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Mendocino: Race relations in a northern California county, 1850-1949

Linda Pacini Pitelka, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Beginning in the 1850s, California became a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic society where many cultures met and engaged in a struggle for wealth and cultural dominance. This study documents such an encounter between two of those groups, Anglo Americans and Indians, in the Northern California county of Mendocino. It argues that race was the most crucial element underlying the development of the society in Mendocino County from the frontier era to the Great Depression. Anglo American settlers brought with them to California clearly defined ideas about race that helped them justify conquest of the Indians. Greed for land combined with the racial ideology of the era to create a frontier society where race largely determined the control of land, resources, and power. Indians and other people Anglos defined as nonwhite became a cheap workforce with limited access to the promise of California. Geographically isolated rural counties like Mendocino tended to be narrow and provincial. In such regions race was an even more potent force than in more cosmopolitan parts of the state. In spite of racial divisions, some white reformers and employees of the federal government worked on behalf of the Indians. Although well meaning, they often acted as agents of assimilation policies that undermined and disrupted native cultures. At times, however, some of them became agents of change, helping the Indians find ways to resist and survive attacks on them. And against all odds, Indian people did find ways to survive, most often from their own efforts, not those of reformers. Using complex strategies of accommodation and resistance, they adapted to a changed world by drawing on traditions of community and spirituality inherent in California Indian village life. New leaders emerged and in concert with white reformers, some Indians began to actively organize, first around issues of education and land, and later for an end to segregation and the right to vote. But in spite of many gains, racial divisions on the local level remained strong, indicating that in a region with such a history, reform without attention to the importance of race is unlikely to create fundamental change.

Subject Area

American history|Minority & ethnic groups|Sociology

Recommended Citation

Pitelka, Linda Pacini, "Mendocino: Race relations in a northern California county, 1850-1949" (1994). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9510524.