Ambiguous Justice: Native Americans and the Law in Southern California, 1848-1890

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Michigan State University Press, Jan 1, 2006 - History - 191 pages
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In 1769, Spain took action to solidify control over its northern New World territories by establishing a series of missions and presidios in what is now modern California. To populate these remote establishments, the Spanish crown relied on Franciscan priests, whose role it was to convince the Native Californian population to abandon their traditional religious practices and adopt Catholicism. During their tutelage, the Indians of California would be indoctrinated into Spanish society, where they would learn obedience to the church and crown.
     The legal system of Southern California has been used by Anglo populations as a social and demographic tool to control Native Americans. Following the Mexican-American War and the 1849 Gold Rush, as California property values increased and transportation corridors were established, Native Americans remained a sharply declining presence in many communities, and were likely to be charged with crimes. The sentences they received were lighter than those given to Anglo offenders, indicating that the legal system was used as a means of harassment. Additionally, courts chronicled the decline of the once flourishing native populations with each case of drunkenness, assault, or rape that appeared before the bench. Nineteenth-century American society had little sympathy for the plight of Indians or for the destruction of their culture. Many believed that the Indians of Southern California would fade from history because of their inability to adapt to a changing world. While many aspects of their traditional culture have been irreparably lost, the people of southern California are, nevertheless, attempting to recreate the cultures that were challenged by the influx of Europeans and later Americans to their lands.

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About the author (2006)

Vanessa Ann Gunther is adjunct professor of history, California State University, Fullerton. She has published "Ambiguous Justice: Native Americans and the Law in Southern California, 1848-1890," and has contributed to several compilations on the American West and Native American history.

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