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
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
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
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
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
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
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.