it started with one man named Johann Suter (later John Sutter) who came to California from Switzerland in 1839 and settled a large tract of land in Sacramento, which he called New Helvetia (New Switzerland). The goal was to bring other settlers to New Helvetia and build an agricultural and trade colony.
Sutter originally didn’t start in California; first, he left his family in Switzerland and travelled extensively through the Eastern US, Oregon and eventually to Hawaii where he met Russian traders who told him about Alto California where land and furs were abundant.
It was in Hawaii that he made the decision to head to California via Alaska. (Noren) After a brief stay in the Islands, in 1839, Sutter had a “crew consisted of the two German carpenters I had brought with me from the Islands, and a number of sailors and mechanics I had picked up at Yerba Buena.”
“I also had eight Kanakas, all experienced seamen, whom King Kamehameha had given me when I left the Sandwich Islands. I had undertaken to pay them ten dollars a month and to send them back to the Islands after three years at my own expense if they wished to leave me.” (Sutter; Houston)
At the time of Sutter’s arrival in California, the territory had a population of only 1,000-Europeans, in contrast with 30,000-Native Americans. At the time, it was part of Mexico.
When they landed and set up New Helvetia (August 13, 1839,) “I selected the highest ground I could find. The Kanakas first erected two grass houses after the manner of the houses on the Sandwich Islands; the frames were made by white men and covered with grass by the Kanakas.” (Sutter)
Sutter employed Native Americans of the Miwok and Maidu tribes, Kanakas and Europeans at his compound, which he called Sutter’s Fort.
In the following years many Sandwich Islanders followed these few to California. John Sutter brought them there to work at Sutter’s Fort and at Hock Farm.”
“A colony of more than 100-native Hawaiians formed a colony in Sutter County called Verona, the first non-native American settlement in the Central California Valley.”
“These Hawaiians fished for bass, trout, and catfish and sold them at the Fort and in Sacramento. They learned to raise alfalfa and raised hogs and cattle. The Hawaiians rowed their boats, assembled their tents and played their Ukulele and Guitar. When a visiting Hawaiian brought poi, ti leaves, kukui and other items from home the Hawaiians held barbecues and luau and danced hula.” (Willcox)
In his memoirs, Sutter recalled the Hawaiians, “I could not have settled the country without the aid of these Kanakas. They were always faithful and loyal to me.” (Sutter)
From 1839 to 1849, Sutter’s Fort was the economic center of the first permanent European colonial settlement in California’s Central Valley. During that time, the Fort catalyzed patterns of change across California. Then, the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848.
“[B]y the mid-1800s, there were hundreds of Hawaiians in what is now Canada and California. In 1847, Hawaiians made up 10% of San Francisco’s tiny but growing population.” (Terrell)
“In the aftermath of the gold rush, many Hawaiians stayed in California. And as they settled in California, a number of Hawaiian men married local indigenous women. Which, it turns out, was a common occurrence up and down the West Coast.” (Terrell)
“Both Hawaiians and Indians in the Oregon Territory were explicitly excluded from the dominant society. From the mid-1860s onward, neither they nor their offspring were legally permitted to marry into the dominant society.” (Barman & Watson)
As a result, Hawaiians were absorbed into local Native American communities through intermarriage. These Hawaiians were less likely to return to the Islands and leave their Native American wives and children behind. (Farnham)
One such is the Shingle Springs Band. “They were known as the lost tribe of kanakas. They are not our Indians. They’re not local.” (Marilyn Ferguson; Terrell, Civil Beat)
Then in 1916, an agent with the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs traveled to California looking for landless and destitute Indians.
The agent recorded a number of Miwok families living in the Placerville area and called those people the El Dorado Band.
Then he visited the group near Verona — about 50 miles away. According to letters from the time, the group at that point was mostly made up of extended family members. A few Hawaiian men and their wives — local Miwok and Maidu and one white woman.
The spit of land they lived on was small. It nearly disappeared when the river swelled from rain. They lived on fish and marsh birds. Bought meager food supplies from town by delivering fish to markets and individual houses nearby.
The agent dubbed this group of Indians the Sacramento-Verona Band of Homeless Indians and suggested buying land for them.
“They seemed open to banding together,” he wrote. And would be excellent candidates for the federal government’s plan to “colonize and civilize Indians” in California. (Terrell; Civil Beat)
The Bureau of Indian Affairs relocated one of those communities to what is now the Shingle Springs Rancheria. Tribal members say they owe their survival to their Hawaiian ancestors and believe their relatives on the mainland deserve the same recognition as tribes in the US. (Ho-Chunk)
But the Sacramento-Verona tribe didn’t move to the 160-acre parcel. For decades the land sat fallow and unused. Then in 1970, the BIA reached out to the descendants of the group dubbed the Sacramento-Verona tribe to see if they wanted to sell the uninhabited land that had been set aside for their families.
They opted to keep the land and came together as a tribe. Built homes on the land. A church. A community center. Negotiated with the state to get highway access to the land. They renamed themselves the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians.
And they started making plans to open a casino. That’s when things got heated. Not everyone wanted the Shingle Springs Band to open a casino in the area.
The Miwok families that the Bureau dubbed the El Dorado Tribe in 1916 lost their land decades ago. Now, some of their descendants say it’s unfair for the Shingle Springs Band to have taken Miwok as part of its name. Unjust — and perhaps a misinterpretation of the law — for them to have tribal land in the area.
Most of the members of the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians have Hawaiian roots. Tribal ancestors married Native Hawaiians who came to California during the Gold Rush of the mid-1800s and the groups formed Indian-Hawaiian communities around Sacramento.
However complicated their origins, the tribe’s sovereignty has been upheld repeatedly in court. (Terrell; Civil Beat)