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'Rancherias' were set aside as refuge for Indians

Lucy Wallace was last resident of Colfax village
By: Nancy Hagman, Colfax Record Correspondent
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Prior to the 1800s, a once-numerous and peaceful people lived on and from the land, today known as Colfax, between the American and Bear rivers. Yet, across the state, by the end of the century, homelessness, hunger, disease and extermination had reduced the Indian population in California to approximately 15,000, just four percent of their numbers prior to European contact. Today’s Colfax Todds Valley Tribe members can trace their ancestry to these Nisenan indigenous people. For those who did survive, from the mid-1800s to 1900, invading Europeans – fueled by the search for gold – easily managed to abscond all of their human rights, including any right of property ownership. Some survivors found refuge at seven military reservations created, supposedly to protect them, between 1853 and 1862. In the 1870s, the United States began purchasing or reserving small tracts of land for landless Indians. These were called "rancherias" or village homes. The Colfax Indian village existed on the hill near the Colfax Indian Cemetery, off Iowa Hill Road. The property belonged primarily to Jacob Keck and his descendants. This was not a government-mandated tract, but rather a space under the protection of the landowner. Keep in mind that women still did not have the right to vote. Yet groups, like the suffragettes, began bringing attention to the inhumanities of man. However, it was not until 1915 that a place was established for this region and it was, to those who know the lay of the land, a sham. The 40 acres were located to the northwest of town, on a ridge above the Bear River. Highway 174 runs through a northern corner of the tract. Even though the Bureau of Indian Affairs officially described it as having “a limited area open for grazing, but the greater portion of the tract is in brush and trees,” anyone who has hiked the area, or currently owns property there, knows it to be one big basalt rock outcropping. Access to the river is steep and treacherous and is blocked by the Bear River Canal. A Bureau field report in 1951 called the grazing and the timber value “negligible.” The owner, C.W. Haffy, was probably happy to oblige the U.S. Government when they offered him $800 for a “useless piece of land.” Although there was no readily available source of food and the land was basically uninhabitable, there were two known attempts at habitation. In December 1927, L.W. Stevenson, a local tribal member, requested authority for his and other Indian families to occupy the Colfax reservation. He told the Bureau that the Rancheria was unoccupied. BIA Superintendent L.A. Darrington replied by letter authorizing Indians to “occupy the land and construct houses thereon.” They evidently never did. A few years later, in 1933, Russell Enos requested to occupy and asked the Bureau to develop a domestic water supply by drilling wells. He also inquired as to the legal status of the Rancheria. Superintendent O.H. Lipps responded that the land was owned by the United States government for the benefit of homeless Indians and granted Enos authority for temporary occupancy to the whole tract, since there were no other occupants at the time. He would be restricted to four or five acres when and if others of the tribe wished to inhabit the property. However, he advised Enos that funds were not available to drill any wells. A survey completed in the 1950s logged 41 rancherias as occupied within the state and all others – including the Colfax Rancheria – as unused federal land in California. To state authorities this translated to lost revenue in the form of property taxes and requested the land be privatized. In 1965, the Colfax Rancheria was put up for auction; Red Simpson bid on and acquired the tract from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. He started excavating the Rio Osos Ranchos and eventually sold to a group that renamed the subdivision White Oak (see Dec. 1, 2011 Colfax Record). During the activism of the 1970s, upon learning what had transpired, the local Nisenan attempted to get the land turned over for their use. This included sending a petition to then-U.S. Senator John Tunney. It was to no avail. It is of interest to note that, according to Lorraine Simpson, the widow of Red Simpson, the water from the wells that were ultimately installed turned out to be very high in sulfur content and would have to be filtered, an expensive operation. In 1923, Lucy Wallace, the last resident of the Colfax village, died and her roundhouse and belongings were burned in the traditional way. Today, for the local Nisenan descendants, the only vestige of a once-numerous people are the burial grounds at the Colfax Indian Cemetery on Iowa Hill Road.