The Gold Rush: From The Perspective of Native Americans 

The history we are taught about the Gold Rush often leaves out the perspective of Native Americans. Here are five books that highlight their lived experiences and the atrocities they faced.

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Black and white sketch of man panning gold from a river

[Trigger Warning: genocide, rape]

Many of us may hear of the Gold Rush and link it to success stories like those of Levi Strauss, overnight wealth and the economic development across the state of California. The stories that often remain untold are those of Native Americans, for whom the consequences of the Gold Rush were nothing short of horrific. 

These five books offer an authentic perspective of the life of Native Americans during and after the Gold Rush, highlighting lived realities of mass genocide, environmental destruction and forced conversions, among many other atrocities. But stories of hope, community and resilience have also been documented by the authors to showcase the strength of Native American communities. 

An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe by Benjamin Madley 

Cover of book ‘An American Genocide'
Photo credit: Goodreads

In this harrowing account, Madley explains how state officials, U.S. army soldiers and volunteers alike participated in a planned genocide of Native Americans. Hundreds of thousands of Native Americans in California were killed, and millions of taxpayers dollars were allocated for campaigns against Native Americans. Madley recounts what has often been left out of textbooks, explaining who was responsible for the killing and how they came to an end. 

Murder State: California’s Native American Genocide, 1846-1873 by Brendan C. Lindsay 

Cover of book ‘Murder State'
Photo credit: University of Nebraska Press

Like Madley, Lindsay examines the violence used against Native Americans in the name of democracy, critiquing the misuse of democracy to justify and commit genocide. He details the intricate level of planning at a state level to execute mass murder of Native Americans to fulfill private interests of European-Americans at the time. 

Life Amongst the Modocs: Unwritten History by Joaquin Miller 

Cover of book ‘Life Amongst the Modocs'
Photo credit: Goodreads

One of the few first-person accounts from the time, Life Amongst the Modocs is a chronicle of Miller’s lived experience in California’s mining towns during the Gold Rush and in the years after. Amid descriptions of unparalleled beauty of the region and paying homage to Mt. Shasta, Miller also pens down stories of violence against Native Americans and irreparable environmental destruction.  

Digger: The Tragic Fate of the California Indians from the Missions to the Gold Rush by Jerry Stanley 

Cover of book ‘Digger'
Photo credit: Goodreads

Digger is one of the few books that explains the history of how Native Americans first arrived in present-day California, how they lived and how many of them eventually perished at the hands of European-Americans and Spaniards. Stanley brings to light the history of the ‘Golden State’ that many textbooks do not recount, explaining how the Native Americans who survived had to adapt to a new lifestyle and landscape. Written especially for young teenagers, this book helps paint a clearer picture of Native Americans in California with maps, a timeline and glossaries. 

We Are The Land: A History of Native California by Damon B. Akins and William J. Bauer Jr. 

Cover of book ‘We Are the Land'
Photo credit: Barnes & Noble

We Are The Land serves as an excellent resource for better understanding the history of California before the land came to be known as such, with the authors highlighting Native American presence well before European colonization. While it is commonly believed that the Gold Rush and Manifest Destiny “made” California what it is today, this book pays tribute to Native American communities who shaped California into what it is today.  

For a list of Native American authors to read, click here!

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