What’s behind the mascot? Next up, San Francisco 49ers and the genocide of indigenous peoples

Healing Minnesota Stories got a recent spike in views on an old post: The Kansas City Chiefs name represents a form of cultural appropriation, but the backstory is more bizarre than you think. It’s not surprising given that Kansas City made the NFL playoffs and now the Super Bowl.

So let’s next deconstruct the mascot of the San Francisco 49er’s, Kansas City’s Super Bowl rival. Scratch the surface of history, and it’s an ugly story.

Gold Rush ad, 1849. (Photo by Glenda Gilreath.)

It was on this date in history, Jan. 24, 1848, that gold was discovered at John Sutter’s Mill near Sacramento. The name 49ers refers to those in the first wave of the California Gold Rush.

At a surface level, a 49er symbolizes some traditional American values. A 49er is a risk taker, someone who left the comforts of home, friends and family and struck out on their own in the hopes of making it big. A 49er is independent, resourceful and a self-made man, someone who with grit, hard work and a pan could make a fortune.

The San Francisco 49ers mascot, Sourdough Sam. (Photo: Wikimedia)

A 49er also symbolizes other very troubling American traits: Privilege, greed and racism. 49ers not only occupied traditional indigenous lands with no thought of consequences, some even murdered indigenous people out of greed. The 49ers assumed they had this privilege, perhaps some combination of a Manifest Destiny mindset and their Anglo heritage. They were attracted by the 19th Century’s version of a get-rich-quick scheme. They were hoping for the good luck to find gold, and lots of it.

The 49ers and the Gold Rush resulted in an escalation of the ongoing genocide of California’s indigenous peoples.

The following narrative is gleaned from: Native History: California Gold Rush Begins, Devastates Native Population, The Enslaved Native Americans Who Made The Gold Rush Possible, and Wikipedia’s account of the Gold Rush. Check out these links for more details.

Some backstory is in order.

Even before the Gold Rush, indigenous people were badly mistreated, notably by Sutter. When Sutter first arrived in California in 1834, it was province of Mexico. He amassed 50,000 acres of Nisanen Indian land through a deal with the Mexican provincial governor. He treated indigenous people as slaves.

Edwin Bryant, a newspaper editor from Kentucky who was hosted by Sutter on an expedition to California, described how the native workers were fed offal and leftover wheat bran from wooden troughs, eating their meals without utensils or bowls. … The slaves slept in locked rooms without beds or furniture and were whipped and sometimes murdered when they refused to comply with his wishes.

A measles epidemic wiped out so many indigenous laborers that Sutter decided in 1848 to build the sawmill to make up for the lost workers.

Problems building the mill inadvertently led to the discovery of gold. The mill’s initial water channel wasn’t deep enough and water backed up under the wheel. When Supervisor James Marshall came to address the problem, he saw in the water the first flecks of gold, some $15 worth.

Marshall and Sutton tried to keep the discovery a secret, but word soon got out and the Gold Rush was on. In the following two years, California’s white population jumped from about 10,000 to more than 220,000 people. (The California Territory had only recently become a part of the United States, following the 1846-48 Mexican-American War. California became a state on Sept. 9, 1850.)

According to one account of the Gold Rush:

Miners saw Natives as competitors for gold, and reportedly went to their villages, raped the women and killed the men, said Ed Allen, interpretive lead for Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. He cited instances where miners went on “killing sprees” and murdered 50 or more Natives in a day. Those who survived scattered and didn’t return.

According to another account:

The human and environmental costs of the Gold Rush were substantial. Native Americans, dependent on traditional hunting, gathering and agriculture, became the victims of starvation and disease, as gravel, silt and toxic chemicals from prospecting operations killed fish and destroyed habitats. The surge in the mining population also resulted in the disappearance of game and food gathering locales as gold camps and other settlements were built amidst them. Later farming spread to supply the settlers’ camps, taking more land away from the Native Americans.

The state’s new political institutions added to the genocide:

The state government, in support of miner activities funded and supported death squads, appropriating over 1 million dollars towards the funding and operation of the paramilitary organizations. Peter Burnett, California’s first governor declared that California was a battleground between the races and that there were only two options towards California Indians, extermination or removal.

State policies and white miners also targeted other people of color.

By 1850, most of the easily accessible gold had been collected, and attention turned to extracting gold from more difficult locations. Faced with gold increasingly difficult to retrieve, Americans began to drive out foreigners to get at the most accessible gold that remained. The new California State Legislature passed a foreign miners tax of twenty dollars per month ($610 per month as of 2020), and American prospectors began organized attacks on foreign miners, particularly Latin Americans and Chinese.

The 49ers and the Gold Rush were just a part of the genocide against California’s Indigenous peoples, but they were a significant factor. Bottom line:

When Spaniards settled in California in the late 1700s, a reported 275,000 American Indians lived there. After the gold rush, the population had dwindled to 30,000, or about a 10-percent survival rate.

The 49ers mascot isn’t as blatantly offensive as the Washington team’s logo. Still, is “49ers” a monicker you would want for your team?

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