Hey, barkeep! Any customers with Indian grandparents? What? You don’t know? In 1908 Sonoma County, you could be fined $500 and sent to jail for six months for selling alcohol to anyone with just one-fourth Indian blood – or even serving liquor to anyone with any distant Native American heritage “who lives or associates with persons of one-fourth or more Indian blood.”

It was a blatantly discriminatory law – particularly here in Sonoma County, where most of the economy was based on the growing of wine grapes and hops for beer – but not out of line with U.S. Indian policies, which had first outlawed sale of alcoholic beverages to tribal Indians in 1802 (that was during the Thomas Jefferson administration). Various other bans followed, and the very first law passed by the California legislature in 1850 included a prohibition on selling alcohol to Indians (as well as a provision that made it legal to enslave “vagrant” Indians for as long as it takes to harvest a crop). Motivating these anti-alcohol policies were the same confused American attitudes discussed in an earlier post; Indians were regarded simultaneously with great contempt (and potentially dangerous) and as pitiful children needing guidance as part of the “White Man’s Burden.”

California was a “local option” state in 1908, which meant that towns or counties could pass any laws controlling sale of alcohol. (Correction: the “local option” did not become state law until later, and its passage only clarified that counties and municipalities had the right to vote on anti-liquor laws.) Voters or elected officials could prohibit new licenses to road houses, close saloons on Sundays, or even declare the entire jurisdiction “dry” – although few went that far. They could also narrowly restrict alcohol to people with any Native American ancestry, as happened here. In 1915, it became state law that liquor was banned to Indians, part Indians, or whites who lived with or associated with Indians.

But the 1908 “Injun ordinance” probably had far less to do with Native Americans than it did with local politics. The prohibition movement was so strong in Santa Rosa that an ad-hoc temperance party almost took control of city hall in the election a few weeks later – a story of political intrigue explored in the following post. This new law concerning sale of alcohol to Indians was likely a sop tossed to the church-going voters to show that the good ol’ boys were willing to crack down on booze. That message was underscored by an item that appeared in the Press Democrat a few days later. With an introduction linking its commentary to the new county law, a missionary to the Hoopa tribe attests the importance of keeping liquor from “halfbreeds.” After rambling testimony written in dialect, the author concludes, “I know of only one sure remedy and that is a complete surrender of their entire being to the control of God.” At no other time in this period did such a pious message on temperance appear in one of the local papers.

The real moral of this story: One of the most interesting things about racism is how it so often becomes an effective tool to create political advantage. As it was in 1908, so today.

Will Prevent Sale of Liquors to Indians

District Attorney Clarence F. Lea has determined to put a stop to the crimes in Sonoma County that have their inception in selling liquors to Indians. He will prepare an ordinance making it a felony to sell liquor to Indians who are only one third of the blood. Under the state law liquor cannot be sold to Indians, but under this law the prosecuting officers must prove the Indian to be full-blooded. This almost presents conviction of offenders charged with furnishing liquor to aborigines.

Under the proposed ordinance, the district attorney will not have such difficulties to encounter and he hopes thus to prevent crime as well as cause offenders to be punished. Many of the criminal charges made in the county come from a combination of red wine and aborigine. The latest murder, which was perpetuated near Healdsburg on Tuesday, was caused from this combination. Two youths, neither of them twenty years of age, had imbibed three gallons of red wine. A stone finished the life of one of the revelers and the other is in jail awaiting trial on a charge of murder.

– Santa Rosa Republican, January 17, 1908

Board of Supervisors Adjourned Saturday

On Saturday the Board of Supervisors adopted District Attorney Clarence F. Lea’s “Injun ordinance.” at least in June ordinance under the terms of this law, which is published elsewhere this paper, any person who sells or gives liquor to a person who is even one-fourth of Indian blood, or to any person of Indian descent who lives or associates with persons of one-fourth or more Indian blood, will be guilty of a misdemeanor.

A fine of not less than $20 or more than $500, or imprisonment not exceeding six months in the county jail, or both fine and imprisonment, are the punishments for violation of the new ordinance. The ordinance will be in force on the 25th day of February.


– Santa Rosa Republican, February 8, 1908
Well Known Former Santa Rosa Educator Expresses Strong Views on Furnishing Liquor to Halfbreeds

An expression from a Miss Martha E. Chase, formerly president of the Santa Rosa Seminary and for some time past missionary among the Hoopa Indians, in regard to the sale of liquor to Indians at Hoopa district is apropos in connection with the passage by the Board of Supervisors recently of the new law regarding the liquor traffic among Indians which was presented by district Atty. Clarence Lea. Miss Chase in writing reviews says:

“There seems to be the one opinion among these Indians concerning the whisky traffic viz: if there were no liquor sold there will be no drunken Indians. They are having their big deerskin dance at Weitchpec now, and several of our men have said they dared not go because there ‘too much for whisky there.’ Henry Frank called Saturday just before he went to the dance, This is his unsolicited testimony. ‘Too much whisky, that’s what’s the matter. They stop making it then all right. Man see it he got to have it, that’s all. Make him drop all his money. I no like it. Every Injun he no like it.’ Another man of influence said to me: ‘I wish you would send away and get me some medicine make me stop drinking whisky. If I drink no whisky I be rich man now. I make lots of money all the time. Have gold in pocket; this side, that side, get drunk, all gone. Where is it? Some man he take it. I sleep.’ More than one Indian has said he wished he would not drink. ‘It makes man cut man. No good.’ The most progressive man in the valley says he can control himself in every other matter, but ‘That whisky; I can’t help it.’ It is very trying for one to witness their struggle and be helpless to relieve them. I tell them I know of only one sure remedy and that is a complete surrender of their entire being to the control of God.”

– Press Democrat, February 25, 1908

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