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Colfax's first residents clashed with settlers

Gold-seekers changed Indians' lives forever
By: Nancy Hagman, Colfax Record Correspondent
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Prior to European contact, historians estimate that there may have been as many as 350,000 peoples living within the boundaries of what is now the state of California, with maybe as many as 80 separate languages spoken. California Indians were equally rich in diverse cultures and traditions. Sustenance was provided by Mother Earth for centuries. According to modern anthropologists, in the valley that sits at 2,400-foot elevation – between two rivers now known as the Bear and the American – were a people calling themselves Nisenan. The term, literally translated, means “our people.” They lived in clusters of a few dozen people each around a main round house that served, primarily, as a meeting space. Individual family groups lived in a smaller “hy” and all these structures were constructed with the limbs and thick bark of the cedar trees. The valley and its surrounding area had several villages, all located at prime spots near spring water and abundant food supplies. They farmed the native plants and processed it for storage and did the same with the hunted fish and small game. Larger game capture were organized events requiring the planning of several villages. The villages would also come together for meetings, celebrations and ceremonial purposes. The population of the region is estimated to have been around 2000. Life was simple and peaceful. Then, somewhere around 1820 the intrusion of the European people began. The Spanish/Mexican conquerors on the California coast had not reached into the valley, but Jedediah Smith and other fur trapping mountain men began appearing from the east. By the 1840s, the first immigrants began passing through on the way to the fertile Central Valley. Then, in 1848, the discovery of gold opened the flood gates to a mass of interlopers from far-away lands. A combination of distrust, fear, little or no way to communicate and the weather lead to the events of what became known as the Bear River War. What is known was originally reported by settler M. D. Fairchild in the “History of Placer County.” A group of Oregonian miners, including Enos Mendenhall along with his wife and child (see Colfax Record, March 14, 2011), had arrived in the valley in the spring of 1849 and called it Alder Grove, the area that later became known as Illinoistown and later Colfax. They pursued their golden bounty down on the rivers throughout the summer, returning to the trailhead only for essential supplies. Winter came. “Around 50 men claimed the place [Illinoistown] as their home that winter, with every building serving as a dormitory. Men of all conditions would be stowed thickly, side by side,” Fairchild wrote. After the Fairchilds retired for the night on a cold December evening, the local Indians stealthily took both their mules as well as a Pierson’s oxen. While trailing the thieves, the owners found evidence that one mule had been butchered. Upon discovering that all their valuable pack animals had been slaughtered, the settlers returned to town. The resulting public meeting at Pierson’s store ended with the planning of the “Blades,” Placer County’s first military organization. They were armed with “long rifles, yagers, shotguns; dragoon and pepper-box pistols, butcher and Bowie knives – powder horn and bullet pouches, blankets, hardtack and bacon.” Some miles to the west they found evidence of the thefts and captured a lookout. When they reached the village, all able-bodied peoples had escaped, leaving behind skins of the mules and oxen, meat, bones and other stolen goods. The Blades disagreed over what action to take. Hotter heads prevailed, resulting in two villages burned, two males killed and children taken prisoner that same day. The next month, January 1850, an incident in Auburn brought 50 men up to enlist the Blades in another action. Several villages were burned. In April, more Pierson and Fairchild stock was lost. The Blades went out on the last campaign, killing and scalping 20 or more of the indigenous people. In retrospect Fairchild conceded that the Indians had cause for their assaults on the settlers. “They were more numerous than the whites: they were, of course, no doubt the natural lords of the heritage; the country had been occupied by their ancestors away back to the time beyond memory of the oldest among them, and they soon began to look upon the interloping gold-diggers as legitimate subjects of plunder.” Life, as they knew it, went down hill from there for first people of the valley that has become Colfax.