About California's Indians by Ella M. Sexton

When the Spanish and English first landed on this part of the New World's coast, they found the Indians who dwelt inland almost naked, and living like wild animals on roots and seeds and acorns. The tribes along the seashore, however, were good hunters and fishermen, and those Indians along the Santa Barbara Channel and the islands near by were a tall, fine-looking people, and the most intelligent of the race. They had large houses and canoes, and clothed themselves in sealskins.

The Indians Drake saw near Point Reyes had fur coats, or cloaks, but no other clothes. They brought him presents of shell money or wampum, and of feather head-dresses and baskets. With their bows and arrows they killed fish or deer or squirrels, and being very strong ran swiftly after game. They seemed gentle and peaceable with the white men and each other, and were sorry to have Drake sail away.

In later years the Indians who lived here when the Mission Padres came were stupid and brutish, because they knew nothing better. They were lazy, dirty, and at first would not work. But the patient Padres taught them to raise grain and fruit, to build their fine churches, to weave cloth and blankets, and to tan leather for shoes, saddles, or harness. But although the Indians learned to be good workmen, they liked idleness, dancing, and feasting much better, and when the Missions were given up the Indians soon went back to their former habits.

There were no distinct tribes among these Indians, and they had no laws. Nor was there a king or chief over many natives. They lived in small villages or rancherias, each having a name and ruled by a captain. Each rancheria had its special place to hunt or fish, and had to fight its own battles with the other families of Indians.


The men did nothing but hunt and fish, or make bows, stone arrow-heads, nets and traps for game. The women not only had to gather grass seeds, acorns, and nuts or berries, but they had to do all the field-work and carry the heavy burdens, usually with a baby strapped in its basket above the load. In preparing food for cooking, these mahalas, or squaws, put seed or acorns in a stone mortar and pounded them to coarse meal or paste. Sometimes a grass-woven basket was filled with water, and hot stones were thrown in till the water began to boil. Then acorn or seed meal was put in and cooked into mush. This meal, or that from wild oats, was also mixed into a dough and baked on hot stones into bread. Game or fish was eaten raw, or broiled a little on the coals of the camp-fire.

The Indians got many deer, and one way of hunting them was to put the head and hide of a deer over the hunter's head. The make-believe then crept along in the high grass till near enough to the quietly feeding animals to put an arrow through one or more. All the streams were full of fish then, and salmon swarmed in rivers that ran to the ocean. These salmon the Indians speared or shot with arrows. They also built runways or fish-weirs and made them so that the fish would become crowded into a narrow passage, and could easily be dipped out with nets or baskets.

When the Americans came here they called these Indians "Diggers," because they lived on what they could dig or root out of the ground. They were very fond of grasshoppers, and ate them either dried or raw, or made into a soup with acorn or nut-meal. Fat grubworms and the flesh of any animal found dead was a great treat. If a whale or sea-lion was washed ashore on the beach, the Indians gathered round it for a feast, and soon left only the bones.

But they had no idea of saving food, so they fattened when there was plenty, and starved when dry years made the acorns or nuts scarce. Having no salt, they did not try to dry or smoke the meat of deer or other wild animals. Nor did they at first lay up nuts and seeds, as even the squirrels or woodpeckers do, for winter use. But wandering from place to place, they camped in the summer along the rivers, where fish was plenty and the wild oats gave them grain. In the fall they hunted pine-nuts and berries in the mountains, till snow drove them down into the valleys.

Each Indian town, or rancheria, had a name, and many of these names are still in use. At the north lived the Klamaths, Siskiyous, Shastas, and the savage Modocs, whose months of fighting in the lava beds caused the death of General Canby and many soldiers. The Porno tribes of Lake county, Yrekas, Hoopas, and Ukiahs, are well known at the present day. Tehama, Colusa, Tuolumne, Yosemite, and other places recall the Indians who gave each its name. The San Diego Indians are still known as Diegueños and live on a reserve, or lands set aside for them.

Almost all the natives had Indian money, called wampum, which they made from abalone or clam-shells by cutting out round pieces like buttons or small, hollow beads. Little shells were also used, and the wampum was strung on grass or on deer sinews. The Pomos still make thousands of pieces of this money, and so many strings of it will buy whatever the buck, or Indian man, and his mahala, or squaw, wish to get.

General Bidwell, who came to California in 1841 and surveyed the land for many ranches, says of the Indians at that time:—

"They were almost as wild as deer, and wore no clothes at all except the women, who had tule aprons fastened to a belt round their waists. In the rough work of surveying among brush and briars I gave the men shoes, pantaloons, and shirts, which they would take off when work was done, carry home in their hands, and put on in time to go to work again. But they soon learned to sleep in their new things to save trouble, and would wear them day and night till a suit dropped to pieces. They were quick to do as the whites did, and when paid in calico and cloth Saturday night, by Monday they had on their new skirts or shirts all made up like ours. Yet every Indian would choose beads for his wages, and go almost naked and hungry till the next pay-day."

General Bidwell treated the Indians honestly and kindly, and in return they were his friends and helped him much to his advantage. In 1847 he settled on the great Rancho Chico, and part of his land he gave to the Mechoopdas, as the Indian rancheria there was called. They worked to plant orchards and at all his farm-work, and he treated them so fairly that old men are still living on this ranch who as boys helped the general in his tree-planting and road-building. A whole village of these Mechoopdas live on the Bidwell place owning their houses, while Mrs. Bidwell is their best friend and helps them in sickness and trouble. The men work in the hop fields and fruit orchards, and the women make baskets.


All the California Indians are basket-makers, and their work is so well done and so beautiful that it is much prized. The Pomos of Lake and Mendocino counties make especially fine baskets for every purpose. Indeed, the Indian papoose, or baby, is cradled in a basket on his mother's back; he drinks and eats from cup or bowl-shaped baskets, and the whole family sleep under a great wicker tent basket thatched with grass or tules. All Pomo baskets are woven on a frame of willow shoots, and in and out through this the mahala draws tough grasses or fine tree roots dyed in different colors, and after the pattern she chooses. Sometimes she works into the baskets the quail's crest, small red or yellow feathers from the woodpecker, green from the head of the mallard duck, or beads. She also hangs wampum or bits of abalone shell on the finest ones. The storage baskets are four or five feet high to hold grain or acorns, and the baskets to fit the back and carry a load are like half a cone in shape, with straps to hold the burden in place. Their smaller berry baskets hold just a quart. Some are water-tight and are used to cook mush in. Fish-traps and long narrow basket-traps for quail are also made out of this willow-work.

On the Bidwell ranch is an old Indian "temescal," or sweat-house. It is an underground hut, or cave dug out of a hillside, with a hole in the top for smoke to reach the air. The Indians used to build a big fire in this cave and then lie round it till dripping with sweat. A cold plunge into the creek near by finished the bath,—Turkish, we call it. Nowadays the Indians use this place for a meeting-room and for dances.

The older Indians still dance and rig out in all their finery of feathers and beads, though the young people are ashamed of their tribal customs and wish to be like the white folks. Some of their dances are named for a bird or animal, and the Indians must imitate by their dress and cries the animal chosen. In the bear dance the dancer crawls about the fire on all fours with a bear's skin about him. He wears a chain of oak-balls round his neck, and as he shakes his head these rattle like a bear's teeth snapping shut, while all the time he growls savagely. The feather-dancer, with a skirt and cap of eagles' feathers, will whirl on his toes like a top for hours, while the other Indians sing and the master of the dance shakes a large rattle.

The California Indians are slowly passing away, and though all over the state there are still rancherias, the land that was once their very own will soon know them no more.