Alaska and California in the Eighteenth Century

The Pacific in the 18th Century

At the end of the Seven Years’ War, the Pacific was largely a mystery to England and France. Even Spain, having followed the same trade routes between Mexico and Manila for two centuries, knew hardly anything about the Pacific. But perhaps the first global war suggested that knowledge of the Pacific could offer some strategic advantages in the competition for colonial trade, because in the aftermath of the Seven Years’ War they suddenly began exploring it zealously. The most famous of these explorers would be Captain James Cook.

Of course it was an age of science, so the eighteenth century explorers set out to systematically collect empirical information.


In the seventeenth century, while the British established colonies in North America, the Russians had advanced across Siberia. But they’d reached the Pacific by the time the English Civil War broke out, and by the end of the century they’d developed a flourishing trade with China. In the early eighteenth century they hired a Danish explorer named Vitus Bering to explore the ocean east of Siberia. Bering discovered that the Bering Sea (named for him) is an extension of the Pacific Ocean, meaning that Russia could try to colonize North America from Siberia.

Russia based its strategy for colonizing North America on the Black Legend. They hoped to appear to the Native Americans as a kinder, gentler alternative to the Spanish. In reality, Russian brutality in Siberia compared with other examples of colonialism: they also spread diseases, massacred entire tribes, introduced alcohol, and compelled the Siberians to work for them.

The first Russian explorers appeared in Alaska in the early 1740s, but none dealt with the Native Americans or the climate very successfully: the luckiest ones barely got back to Russia alive. But they got back with the fur of sea otters, which turned out to be very valuable in China. That inspired many later Russian explorers to try their luck in Alaska beginning in the mid-1740s. It was a brutal job: at least a quarter of them died of disease, shipwreck, or violence.

In Alaska, these Russian traders encountered the Aleuts, the Native Americans of the islands now named for them. The Aleuts lived in small villages, getting much of their food from hunting and fishing. They were particularly good at taking their boats, similar to kayaks, onto the ocean to hunt seals and otters. Their chiefs lived in large dwellings, and when they died, slaves (acquired as prisoners of war) were sacrificed to keep them company in the afterlife. They had many wars with each other, but Russian firearms startled them into submission. The Russians took Aleut women as sex slaves, sometimes releasing them in exchange for fur.

In 1763-4, as the Seven Years’ War took place on the other side of North America, the Aleuts stood up to the Russians, killing about 150 of them. The Russians returned a couple years later, burning villages and massacring Aleuts by the hundred. Suffering from depopulation, the Aleutians never rebelled again; like other Native Americans in contact with Europeans, their population fell by about ninety percent.

By the 1760s, the sea otters of the Aleutian Islands were going extinct, so the Russians moved on to further islands, closer to the Alaskan mainland. (This would be about the same time that Captain Cook was exploring the ocean a few thousand miles to the south.) In the 1780s, Russians finally tried to create a permanent settlement on Kodiak Island (best known today for the size of its bears, perhaps the largest in the world).

Like the Spanish and French, the Russians also used missionaries to support their colonial efforts in the New World. Their missionaries opposed the cruelest practices of the traders, and successfully converted many of the Aleuts to Russian Orthodox Christianity. Perhaps because of their efforts, the colonists on Kodiak continued to treat the Aleuts cruelly, although they raped women less often and paid the men better rates for fur.


Russian colonization advanced slowly: by 1800, there were still only 400 Russians permanently residing in North America. Nevertheless, they greatly frightened the Spanish, who imagined that Russia threatened their control of Mexico. The Spanish also feared British advance across Canada, even though the British wouldn’t cross the Rocky Mountains until the early nineteenth century. In 1768, when probably no British person could be found within a thousand miles of Santa Fe, an officer in New Spain wrote, “There is no doubt that in any case we have the English very close to our towns of New Mexico, and not very far from the west coast of this continent.” This might be the most comical extreme of European rulers exaggerating each other’s power in distant lands, but to counter the perceived threats, the Spanish began pushing into California in the mid-eighteenth century.

Remember that Cabrillo had explored the California coast back in the sixteenth century, and that perhaps Francis Drake had been there in the seventeenth century, but Europeans did not yet know about the wealth in California. The Native Americans there still lived unmolested by European states, trapping salmon and hunting deer and rabbit.

Their cultures were very diverse, and almost forgotten today: the Hupa, Yurok, Tolowa, Karok, and Wiyot peoples lived along northwest Pacific Coast; a bit inland were the Shasta, Modoc, Achumawi, and Atsugewi peoples. A little further south, along the coast lived the Pomo, Costanoan, Esselin, and Salinan peoples; and inland from there were the Miwok, Wintun, Nomiaki, Konkowa, Nisenan, Maidu, Yana, Yuki, Mono, and Yokut peoples. Further inland, on the other side of the Sierra Nevada mountains, were the Paiute, Washo, Mono, and Chemehuevi peoples. Along the southern California Coast lived the Chumash, Gabrielino, Luiseno, Ipai, and Tipai; while in the valley inland lived the Serrano, Cupeno, and Cahuilla. Further inland, the lower Colorado River was controlled by the Quechan, Mohave, and Halchidhoma peoples, who farmed maize, beans, and squash like the adobe peoples further inland.

