The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1984, Volume 30, Number 4
Thomas L. Scarf, Managing Editor

Book Reviews

Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor

The Indian Frontier of the American West, 1846-1890. By M. Utley. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984. Illustrations. Forword. Preface. Notes. Bibliography. Maps. Index. 325 Pages. $19.95

Reviewed by Clifford E. Trafzer, Professor and Chairman of the Department of American Indian Studies, San Diego State University, and co-author of a forthcoming book by the University of Oklahoma Press, The Renegade Tribe: A History of the Palouse Indians.

Robert Utley has written a first-rate survey of the American Indian Forntier during the last half of the nineteenth century. It is fitting that Utley has done so, for not only is there a need for this study, but he is eminently qualified for the task. The author of many books and articles on the American Indian, Utley understands the history and culture of both the Indians and the whites. Thus, his study is objective in approach and interpretation, and it makes good use of Indian and white sources. The book is not intended to be comprehensive, but it does explore the most important issues of the era, including the origin and implementation of American Indian policy, the significance of the American Civil War on Indians, and the results of the “Peace Policy” of the post-Civil War period. Utley deals effectively with the Indian wars, and he intertwines a discussion of the wars with an analysis of the sincere attempts by white reformers to improve the course of the Indian Bureau.

The Indians of San Diego County, indeed Indians throughout California, were influenced by most of the policies, programs, and events detailed in this work. These policies arrived in California during the Mexican War, when the various armies of the United States occupied the area. Shortly after gold was discovered, the Indians of California experienced the devastating effects of white expansion, and Utley examines a portion of this story. An aggressive Indian policy was pursued in the state, one which emphasized the extermination of all Indians. As Captain E.D. Townsend reported, “If the tale of the poor wretches . . . could be impartially related, it would exhibit a picture of cruelty, injustice and horror scarcely surpassed by that of the Peruvians in the time of Pizarro.” One citizen of San Francisco suggested “that it would be a good thing to introduce the small-pox among them [the Indians].” He further commented that this was the opinion of most whites living in the interior of California. In order to segregate the Indians from the newcomers, “legally” secure title to Indian lands, and promote the “civilization” of the Indians, the government of the United States negotiated 18 treaties with 139 tribes and bands and established several small reservations. The white inhabitants of California – including San Diego – were outraged, and the treaties were never ratified by the Senate of the United States. Finally in 1858, eight reservations, encompassing a paltry two or three thousand acres, were established in the state. Utley points out the failure of this and other reservation systems, and he concludes that “through disease, starvation, malnutrition, and simple homicide,” the Indian population of California “plummeted from 150,000 in 1845 to 100,000 in 1850 to 50,000 in 1855 to 35,000 in 1860.” The Indians of California suffered the same fate of Indians throughout the American West, and that fate is masterfully presented in this volume.

The history of California’s Indians is only a part of Utley’s chronicle, but the Indians of this state were greatly influenced by most of the measures discussed in this book. The author provides his readers with many insights into the motivation, creation and execution of a wide variety of policies that influenced the course of American Indian history. His examination of the “Peace Policy” of President Ulysses S. Grant and the subsequent wars which resulted from this policy are superbly written. Utley has taken an enormous amount of information and synthesized it into a well-crafted presentation. Perhaps the author is at his best when he focuses on the Sioux as his example in detailing Indian treaties, wars, reforms, reservations, and religious revitalization movements. Utley appropriately concludes his work with an interpretive discussion of the Wounded Knee tragedy of 1890 and the frontier thesis of historian Frederick Jackson Turner. The book is a fine addition to the Histories of the American Frontier Series of the University of New Mexico Press. It is extremely well written, lavishly illustrated, and thoroughly researched. It is a must for anyone interested in the Indians of California and the Indian frontiers of the American West.