What Happened to the Legal Indian Ownership of Potrero Hill, San Francisco

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When California was conquered in 1846, the Mexican owners of the Portrero Hill district in San Francisco were murdered. No will was left so the land was taken by the state. Governor Mason, in turn, legally gave the land to the Indians as a means of keeping them there and separated. As people poured in for the Gold Rush and eventually gave up mining, they settled back in San Francisco and squatted on Portrero hill claiming the land as their own and eventually getting it. What happened to the legal Indian ownership of Portrero Hill?

-- Harry Murphy (harrymurphy*@bigmailbox.net), March 12, 2003


Mason and other Anglo-Americans deemed it necessary to exert control over the racially defined labor class, ie. California Indians. He extended regulations in both Southern and Northern California that were closely related to the slavery of his homestate of Virginia: prohibiting native crowds, regulating Indian travel, and making work for whites the only legitimate Indian activity in settled areas. I assume this must have been the reason behind the Potrero 'reservation.' He wanted to both protect and control.

In 1848, only one week after Sutter saw gold discovered on Koloma Nisenan lands, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed. "California Indians theoretically acquired US citizenship, but the military occupying force continued to treat them as a separate class...during the first year of the gold rush, California Indians were governed [by] military governors, who did not attempt to extend citizenship rights to them but treated native people as a distinct class, useful as laborers and dangerous as raiders."-- Albert Hurtado. Things only got worse.

Congress too chose to ignore Indian citizenship rights. Thousands of miners occupied Indian lands before the federal government (the only entity with legal authority to treat with the First Nations) could intervene. The state complicated things by leaping into the fray and declaring a 'war of extermination' --in the words of California's first state Governor Peter Burnett--on California Indians. ("A war of extermination will continue to be waged between the races until the Indian race becomes extinct.") This policy of genocide was underway when the US treaty officials came to the state to try to negotiate access to all state lands (100 million acres) in exchange for reservations (8.5 milion acres). These treaties, although fraudulent in almost every case, would have provided legal title to the Indians you mention on Potrero Hill. Unfortunately, it gets even worse (than genocide, you ask?!!) The US Senate met in closed session and secretly set aside the brazenly disadvantageous treaties (july 8, 1852). Indians had already been rounded up and moved to reservations (or killed), so the failure to ratify not only represented outright land theft by the US, it sealed the fate of the remaining Indians. The treaties were locked for fifty years, during which time the massive campaign against the Indians virtually assured that no legal title remained.

Interesting question, beginning with the Mexican 'owners', who had never negotiated real title to the Ohlone land in the first place. Thus the Indians in 1847-48 were given their own land by Mason...

Yes, it was a real mess, and one of the ugliest phases in US history. Someone should make a movie, for the era is full of fascinating and flawed characters like Mason.

-- Andrew Brother Elk (info@nativecc.com), March 17, 2003.

I think I might have liked to live with the Indians in San Francisco before civilization invaded it. I no longer have any sympathy for the government and their screw people policy. They robbed me blind with their tax laws. I must be the only one alive who had to pay my entire stock earnings to the government because I didn't file and lost my stock market records. Those Indians sure got a bum deal.

-- Harry Murphy (harrymurphy*@bigmailbox.net), March 19, 2003.

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