Maidu history of upheaval

European settlers of Butte County brought disease and death to Native Americans

Maidu, circa 1888.

Maidu, circa 1888.

Photo courtesy of Meriam Library, CSU Chico

The Maidu people who shared the Sacramento Valley with other tribes built small villages along the rivers, collected acorns and vegetables and wove intricate baskets. But their lives were disrupted by the arrival of European settlers, ushering in a violent era of massacres and treachery.

Richard Burrill, a Susanville author and California historian, estimates that 76,000 Maidu lived in the valley before the white settlers arrived. By 1900, the Maidu population had plummeted to about 1,000. The Maidu endured a “near genocide,” Burrill said.

The first Europeans to meet the Maidu were trappers. By 1833, smallpox and malaria had killed 60 to 90 percent of the valley’s indigenous inhabitants, Burrill said.

A new wave of settlers then came, driven by the lure of the Gold Rush. Some Maidu were hired as indentured servants, providing labor in exchange for a place to live and a food supply.

By then, most Maidu were starving. Their major food source—the salmon—had been depleted by hydraulic river mining. Many Maidu resorted to stealing livestock. This infuriated the settlers, who formed vigilante posses in the mid-1800s to kill Maidu men, keep women and children, and sell infants for cash, Burrill said. The state paid for the ears and scalps of Maidu people and funded Indian-hunting expeditions.

Two years after California became a state in 1850, government agents and Native American peoples signed 18 treaties that set aside pieces of land for tribes. The Maidu were promised thousands of acres of land in the Chico-Oroville area. But Congress never ratified the treaties, and the Maidu never received the promised land.

Instead, in 1863, the Maidu were rounded up in Chico and marched 100 miles west to the Round Valley Reservation in Covelo. Only about half of the 461 native people who started the journey reached the destination. Some were killed, many died and a few escaped.

Patsy Seek, chairwoman of the Konkow Valley Band of Maidu, heard stories from her grandfather who survived the march. She remembers hearing that U.S. soldiers rounded up a group of Native Americans and forced them into a circle. Then they were shot.