California Indian Pre-Historic Demographics
Article by Larry T. B. Sunderland


(Click on chart to enlarge)
HOME California Indians Main Page California Indian Demographics


     Few issues of Native American history are more hotly debated than that of the demographics. Population estimates for the United States range from less than a million to more than 14.5 million. Estimates in California range from 130 thousand to 750 thousand. One, however, cannot compare the various estimates without looking beyond the final numbers. In most cases, seemingly more conservative numbers are based on estimated populations at the time of European contact, whereas higher estimates are for the year 1492 and provide for post-Columbian / pre-contact disease.

Aboriginal Estimates for Conterminous United States

(In thousands)
Demographer  Year Contact 1492
Mooney 1910 846
Mooney 1928 849
Kroeber 1939 720
Driver 1969 2,500
Thornton / Marsh-Thornton 1981 1,845
Dobyns 1983 14,579
Thornton 1987 5,000
Sunderland 2001 824*
     * Sunderland’s estimate is actually slightly higher than Mooney’s. The difference may be explained by differing location of ethnies in U.S. and Canada, primarily Blackfeet.

Aboriginal Estimates for California

Demographer  Year Contact 1492
Powers 1878 750
Merriam 1905 260
Kroeber 1925 125   
Cook 1943 133.5
Cook 1976, 1978 300
Dobyns 1983 330
Sunderland  2001 149

     Historically smallpox, by far the most deadly disease introduced into the New World by the Europeans, has a mortality rate of 45%. Driver, Dobyns, Thornton / Marsh-Thornton, Cook et al theorized that diseases, primarily smallpox, introduced in 1492 by Columbus or surely in 1520 by Cortez, spread across the Americas in pandemic fashion before most of the native population ever had contact with Europeans.

     Analyses conducted by this author in the Native American Historical Data Base revealed that in the 50 historical smallpox epidemics studied, among epidemics experienced by non-mobile ethnies (all but mounted nomadic ethnies), 45 such epidemics infected an average 14,000 square miles in area. The greatest such epidemic covered 100,000 square miles on the eastern seaboard between 1670 and 1698 and was probably more than one epidemic. However horrific this epidemic was, it was not the pandemic theorized by the estimators of 1492 populations. In no case did an epidemic sweep the continent.
     Further, this analysis indicated that ethnies realized a 33% population loss with each first epidemic, and a 25% population loss with each subsequent epidemic. This could be a result of immunity from previous epidemic(s), unstable statistics, or, more likely, the ethnies had never seen the disease before in the case of the first epidemic and recognized it in future epidemics and reacted by quarantining victims or fleeing. Only a few ethnies realized multiple epidemics within a generation, and given the remarkable accuracy of the memory of oral cultures, there is little doubt that the ethnies would remember the scourge of smallpox.
     Dobyns estimated a remarkable 95% population decline from 1492 to contact. Ramenofsky (1987)asserted in response:
Dobyn’s position on disease and Native American depopulation contrasts strongly to that of Kroeber. Yet it is difficult to accept his estimates of pre-contact aboriginal populations because of his biases and method of reconstruction that derive from incomplete data.
     No demographer doubts that depopulation as a result as a result of post-Columbian / pre-contact existed or was even significant. Even Kroeber, by far the most conservative of demographers, states on the subject, "It is not that this subject is unimportant, or uninteresting, but that I am not in a position to treat it adequately." (1939)
     The population estimate of 149,000 for California calculates to 105 per known village. It is known that coastal villages tended to be larger than this, but inland desert sites tended to be much smaller. Further, in a number of cases, single ethnies had more than one seasonal village. To consider Cook’s 300,000 estimate or Dobyn’s 330,000 estimate would be to accept a population per village of more than 200. No one takes the estimates of Stephen Powers 750,000 estimate seriously.
     The Pacific slope of California, Oregon, and Washington had the densest U.S. aboriginal population at 1.5 persons per square mile, a density they shared with the Pueblo culture. Since a greater percentage of California is Pacific Slope than is Washington or Oregon, California necessarily had the densest population in the United States.
Note: I will be revisiting the U.S. aboriginal population numbers as part of a new research project over the next three years. I not expect significant changes anywhere but in California where I anticipate an increase of less than 10%.