All of these names designate cultures rather than political units; most of them consisted of dozens or hundreds of independent bands, led by religious figures as much as by political chiefs. Most of these cultures have been virtually forgotten today. The Mohave peoples gave their name to a famous desert, but otherwise most Americans would only recognize the name of the Paiute. (As we’ll see later, in the late nineteenth century, a Paiute man named Wovoka would lead the Ghost Dance religious movement that spread among the Native Americans of the west.)

But in the mid-eighteenth century the Spanish began to look for harbors along the California coast, ideal locations to establish colonies that could resist Russian and British expansion towards Mexico. Since Spain did not have people to settle in California, its strategy was to convert the Native Americans into Spanish, reviving the missions of New Mexico and Texas. In 1769, while the British colonists on the other side of North America debated taxation, a Spanish missionary named Junipero Serra established San Diego. Later, he discovered San Francisco, the best natural harbor in North America. The Spanish founded a colony nearby at Monterey, and prepared for Russian attacks—even though there were no Russians within 1500 miles. (In fact, when the Russians heard of the Spanish expansion into California, they feared that the Spanish were coming to attack them! The Russians on Kamchatka—Kamchatka!—prepared for Spanish attack!)

In the early 1770s, the Spanish learned from the Native Americans how to travel overland from Mexico to California, and a new burst of colonization began. The most significant new settlement was San Francisco, established in 1776. Agricultural settlements at San Jose and Los Angeles were established within another decade.

In the 1780s, the Native Americans closed off the overland route to California. Thereafter, very little trade and essentially no migration took. The Hispanic population of California was on its own, greatly outnumbered by the local Native Americans. They had to rely on their missions to turn the Native Americans into Hispanics.

We should not describe the Hispanic attitude to the Native Americans as racist; the Hispanics themselves were mostly mestizos or mulattoes. But they defined themselves as “the people of reason” (gente de razón) in contrast to the Native Americans, “people without reason” (gente sin razón). In principle, the Native Americans could abandon their own cultures and adopt “reason,” which meant Hispanic culture. Some Native Americans did convert, but even they maintained many of their cultural traditions, often secretly.

However, an institution known as the rancho spread through these new colonies in California and had a much bigger impact on the Native Americans. A rancho consisted of thousands of acres of grazing land for cattle. They did not flourish initially, but in the mid-nineteenth century they’d become wealthy and politically powerful.

However, their impact on the Native Americans was immediate: the foraging cattle, horses, sheep, and pigs of the Spanish consumed the plants that the Native Americans and their prey depended on, and trampled on many others. European weeds took their place. Sometimes the Native Americans would kill the Spanish animals, but that only brought more violence on themselves. The Spanish also forced the Native Americans to stop burning woodlands, which changed the environment. Interestingly, grizzly bears flourished on the Spanish animals! In short, the Native Americans had been shaping their environment for centuries, and the environment had adapted to the Native Americans’ ways of life; but Spanish colonization brought about new ecological conditions, in which the Native Americans were unable to prosper.

In these conditions, the Spanish missions offered many Native Americans a secure source of food. Especially during droughts, many Native Americans would convert.

The converts worked for the missions, receiving food, housing, and clothing rather than pay. The missionaries required converts to adopt Spanish clothing, to speak Spanish, to abstain from extramarital sex, to abandon their traditional religious rituals and magic, and to live in special villages apart from their unconverted kin. When converts ran away from these villages, soldiers retrieved them by force.

Village life was not good for the converts. To protect unmarried female converts from Spanish soldiers, priests locked them up at night in unsanitary conditions that spread diseases. High rates of syphilis, which the Native American women acquired from the Spanish and passed on to their children, killed many infants. Men also died, but at a lower rate. The food at the missions was more plentiful and reliable than their foraging diets had been, but less nutritious. In the later eighteenth century, the populations of the villages declined faster than new conversions could replace them, and in the early nineteenth century the Spanish began replenish them by force, raiding Native American populations further inland.

Most of the Hispanic colonists—especially the soldiers who wanted more access to Native American women—resented the priests who controlled the missions. With the Native Americans disappearing, the Hispanic colonists divided among themselves and isolated from the rest of the Spanish world, and some of the most fertile agricultural valleys on the continent, California would look very tempting to Anglo-Americans in the mid-18th century.


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