j.ctt13x0ph0
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Ambiguous Justice
    Book Description:

    In 1769, Spain took action to solidify control over its northern New World territories by establishing a series of missions and presidios in what is now modern California. To populate these remote establishments, the Spanish crown relied on Franciscan priests, whose role it was to convince the Native Californian population to abandon their traditional religious practices and adopt Catholicism. During their tutelage, the Indians of California would be indoctrinated into Spanish society, where they would learn obedience to the church and crown.The legal system of Southern California has been used by Anglo populations as a social and demographic tool to control Native Americans. Following the Mexican-American War and the 1849 Gold Rush, as California property values increased and transportation corridors were established, Native Americans remained a sharply declining presence in many communities, and were likely to be charged with crimes. The sentences they received were lighter than those given to Anglo offenders, indicating that the legal system was used as a means of harassment. Additionally, courts chronicled the decline of the once flourishing native populations with each case of drunkenness, assault, or rape that appeared before the bench. Nineteenth-century American society had little sympathy for the plight of Indians or for the destruction of their culture. Many believed that the Indians of Southern California would fade from history because of their inability to adapt to a changing world. While many aspects of their traditional culture have been irreparably lost, the people of southern California are, nevertheless, attempting to recreate the cultures that were challenged by the influx of Europeans and later Americans to their lands.

    eISBN: 978-1-60917-040-0
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-6)

    By the middle of the eighteenth century, Spain greatly feared the loss of her northern territories in the New World to other grasping and aggressive European powers. She could not have been more right in her concerns. Following the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War in 1763, Spain was forced to abandon her claims to Florida. Not satisfied by the acquisition of this prime piece of territory, England quickly turned her gaze to the northwest coast of the continent, to an area that was already being exploited by Russian fur traders. The lucrative fur trade could greatly bolster the sagging...

  5. American Law, 1850–1865
    (pp. 7-31)

    The transition of political power from mexico to the United States resulted in a myriad of changes for the inhabitants of California, not all of which were directed at Indians. Many of the resulting changes occurred because of the arrogant beliefs of the Americans who flooded into the state. These new masters of California saw the immeasurable possibilities that awaited them in the region, if only they had control of the land. However, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo had guaranteed that the vast tracts of land held by the Mexican land grantees would not be sacrificed to the avarice of...

  6. American Law, 1865–1890
    (pp. 32-53)

    By the time california was beginning its second decade as a state, the condition of the Indians within its borders had deteriorated dramatically. The Indian population in the southern region prior to contact with the Spanish in 1769 is estimated to have been between 15,200 and 35,000.¹ By 1860 these numbers had dropped to approximately 8,474.² Conversely, in the same year the Anglo population in southern California was approximately 20,000.³ The number of Anglo individuals seems of limited consequence when compared to today’s modern census figures, but in the nineteenth century California’s economy was based on agriculture, and as such,...

  7. Native American Law
    (pp. 54-79)

    After the treaty of guadalupe hidalgo had been signed, the residents of the new territory of California largely returned to the same economic and social structures that had previously sustained them. According to the provisions of the treaty, individuals who had been citizens under the Mexican government would become citizens of the United States, and their property rights would be respected. Initially, it appeared these provisions would be put into practice. Despite California’s strategic economic and military importance, widespread plans to occupy the region were left to the initiative of farmers who, like their earlier brethren in the Oregon Territory,...

  8. Justice and Municipal Courts
    (pp. 80-101)

    For most indians of southern california, involvement in the Anglo-American judicial system started in the lower courts. In these chambers, justices communicated the prejudices and needs of their communities through their rulings.¹ The first California Convention in 1849 established a multi-tiered judicial system for the state.² This included the supreme court, district court, county court, probate court, justice court, and the lower municipal courts, such as the recorder’s, police, and mayor’s courts. Within this system, the justice and municipal courts served as the primary arbiter in local criminal matters. California statutes in 1850 further defined the role of the local...

  9. County and District Courts
    (pp. 102-128)

    The district and county courts made up the center tiers of the state’s judicial hierarchy. Instead of the nuisance cases that plagued the lower courts, the district and county courts focused primarily on felony and appeal cases. According to the California State Constitution, the “District Courts shall have original jurisdiction, in law and equity, in all civil cases where the amount in dispute exceeds two hundred dollars, exclusive of interest. In all criminal cases not otherwise provided for, and in all issues of fact joined in the probate courts, their jurisdiction shall be unlimited.”¹ Initially, the county court was called...

  10. Native Women and the Law
    (pp. 129-147)

    A separate discussion regarding native women and the law is important because native women have so often been absent from the narrative of American history. That said, their presence is one that must be teased out. By the time the Americans seized control of the region in 1848, Indians in southern California had already been subject to European cultural norms for seventy years. Because of these cultural norms, native women were often invisible—relegated to the status of helpmates, and denied any agency in the development of their tribal cultures. Additionally, much of the information that we have about native...

  11. Conclusion
    (pp. 148-152)

    Over a forty-year period, americans molded early California from a Spanish colony into one of the most productive states in the union. The incentive of gold lured thousands to what was once called Eden; however, once here, many Anglo-Americans discovered that the riches to be found in the gold fields were little more than a figment of a powerful dream, rather than a reality. Instead of returning home, however, many remained to see what other dreams could be realized within the state. The “cow counties” of the south were quickly recognized for their mild climate and fertile soil—attributes that...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 153-176)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 177-188)
  14. Index
    (pp. 189-191)