Indian Horse Raiding at Monterey

by Gary S. Breschini, Ph.D.

Monterey was the capitol and principal port of Spanish California. However, it remained an outpost (in contrast to Carmel mission just a few miles to the south) until well into the 1800s.

By 1810-1815 the local population was increasing. Families of settlers began to move into California, although few came to Monterey. The soldiers of the presidio often married Indian women or brought wives from Mexico. Many were given small tracts of land. A few American settlers began to arrive, and sailors from many nations deserted when their ships anchored at Monterey.

As the settlers moved out from the presidio the economy was centered around cattle. Huge herds roamed the plains, particularly in the Salinas Valley. The "hide and tallow trade" flourished during the 1820s and 1830s, and is well portrayed in Dana's Two Years Before the Mast and Robinson's Life in California.

Conditions changed significantly during the Mexican era (after 1822). The most important change for the Indian population, virtually all associated with the mission, was the secularization decree of 1834. Governor Figueroa ordered the Franciscans to turn the missions over to secular priests, and the affairs of the mission to be handled by government officials. The result was predictable: the officials appropriated the missions and their extensive lands--lands held in trust for the Indians. The decree was supposed to make the Indians independent Mexican citizens, free of the padres, but when they were released they found themselves without any land. Some returned to their aboriginal life, as well as they were able, and a few managed to acquire land. Few were able to keep it very long. Most were eventually forced to become servants to Monterey area families or vaqueros (cowboys) on the ranchos. Some, however, went east and joined unconverted tribes in the Central Valley region. In doing so, they were probably reunited with relatives who had fled the padres' reach years earlier, as the normal reaction of dissatisfied Mission Indians was not violence or revolt--they simply tried to run away.

Since the early 1800s expeditions had been sent to the interior to recover runaways. The relations between the Spanish and the interior tribes grew increasingly worse as many of these expeditions, in addition to capturing runaways, caused a great deal of damage and even killed and kidnapped non-Mission Indians who had provided the runaways with shelter.

Shortly after 1810 the interior tribes began to raid Spanish settlements and run off horses, both to eat and to sell. There is little specific information from Monterey for the 1820s as no important voyages stopped there during this time--and much of our independent information on Monterey came from these voyages. By the 1830s, horse raiding was a serious problem. Broadbent suggests it was an extension of the traditional hunting practices, as the raids were more for the purpose of capturing horses for food or to sell. The Indians appear to have avoided violence and fighting whenever possible. (Not so the Spanish and Mexicans. Though there are few available reports, one notes that in 1831 two Indians were shot in Monterey for cattle stealing.)

A visitor to Monterey in 1836 noted that the Indians "plunder the farms of the colonists of horses, which they eat in preference to beef." From 1837: "[They] are harassed on all sides by Indians, who are now stripping them of their horses, without which their cattle are not to be preserved." In December of 1846: "On the 14th inst. a large body of Indians came down and swept every horse they could find in a circle of twenty-five or thirty miles, and left the farmers without a single horse to hunt up their working cattle."

Broadbent writes:

This history of raiding may be summed up as follows. During the earliest period of Spanish settlement and the establishment of the missions, the Californios were not troubled by raids from interior tribes. Before 1820, however, such raids were beginning to occur. The events of the 1820s remain unknown. In the 1830s they were becoming a serious problem, so much so that by the early 1840s defensive measures were being considered by the Spanish. A peak seems to have been reached in 1846, when the Americans were struggling for power in California; after that there was a decline. The Americans did not, however, succeed in stopping the raids immediately [1974:91].
From the various letters, diaries, and other accounts, Indian horse raiding seems to have been fairly constant during the 1830s and 1840s. The Spanish response was not. The pattern seems to have been to do nothing about any particular raid, but to wait until conditions became intolerable and then send a punitive expedition into the interior to punish any Indians they could find. The Americans, on the other hand, believed that a "crime" called for immediate retribution, but they were generally after the real "culprits." Nonetheless, punitive expeditions to the interior, responding to the raids, apparently led to the deaths of many of the unconquered Indians living there.

Copyright 1996 by G.S. Breschini


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