Indigenous Lands of California

Indigenous Lands of California. Map: Jordan Engel

In 1851, California’s first governor, Peter Burnett, declared that a “war of extermination” needed to be waged upon Indigenous peoples. The California State Legislature subsequently appropriated half a million dollars to pay for militia campaigns to carry out that war.

That same year, a treaty commission was sent from Washington to California get Indigenous leaders to sign away their land. The commission negotiated 18 treaties with more than 500 Indigenous leaders of dozens of tribes. Those treaties “ceded” 92% of California to the United States, but reserved 8.5 million acres of land, away from seacoasts, in scattered parcels, none containing more than 25,000 acres.

The treaties were then sent to a Senate archive and lost therein for 50 years. Under pressure from the California Congressional delegation, the Senate not only refused to sign the 18 treaties that had been negotiated, but they also took extraordinary steps to place the treaties under seal until 1905. Between the unratified treaties and the Land Claims Act of 1851, most California tribes became landless.

Between 1906 and 1910 a series of appropriations were passed that provided funds to purchase small tracts of land in central and northern California for landless tribes of those areas. The land acquisitions resulted in what has been referred to as the Rancheria System in California.

Beginning in 1944, forces within the BIA began to propose partial liquidation of the Rancheria system. Even the limited efforts to address the needs of California tribes were halted by the federal government when it adopted the policy of termination. California became a primary target of this policy when Congress slated 41 California Rancherias for termination pursuant to the Rancheria Act of 1958.
During the past quarter century, judicial decisions and settlements have restored 27 of the 38 Rancherias that were terminated under the original Rancheria Act.



  1. I have long loved your maps! I’m starting to learn GIS and am wondering if you could share some of the data sources you use? I am going to start a group project, and I’d love to look into datasets that focus on similar topics and issues.


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