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Population of Native California

File:Native California population graph.jpg
Native California Population, according to Cook 1978.

Estimates of the Native Californian population have varied substantially, both with respect to California's pre-contact count and for changes during subsequent periods. Pre-contact estimates range from 133,000 to 705,000 with some recent scholars concluding that these estimates are low. Following the European people's arrival into California, disease and other factors[1][2][3] brought the population as low as 25,000. It is estimated that some 4,500 Indigenous Californians suffered violent deaths between 1849 and 1870.[4] As of 2005, California is the state with the largest self-identified Native American population according to the U.S. Census at 696,600.[5]

Pre-contact estimates

Figures for the Native Californian population prior to European entry into the region have been based on a number of different sources, including: mission records (births, baptisms, deaths, and total numbers of neophytes at particular periods);

  • counts of villages that are known from historic, ethnographic, or archaeological records, multiplied by estimates of the average number of inhabitants per village;
  • ecological estimates of the regional human carrying capacity, given aboriginal technologies and economies;
  • population density extrapolations from better-documented regions to less well known ones; and
  • extrapolations back from historic censuses, using estimated rates of population decrease.

Few analysts would claim that these methods have yielded precise figures. Estimates by different analysts have commonly diverged by a factor of two or more.

Stephen Powers (1872:307) initially proposed an estimate of 1,520,000 for the pre-contact population of the state. He subsequently reduced this figure to 705,000.[6]

C. Hart Merriam (1905) offered the first detailed analysis, based on mission records and extrapolation to non-missionized areas. His estimate for the state as a whole was 260,000.

Alfred L. Kroeber (1925:880-891) made a detailed re-analysis, both for the state as a whole and for the individual ethnolinguistic groups within it. He reduced Merriam's figure by about half, to 133,000 Native Californians in 1770.

Martin A. Baumhoff (1963) used an ecological evaluation of carrying capacity to propose an aboriginal population of 350,000.

Sherburne F. Cook was the most persistent and painstaking student of the problem, examining in detail both pre-contact estimates and the history of demographic decline during mission and post-mission periods. Initially, in 1943, Cook (1976a:161-194) arrived at a figure only 7% higher than the one previously suggested by Kroeber: 133,550 (excluding the Modoc, Northern Paiute, Washoe, Owens Valley Paiute, and Colorado River Yumans). Subsequently, Cook (1976b, 1978) raised his estimate to 310,000.

Some scholars now believe that waves of epidemic diseases reached California well in advance of the arrival of the Franciscans in 1769 (Preston 1996, 2002). If correct, this may imply that population estimates using the beginning of the mission period as a baseline have substantially underestimated the state's pre-Columbian population.

Post-contact changes

The decline of Native Californian populations during the late 18th and 19th centuries was investigated in most detail by Cook.[7] He assessed the relative importance of the various sources of the decline, including Old World epidemic diseases, violence, nutritional changes, and cultural shock. Declines tended to be steepest in the areas directly affected by the missions and the Gold Rush. Other studies have addressed the changes that occurred within individual regions or ethnolinguistic groups.

The Native Californian population reached its nadir of around 25,000 at the end of the 19th century. Based on Kroeber's estimate of 133,000 people in 1770, this would represent a decrease of more than 80%. Using Cook's revised figure, it would constitute a decline of more than 90%. On this Cook rendered his harshest criticism:

"The first (factor) was the food supply... The second factor was disease. ...

A third factor, which strongly intensified the effect of the other two, was the social and physical disruption visited upon the Indian. He was driven from his home by the thousands, starved, beaten, raped, and murdered with impunity. He was not only given no assistance in the struggle against foreign diseases, but was prevented from adopting even the most elementary measures to secure his food, clothing, and shelter. The utter devastation caused by the white man was literally incredible, and not until the population figures are examined does the extent of the havoc become evident."

— Cook, 1976b, Population, page 200

The population subsequently rose substantially throughout the 20th century. This recovery may represent both true demographic growth and changing patterns in ethnic self-description. In the 21st century, after more than eight generations of close interaction between Native Californians and individuals of European, Asian, African, and other Native American descent, there can be little objective basis for quantifying the Native Californian component within the state's population. However, reservation rolls and census self-descriptions provide some information.

See also

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  1. Crawford, Native Americans of the Pontiac's War, 245–250
  2. Phillip M. White (June 2, 2011). American Indian Chronology: Chronologies of the American Mosaic. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 44. 
  3. D. Hank Ellison (August 24, 2007). Handbook of Chemical and Biological Warfare Agents. CRC Press. pp. 123–140. ISBN 0-8493-1434-8. 
  4. Minorities During the Gold Rush
  5. U.S. Census 2006
  6. Powers 1875:308
  7. Cook (1976a, 1976b, 1978


  • Baumhoff, Martin A. 1963. Ecological Determinants of Aboriginal California Populations. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology 49:155-236.
  • Cook, Sherburne F. 1976a. The Conflict between the California Indian and White Civilization. University of California Press, Berkeley.
  • Cook, Sherburne F. 1976b. The Population of the California Indians, 1769-1970. University of California Press, Berkeley.
  • Cook, Sherburne F. 1978. "Historical Demography". In California, edited by Robert F. Heizer, pp. 91–98. Handbook of North American Indians, William C. Sturtevant, general editor, vol. 8. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
  • Kroeber, A. L. 1925. Handbook of the Indians of California. Bureau of American Ethnology Bulletin No. 78. Washington, D.C.
  • Merriam, C. Hart. 1905. "The Indian Population of California". American Anthropologist 7:594-606.
  • Powers, Stephen. 1872. "The Northern California Indians, No. 5". Overland Monthly 9:303-313. on-line
  • Powers, Stephen. 1875. "California Indian Characteristics". Overland Monthly 14:297-309. on-line
  • Preston, William L. 1996. "Serpent in Eden: Dispersal of Foreign Diseases into Pre-Mission California". Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology 18:2-37.
  • Preston, William L. 2002. "Portents of Plague from California’s Protohistoric Period". Ethnohistory 29:69-121.
  • U.S. Census. 2006. American Indian and Alaska Native Heritage Month: November 2006, Facts for Features.