In 1846, California had a Native American population of about 150,000. Just 27 years later, that figure had plummeted to just 30,000. I didn’t learn that as a schoolkid in southern California in the 1960s; I picked up that and lots of other facts I was never taught from a recent book called “An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe,” by UCLA history professor Benjamin Madley. And that got me thinking about “American exceptionalism.”

An American Genocide

American exceptionalism, explains historian Ian Tyrrell, “refers to the special character of the United States as a uniquely free nation based on democratic ideals and personal liberty.” California’s 19th century Native American population didn’t experience much democracy or personal liberty, but Madley makes a compelling case that the original Californians did indeed experience genocide at the hands of white Americans, supported and encouraged by the U.S. government. If more Americans learned about these less uplifting episodes in American history, we might have a better, safer nation.

Madley’s book has been a difficult read – not that there’s anything wrong with his writing, but just because the subject is so depressing. While California’s Native American population suffered plenty of mistreatment before 1846 – including on Junipero Serra’s brutal “missions” that were more like forced-labor camps – it got much worse and more lethal when the Gold Rush hit and tens of thousands of Whites suddenly streamed into the state.

In one typical massacre, shortly after the Gold Rush began, U.S. soldiers massacred perhaps as many as 800 members of the Pomo tribe who lived in the vicinity of Clear Lake in northern California. Madley quotes a description from the Alta California newspaper:

They … poured in destructive fire indiscriminately upon men, women and children. “They fell,” says our informant, “as grass before the sweep of the scythe.” Little or no resistance was encountered, and the work of butchery was of short duration. The shrieks of the slaughtered victims died away, the roar of muskets … ceased; and stretched lifeless upon the sod of their native valley were the bleeding bodies of these Indians – [n]or sex nor age was spared; it was the order of extermination faithfully obeyed. [emphasis in original]

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Note that word: extermination. Yes, U.S. military and other authorities literally talked of exterminating whole groups of the native population, and they succeeded. Some of the slaughters were carried out by local bands of vigilantes, but the U.S. and state governments actively supported the attacks and the military conducted many. Madley makes a compelling case that the near-complete annihilation of California’s Native Americans meets the legal definition of genocide.

Native American Encampment

I wish this represented a uniquely barbaric episode in American history, but Native American tribes in other parts of the country would likely disagree. And that’s before we get to the victims of other American brutalities, from slavery to Jim Crow and lynching, to name the most obvious examples.

Looking past our borders, we see U.S.-sponsored coups in nations around the world – often quite bloody —  from Iran in 1953 to South Vietnam in 1963 to Chile in 1973. And we haven’t even gotten to other episodes, like the U.S. occupation of the Philippines – so brutal that Mark Twain suggested we commemorate it with a special flag: “just our usual flag, with the white stripes painted black and the stars replaced by the skull and cross-bones.”

What does this have to do with American exceptionalism? Everything. No, I don’t mean to suggest that the U.S. has an exceptionally violent and brutal history compared to other nations – sadly, we have lots of competition in that regard. But I do mean to suggest that the central notion of American exceptionalism, that we are better than other nations because of our special dedication to liberty and democracy, is just a crock. And it’s a dangerous crock, because it blinds us to the violence and injustice that form a running thread through U.S. history and that continue to plague us today.