Between the River and the Sea: The History of California's Native Heartland, 1781-1931

Date of Award

Spring 2022

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Blackhawk, Ned


Native Californians overcame enormous political, cultural, and social upheaval between 1781 and 1931. This 150-year period was a tumultuous time punctuated by the invasions of the Spanish Empire, Mexico, and the United States. But despite historiographical emphasis on these Euro-American empires, colonists controlled only a narrow sliver of territory along the Pacific Coast. This study shows that California’s long nineteenth century marked a time of Native ascendency rather than colonial domination in California’s vast interior. Native peoples on the Colorado River dramatically expanded their territories after 1781, far surpassing colonial authority in the California interior. Thus, neither colonists nor Native peoples regarded colonial missions and settlements as Southern California’s primary power. Indigenous Californians and colonial administrators alike shaped their policy around Native states on the Colorado River. Between the River and the Sea argues that Native peoples living between colonists and the Colorado River peoples—including the Cahuilla, Cupeño, Luiseño, and Kumeyaay Nations—used skillful negotiation to defend their communities from conquest. These Native “peoples in between” protected their sovereignty by soliciting alliances with colonists and the Colorado River Nations until the late 1850s, when settlers began to consolidate power in California. The second part of the study demonstrates that Indigenous peoples used their diplomatic acumen to broker agreements with former Native enemies in the face of a genocidal U.S. Indian Policy after 1860. Native Californians reclaimed the identity of the “Mission Indian” to pool anti-colonial expertise in the late nineteenth century. Their diplomatic savvy and intimate knowledge of Spanish, Mexican, and U.S. American legal systems empowered Native Californians to defend themselves from settler colonial annihilation. This study uses Native-authored petitions, military correspondence, and missionary records to reveal that the relationships that Indigenous Californians forged with more dominant Native neighbors and colonial invaders determined the geopolitical makeup of Euro-American settlement throughout the borderlands. Native Californians’ power over the long nineteenth century compelled colonial governments in Washington, D.C. and Mexico City to orient international policy around Indigenous geopolitics. Native Californians used their diplomatic prowess to circumscribe the colonization of the California interior for over a century: the U.S. government still regarded the interior as an Indigenous heartland in 1931. This Native heartland consequently lies at the core of California’s nineteenth century—and the history of the American Southwest more broadly.

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